Why Marrakesh is the Best (and worst) Introduction to Morocco

“I think I figured out a good metaphor for Marrakesh.”

“What’s that?”

“The fragrance section of Macy’s, but as an entire city.”

With many photos of Morocco being posted all over Instagram recently, it would come as no surprise that many people have a desire to go and see the beautiful “Red City” firsthand.  With its beautifully tiled riads, lively souks, and the largest public square in the country, Jemaa el-Fnaa; Marrakesh is almost always a top destination on any itinerary. When we booked our trip to Morocco, we ended up having Marrakesh as the first stop on our trip.  We found that there were both positives and negatives to having this as our introduction to this fascinating land and can offer up some suggestions for anyone planning a first-time trip that starts in Marrakesh.

 The Jemaa el-Fnaa at sunset.

The Jemaa el-Fnaa at sunset.

 

It will assault your senses

 Mint tea will probably be your first introduction upon arrival, and what a great one it is!

Mint tea will probably be your first introduction upon arrival, and what a great one it is!

To say that we were overwhelmed when we first arrived would be a massive understatement!  Like many first-time visitors, we decided to stay in one of the riads in the medina to get the authentic guesthouse hospitality experience that Morocco is so well known for.  After arriving and finding our location (while being “guided” by a local our cab driver gave us to, more on that to follow...) we were greeted by our host Zuhair, who quickly produced a platter with a tea pot filled with the ever-present Moroccan elixir, mint tea.   This served as our introduction to the food and drink of Morocco, and I will forever associate the smell of mint with our time there. 

After getting settled and having some tea, we decided to head down to the Jemaa el-Fnaa to try and catch the sunset.  Upon stepping out of our riad we got the introduction to the medina, with our path to the square taking us through the busiest part of the souks.  While walking through the narrow passages we passed all manner of store fronts selling anything from leather goods, spices, fresh produce, even butcher shops with live chickens!  It is a lot of smells and sights to take in, all while dodging mopeds and other pedestrians.

 A father and son walk through the medina in Marrakesh

A father and son walk through the medina in Marrakesh

 One of the many spice shops in the medina.

One of the many spice shops in the medina.

All this will, of course, bewilder most first-time visitors as it did to us.  It can definitely be a lot to process over the first day or two while exploring the medina and that is certainly the negative aspect:  it is almost like jumping straight into a cold pool.  Some travelers can handle this adeptly and confidently, not minding at all.  For some others who may not enjoy this level of stimulation it may be too much, too soon.  The benefit of doing it in this manner though is that after you adjust to it, just about every other city in Morocco will seem tame in comparison.  Despite not being the most populated city, (4th in the country with just over nine hundred thousand people) it somehow manages to feel much busier than just about everywhere else.  The next large city we visited after Marrakesh was Fes, which seemed tranquil and slower paced in comparison.

 

It will condition you to the aggressiveness of the medinas

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As was mentioned above, when we first arrived at the medina via cab from the airport the driver had asked us where we were staying.  Naively, we gave him the name of our riad and he summarily handed us over to the closest person with a pulse to “direct” us to where we were staying.  We had read in the guidebooks about this type of thing and quickly told him that we knew where we were going and didn’t need his assistance.  Unfortunately, our riad was directly down the road in front of him and he simply walked in front of us, despite our protests, until we reached our destination.  Once we arrived he then demanded money for his service and continued to press us until our host opened the door to let us in.  Ultimately, he walked away, and it was the last we saw of him (just kidding, we saw him two days later and he confronted us after recognizing us…awkward).

You will find all manner of hustles and scams waiting for you much like the above, although that is the most common.  It will often go something like this:  you will be walking along and regardless of whether you appear like you need directions or not someone will ask “Where are you going?!  Main square?!”.  It is at this point where if you answer, you will have a game of twenty questions on your hand and a 'guide' you can’t get rid of.  There are also many times where people will simply tell you that a specific path is closed and that you have to go another way.  The best way we found to dealing with all of this is to simply walk on by without acknowledging the person.  It can seem rude at first, but after several days of being constantly approached it seemed to be the best solution.  If you do engage in a conversation though, make sure to be firm in declining their service and try not to give them any indication of where you are headed while continuing to walk.  Usually once you are far enough past they will move on and try and find someone else.

Unfortunately, this is pretty much unavoidable when you are traversing the medina.  The benefit of getting this out of the way while in Marrakesh is that the harassment lessens considerably in the other cities.  We had taken a day trip to Essaouria on our last full day in Marrakesh and the difference was like night and day.  Even in Fes, which has a larger population, the medina didn’t feel quite as aggressive in comparison.  Plus, if you get tired of traversing through the medina in Marrakesh you can always cheat and walk along the major roads alongside it, in a lot of locations to avoid getting lost or approached by the touts.  Again though, if you are the type of person who doesn’t like confrontation or being approached in a somewhat aggressive manner, it can be a lot to take in and may be better to ease into it with a stop in one of the smaller cities before Marrakesh. 

 

You will get used to being lost

 A woman carries a bundle on her head while walking in Marrakesh

A woman carries a bundle on her head while walking in Marrakesh

When we first arrived, our host gave us a map and directions that went something like this: “to get to the main square you go out the door, go to the end of the street, then take a right, a right, then a left just past the herborist, then a right at the college, then follow the road through the souks and you are there.” 

It certainly sounds simple enough, but that map in your hand?  Fold it up and put it in your pocket in case you end up having to use one of the squat toilets, it’s a better use for it.  Your phone with google maps?  Somewhat more useful, but with spotty GPS signal in the medina and the possibility of theft meaning only being able to glance at it from time to time it won’t save you completely.  The simple fact of exploring any of the larger medinas in Morocco is that you will get turned around and lost at some point. 

There really isn’t much helpful advice here, other than trying to focus on landmarks and, as mentioned above, using the main roads that go around the outside of the walls. It is simply something that you come to expect and accept after a few days of visiting.  The medina in Fes is equally confusing, with the addition of being very hilly as well, so Marrakesh becomes a good place to practice if you are going to be headed there later in an itinerary. 

 

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Marrakesh is a place unlike any other and will excite your senses from the first time you arrive to when you depart.  It is also one of the cities that most people who visit Morocco will either love or hate.  It is wise to consider your personality when planning your itinerary and deciding what point you will visit.  Overall, we felt like making it the first stop on the trip was probably a good idea as it forced us to adapt to the culture quickly and made the rest of the cities feel easier to navigate in comparison.  The potential downside though, is that for some travelers it may inform their opinion of Moroccan culture leading to a negative perception for the entire trip.  Our suggestion for those who think it sounds like Marrakesh may be too much to handle is to consider where in your itinerary you will visit and adjust accordingly.