Souks, Spas, and Sunsets: The Beginner’s Guide to Marrakech

Souks, Spas, and Sunsets: The Beginner’s Guide to Marrakech

Immerse yourself in the colorful clash of cultures that make up Marrakech

The Gateway to Sub-Saharan Africa, Marrakech is a destination like no other. Its colorful clash of cultures, crowded lanes, and the echo of the Muezzin (call to prayer) that floats through the air five times a day will enchant you, and at times overwhelm. If you’re planning your first trip to the Pink City we’re here to help you navigate the complexities that will take you right to the soul of the place.

Know Before You Go

Bordered by the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert to the East, Marrakech might be the most well known of Morocco’s cities, but it’s not the capital—that honor falls to Rabat. The city is centered around the Medina—the old walled city—which contains the souks, the central square, and many restaurants. Outside the Medina is the Nouvelle Ville, or new city, where you’ll find more modern hotels, shops, bars, and restaurants. Further out still is La Palmeraie, the city’s palm garden, where many luxurious villas are located, plus hotels, golf courses and more.

The best times to visit are spring and fall, when warm days and cool nights seem to sharpen the senses. The summer months are rather oppressively hot, with temperatures regularly reaching an energy-sapping 100 degrees during the day. If you’re flying from the US, you can find journeys with a single stopover from major cities like Chicago, NYC, and Houston.

Finding Your Feet

If it’s your first visit to the city, give yourself time to adjust to the different rhythms of life here and remember that the way things are done might be different to how you’re used to doing them. A little patience can go a long way into getting into the swing of the city. Women travelers especially should be aware that the style of dress in Marrakech is a lot more conservative than you might be used to. In the privacy of your villa or riad, anything goes, but consider covering your shoulders and keeping skirts and shorts knee length when you’re out and about.

Start your Marrakech journey with an evening exploring Jemaa el Fna square—the beating heart of the city. During the day the square seems empty and dust-blown, but come sunset—when the buildings start to glow in the low light—the square comes to life with street food vendors, musicians, storytellers and the hundreds of locals who gather nightly for the open-air social. People have gathered here for hundreds of years, eating side by side at the makeshift tables, where bowls of steaming snail soup are washed down with sweet mint tea. If you’re feeling adventurous take a seat at one of the street food stalls where you’ll be made to feel welcome, or if not, grab a mint tea at a terrace overlooking the square and watch the action unfold.

Soothing Your Senses

Exploring the city means plenty of walking and plenty of tired muscles. Happily, Marrakech is bursting with refreshing hammams where you can steam, scrub and polish your cares away. Hammams—or public baths—are central to the Moroccan way of life, and the offering varies from high-end hotel spas to local joints where you’re expected to bring your own soap and scrubbing mitt. Public Hammams have men- and women-only areas, or timetables with set hours for men and women to visit, while those in private hotels and riads can be booked in advance.

La Mamounia (pictured above), one of Marrakech’s most iconic and luxurious hotels, also has one of the city’s most luxurious spas. With outdoor and indoor pools, steam rooms, and expert staff and treatments incorporating local ingredients like argan oil and orange water, a couple of hours here will have you totally at peace. Try the “sweet rose” body wrap, destined to leave your skin super soft and hydrated, or a traditional scrub with honey to soothe aching muscles.

Shopping in the Souks

For many visitors, wandering through the Medina’s winding lanes browsing the souks is a top priority. What is a souk? It’s simply the Moroccan take on a market, packed with stalls spilling selling carpets, spices, ceramics and more. From oversized metalwork lanterns just perfect to hang over your dining room table, to leatherwork slippers and chic woven beach bags, the major conundrum is deciding how much you can fit into your luggage to take home with you. Products vary in quality from one stall to the next, so take the time to look before you leap.

Haggling over the price of an item is an accepted, indeed, expected, part of the buying process in the souks, so don’t be embarrassed when a seller asks what you would pay. There are a few basic rules to remember before you dive in, which will make the experience more enjoyable. Firstly, you’re welcome to look at all the goods on offer, but if you start talking to a seller about price he’ll think you’re ready to buy, so it’s best to look without striking up a conversation until you find something that really interests you. Secondly, the seller will often name a very high price to begin with—this is all part of the process, so don’t worry about countering with a much lower price in negotiations. Finally, if you suggest a price and the seller agrees, you’re expected to go through with the purchase. Agreeing to buy something and then backing out is best avoided—it’s considered extremely impolite.

Exploring the Jardin Majorelle

Offering a complete change of pace from life in the Medina, the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech’s Nouvelle Ville is a wonderful place to spend a morning. Designed and planted by the French landscape painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1930s, it’s a riot of color—brilliant blue walls, terracotta planters, and yellow-painted woodwork—set against the peaceful greens of waterlilies, cacti, and weeping willows.

In 1980, the garden was in serious disrepair and slated to be demolished, when it was saved by French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. Saint Laurent, who was born in Algeria and had a lifelong love of North Africa, subsequently moved into the villa on site with his partner and set about restoring the garden to its former glory. Today you can stroll the paths, marvel at the beautiful leatherwork in the shop, and visit the memorial dedicated to the fashion designer. Take the time to sit in the shaded outdoor cafe with a glass of mint tea while you contemplate the many delicious contradictions that make up Marrakech.

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Images: Guenter Guni; Pavliha; pilesasmiles; Alan_Lagadu / iStockPhoto
Jenny Cahill-Jones