Marrakech is a complicated beast. In equal amounts – intoxicating, frustrating, exhilarating, breathtaking, infuriating and magical. I loved it and hated it ten times a day but I will tell you one thing: I am going back. Marrakech will NOT break me. Strap in because this one is going to be a long one,.

Be prepared. Make sure you choose a Riad that will be your oasis. A place that shuts out all of the noise, the chaos and the insanity. You need a place to retreat to where you can feel pampered and cared for. A tranquil retreat where you can relax and unwind.

My friend and I flew from Malaga, Spain to Marrakech a week into our trip. It was a month long adventure to Andalusia and Portugal. We thought a side trip to Morocco would be great. Our trip, up until Morocco, had been spectacular. We spent a magical week exploring Malaga, Nerja and Granada.

Great food was plentiful with so many bars and restaurants, it was hard to choose . It was just all so easy in Spain. From renting a car to finding bank machines, taking ubers, buying too much linen and navigating the streets. It was smooth sailing. Then we went to Morocco.

Lesson one: Get money at the airport, use your credit cards whenever you can and keep the precious local currency for places that don’t take credit cards.

I arranged to have a driver from the riad meet us at the airport, the first smart thing I did. That was immediately followed by mistake number one. I didn’t exchange money for Moroccan Dirhams at the airport because that usually means a terrible exchange rate. How was I to know that finding a bank machine that would actually give us money would become an olympic sport. When I did find one, they charged an outrageous service fee on top of the outrageous rate of exchange.

Our riad was paid for by credit card through Expedia, but, once there everything else was to be paid in cash. We had ordered a bottle of wine one night, had massages etc and didn’t realize we couldn’t just put all that on a card. Keep that in mind and ask about it up front.

Stay at a well reviewed Riad instead of a hotel or airbnb and let them arrange an airport pickup/drop off

Riad Charme d’Oriente was truly a welcoming oasis

What is a Riad? Riads are former traditional , multi story Moroccan homes built around an inner courtyard in the Andalusian style. Most have a fountain/dipping pool in the open air courtyard and all have lots of plants, a rooftop area to take sun, eat and relax. They are much smaller than a hotel – some riads have less than 10 rooms so the service is very focused. For the cost of a night in a Motel 6, you can feel like royalty.

I had narrowed down our choice of Riads to about 4 but we both decided we would go with the one that was adults only. Don’t get me wrong, we both are mothers but our kids are grown and we have been there, done that. Our ultimate choice was the Riad Charme d’Oriente, located in the heart of the Marrakech Kasbah quarter.

The riad arranged for a driver to meet us outside of arrivals with a sign and he whisked us to an area right out outside one of the gates to the old city. There, we were met by Said, one of the amazing staff at Riad Charme d’Oriente. Said is Berber but speaks Arabic, French and very good English which we discovered is the norm. My bit of French came in very handy here on more than one occasion.

The riad is in the Medina, which is car free so there is no way to reach it by car but it’s very close to the gate. Oh, and car free doesn’t mean moped/motorcycle/donkey cart free.

our gracious host making sure everyone has everything they need

Once we got there, we were sat down, enjoyed mint tea and sweets as we were greeted by the owner, Laurence. Laurence and her husband, Alain, have owned this place for about 12 years and hail from France, near the Swiss border.

She greets all the guests every morning with kisses on the cheek, an inquiry about their plans for the day. She offers helpful tips, advice and sometimes, alternate options. Could not be a more charming, helpful host. All the staff here are wonderful.

The breakfasts were absolutely the best things we ate in Marakkech and I regret not eating dinner too

Our room was gorgeous, with robes and a beautiful bathroom, products that made the place smell like a spa and very comfortable beds. The riad, itself, is so quiet and tranquil that we barely knew there were other guests.

Our rooftop breakfast every morning started the day off. The food was delicious, a bit different every day and, again, the service was impeccable. There was always honey, nut butter, preserves, olives, tomatoes, some kind of pastry, tea, coffee, fruit, cheese and an omelette. This kept us fortified until mid afternoon – I rarely eat much when breakfast is included but here, I ate everything.

In case I’m not being clear, our time at the riad was THE highlight of our trip.


We immediately felt welcome, safe and relaxed and it was tempting to just spend the next four days inside those wonderful walls. After settling in, we set off in search of a bank machine, food and to look around. We found a bank machine but it had no desire to give us any money. Popping into a cash exchange was no help as they only exchange cash and we had nothing on us, leaving all of our euros in the safe at the riad. * see lesson #1 ^

Wear really sturdy shoes and keep your whits about you

Stepping out of the relative safety of the narrow, winding streets where our lodgings were, was quite a shock to the senses. I was kind of used to narrow, winding streets with scooters and motorbikes forcing me to jump up against the wall, so that was okay. But once you get to a busy road in the old town, there are no traffic lights or stop signs, seemingly no speed limits, few sidewalks and the ones that exist are full of holes and rocks.

