Marrakesh Things to Do Tips by toonsarah Top 5 Page for this destination
Marrakesh Things to Do: 714 reviews and 1,645 photos
On a street in Gueliz
This is the only part of modern Marrakesh which we really saw much of, as do many tourists. We came here on our first day to visit the Majorelle Gardens, but also unfortunately found ourselves here on several more occasions for my clinic treatment and to visit pharmacies for the painkillers and injections that I had been prescribed.
The name of this district comes from the Gueliz Mountain west of Marrakech. It is laid out very much in the European style, with broad avenues and little cafés on many corners. At first glance these can look extremely Parisian, but then you spot the Arabic signs and the tea pots and glasses of mint tea and realise that Europe is further away that it might have seemed.
Gueliz is also home to many of the commercial premises that keep the city moving: banks, travel agencies, offices, shops, post office, railway and bus stations ... For tourists the main attractions are the Majorelle Gardens and perhaps the Cyber Park Arsat Moulay Abdeslam, which we passed but didn’t visit. This is also the place to find modern hotels, more Western in style and character, if these are your preference.
The main thoroughfare that bisects the district is the ever-busy Avenue Mohammed V which links three squares – the Place Abdel Moumen Ali, Place du 16 Novembre, and Place de la Liberté. To the south of the last of these it passes through the Bab Nkob gate into the Medina.
Directions: West of the Medina
In the Jardins Majorelle
These gardens were easily my favourite of the sights we saw in Marrakesh. This may be because we visited them before my injury, when I was able to explore them properly, but I am confident they would have been high up my list in any case. They are simply stunning, and even the large crowds of tourists who flock here (come earlier than we did to avoid them) can’t make them anything other than a haven is this manic city.
The gardens were established by French artist Jacques Majorelle who settled in Marrakesh in 1919 and in 1947 opened the doors of his garden to the general public. After his death in 1962 the gardens were for a while neglected, but in 1980 they were bought by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, and restored to their former glory. After Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008 his ashes were scattered here, a clear sign of his affection for the gardens
This place is really a photographer’s dream. Every corner reveals a new vista, with pottery urns painted in the distinctive cobalt blue that has come to be known as “bleu Majorelle”, or in one of just three other shades in a harmonious limited palette – pale blue, deep vivid orange or an acid yellow. Plants are grouped, with the area near the entrance displaying a wide collection of cacti (my own favourites for photography with their lovely architectural forms), and further in palms, bamboo and many trees. There are water features with goldfish, turtles and small frogs, their edges and fountains painted in the same colour scheme as the pots. Benches invite you to sit and appreciate your surroundings, though competition for these can be fierce when the gardens are at their most crowded. And the sound of birdsong replaces the constant sound of traffic that dominates the rest of modern Marrakesh.
At the centre of what is in fact quite a small space is Majorelle’s former workshop and Saint Laurent’s studio, painted in the same shade of blue and now home to the small museum of Islamic Art. Unfortunately this was closed for renovations when we visited, but in any case I suspect we may have wanted to linger in the gardens rather than go indoors to view the collection. Other buildings house a pretty café (see my restaurant tip) and a small but classy shop – no haggling here!
The gardens are open every day including Sundays (8.00 till 17.00 in winter months, 8.00 till 18.00 in the summer) and entry costs a reasonable 30 dirhams. The small museum in the grounds has exhibits of Islamic art and costs a further 15 dirhams but this was closed when we visited so I can’t comment on whether a visit there is worth the extra fee.
Address: Avenue Yacoub El Mansour 40000
Directions: On the corner of Yakoub El Mansour and Prince Moulay Abdellah in the modern area of the city, Gueliz – walkable from Djamaa el Fna in about 20 minutes, or catch a petit taxi or caleche
Medina walls - Bab Doukala gate
The Medina of Marrakesh is encircled by ochre rampart walls which give the city its nickname of “the red city”. These walls, varying between eight to ten metres in height, date back to the 13th century and run for a total of nearly 12 miles. They were constructed from straw and clay using techniques that date back to before the time of Christ, with wooden scaffolds and frames filled with the mixture, much in the way of a modern steel and concrete construction. You can still see the square holes where the wooden frame once protruded, which now serve to allow fresh breezes to pass through into the Medina.
The ramparts are cut through by 18 gates, most of them fairly unadorned and some simply gaps in the wall. Bab Doukala gate, seen in my main photo, is fairly plain, but on the south side we saw Bab Ksiba gate which has some more ornate decoration, and Bab Agnaou, the most decorative of all – however travelling by taxi I wasn’t able to get photos of these.
The towers in my second photo stand just outside the walls north of the bus station (Gare Routiere). We were told that they mark the tombs of seven great men but I haven't been able to find out more than that - can anyone reading this shed any more light?
In the middle of the day the walls look relatively dull but first thing in the morning and again late in the afternoon they glow. To walk all around them would be a long and dusty trail, so a popular alternative is to tour all or part by caleche. A complete tour will take about an hour and should cost between 200 and 300 dirhams.
Directions: All around the Medina, naturally!
Mausoleum of Lalla Zohra
In front of the Koutoubia Mosque, and easily overlooked in the shadow of its more famous neighbour and among the constant traffic on Avenue Mohammed V, is this small building. This gleaming white koubba or mausoleum, which has long been sealed on all sides, houses the body of Lalla Zohra. Part real, part myth, Lalla was the daughter of a slave and religious leader, and was said to transform herself into a dove each night. Many women of Marrakesh still half believe this legend and some dedicate their children to her. These children do not eat pigeon as is otherwise common practice, out of respect for Lalla’s half-life as a dove.
