My number one Marrakech travel tip isn’t a place, it’s a person!
My friend Christy visited a few weeks before me, and when she got back she emailed me recommending the “best” guide. We weren’t really planning on hiring a guide to take us around Marrakech, but Christy was so enthusiastic we figured we may as well contact him. And I am SO glad we did. Aziiz really is the best! He knows everyone and everything, and, as a guide for the Four Seasons Resort and Abercrombie & Kent tours, has made quite a name for himself.
As you already know, my cousin Marisa and I spent our first day in Morocco laying by my new favorite pool. It was fabulous, but not exactly cultural, so the next morning Aziiz, wearing a traditional djellaba and a modern Lacoste hat, picked us up at La Mamounia and took us into the heart of Marrakech.
Before we started he said he had one rule: that whenever we crossed the busy Marrakech streets we should just close our eyes and go. He must have seen the looks on our faces because he quickly added this only applied when we were with him! So at every street, no matter how many cars, motorcycles and donkeys were whizzing past us, whenever he crossed we crossed (keeping our eyes open, though!).
We started with the city’s central focal point, the Koutoubia Mosque. Avid readers like me will love that it gets its name from the booksellers who used to cluster around its base.
It’s a rule in Morocco that you can’t build higher than the mosque’s minaret, so in Marrakech (and even in the smaller desert towns we visited later) the minaret gorgeously towers over the city.
There are several balls at the top of the mosque which are meant to represent different religions coexisting harmoniously. I thought that was such a beautiful message, and it made me wish our churches were equally accepting of other faiths and beliefs.
Non-muslims aren’t allowed to enter Marrakech’s mosques (apparently the French made this rule and it’s lasted even after Morocco’s independence), so we admired the mosque from the outside.
The outside of the mosque, in addition to its 12th-century architecture, has a very modern element. This digital board tallies the state of the environment, and commemorates the date the Paris Climate Agreement went into effect. It was humbling to see a country, with less resources than the United States, place such an emphasis on protecting the environment when we, with an abundance of resources and capabilities, have not.
Aziiz then took us to the Bahia Palace. On the outside it doesn’t look like much, since the Koran encourages people to keep the outside of their homes plain to respect their neighbors who may have less.
But the inside is absolutely stunning, which is fitting since Bahia means beautiful.
It didn’t take long for Aziiz to pick up on the fact that I love pictures (I’m really not that hard to read!) so he began pointing out the best places to take them, and recommended where I should sit and stand for the ones I was in. He also would politely, but firmly, tell people to get out of the way for my photographs, which I loved! I need him to travel around with me in New York to do that too!
This is my favorite shot he coordinated:
The Bahia Palace decor is half French and half Moroccan, and Aziiz pointed out each culture’s influence as we explored.
You should absolutely see the Bahia Palace while you’re in Marrakech. It’s my favorite thing I saw there! You can find visitor information here.
Aziiz then led us into Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech’s main square. There vendors huddle under giant umbrellas and canopies, selling just about anything you can think of.
My number one hesitation when planning my trip to Morocco was snakes. I hate them. They’re one of my biggest fears in life, second only to outer space (don’t ask). And since it was much more likely I would encounter snakes in Morocco rather than outer space, I was very nervous about it, to say the least. And my fear wasn’t helped when I read a blog saying people come up to you in Marrakech and just drape snakes around your neck when you’re not looking! I almost cancelled the trip right then and there!
I expressed this fear to Aziiz, and he assured me in several ways. First, he said no one would approach us while we were with him. This proved to be true, not just with snakes but with people trying to sell things. They would approach other tourists, but not those with guides.
Plus, snakes are only allowed in the main square, and their owners cannot let them go further than their immediate circle. In practicality this meant the snakes stayed under the shade of the umbrellas, although we did see one make a run for it before its owner finally noticed and got up to grab it! By vigilantly avoiding the shaded areas, as well as anyone playing snake-charmer music, and sticking to the sun far away from the umbrellas, we were able to steer clear of the snakes!
I did see a lot of snakes, but luckily I didn’t see anyone just go up and place a surprise snake around someone’s neck. So when I got home and my friend Jenny jokingly texted “Any snake necklaces?” I was able to breathe a sigh of relief and tell her no!
In the tiny streets leading off of the main square are souqs (tiny shopping areas) specializing in various items. There’s a souq for shoes, a souq for carpets, a souq for spices, and so on. And the best part? Snakes aren’t allowed in the souqs! So between that and our Aziiz shield we were able to explore the dark, windy streets in relative peace.
We started with the food souqs.
My favorite is the Souq Ablueh, a small souq dedicated to olives! The olives in Morocco are so wonderful, you have to try them!
Then we moved to shops selling longer-lasting items. With the winding lanes it would be easy to get lost, and we were glad to have Aziiz with us!
The souqs are much less crowded in the mornings, so it’s a great time to go if you want to avoid being overwhelmed by crowds.
For most things you want to buy, you need to barter. A good rule of thumb is to first decide what you want to spend on the item. Your first offer should be about 1/3 of that amount, regardless of the initial price the shop owner quotes. Then, if you can’t agree on a price after a few back-and-forths, walk away. If the shop owner comes after you and agrees to your price, then that’s great. If he doesn’t, then that means your offered price was too low and you should be prepared to offer more at the next shop if you still want a similar item.
The downside to shopping with a guide is you will likely end up having to pay more, because the shop owner needs to include the guide’s commission in the final price. So ideally you would shop without one, however with the maze of stores and the increase of people approaching your guide-less group, you may decide it’s worth it to shop with a guide after all.
When it was time to head back to the hotel, we could have taken a taxi…
But we decided a horse-drawn carriage would be a little bit more fun!
I’m so glad we had Aziiz to orient us to Marrakech, and I can’t recommend him enough! If you’d like to book him he can be reached at email@example.com.
And for those of you wondering how conservatively you need to dress, women do not need to cover their heads. However I do recommend both men and women cover their shoulders and knees whenever out and about in Morocco. You will see tourists walking around in less, especially in Marrakech, so it’s not absolutely necessary, however it is a sign of respect for older, more traditional Moroccans. In fact, according to a guidebook I read, if you don’t cover up “some people will be embarrassed for you and the family that raised you,” which made me laugh. I will not bring (more) shame onto my family!
And if you escape the main cities into the desert, like we did here, you should definitely cover your shoulders and knees. I don’t necessarily think people there are more conservative (although they may be) but, with less tourists in the desert, you just really don’t see much skin, and so you would stand out in a negative way.
Related to covering up, you should bring a massive amount of sunscreen with you. We practically bathed in it. The major hotels will have some you can purchase, but you’ll get a minuscule tube for about $30 so it’s much more cost effective to bring your own.
For footwear, while wandering around you will walk through more disgusting things than you can find on a New York subway track. So you should wear sandals that are comfortable enough where you can walk for hours, and cheap enough where you can throw them away at the end of your trip. I recommend you get these. They’re less than $16, so comfortable, and don’t look too cheap (because I know you want to look good in photographs)!
But enough about clothes. We left the souqs hot, dirty and exhausted, and ready to put on our bikinis and jump right back into this pool. And that’s where we stayed, until our next Moroccan adventure…