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3 Days in Marrakech: Itinerary for a Perfect Introduction to Morocco

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Marrakech is a shock to every sense you have. The loud warblings of the call to prayer and the persistent beckonings of the men who run shops in the souks constantly strike your ears. The pungent smell of incenses cover up a lingering smell of leather bags and the donkeys who dutifully pull carts through the medina day and night. Artfully stacked olives almost beg you to take one away and destroy the whole pile. The leather looks so soft you can’t help but reach out and touch it. Marrakech is, to put it lightly, a place you experience with every one of your senses.

It’s a city that will confuse you, frustrate you, and delight you. It’s a city of highs and lows, and I think 3 days in Marrakech is perfect to get a sense of its energy, see what you need to see, and get out before the chaos consumes you.

Don’t let Instagram lie to you – Morocco is intense. While Marrakech is quite safe, traveling there requires being “on” all the time, your attention being pulled in several directions at once. I found Marrakech tiring but ultimately worth all the memories; however, it’s certainly not all floaty dresses and ornate walls like the Instagram girls would have you believe.

If you just have 3 days in Morocco, I’d advise spending them all in Marrakech with one or two half-day outing to tick off a bucket list item — whether that’s a hot air balloon or a camel ride through the desert at sunset. If you have a longer time allocated for Morocco, I’d recommend doing a 3-day Sahara Tour and then continuing onto Fes and Chefchaouen, or wherever else is on your Morocco itinerary.

3 Days in Marrakech: Day One

Get started in Marrakech by checking into your riad and exploring the city’s most central sights, stopping for lunch and mint tea along the way when your feet get tired or the midday heat gets to be too much if you’re traveling in the warmer months. Try to get lunch somewhere with a rooftop view over the medina! Finish your evening with a sunset camel ride for an amazing first day in Marrakech.

Check into your riad

One of the best things about visiting Marrakech is that the price to quality ratio is in your favor. A nice but not fancy riad will cost a mere $20 or $25 a night, great for travelers on a budget (as I was at the time of my visit).

However, if you’re visiting Marrakech with a bit more money to spend, you’ll be spoiled for choice after beautiful choice. A few of the most Instagram-famous riads are extremely pricy, such as Riad Yasmine and La Mamounia. However, you really don’t need to pay that much to have a beautiful stay.

Typical of a riad in Marrakech

Here are my riad recommendations broken down by budget. For reference, I view budget as under $50 per night for a private room, mid-range as $50-100 per night, and luxury as $200+ per night. Prices generally follow these lines but may go up or down due on time of year, availability, etc.

Budget: Nondescript on the outside, Riad Dar Maria is gorgeous and cozy on the inside. Updated design makes the indoor courtyard a lovely place to relax, and comfortable private rooms with AC offer excellent value for the price. The riad is family-run and treats you like one of their own. Highly recommended by fellow travelers with a 9.5 average rating on Booking.com. Click here to see lowest prices and current availability.

Mid-range: The lovely Riad Enchanté lives up to its name – it will truly delight and enchant you. With stunning tilework, a rooftop terrace (with jacuzzi!), large rooms with AC, and amazing attention to detail (check out those lovely wooden doors), you’ll probably never want to leave this homey, delightful riad. Click here to see lowest prices and current availability.

Luxury: For five-star comfort at rather affordable prices (around $250 a night) you can’t do much better than Villa Lavande, a traditional riad with a comfortable in-house hammam, a gorgeous pool, air conditioning (a must if you travel in summer), and helpful staff. Cooking lessons are available on-site in case you fancy learning how to make your own tajine.. or you can simply eat at the in-house restaurant beloved by guests. It’s located in the medina but away from the hustle and bustle, the best of both worlds. Click here to see lowest prices and current availability.

Note: Morocco is notorious for scams and nowhere are scams more ubiquitous than at the airport. I highly recommend pre-booking a private transfer from the airport for about $15 USD. It is inexpensive and they will help you find your riad, which is easier said than done given that Google Maps is virtually useless in the medinas of Marrakech (following my blue dot led me into a brick wall so many times that I even wrote a post all about walking in Morocco). Click to prebook your transfer.