Address: Avenue Mohammed V
Directions: To the right of the Koutoubia Mosque as you look at it from Djamaa el Fna, and on the far side of Avenue Mohammed V from that square
Early morning light on the Koutoubia minaret
The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakech, and its minaret dominates the skyline. Indeed, no other building is permitted to be taller. As a librarian, I was intrigued to learn that its name is derived from the Arabic for librarian or book-trader, al-Koutoubiyyin, due to the fact that it used to be surrounded by sellers of manuscripts. These are long gone, and it now stands in a square facing the Djamaa el Fna and surrounded by gardens. Like all mosques in the city it cannot be entered by non-Muslims, but its exterior is well worth a look and the minaret makes for striking photos by day and night. It was built in the 12th century and is 69 m (221 ft) tall. The minaret is topped with four copper balls of decreasing size. This is a traditional design in Morocco, but there are usually only three. Legend tells that the fourth was a gift from the wife of the Saadian ruler Yacoub el Mansour as a penance for breaking her fast during Ramadan.
Five times a day the call to prayer rings out from here as it does from every other minaret in the city, but unusually for modern times, here the call is still made “in person” by a muezzin rather than being a recording. Rather than the more usual staircase, Koutoubia’s minaret has a spiraling ramp wide enough for a horse to be ridden to the top, but I don’t know whether this means of access is still actually used!
The surrounding gardens apparently offer a restful escape from the city’s madness as well as a chance to get closer to the minaret, but this was a walk too far for me on my crutches so we didn’t go inside them.
At night the mosque and minaret are nicely floodlit. Ideally you’ll need a tripod to get a good photo but a bit of inventiveness pays dividends – I used the roof of a nearby parked taxi and cropped out the foreground afterwards to get this shot (photo 3).
North of the Djamaa el Fna lie the souks, a rabbit warren of lanes, many of them shaded with a lattice of wooden staves. They are both tourist attraction and local shopping centre, and the further you go from the square, diving into their depths, the more of the latter you will experience. We explored a small area on the western fringes on our first day but after that were limited to the lanes leading off the square because of my injury. These are said to be the least good, both in terms of character and the quality of the goods on sale, but we were happy with our limited explorations, and with the couple of items we bought here. I particularly love my bright pink shoulder bag :-)
Traditionally each area specialised in a certain craft – dying in one part, leather in another and pottery in a third. Although these distinctions have become muddled with time there is still a distinct dyers’ souk (which sadly we didn’t get to) and even elsewhere you will suddenly realise that every other shop in this row sells almost the same things. Even if you don’t want to buy anything at all you can spend many happy hours here, soaking up the atmosphere, looking at the colourful displays and taking photos.
And if you do want to shop, remember that haggling is as much a game as it is a transaction. Don’t take it too seriously, but do stick to what you feel is a reasonable price and don’t be lured into paying more than you think an item is worth. The usual advice is to start with an offer of about a third of that being asked and aim to finish at about the mid-way point.
Huge expanse of the Djamaa el Fna
Sooner or later it seems, all paths in Marrakesh lead to the Djamaa el Fna. The name (sometimes spelled “Djemaa el Fna” or “Jamaa el Fna”) means “Assembly of the Dead” in Arabic but a visit here suggests life in all its vibrancy. To call this the city’s main square doesn’t begin to do justice to it. This is a meeting place, a shopping centre, a performance space, a happening. It is surrounded by restaurants and cafés, each with a roof terrace to offer a ringside seat from where to observe all the action, but better by far to get immersed in it all yourself.
Here is a snake charmer with a sleepy cobra waiting for tourists’ dirhams before luring him into action. Here is a man with a monkey wanting payment to pose with him perched on your shoulder. And over there a colourfully dressed water-seller is making more money from posing for photos than he ever will from selling water.
Rows of stalls sell dried fruits; others freshly squeezed orange juice. Women offer to decorate your hand with henna, and men to shine your shoes – even if you are wearing trainers. You can buy a leather handbag or a packet of tissues, a lantern or a cigarette lighter. Mopeds weave past pedestrians, men push carts and donkeys pull them, horses trot past with tourist passengers perched in the caleche behind.
Over it all towers the minaret of the Katoubia Mosque, the tallest building in the city, and at regular intervals the call to prayer rings out above the hubbub. But that one spiritual note barely seems to make an impression on all the secular activity at its foot, although the faithful no doubt pause briefly in their actions before returning to earthly matters of commerce and enterprise.
Come here with an open mind, and with your wits about you. If you are unused to travelling “out of your comfort zone” you may find it unnerving at first, but take your time, watch from the sidelines for a while, and you will soon get a sense of how best to experience this place. You will probably be hassled for money, and almost certainly to buy (juice, water, henna decoration …) but say no firmly and if necessary move away – there are many other tourists and the would-be seller will soon pass on to the next one. Of course you must watch your possessions, but that is true in any crowded city square, anywhere in the world. And remember that a small sum to you can mean much more here, so if you really want that photo of a snake charmer or water-seller by all means pay a fair fee – it will bring back great memories long after your visit so will be worth the outlay.
At night the square is even more vibrant – but that is a subject for another, Nightlife, tip …
Directions: In the centre of the Medina – anyone will direct you, probably even if that is not where you want to go!
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