Crossing the road should be deemed an olympic sport. I take gold in dodging cars, scooters, motorbikes, caleches and a variety of Mad Max style vehicles. I was comforted to see many locals also having difficulty crossing the crazy streets – it wasn’t just us.

We finally found a busy street that would lead us to the Jemaa el-Fnaa the famous outdoor market that transforms into insanity once night falls. Must be bank machines here. We tried every one on the street and finally found one that would give me some money. When my travel partner tried, it declined every card she had. She would not find a working machine the entire time. We decided to eat at a place that I knew took credit cards while we plotted our next moves.

**Oh, we were warned that if men tried to tell us that the city was closing down tomorrow for a holy day or something similar, to ignore them. Marrakech is open 24/7 365 days a year. You also should never let anyone approach you to ask if you are lost or offer to show you the way somewhere. This will always end in a demand for money. We had at least three or four guys try to tell us that we should hire them to take us on a tour because the whole city would be shut down the next day.

Don’t be too proud to book guided tours

our guided day trip was great way to kick off the stay in Marrakech

We did one tour with Said from the riad that included a “hike” – if you can call bouldering 1800 metres a hike- up into the Atlas mountains. There was stop at an all male Berber market, some shopping, ending with a visit to a traditional Berber home in the Ourika Valley.

It was a terrific adventure, we both overpaid for some stuff and the food in the Berber market was amazing. Luckily, we are both in better shape than we knew and didn’t share the fate of the older woman we watched take a tumble.. The “hike” is not for the faint of heart, scared of heights or mediocre of shape. Keep that in mind. It was challenging but well worth it. I think.

Other than that on tour, we just wandered around on our own. Thankfully, the riad was close to many wonderful sites like the Palais Bahia, El Badi Palace, the Saadian Tombs and, of course, the famous Jemma El Fna Square and the souks. Next time, I will book all the tours. Day tours of the city, a nighttime tour of Jemma El Fna, a guided shopping tour of the souks. Marrakech has humbled me.

The Secret Garden – one of the times where I went from wanting to be anywhere else to being here and swooning

A bit farther away are the Musee Yves Saint Laurent and the Jardin Majorelle, the Jardin Secret, a fabulous photography museum. If you do take a taxi, have your riad arrange it so that they can get you a decent price. Taxi haggling is unavoidable so we did not even attempt to take that route. Honestly, if there was a Marrakech without all the haggling, I would go in heartbeat.

If you want to drop some serious cash on high end pampering, the Royal Mansour Marrakech Spa is going to make you very happy but I was very content with my massage and hammam , lovingly performed by Fatima at the Riad Charme d’Oriente. Just don’t leave Morocco without experiencing a proper hammam.

Don’t get excited about the food

You won’t hear this from me very often, but the actual food we ate at the more typical local places was just okay. There isn’t a ton of variety and, unlike, say, Portugal, we had a hard time finding great food. Before you @ me for that, if I have to spend half my day searching for great food, it’s a problem. Also, our gps wasn’t working for us so finding actual addresses became impossible.

I think if I go back, I will just go full on bougie and eat at the upscale places where the locals with money eat. We had not packed for that kind of place because in Portugal and Spain, you can get great food anywhere and we were mostly at the beach and eating at local places where dressing up was not required. Mistakes were made.

I do have an extensive list of restaurants that we didn’t get to try – honestly, just getting around, getting unlost and walking everywhere, all without gps aid, was so consuming that I didn’t have the energy to find any of them. Eating is very important to me on vacation.

Apart from our delicious breakfasts, the best food we found was at a little place we stumbled upon called Restaurant Jama on Rue Riad Zitoune el Jdid. We only stopped there because it had wifi (neither of us had any cell service there) and we were thirsty but once you enter, it’s the coziest spot. It has courtyard seating, trees growing amongst the tables and delicious tagines, couscous and b’stilla. That is the only place that I can recommend that we visited. Sadly, we found it on our last day and I probably couldn’t find it again if I tried.

Jemma al Fnaa

The Jemma square at night is bananas. It is quiet all day but as soon as it gets dark

BAM

It’s absolutely crammed with outdoor food stalls, vendors, snake charmers, performers, musicians and locals who are out to eat, shop and socialize. Everyone should see it once. Just absolutely overwhelming for every sense – it was loud with all kinds of competing sounds coming at you and the smells were so intense. Let yourself just absorb this non stop barrage of colours, smells, music, yelling and give up any ideas about personal space. Surrender to the chaos.

