PHOTO: A Marrakesh, Morocco street scene with Koutoubia Mosque's minaret in the background. (photo by Worldwide Scott)
Marrakesh just has one of those names.
Like a select group of other spots scattered around the world—cities like Istanbul, Bangkok, and Buenos Aires spring to mind—this Moroccan city at the foot of the Atlas Mountains sounds exotic from the second you hear it.
Marrakesh is the kind of place you arrive in expecting to see an ancient old town full of bartering traders, snake charmers in the main square, and elaborate Islamic architecture everywhere.
And it doesn’t disappoint you for a second.
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What to See
You simply cannot come to Marrakesh and not see the famous Jemaa el Fna, or as locals will call it while helping you when you get lost, ‘the big square’. For centuries, this central spot has served as a meeting place for residents, desert traders, tourists, food vendors and a more-than-motley-crew of street performers and storytellers. Hanging out here feels like being at a circus—one catered by old-school Moroccan food trucks.
The scene at sunset is especially enchanting.
Just off the square lies the Koutoubia Mosque and its marvelous minaret. While non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside the mosque, anyone is free to grab a seat on a bench outside and admire the tower, said to be one of the most perfectly-formed in the world.
Perusing the souks of Marrakesh’s Medina is also a must-do. These maze-like malls are filled with shops selling everything from rugs, pottery and leather to clothes and jewelry. They are a great place to bag a quality trip souvenir and chat with the shopkeepers.
The perfect balance for the buzz of the Medina, a stop at one of Marrakesh’s gorgeous gardens is a fine thing to do. The Jardin Majorelle and La Mamounia may be two of the most popular, but they still manage to be peaceful places.
There are also a couple fine palaces to see—Badii Palace and Bahia Palace—where you can channel your inner sultan.
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What to Eat
Expect tajines on nearly every menu in town, as these slow-cooked stews full of meat and vegetables are the signature Moroccan meal.
Pastillas are another local dish to seek out: Flaky, meaty pies filled with pigeon (it’s better than it sounds) and an assortment of nuts are dusted with sugar and cinnamon. On the seafood front, since sardines are plentiful off the coast of Morocco and are often served up golden-fried by street vendors.
What to Drink
I hope you like mint tea because Marrakesh is all about this sugary-sweet treat. It is drunk non-stop by locals, and there is no more authentic flavor of the city than a steaming cup (traditionally poured from a raised position to enhance the flavor).
As Morocco is a Muslim country, booze isn’t a big thing here, but it can still be found around town. The big seller is Flag, with the premium offering being Casablanca, and you can’t beat the design of the latter’s can.
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Where to Stay
If you only have a few days, then there’s no place you’d rather be than in the Medina. Here, you will find a host of romantic riads ready highlight of your trip and everything within walking distance. Riads are traditional Moroccan homes built around a grand center courtyard, often featuring plunge pools, sweeping rooftop terraces, and meticulous touches of local flavor.
If you are going to be in Marrakesh a week or more, there are plenty of resorts on the outskirts that could offer a nice respite from the buzz of the Medina, with a switch in accommodation halfway through your trip being a great way to see both moods of this mesmerizing city.