Last week, I surprised my husband with a trip to Morocco for his 30th birthday. Morocco has been on my bucket list for a long time (if you have any interest in design, you’ll understand), and riding camels through the Sahara seemed like something Anthony would enjoy. Plus, since his birthday’s in February, I figured this would be the perfect time to warm up in a desert — less than seven weeks after we had gone snowmobiling in Iceland!
We spent about half of our trip in Marrakech, a stunning terracotta-colored city that consists of a medina (old walled city) surrounded by more modern neighborhoods where the locals actually live. After we landed at Marrakech’s glitzy airport, we exchanged money and looked for our driver outside. Eventually we spotted a man holding a tiny sign that read “Dar Jaguar,” the name of our riad. A quick 15-minute drive took us to the edge of the medina, where another man greeted us, placed our luggage in a large rolling cart, and led us through narrow winding alleys to our riad. We never would have found our riad without him!
In Marrakech, you should stay in a riad, a traditional Moroccan home in which rooms face an inner courtyard with either a fountain or a pool. Dar Jaguar is a gorgeous, intimate riad owned by a British fashion designer. While most Moroccans prefer to live in the newer parts of town, Europeans (especially the French elite) have bought up a fair amount of real estate in the medina and converted old buildings into stunning riads for tourists. We were upgraded to the largest room in the riad, which was an impeccably decorated suite that included a four-poster bed, fireplace, copper bath tub, small balcony, and more space than our entire Brooklyn apartment.
Each morning, we had breakfast in our courtyard (or in an adjacent dining room if it was chilly that morning), and each breakfast was served by two sweet Moroccans who ran Dar Jaguar. One morning, we went grocery shopping in the souk (a traditional Berber market) with our riad chef, took an afternoon cooking lesson with her, and ate our cooked food for dinner later that night. Marrakech has the largest souk in Morocco, where you can find all sorts of unique Moroccan goods, from rugs to ceramics to spices. The souk was chaotic and overwhelming — and we’re New Yorkers! Imagine bikes and carts whipping through the alleyways, carrying fresh bread for the day; cats slinking by, hoping for scraps of food; vendors beckoning tourists into their shops; and beggars sitting on the street with their children. Walking through the souk takes agility as you’ll be constantly trying to dodge the motorbikes that plow through at top speed. Haggling is an essential part of shopping in the souk. After some hesitation, I was actually able to haggle down to a third of the original price for one rug, and a few dirhams less for a customized leather purse and a magnet.
We visited a few landmarks around Marrakech, such as Ben Youssef Madrasa, Musée de Marrakech, Dar Si Said, Bahia Palace, Jardin Majorelle, and Koutoubia Mosque. Ben Youssef Madrasa, a former theological college, was my favorite site. It was constructed by a Saadian sultan and is one of the most stunning structures I’ve ever seen, with ornate carvings in cedar wood, and lots of zellij (Islamic mosaic tile art) in beautiful geometric patterns. Most of these sites are either free or very cheap and located right in the medina. Jardin Majorelle, famous for being Yves Saint Laurent’s home, is the only site located in the new town and costs a bit more to enter.
Most of our meals alternated between three-course dinners in riads (some of the most talented chefs in the city are actually the ones who work in riads) and cheap meals from food stalls. For meals in riads, it’s good to book in advance because there’s limited seating. I recommend Dar Cherifa, a romantic restaurant located in one of the oldest riads in Marrakech. However, my favorite meal of the trip was a lucky find in Mechoui Alley, a small alley in the medina full of meat stalls. A man led us up two flights of stairs for a view of the rooftops below, and without offering a menu (the best meals are always from places without menus!), ordered us a tray of succulent roasted lamb. The lamb fell right off the bones just with our hands, and it was served with salt and turmeric to sprinkle on, as well as two rolls of bread.
The main square, Djemaa el-Fna, was once used for public beheadings and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It later attracted tradesmen and musicians, and now you can find tourists from all over the world. During the daytime, it feels like Times Square so we tended to avoid it, but at night it transforms into a lovely night market. Food stalls are set up, where you can get cheap dinners such as fried seafood or grilled kebabs. It reminded me of Singapore’s wonderful hawker centers. While you’re dining on the square, you’ll see men pushing around carts of tea and cookies, as well as women selling napkins for you to clean your hands after the meal.
We spent one day on a quick excursion to the coastal town of Essaouira. Our driver picked us up in the square and made a couple of stops during our three-hour journey. We pulled over to see a bunch of goats high up in a tree! Apparently these goats can climb up argan trees to eat the fruit and leaves. They then poop out the indigestible seeds, which are collected, filtered, and transformed into the coveted argan oil that we put on our skin and in our food. The collecting and filtering is done by hand by all-female co-ops across the country.
Essaouira, also known by its Portuguese name of Mogador, is a major port city with a fascinating history. Roman artifacts were found here from the 3rd century. In the 16th century, the Portuguese controlled many of its town, while Spain, England, the Netherlands, and France also made attempts to conquer the city. The present city of Essaouira was built during the 18th century when Mohammed III aimed to reorient his kingdom toward the Atlantic. He chose Essaouira because it was the closest harbor to Marrakech, and its trade route brought goods all the way from sub-Saharan Africa, through the desert and over the Atlas mountains. Thanks to trade, the city is fairly diverse, with Jews handcrafting ornate silver jewelry, Arabs constructing gorgeous wooden furniture, and Berbers specializing in spices.