Meander over to Koutoubia Mosque

Unfortunately, unlike in other Muslim-majority countries I’ve been to like Turkey, Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Albania, and Kosovo, non-Muslims are not permitted to enter mosques in Morocco. And honestly, given the way that Instagram has kind of ruined Morocco, I don’t really blame them for excluding non-Muslims from the mosques. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t admire the gorgeous mosque from the outside.

Built at the height of the Islamic Golden Age, the wonderfully ornate Koutoubia Mosque is an architectural achievement, especially considering its age (nearly a millennium old). Originally, there was a different mosque in its place that preceded the current one, but it was leveled because it was found that it wasn’t properly aligned with Mecca.

The tallest structure in Marrakech

After Koutoubia Mosque was built, hundreds of booksellers gathered arounds its base – giving the mosque its name as “koutoubia” means booksellers in Arabic. The height of the minaret, 69 meters high, is quite an achievement as well, making it the tallest building in Marrakech. Due to an ancient law that nothing can be taller than a palm tree, the Koutoubia mosque continues to stick out as an exception to the rule, an important monument, and a much-needed point of reference in the winding alleyways of the medina.

Gawk in awe (and distaste) at Jemaa el-Fnaa

Jemaa el-Fnaa is where you’ll find the best and worst of Marrakech. It’s a must-visit as its been hailed as a Masterpiece of World Heritage by UNESCO since 2001, and the folks at UNESCO are rarely wrong. You’ll find the freshest, most delicious orange juice at a mere 50 cents (5 dirhams) a cup, the lively sizzle of grilling meat… and you’ll also find snake charmers who have abusively de-fanged their cobras, monkeys who have been snatched from the wild in order to pay tricks, and ladies grabbing your hand to try to give you a henna tattoo at an exorbitant price.

To save yourself a headache, do not take any photos of the snake charmers, henna ladies, etc. and do not allow anyone to hand you their monkey or put any henna on you as you undoubtedly will be hounded to pay. Just ignore or say no to people and move on (welcome to Morocco).

I don’t mean to dissuade you from visiting Jemaa el-Fnaa; I just want you to know what to expect. It’s the center of the medina, so it really is the perfect place to start exploring the wonderful yet utterly chaotic city that is Marrakech. Its many food stalls and grills constantly operate and offer freshly grilled kebabs – follow my rule of thumb to look for locals queuing up, as I’ve always found that the best food to be had is right where you can see the locals eating.

On the busy streets leading up to Jemaa el-Fnaa, you can find horse-drawn carriages who are happy to take you around for a short ride around Marrakech. Be sure to bargain to get a fair price as they will certainly inflate the rates. While I don’t suggest shopping in Jemaa el-Fna proper, and saving your shopping for the souks just beyond it, you can’t deny the chaotic main square has an ambiance like no other. While this time, you’ll visit by day, I highly recommend also coming back at night to see the square in an entirely new light.

Jemaa el Fnaa at night

Shop in the souks

Let’s be real: if you didn’t come to Morocco to shop (or stunt for the ‘gram) why did you even come at all? I had mixed feelings about my 3 days in Marrakech but there is one thing I cannot deny: the shopping is unreal. Unfortunately I visited Morocco when I was still a digital nomad and had no proper home so I wasn’t able to buy much. However, if you’re visiting Marrakech and then returning home after… seriously, bring a spare suitcase because the shopping here is amazing.

So, what exactly are the souks? Put simply, souks are North African marketplaces and bazaars that sell a variety of good. In the case of Marrakech, the souks are entire streets built like mazes that stretch in every direction and are filled with shops of all types and sizes, primarily selling leather accessories, clothing, jewelry, and home decor goods. Due to the nature of the souks, prices vary wildly and you are expected to haggle (you’ll be considered a fool if you don’t). Luckily, no matter where you shop, generally the goods are at least of decent quality and they are often handmade in nearby factories and shops rather than being sent in from China as in much of the world.

