City Travel Guide: Marrakech, From Souks to Saadian Tombs

- Heidi Atwal, London-based by way of California, is a lifestyle, music, and arts and culture writer. Her work and wanderlust have led her to all corners of the world, including a teaching stint in Barcelona, working as a fashion editor in San Francisco and covering film in Los Angeles. Heidi's writing has also appeared in SOMA Magazine, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, and on Condé Nast Digital.

The first thing that strikes you about Marrakech is the light: bright, yet soft—romantic, even—as it envelops a city bustling with whizzing scooters, street performers in the Jemaa el-Fnaa, and souk traders hollering their come hither sales pitches. At first, these competing sights and sounds produce an effect akin to sensory assault. But after a few hours settling into the natural liveliness of Marrakech, they melt into the surroundings of the enchanting North African city.

Bearing overlapping influences from Berber, Arabic, and Mediterranean cultures, Marrakech charms its visitors with its palate seducing local cuisine, beautifully handcrafted wares (including those famous rugs), art, and rich history. Where to begin when exploring the buzzy city is the question, which is why we’ve broken down some of Marrakech’s must-see sights down into a handy guide. Read on for more on how to haggle and get your tagine on like a local.

Jemaa el-Fnaa and Shopping the Souks
You can’t visit Marrakech without spending a healthy amount of time in the Jemaa el-Fnaa, the city’s main square. Admittedly overrun by tourists, as you cross its landscape proprietors will actively—and very vocally—lobby you to sample a kebab or exotic manner of savory pie at one of many food stalls. Don’t let the general mania deter your from grabbing a fresh squeezed glass of blood orange juice and a cheap and cheerful meal before heading into the souks, where hard core haggling is the game.

We were generally instructed to offer a third of the prices quoted for goods, then go no higher than half of its so called value. Otherwise, you’re basically screwing yourself out of a few Dirhams. Also, in the throes of shopping you may get lost among the Medina’s labyrinthine back alleys, filled with leather satchels, scarves, tagine ovens, pillow covers, lamps, and bright babouche slippers, but make an effort to remember from which direction you came. Overly eager groups of children offering “directions” to tourists are always nearby, but expect to be led in a few circles and having to shell out a handful of coins for the guidance.

Oh, and if you’re not dead serious about purchasing a rug, don’t even bother to start bargaining. The lengthy process usually begins with a friendly offering of mint tea (do accept as it’s culturally rude not to, with the awareness of what you’re about to embark upon), but you’ll be given an exorbitant estimate that requires tenacity to talk down. Do so successfully and you’ll be rewarded with a peerless piece of home decor with a great story behind it.

Saadian Tombs
Need a break from quibbling over prices? Not far from Jemaa el-Fnaa are the Saadian Tombs, a mausoleum where members of the Saadi Dynasty are buried. Colorful tilework and gold leafing effects catch the eye at every turn, as does the occasional stray cat wandering the grounds, and a spiky-twigged fig tree dating back thousands of years. Make sure to bring a guidebook with you or hire a guide for a proper tour to get the most out of your visit.

Jardin Majorelle and Islamic Art Museum
A mini-oasis of sorts, Jardin Majorelle (or, Majorelle Gardens) is populated with rare species of cacti, palms, and bamboo which provide shade and coolness from the day’s heat. Buildings surrounding the gardens are painted “Majorelle Blue,” a stunning shade of cobalt named for its creator, the artist Jacques Majorelle.

The pièce de résistance onsite, however, is the Islamic Art Museum, which offers insight into Berber culture through the display of extraordinary handicrafts, textiles, and art from the personal collection of Pierre Bergé and the designer Yves Saint Laurent, who spent much of his life in Morocco. Don’t miss the jewellery exhibition room, where stunning silver cuffs and intricate, heavy Berber necklaces are displayed in a darkened, faux-starlit setting.

And as you’ll inevitably “exit through the gift shop,” it’s actually worth picking up one of the Majorelle Blue-accented posters for sale. With a sepia-toned scene of Marrakech and bold typography, this simple but incredibly stylish souvenir is deserving of framing and display once you arrive home.

Where to Stay:
Near Jemaa el-Fnaa – Royal Mansour
Near Saadian Tombs – La Sultana Marrakech
Near Jardin Majorelle – Riad Noir D’Ivoire

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