In 2014 we spent a week in Morocco, visiting Marrakech near the Atlas Mountains and Essaouria on the Atlantic Coast. I had mixed emotions prior to visiting Morocco as I was nervous about visiting a Muslim country and wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of food and cleanliness. Would I need to cover my hair? How modestly should I dress? I’m so glad we went because Morocco ended up being one of our favorite places that we have visited and we would love to go back.
We flew direct from Dallas to Madrid and then took a connection on Air Iberia to Marrakech (about a 2.5 hour flight from Madrid). Customs in Marrakech wasn’t the friendliest or the most efficient but we were through it in less than hour. We changed our U.S. dollars at the airport. Morocco is a closed currency meaning that you can only change in and out of Moroccan currency within the border. You get approximately 10 dirhams for each U.S. dollar so it’s very favorable to Americans and even better for Europeans.
We stayed our first three nights inside the Medina at the Riad Kniza. My recommendation is to stay inside the Medina for 2 to 3 days which is fun but also a bit crazy and then stay another 2 to 3 days outside the Medina at a quiet, plush resort. Marrakech is still a walled city and you enter into the Medina (i.e., the city center) through gates called “Babs” that are located in several places around the perimeter. Within the Medina are the souks, the Koutobia mosque, the tanneries and the Unesco world heritage sight, Jemma al Fna plaza. The Medina is a maze of streets, alleys, crumbling structures and is jam packed with motocyclists, pedestrians, trucks, donkeys and vendors selling everything from spices to animals to car parts all mashed together. It’s gritty and chaotic and will keep you on your toes (or you will lose your toes under a motorcycle’s wheels as he screams past you in a crowded alley).
A Riad is a former home with inner courtyard that has been converted into a hotel. Most Riads are small boutiques that are family owned. Riad Kniza was ideally located near a Medina gate so it was easy to get to with our luggage (Riads located deeper in the Medina will often require that your luggage be delivered via a donkey drawn cart). It had a restaurant, swimming pool and a great rooftop patio with view of the city and mountains. Our room was very spacious with walk in closet, huge bathroom and living area. The Riad also stayed nice and cool which is important because Morocco is hot – well over 100 degrees many days.
Like many Riads, ours was located down a dusty, narrow alley and the door is just an unassuming wooden door – you think you must be at the wrong place but when you enter it’s like a secret paradise on the other side. They sat us down in a small, cool room off the courtyard and gave us mint tea and cookies as a traditional welcome treat while they checked us in. We walked around the Riad and checked out the view from the rooftop patio. The patio also had a phone and several covered seating areas so you could go up there anytime, ring for a glass of wine, water, mint tea or snacks and the staff would bring it up quickly.
After freshening up and taking some pictures, we headed out to the Jemma al Fna plaza, which is a huge square in the middle of the Medina. During the day it is filled with hawkers, orange juice stalls, snake charmers, entertaining monkeys, women painting henna (do not get henna painted on yourself here – what the women use is usually contaminated and will give you a very nasty rash or infection) and people selling everything from hats to pottery. In the evening, the food vendors come and set up over 100 individual food stalls and the place really comes alive with music and entertainment.
Much of it is strange – we noticed a large group making a lot of noise so I got closer for a look-see and it was two guys having a bare knuckled, bloody fist fight while people placed bets. No thanks. You also have to be careful about taking pictures. If a vendor or snake charmer thinks you took his/her picture, they will be on you immediately and aggressively demand money. I broke a few large bill dirhams before we went down so I would have smaller denomination coins. Typically, a vendor (like a snake charmer with cobras) wanted 20 dirhams for a few photos but I would hold up a ten dirham coin and say it was all I had and it was always accepted.
Note: We did not eat at the Jemma al Fna food stalls but walked through them where the owners will very aggressively ask you to eat at their stall or even touch your sleeve/arm and try to pull you in (especially if you take a photo of their stall and food display) but just politely and firmly say no and keep walking. The main reason we didn’t eat here was hygiene. I personally watched a few different vendors take a plate and silverware that a person had just used, dunk them once into a bucket of dingy, brownish water, wipe with an equally dingy brownish rag and then serve food on it immediately for the next person. I can be adventurous and will try new cuisine but I will not risk spending my vacation in my hotel room vomiting or having other intestinal issues. For this trip, I did a lot of research on the best places to eat in the Medina and made dinner reservations every evening.
Our first night we ate a traditional Moroccan meal at our hotel and we called it an early night. Riad Kniza has an excellent traditional Moroccan restaurant and we thoroughly enjoyed our multi course meal in their romantic dining room even though were tired and jet lag had set in.
The next day we visited the souks on our own. Many people will get a guide but I personally found that unnecessary. The souks are a complete maze but part of the fun is just wandering aimlessly. Some tips I have for the souks are: (1) haggle and then haggle some more – I found their opening price on everything to usually be 4 to 5x what you should actually pay; (2) Bring smaller bills or you may find the vendor saying he can’t break something just to try and get you to give it to him, (3) wear sunglasses so they can’t make eye contact with you but you can still look around and (4) be polite but firm. My other advice is that if you are going to another town, like Fez or Essaouria, just wait and buy things there. I promise you that you will find the exact same scarves, tagines, pottery bowls, leather goods, argan oils, linen caftans, etc…and they will be less expensive than Marrakech’s souks.
While in Marrakech we also dined at Cafe Arabe, which was my favorite for a light lunch on a hot day, serving both Moroccan and Italian food and had the best rooftop patio and huge open air bar with comfortable seating around large curved couches or at individual tables tucked away in corners or overlooking the city. Note: As a muslim country you can’t openly drink alcohol in a public square like you can in Europe but if you go inside a restaurant or hotel, you can freely drink inside or on their rooftop patios.
My favorite dinner of the entire trip was Dar Moha which is a gorgeous restaurant set in an old house with most tables situated around a lighted, tiled pool. They had musicians playing traditional music and served a huge multi-course Moroccan feast (chicken, lamb or vegetarian options) for about $50 per person, not including wine or cocktails. We sent some friends here a year later and it was their favorite meal of the entire trip. I saw the restaurant on a celebrity travel show and was so glad we went. The chef is a celebrity chef in Morocco and apparently has a television show. It books up quickly so make reservations at least 2 ot 3 weeks in advance.
We also ate at Maison MK which is tucked away inside the MK Hotel in the Medina. This place was hard to find but was very nice. It’s a set 5 course menu for dinner that ran around $70 USD per person not including wine so this was our priciest dinner and was listed as one of the best gastronomic experiences in Marrakech. Personally, I thought Dar Moha had better food and was more authentic. Also, Maison MK took forever. I have no problem with a long, leisurely meal but after 3.5 hours, I am done eating food. We actually asked to skip the last course and bring the check because it took so long and we were full. Apparently this is a no-no because the chef came out, assuming we hated the food and wanted to discuss why we were unhappy, so it got kind of awkward. We were tired and wanted to go back to our hotel as it was pushing 10:30pm, it’s a confusing and long walk back through the dark medina and we had to be up early the next day. We finally got the check and left. That being said, the best part of Maison MK is that you have your appetizers on the rooftop patio at dusk while the last call to prayer of the evening rings out from the nearby Koutobia mosque and you enjoy a good cocktail.
The next morning we had a prearranged private driver meet us at Riad Kniza and take us on the 3 hour drive to the coastal town of Essaouira where we spent the next 3 nights.