Traditional Moroccan lamps are gorgeous!

 

…but personally, I’m obsessed with Moroccan plates

Be aware that accepting tea in a shop will likely embolden the vendor to demand you make a purchase (unlike the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul where accepting a cup of tea is much less fraught). Always remember that you are under no obligation to pay for an item if you do not like the price, and feel free to walk away. In fact, walking away will often get you the best price you can get. Don’t show too much enthusiasm (but don’t be rude) and mention that you are shopping around if you want to get the best price. All vendors speak English as well as a variety of other languages very fluently so language barriers, for better or worse, are not an excuse to not buy!

A few things I recommend buying, if you’re interested: leather bags, leather shoes, leather poofs (they come un-filled so they are easy to transport), plates, bowls, tajines, and lamps. The clothing is rather gimmicky so it’s not my style. If you’re a frequent traveler like I am with little space in your bag, I’d settle on just spices and the delicious, delicious olives that can be had for about two dollars per kilo.

Olives are always a good idea.

End the day with a sunset camel ride

The ethics of using animals in tourism is something that concerns me a lot. It’s complicated: riding elephants is never okay (mostly due to the horrors they endure to become domesticated enough to tolerate a human on its back) yet riding horses is fine. So where exactly does riding a camel fall into that?

I rode camels through the Sahara Desert in 2016 and loved my experience without really thinking much of it. However, writing this in 2018, the landscape of ethical animal tourism has changed and thankfully we are paying much more attention to animal welfare these days. Before I could recommend whether or not you should do a camel ride, I looked into it and did some research.

This article by Bemused Backpacker has an excellent breakdown of the ethics of camel riding and comes to a similar conclusion as riding horses: they require adequate food, water, shelter, access to medical care when necessary, and freedom from abuse or overwork. If an operator can provide all that, there is nothing unethical about riding camels (this article also has great insight into camel riding in Morocco specifically, and mentions an important note that you should always pay a fair price for your camel ride as not paying enough may lead to camels not being fed or cared for properly).

Look for happy faces like this guy’s

I did some research into reputable companies and while I can’t find any sort of animal welfare certification system in Morocco, this sunset camel tour has excellent ratings with several reviewers remarking that the camels seemed well-looked after, and the price is fair enough to ensure the animal welfare without being outrageous for the consumer. Check availability, ratings, and price here. And if you use them, please comment back with your feedback!

Please be aware that with 3 days in Marrakech, you can’t actually get out to the proper dunes (those are about a two days’ drive west to the Sahara) but rather the Palm Grove, which is an oasis outside of Marrakech. If you do have enough time for a Sahara desert tour because you’re planning to continue your trip beyond Marrakech, please read my review of my Sahara desert tour as I had a really unpleasant experience with my guides I don’t want anyone to experience.

3 Days in Marrakech: Day Two

Normally, I would recommend you start with the Ben Youssef Madrassa, which is utterly beautiful and I’m sure you’ve seen it plastered over Instagram for years now. The tilework is simply out of this world. Since mosques are closed to non-Muslims, madrassas (Islamic schools) and palaces are the only places you can really see Islamic tilework. Unfortunately, the Ben Youssef Madrassa is closed from now (2018) until at least 2020 to be renovated and preserved for future generations of travelers to enjoy.

So, while I loved visiting Ben Youssef when I visited Marrakech in 2016, here’s what I’d recommend instead. Don’t worry – you’ll still find plenty of gorgeous tilework to suit your fancy (and get your beloved Instagram shots). Start with a few of the most ornate relics of Marrakech’s historic legacy, like the Badi Palace and the Bahia Palace, check out the old Jewish cemetary, and pay your respects at the Saadian tombs.

Gorgeous, but closed for repair work 🙁

El Badi Palace (Palais Badii)

I didn’t personally visit when I went to Morocco but I was looking for a suitable replacement for Ben Youssef Madrassa and I think this comes close to the mix of history and photographability that Ben Youssef offers.

