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8 Tips For Visiting Marrakech
The open-air market in Marrakech
A small city in Morocco
Last year I spent seven days in Marrakech (also spelled Marrakesh), Morocco during a twelve day backpacking trip. It was one of the craziest, messiest, coolest experiences of my entire life. I experienced a culture that is about as different from mine (American) as it can get and I was challenged in many ways.
In this short Morocco travel guide I’ll give you my top 8 tips for visiting Morocco. This travel advice for Marrakech is based on my experiences as a 21 year old female backpacker and they apply to other major cities in Morocco (and Africa at large) as well.
These are my top tips for visiting Marrakech. They are all based on my own experience, which often vastly differs from other people's experiences. I would recommend doing extensive research before visiting.
Marrakech Morroco Map
1. If You're a Woman - Don't go Alone
Visiting Marrakech as a woman can be an excellent, or horrible, experience. You can, of course, travel Africa solo but it isn’t always fun (or safe) as a woman. Street harassment in Morocco is a real issue if you're traveling alone. Often the catcalls and lewd looks disturb what could otherwise be a fantastic trip. Morocco culture differs greatly from American and European countries and it greatly affects the way they treat women.
This treatment is often worse if you’re wearing what they would consider revealing clothing - shorts or short-sleeved shirts. But often dressing conservatively isn't enough to avoid the stares. If you go it alone the best course of action is to ignore their comments and walk with purpose. Usually they give up after a while.
The safest choice is to travel in a group or with a man. If you do travel with a man be prepared to call him your husband. A man and a woman traveling together are usually assumed to be married, which usually helps the woman avoid harassment.
Also, just to be polite, you should never walk in front of the men during prayer. This is especially true if you’re wearing modern western attire. If you’re visiting another culture it is extremely important to be respectful.
While a lot of people worry about safety in Marrakech actual crime is fairly rare.
View of the Atlas Mountains
2. Dress Conservatively
Now when I was in Morocco I was on the tail end of a four month study in Rome and nearing the end of my twelve days of backpacking. Consequently, I didn’t have the proper attire. Much to my surprise it wasn’t really an issue.
Like I said – Marrakech is a big city. The expectations are a lot more lax than they are in other cities in Morocco. Short sleeved shirts and long shorts were fine for traveling women. Men are fine as long as they aren't sporting muscle tanks or revealing bare chest. When exploring the city you should take (or buy) scarves to cover up whenever necessary. Women's clothing in Marrakech is a mix of Western and traditional attire – though even those sporting Western attire never had bare legs. Pants to the knee and covered shoulders paired with scarves should be acceptable.
Avoid string tank tops, bikinis, and short-shorts. It may be hot but uncovered skin is both culturally inappropriate and welcoming a terrible sunburn in the harsh desert sun.
3. Prepare for the Guilt-trip
Tourists mean money and the locals know it. The boys (probably ages 10-15) roam the streets in packs looking for tourists to “guide”. They’ll tell you they’re just helping and they don’t want money. Naturally they're lying. As soon as you arrive at your destination they’ll beg you for money and openly follow you if you refuse to pay them. They'll tell you that you owe them, that they did you a favor. My advice is ignore the kids and act like you know where you’re going. Shoulders back, walk with confidence. After following you for a short time they'll usually give up.
Shop owners have also mastered the guilt-trip. One of the top Morocco tourist attractions is Marrakech's famous open-air market. When I visited my first day I spent four hours wandering the market. Two hours of shopping and two hours of being horribly lost and just trying to get out. During this time almost every shopkeeper we passed tried to stop us. Their strategy is to offer free tea and goodies, then use their generosity to guilt you into making a purchase. The scarf dyers will dye scarves in front of your eyes and introduce you to everyone who works there, then guilt you into buying one. The spice shop-keeper will show you all their spices, then moan about wasting time when you don't want to buy.
The guilt-trip rules the day. The best way to avoid buying things you don’t need is toughening your skin. Don’t buy it just because you feel bad, they have other tourists they can trick.
Shops and Stands in Marrakesh's Open-Air MarketClick thumbnail to view full-size
Compared to the US dollar or Euro everything in Morocco is incredibly inexpensive. That being said, most shopkeepers in Morocco want to charge you ridiculously high prices for their goods. I don’t blame them; it’s how they make money.