Essaouirans take a lot of pride in their city, and during our tour, our guide repeatedly asked us, “It’s not like Marrakech, is it?” It wasn’t. In fact, Essaouira reminded me of southern Italy – think Amalfi without the steep hills. But after a few hours in Essaouira, we were ready to return to Marrakech, where it felt a little less like Europe-lite and a little more like the Africa I had fallen in love with.
Soon it was time four our three-day desert trek into the Sahara. Stay tuned!
Tips for future travelers:
- How should you dress? While you might see some embarrassing tourists in shorts and skimpy tops, be a decent person and respect Morocco’s culture. Always bring a shawl, and wear pants or long skirts to cover your legs. It can get pretty chilly at night, so you’ll want an extra layer anyway. The streets are cobblestone and can get dirty (the souk consists of produce markets and food stalls, after all!), so sneakers are recommended. Even as someone who can walk hours in heels, I wore sneakers almost the entire time we were in Marrakech.
- Save enough room in your luggage for souvenirs. We almost never go shopping while abroad (we prefer to relive our memories through photos), but we ended up buying our most souvenirs ever in Morocco. You definitely won’t want to leave without some leather goods, rugs, tagines, lamps, spices, and argan oil.
- Morocco has a closed currency, which made me nervous since I usually like to enter the country with some currency on hand. However, exchanging money was simple. Before you exit the airport, there’s a large currency exchange in the center of the arrivals terminal, and in the medina there are dozens of ATMs surrounding Djemaa el-Fna. Once in Marrakech, always have cash on you (especially smaller bills and coins) because pretty much everywhere is cash only.
- Stay in a riad in the medina. A riad is the best way to experience Marrakech to the fullest, and inside the medina is where most of your time will be spent. Our riad was just a few minutes from the Djemaa el-Fna, so we were able to walk back to our riad whenever we wanted to, and it was convenient for all our drivers, who pick up passengers in the square. To get to your riad from the airport, have the riad staff organize a driver to pick you up. Riads are often hidden behind unassuming doors, and there’s no way we would have found ours without a guide.
- Brush up on your French. Besides Arabic and Berber, most Moroccans speak French. At all the museums, captions were either in Arabic or French — not English. When we had an issue with our water heater at our riad, the only staff available that night couldn’t speak much English; Anthony and I definitely regretted learning Spanish instead of French in school.
- Tip everyone, from your guide to your masseuse to your waiter. Moroccans survive on these tips! Before you go, you might want to print out a list of who to tip and how much to tip, as we had to look these up multiple times.
- Find a rooftop for lunch. I recommend the top floor of Café des Éspices, which has a relaxing view of a colorful square and very good hot chocolate.
- At meals, be wary of anything you didn’t specifically order. When we were at one food stall, we received a dish of tomato dipping sauce for our bread and a plate of sweets after dinner. We assumed these were complimentary, but at the end of our meal they charged us for each item. The meal was still cheap, but if you don’t want any surprise charges, make sure to tell them when you don’t want certain dish.
- If you’ve never been to a Muslim country before, prepare yourself for those infamous Islamic prayer calls. Adhan occurs five times a day and won’t usually affect you — except the one that occurs at 4:00 am. Every morning, we woke up at 4 due to the prayer call, which is recited by a muezzin from a microphone in Koutoubia Mosque. Speakers are mounted up high in the mosque’s minarets, and even though our riad was quite far from it, we heard everything loud and clear. Fortunately, we eventually got used to it and were able to fall back asleep right away.
- Like Venice, getting lost in the medina of Marrakech is part of the experience. However, if you have to be somewhere specific, try to take a screenshot of the route when you have WiFi. Don’t be afraid to ask Moroccans for directions. Everyone we met genuinely wanted to help us – and they didn’t demand a tip after, like our guide book had warned!
- While Moroccans are fine drinking the tap water, most tourists can’t handle it and should drink bottled water instead. We kept a huge bottle in our bathroom for brushing our teeth, and I usually carried a small bottle in my purse so we wouldn’t have to purchase a new one at every meal.
- What to eat? For breakfasts, you can look forward to fresh orange juice (there are oranges everywhere in this city), crepes, chocolate croissants, and fruits. For other meals, you’ll most likely have a tagine (a traditional Berber stew made of succulent meats and vegetables cooked in a conical clay pot — also called a tagine — to allow the steam to rise, condense, and drip back down to the stew). You can’t come to Morocco without having at least one lamb tagine. Almost every meal will include bread, which I think is one of Morocco’s most underrated food items – their bread is fantastic! The bread is typically made from durum wheat semolina, and bakeries pumping out fresh bread can be found all over Morocco. Moroccan food is full of wonderful spices like saffron, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, paprika, sesame, coriander, cloves, fennel, anise, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, and oregano. A good souvenir to take back home with you is “ras el hanout,” which is a mixture of 27 Moroccan spices – though, many locals like to call this “the spice for women who can’t cook.” Since this is a Muslim country, there will be no pork and very little alcohol. You’ll drink a lot of Moroccan tea, which is green tea mixed with mint and sugar. The tea pots have long, curved spouts, which allows the tea to be poured evenly into tiny glasses from up high.
- This is a developing country, so just get over the fact that your riad might have limited hot water, weak WiFi, and toilets that can’t handle toilet paper. You’re not in a Marriott in the middle of Pennsylvania. Remember why you travel.