El Badi Palace literally translates to “the incomparable palace.” Perhaps that was true at the time, but a lot has happened in the nearly five centuries since its construction. It’s a bit worse for wear, but at the same time, you can see spots of the former beauty of this ruined palace. It took 15 years to build, demonstrating the best craftsmanship of the Saadian era. At the height of its grandeur, the palace had 360 rooms, decorated to the nines with handcrafted furniture, as well as a courtyard complex with a pool. Rich with gold, onyx, Italian marble, and exquisite tilework, the Palace was an ostentatious display of the Saadians wealth.

The ruins of El Badi, which are still lovely in spots on the inside

While much of the original palace is in a state of disrepair, there are still several gorgeously preserved parts of the palace with excellent tile mosaics, ornate stained glass windows, and beautiful courtyards – so there is still plenty to photograph and visit, all while you imagine the former beauty of it in its heyday.

Marvel at Bahia Palace

Whereas the El Badi Palace is a bit worse for wear after centuries of disuse, Bahia Palace is in remarkable condition. Built in the second half of the 19th century, Bahia Palace is arguably the most well-preserved historic monument in Marrakech, and its simple color scheme of white, wood and understated tilework is gorgeous.

The stunning Bahia Palace

It’s a glorious palace, one that was built over the course of 14 years, across an area of two acres, sporting around 150 rooms. To say that it’s beautiful would be doing it an injustice: it’s mindblowing. Its many ornaments, lavishly-decorated doors, breathtaking fireplaces, floors and ceilings of the finest wood: every single detail adds up together to achieve something that is truly spectacular. Visiting Bahia Palace is an unforgettable experience for any visitor and a must-do whether you have 24 hours or three days in Marrakech.

Visit the Jewish Cemetery

While today, Morocco is synonymous with its majority Muslim population, it has historically been an important site for Jews for centuries. You can see that history at the Jewish Cemetary nearby Bahia Palace, but its simplicity and bareness will be quite a contrast to the ornateness of Bahia Palace.

The Jewish Cemetary in Marrakech is the largest of its kind in Morocco and has been in continual use since the 16th century. Today, the Jewish population of Marrakech is quite small – a mere 200 or so Jews – as much of Morocco’s Jewish population moved after the founding of Israel. In fact, Moroccan Jews make up the second largest Jewish community, numbering about 500,000 in a country of around 9 million.

The Jewish cemetery in central Marrakech

Despite the mass exodus of Moroccan Jews since the founding of Israel, the area around Marrakech is still important to Jewish history, with several important Jewish pilgrimage sites located in the outskirts. While Morocco’s population is 99% Muslim, the country has done an excellent job of protecting its Jewish citizens and Jewish history.

After the Jews were expelled from Spain, many Sephardic Jews fled to nearby Morocco by crossing the straight of Gibraltar, and subsequently they became integrated into Moroccan society. During World War II, King Mohammed V protected the Moroccan Jews from being shipped to Europe to be exterminated in the Holocaust, defying Hitler’s orders by saying “in Morocco we don’t have Jews, we only have Moroccan citizens.”

This is emblematic of the religious tolerance that Morocco has exhibited for centuries, proudly 99% Muslim yet allowing Christian, Jewish, and to a lesser extent Baha’i communities to maintain places of worship.

Explore the Saadian Tombs

The Saadian dynasty was an important part of Moroccan history, when Morocco flourished and grew as an important power: hence, their presence in much of the architecture and monuments of modern-day Marrakech. The tombs of the Saadian dynasty, built by Sultan Al Mansour in the 16th century, contain marvelous tombs and mausoleums built to commemorate his family.

His successors have since walled off the Saadian Tombs, but they’re still accessible by a small passage through the Kasbah mosque. The Sultan’s own tomb is quite intricate and ornate, and it’s surrounded by the tombs of his favorite counselors and princes. Still, even the Sultan’s resting grounds is shadowed by his mother’s mausoleum. It’s a resting place made for maximum splendor, truly fit for a queen, with many plaques and carvings offering poetic blessings.