Word of warning: the animal cruelty on display is very disconcerting so try to steer clear of snake charmers, monkey handlers etc. Don’t let anyone walk up to you and just plop a snake around your neck and then demand payment. We were fortunate to not encounter a ton of this stuff but it’s there.

this guy chased me down to pay him for taking that photo and I had zero local currency.IOU dude in blue

We only went our first night but it was amazing. Although there are tons of food stalls, we didn’t eat because we were, honestly, just too overwhelmed. There was a plan to visit stall 14 for seafood until we realized that everything is fried. After 10 days of fresh, amazing seafood in Spain, I wasn’t feeling it.

Oh, if you take a photo of anyone performing, they will run after you, quite aggressively demanding money. It’s not that I don’t think they deserve a tip for their efforts either, I just didn’t have anything to give them. He didn’t seem to care that the bank machines hated us. After a couple of these encounters, I stopped taking pictures to avoid an altercation. Next time I will take tons of cash and take a hundred photos.

Shopping

That first night, we promptly got lost in the souks. This is how we realized that neither of us had cell service or working online maps. Eventually, we found our way back to the square and from there, we could get ourselves home. I never felt physically unsafe but wandering down dark, narrow dead end streets in the dark isn’t a good time. Wandering the souks during the day was much more fun.

Neither of us bought anything there because the salespeople are very aggressive and we don’t like to barter. There was lots of side eyeing amazing stuff but I was afraid to touch anything or show interest.

I understand that bartering is the way things are done there, it’s just not something I have any desire to do. If you do like to barter, I was told to always counter offer 1/4 of the asking price. Some people said to offer as little as 10% of the asking price and go from there. My husband loves to haggle so I am waiting until I can take him with me to get the big stuff I skipped this trip. If only they understood that I would have dropped hundreds of dollars if they had just left me alone to look in peace.

Thankfully, we found some fixed price places to shop and then, shop I did! I am the proud owner of many kaftans, a white, hooded thobe and some gorgeous things with pom poms. The colourful blankets with pom poms are gorgeous, the leather is great quality and so much cheaper than here. Of course, gorgeous ceramics, metal lamps and argon oil products are everywhere.

Ensemble Artisnal at Av. Mohammed V, Marrakech is a government sponsored Co-op where all the prices are fixed. There is a lovely cafe and lots of opportunities to watch artisans at work. Heaven for those of us who find haggling a fate worse than death. We also found a tiny shop owned by a woman who had fixed prices, beautiful things and left us alone to look. She was rewarded with many purchases. Don’t ask me where that was. I know it was near the Restaurant Jama which I also doubt I could find again.

Okay, I know it sounds like I hated it and you are thinking why should I waste my time going there?
It’s what whynot that simple. I loved and hated it in equal amounts. Frustrated and hot, I would curse the place just to turn a corner and see something so delightful that I was back in love. This happened multiple times a day but every night, I was back at the Charme d’Oriente and in love again, ready to attack another day.

Next visit will be smarter

As a veteran traveller, I underestimated Marrakech. I was not adequately prepared but I will go again and these are some things I will do differently:

  1. Get money exchanged at the airport and bring more euros or US$ to exchange if I need more
  2. Book more tours. I pride myself on being able to put together amazing trips on my own. I don’t need no stinkin’ organized tours. Well, Marrakech tested me like no other place. Next time, I will take a cooking class, I’ll book a tour of the souks to shop etc
  3. I will book a driver for a day to take me to all of the museums and gardens so I don’t have to deal with cabs. There are two types of cabs there – Petit and Grand. I found it all very confusing and everyone kept warning me that I would have to haggle over price etc. I have never missed Uber more. Every guide book or Morocco website will tell you it’s easy. In my experience, it is not. We walked about 15km/day and skipped places that required a taxi.
  4. I will pack some dressy clothes and I will eat and drink in the more upscale places I had on my list. I will have smart cocktails on beautiful rooftop restaurants. I am not an alcoholic but finding a glass of wine is a chore. Even in Jordan, I had an easier time finding a boozy drink at the end of the day.
  5. I will treat my riad like a spa retreat and not feel guilty for spending more time lazing about there. I will not try to pack in as many things as usual into a day.
  6. I will get out of the city if my visit is more than 3 days. I really want to go to the fishing port of Essaouira. It seems way more laid back, it’s on the water and it’s historic centre is a Unesco listed site. It’s a 2.5 hr drive so it would make a perfect day trip.