Updated: Jan 17
Morocco was for me- a culture shock- in the best of possible ways.
It’s everything you might picture. Winding, colorful souks. Stunningly gorgeous, intricately patterned, handmade mirrors, rugs, wood and leather products everywhere you look. Fragrant mint tea is served everywhere, in the most beautiful tea glasses you have ever seen. The people are kind, generous, and excited to share their beautiful country. Their pride in their culture is obvious.
As you wander along narrow, cobbled streets in Marrakech you may be struck by the juxtaposition of beautifully wealthy palace hotels like La Mamounia, in an ancient city where feral, starving cats roam the streets. The walls surrounding riads (homes built around a central open courtyard in the old style) are unimpressive and drab from the street; but walk through one of the intricately carved doorways, and you're transported to another world.
Many of these riads have been converted into hotels, and they are a beautiful and comfortable way to experience the country. On my first visit I stayed at the Riad Pachavana which I really enjoyed. The meals that we had at the riad were truly top notch. More recently my sister Noelle, stayed at the Riad Belko which she also said was great. The Riad Belko boasts a woman owner which is rare in Morocco. The owners at both riads were warm, friendly, helpful, and offered very personalized service.
The Riad Pachavana
I first traveled to Marrakech in 2012 and I wouldn't be honest if I didn't admit that Morocco has very much become something of a love affair for me. I’ve fallen head over heals in love with the food, the culture, the colors and scents, and with the artisanal products they make. The handmade Berber goods from the Atlas Mountains cannot be surpassed. Stroll into one of the Berber apothecaries and find everything from herbal medicines, to natural deodorants, soaps, oils and perfumes. The old walled Medina (a UNESCO heritage site) features red clay walls and impressive city gates which date to the 12th century.
The Palmeraie, a 54 square mile palm grove located just outside the city gates boasts tens of thousands of palm trees, and camels that can be ridden, for a price. A trip to La Mamounia to gape at the stunning construction and it's gardens is memorable. Explore some of the other gardens in the city, such as La Majorelle which was bought and restored by the designer Ives Saint Laurent and is the home of the Museum of Islamic Art.
Les Jardins Majorelle, La Mamounia & La Palmeraie
The souk or market is the largest of it's kind in Morocco, and features a truly dizzying display of goods. Duck into any unassuming doorway and get magically transported into a cavernous, glittering store with rugs or hammered metal lamps dripping from every surface.
Unlike some bazaars, souks and markets in other countries; the souk in Marrakech hasn't been taken over by faux Chinese knockoffs. If you're on the hunt for authentic, then Marrakech is definitely the place to go. The souk is loosely organized by type of good, such as metalwork, spices, rugs, etc.
Across from the Saadian Tombs is the Berber Arts Cooperative, with products made by thousands of different artisans across the region. It's well worth the visit.
Don't forget- the price is never the final price in Morocco. Haggling is part of the culture and experience, and it's an expectation amongst the locals. The first time can be a bit intimidating, but dive in and you'll be rewarded!
Marrakech is one of the busiest cities on the African continent, and as one of the most famous squares in Africa; Jemaa el-Fnaa is not to be missed. Bridging the gap between a modern, westernized city and traditional, Berber tradesmen, it offers the best of both worlds. If you're looking for a snake charmer, a monkey trainer or a story teller, then look no further. Evenings here are filled with traditional music, dancing, acrobats, delicious foods from local vendors, and of course- the odd pickpocket.
Jemaa el-Fnaa & The Souk
Ourika River Valley
Approximately 30 kilometers from Marrakech, the lush Ourika Valley is situated within the impressive Atlas Mountains. Abundant waterfalls, hikes with breathtaking views, and small Berber villages along the river make this an idyllic and unspoiled getaway. If you're lucky you may even spot a rare, endangered Barbary Macaque.
Its proximity to Marrakech make it an excellent day trip. We had a guide drive us in on a very bumpy road. Our guide was excellent and the views during much of the ride were reminiscent of Sedona, Arizona. Add in some snow capped Atlas mountains and the odd waterfall and you find yourself in a beautifully unique, geographic landscape.
The Ourika Valley
As with travel anywhere, the food is an essential part of the experience. Marrakech did not disappoint when it came to cuisine.
Some of the highlights include:
Le Marocain- La Mamounia- As with anything in La Mamounia, expect 5 star service and excellent quality food.
Terrasse des Epices- Jemaa el-Fnaa- The merguez here was particularly good, and the rooftop views of Marrakech were on point. You get a really great view of the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque from the rooftop dining.
Street Vendors in Jemaa el-Fnaa- We enjoyed excellent lamb chops and a tasty local soup with fava beans and cumin.
Zeitoun Cafe- Kasbah location by the Saadians Tombs (which are well worth a visit on their own!) They have a fantastic menu, but the msemen and mint tea were my favorite.
Dreaming of Morocco but not able to make it there yet? My sister runs this fabulous little shop of authentic Moroccan goods that she's bought straight from the artisans. Check it out at La Masion Bohemien.
Contributors: Noelle Benlolo & Albert Benlolo