You need to be prepared to haggle like a pro. Whatever they say, offer half. They’ll usually scoff at you but lower the price. Looking disinterested and starting to walk away are also effective tactics. Check out this article on how to haggle.
My advice is haggle a lot on spices and scarves, they are usually produced in huge quantities, but haggle less and pay more for art. Any local art is worth the money. You know it was probably hand-made, usually by the person trying to sell it to you. Support the woodworkers and painters when you can.
Since shopping is one of the most fun things to do in Marrakech knowing how to haggle is key.
My recommendations for riding trains in Morocco:
- Learn how to read your destination in Arabic - signs are not in French
- Pack a lot of water - more than you think you'll need
- If you get a seat stay in it no matter what, even if someone pukes on you, you'll regret it if you leave
5) Beware of Trains in Morocco
When I was in Morocco I had the worst experience I have ever had on a train. The story is too long to include here (though I’m happy to share if you ask) but it includes a delay, broken down train, not being able to read Arabic, 104 degree weather, heat exhaustion, vomiting, and spending 8 hours on what was supposed to be a 3 hour trip. My advice, skip the train if you can.
We took it from Marrakech to Casablanca because it was 200 euros cheaper to fly out of Casablanca. It wasn't worth it. If you have the choice to fly or train, just fly. But, if you have to take the train, give yourself an entire day to get where you need to go. I guarantee it’s going to be an experience of some sort.
Trains run on their own schedule and very slowly. There is no air conditioning but the windows are kept open, which doesn't really help when its 104 degrees outside. People pay to get on the train but not for seats, resulting in way more people than seats. In the end people are standing in between the train cars desperately cracking windows in hope of a breeze.
Overall the experience was hot and miserable, but it made for a really good story.
But, on the other hand, a lot of people have had a lot of luck riding trains in Morocco. Choosing to take the train depends heavily on your comfort level. If you can handle uncertainty and aren't a nervous traveler, take the train! Just do your research first.
6) Prepare to Get Lost
Marrakech is a maze and you’re going to get lost in it. There isn’t really a way to avoid it. Like many old cities it wasn't built on a grid, or really in any organized fashion at all. It just expanded in a maze of small, usually unmarked streets and alleys.
How to prepare to be lost:
- Do your wandering in the early morning or evening, avoid the mid-day heat
- Bring a lot of water – you'll need it
- Ignore the boys trying to lead you to your destination
- Mark landmarks on your map for you to look for, you probably won’t find them but it could help
- Enjoy the exploration and try not to get too upset
Preparing to be lost is a mindset. Just accept that it’s going to take a while to find your destination and enjoy the walk!
7) Avoid Taxis
Only take a taxi if absolutely necessary. If you’re obviously a tourist they will take advantage of you. It’s the unfortunate truth.
If you do decide to take a taxi you have to either decide on a price in advance or insist that they use the meter. If they don’t use the meter they’ll set whatever price they want once you arrive at your destination. Unfortunately you get stuck paying it.
Camel ride in the Sahara DesertClick thumbnail to view full-size
8) Ride a Camel in the Sahara Desert
It'll change your life.
In all of my travels this is one of my top-ten favorite experiences in my life. See if your hostel has bookings for buses that will take you through the Atlas Mountains to the desert on the other side. We took our whole two-day trip for something around $25 and another tourist told us we were ripped off. At a price that low I can’t be mad about it.
The Atlas Mountains are beautiful - among the top Morocco destinations. And the cities you stop at between Marrakech and the desert are entirely unique. The camel ride is uncomfortable (but worth it), and camping in the desert is life-changing. Overall this experience is the number one thing I recommend to anyone visiting Morocco.
We danced around the fire to the singing and drums of the locals. We slept on mattresses beneath the stars. We saw things I may never get to see again.
If you find yourself that close to this legendary desert, don't miss your chance to experience it.
Top 10 Things to do in Marrakesh, Morocco
Morocco Travel Advice
Don’t stay in the city. Explore. Visit the mountains. Visit the smaller cities in the surrounding area. Hostels are a great resource for finding safe, inexpensive, and reliable trips like these. Trust your guides. Experience what this beautiful and unique country has to offer.
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For more information check out what TripAdvisor has to say about Marrakech.