Shrouded in history, rich in culture, and with endless unique opportunities for adventure, Marrakesh, Morocco is perfect as a weekend getaway destination or as a hub from which to launch an extended Moroccan adventure.
Marrakesh is a surprisingly quick and easy flight from most destinations in Continental Europe, the U.K., and Ireland. Weekend and short holiday trips are very popular. At the airport exit, you'll be able to take a taxi or the convenient city bus to the city center. The bus is inexpensive and operates frequently throughout the day, and open-return tickets can be purchased directly from the driver.
If you choose to take a taxi, be aware that taxi fares--like everything else in Morocco--are open to negotiation. Do not get into a taxi until you have agreed on a price beforehand.
The central walled Medina of Marrakesh is the oldest part of the city. Most of the historical and cultural highlights are among the narrow, winding streets within the high red clay walls that give Marrakesh its nickname, "The Red City."
The real highlight and hub of the Medina is the central square, Jemaa el Fna. Tourists, locals, food stands, performers, and vendors congregate here in this large cobbled plaza day and night. Early each morning, cafes serve the popular Moroccan breakfast of mint tea and various flatbreads to locals on their way to work. As the day heats up and tourists pack the square, snake charmers, monkey trainers, fortune-tellers, and merchants set up tents and stalls in every corner. The square really shines at night, when food tents serve a wide variety of grilled Moroccan favorites and small bands of buskers perform traditional string and percussion music.
The imposing minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque on one side of the square can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. This Islamic place of worship dates to the twelfth century, and is one of the largest and most beautiful in Africa. For religious reasons, the interior of Moroccan mosques are open only to Muslims; non-Muslims should keep a respectful distance.
Heading north from the square, the maze of markets, or souks, awaits. Here in the souks, everything is for sale. Merchants sell metalwork, woodcarvings, jewelry, scarves, spices, dyed wool, and everything else imaginable. Butchers hang cuts of meat on hooks, and will kill a fresh chicken for a customer on demand in the street. Olive merchants work behind fragrant piles of brined and pickled fruit. The souks seem to go on endlessly in the covered back streets of the Medina and it's easy to get lost; don't enter the markets if time is short.
In the souks, very few prices are clearly marked; everything is settled through negotiation and haggling. For Westerners, this ritual can seem foreign and frustrating, but it can be fun. To avoid offending or angering merchants when haggling, play by the rules: do not ask for a price (and thus start the negotiation) unless you are seriously interested in buying, and do not offer a price that you aren't willing to pay on the spot. If an agreeable figure can't be reached, it's always acceptable to thank the merchant and walk away.
North and west of the Medina, the Ville Nouvelle (New Town) is a sharp contrast to the historical and cramped Medina. Large boulevards, glitzy hotels, shopping centers, large parks, and other modern developments stretch out from the Medina walls.
The highlight of the Ville Nouvelle is the beautiful Majorelle Gardens. This pristine walled botanical display is a welcome bit of quiet serenity in the busy, noisy city. These brightly colored gardens were originally designed by French artist Louis Majorelle, and were later owned by well-known fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
From Marrakesh, it is easy to book day trips and extended journeys around Morocco. Day trips operate to the nearby Atlas Mountains, Ait-Ben-Haddou Kasbah and Ouarzazate--popular Hollywood film sites--and the seaside resort town of Essaouira. Two-day and three-day trips into the Sahara Desert are also very popular and quite reasonably priced. Visitors with more than two days in Morocco should consider one of these getaways. Most of these trips can be booked in advance, but travelers with flexible schedules can save some money by negotiating with tour operators to fill the last openings the day before an outing.
With good planning and a laid-back attitude, anyone can enjoy the sights, sounds, and tastes of Marrakesh. Whether for a weekend or a week, a visit to this beautiful, exotic, and fast-paced city will be an unforgettable experience.