Maroc Marrakech Saadiens Luc Viatour 2

Photo credit: Luc Viatour, CC-BY-SA-3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

3 Days in Marrakech: Day Three

Make the most of your last day in Marrakech by indulging in a bucket-list must, whether it’s a sunrise hot air balloon ride or a spa day at one of Morocco’s many hammams – or both! Do some last minute sightseeing in the Jardin Majorelle, and then finish up with some souvenir shopping for things you missed — you don’t want to have buyers’ remorse after you leave Morocco, after all.

Wake up early for a hot air balloon ride over the desert

If you have the time and the funds for a hot air balloon ride in Morocco, I think it’s the best way to cap off three days in Marrakech. I wasn’t able to afford it when I visited Morocco two years ago, fresh off of quitting my job to start this blog, but I rode a hot air balloon in Cappadocia in Turkey and just. wow. It’s one of the most magical experiences I can remember.

Worth the alarm at an ungodly hour

As when I went with Voyager Balloons in Cappadocia, it’s always crucial to pick a reputable hot air balloon company with pilots with thousands of hours of flight time under their belt. Ciel d’Africa is the top-rated balloon operator in Morocco, so they’re who I would choose if I went. They offer a combined tour of a sunrise hot air balloon plus camel ride in case you didn’t get a chance to do a camel ride earlier. Check out ratings, reviews, and availability here.

The wake up call is excruciatingly early – before 5 AM – so you’ll want to take it easy the rest of the day if you opt for a balloon ride.

Relax in Jardin Majorelle

After a hot air balloon ride, you’ll probably be a bit beat from the early morning wake-up and excitement. And what better way to relax than in one of Marrakech’s most gorgeous gardens?

Amidst all the hustle and bustle of the busy streets of Marrakech lies the gorgeous Jardin Majorelle. It’s a quiet and calm reprieve that’s surrounded by a chaotic and active lifestyle, so this garden is truly an oasis in the desert. It was originally created by Art Deco painter Jacques Majorelle – who ended being more known for the garden rather than his paintings – around 1920, and it was later bought and renovated by fashion designer Yves St. Laurent.

Majorelle blue

 

Full of cacti and flowers

While the garden itself is lovely, with cacti and gorgeous blossoming flowers, it’s most famous for the hue of its walls, an intensely vibrant cobalt blue that’s now called Majorelle blue. Today, Jardin Majorelle open every day of the year, and it’s remained a visitor favorite for quite a long time. It’s one of those places where you can sit back, relax, and just enjoy the scenery.

Enjoy a traditional hammam

Hammams are common throughout North Africa and the Middle East, a tradition dating back from when private bathrooms with running water weren’t that common. Over the years, hammams became more about relaxation and socializing than getting clean.

You can’t miss trying a traditional scrub in Morocco – you’ll literally feel brand new after, as they’ll slough off roughly half a human’s worth of a dead skin. There are several kinds of hammam experiences you can have, from ultra local to ultra luxurious. I recommend going somewhere in the middle. My friend I was with in Morocco went to the spa at Riad Laârouss and found it to be a great experience, as they gave her tea when she got in and explained the whole procedure to her. I went to some random hole-in-the-wall because I was trying to save money and stumbled (naked, I should add) through the whole experience with my very rudimentary French.

The way a Moroccan scrub works is that first they use a eucalyptus-scented black soap, applying it to your whole body while you are fully nude. Don’t worry, if you’re a woman, you’ll have a female attendant, and vice versa if you’re a man. After they’ll apply argan oil and then scrub – hard – using a rough glove to exfoliate off the dead skin. You can just get a steam and scrub or finish up with a lovely massage afterwards. I recommend booking with a riad that caters to English-speaking clientele and allows you to pre-book online to avoid communication issues as I had. Book online here and get up to 20% off scrubs, massages, or both.

Did I leave anything out? What else would you recommend to see in Marrakech in 3 days?

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