What you should know when traveling to Morocco
We’ve had a few friends ask us about our Morocco trip last spring, wanting to know which cities to visit and where to stay. Our notes have been forwarded several times via email, so I thought it was about time to put it in a blog post. Morocco is pretty adventurous, so keep in mind we wanted to try to add some luxurious touches to our trip so we could take a break and relax while on vacation, while keeping it boutique and authentic.
Marrakech: “The moment you arrive in Marrakesh, you’ll get the distinct feeling you’ve left something behind – a toothbrush or socks, maybe? But no, what you’ll be missing in Marrakesh is predictability and all sense of direction. Never mind: you’re better off without them here. Start at action-packed Djemaa el-Fna and head north into Marrakesh’s maze of souqs, where Berber tribes once traded slaves, gold, ivory and leather, and where modern tourists scour people-packed alleys for carpet bargains and babouches. If you look carefully, you’ll also spot a number of creative new boutiques and galleries. They signify the evolving face of the medina as a new generation of craftsmen and artists try to connect the city’s hankering for modernity with its traditional craft heritage”—Lonely Planet
We’d also like to add that Marrakech is kinda like the New York of Morocco. They are accostomed to tourists and westerners visiting the city, so be sure to be on your best American behavior. Open up your heart and mind, listen, learn and absorb the flavors of the city and people.
Where we stayed: We stayed at El Fenn and LOVED it! You must, must, must, stay here. El Fenn means “The Artist” The beautiful hidden Riad was founded by Richard Branson’s daughter. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. The curation of the rooms and gardens are full of color and Moroccan heritage. The food is authentic, and the staff are all so kind and helpful. Follow their instagram to try and absorb the experience. We can’t say enough good things about El Fenn. To feel as though you are a guest in a home, there are simple lock latches on your door for privacy. There are also guards at the riad’s entrance, and we always felt safe. We loved wandering the halls, dipping in the pool, drinking mint tea and saying hello to the roaming tortoises in the courtyard.
A must: We asked for their tour guide, who gave us a 4 hour tour who was FANTASTIC. We just asked El Fenn to set it up for us, and time, and we just met the guide in their lobby. He will take you through the winding streets of the medina and the market (we saw LOTS of tourists who were scared and lost and didn’t know where to go…so it’s really nice having a guide to show you everything and lead the way. He took us to a bunch of museums, palaces and landmarks, so keep some extra money on you for admission (the extra landmarks are not mandatory and are not included in the tour, but you really should take the time to see them and pay the small entrance fee, they are gorgeous and worth it). He will also take you on a rug buying experience which is amazing, you don’t have to buy a rug, but we ended up doing so 🙂 Also – we thought we’d save money on taking the rugs with us via carry ons instead of mailing that back home which was a mistake, its much better to just have them ship it back for you and pay the fee (about $90…instead of $30 every time we had to check in our baggage. We went to Sevilla then London after Morocco before going back to Los Angeles and we bought two rugs. So that came to $60 x 2 more cities which equaled $120 plus a lot of lugging around two extremely heavy rugs! Oops.)
We ate: Lots of Tajine! At our hotel on the roof. It was delicious and it was really nice to be able to enjoy the riad, the view, and the prayers from the mosques in the evening.
What to wear: Cover up. Make sure you bring a scarf to cover your shoulders, I also never showed my knees, just out of respect. I saw other tourists in shorts but I’d rather cover up just to seem less like a tourist.
Stay away from monkey and snake charmers: If you wander to the djemaa el fna by yourselves without a guide, STAY AWAY from the monkey and snake charmers. They are rough, and they are considered scam artists by the locals. One of the monkey charmers grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go and threw a rather large monkey on my arm (they usually then demand money) but a local starting yelling at him to leave me alone. Don’t look at them, don’t go near them haha. Just admire them from afar, or grab a mint tea at one of the restaurants. I laugh about this now. At the time I was freaked out by the giant monkey (who looked rather bored to tell you the truth to be thrown onto yet another squealing tourist).
The “tooth” guy in Djemaa-El-Fna and story tellers: When you see an old man selling human teeth on a little pop up card table at Djemaa-El-Fna, its more of a side show joke. It’s not real, he isn’t really selling teeth for people to use. Story tellers however are very popular, locals love to listen to stories told down from generation to generation. You can read more about them here.
Day or over night trips from Marrakech: We wanted to go to the Atlas Mountains to see the Berber tribes which is just outside Marrakech but we didn’t make it given our timeline. If we could do it again, we would have stayed at the Kasbah Tamadot (owned by Richard Branson) I think you can also get a guide and ride a camel in the Atlas Mountains….don’t bother doing a camel tour in Marrakech, its really touristy and really Camels are meant for the Sahara which is 4 hours south of Marrakech.
Note on the hotels: These hotels are fancy and prob a bit more money…but they are boutique, and give back to the people of Morocco, they are also environmentally conscience and support many Moroccan charities. There is quite a bit of poverty in rural Morocco, so it’s nice staying in a place that is committed to the sustainable development of the local tourism industry and that they recognize responsibility towards the environment and the local community.
Other cities to visit in Morocco: I had a friend stay at Chefchaouen which is near Tangier and she loved it….Chefchaouen is notable as a totally blue city and is more calm and country and less of a big city. Marrakech is much more lively and colorful with markets and street vendors. I heard Tangier is not as relaxing being a port city, however its frustrating because you can’t believe the news or media so really the only way to know for sure is to experience yourself. So let me know how you like Tangier when you go!
Airport transportation: Get a driver from the airport to the hotel! If you stay at El Fenn, book a driver to pick you up at the airport, and drop you off at the hotel….again we saw SO MANY people tired and lost not being able to find their hotels when they arrived (there are no street signs). In general, ask that your hotel pick you up from the airport to take you to the door of your hotel to avoid getting lost.
Landing at the airport: Every non-Moroccan visitor to Morocco requires a current passport, valid for at least 6 months from the date of entry and with a minimum of two blank pages. Also, bring a pen to fill out your customs form. For some reason there were no pens! So we had to wait for quite a while in the airport to share a single pen with a bunch of passengers. We read articles before we made the trip that said the airport was scary…it totally wasn’t scary, just have your valid passport ready and you’ll be fine. Also, don’t bring in alcohol or drugs.
How long should you stay: We would recommend 2 nights in Marrakech and 1 night in the Atlas mountains, before jetting off to another location. We went to Sevilla, Spain from Marrakech which is totally recommended since their histories and architecture intertwine.
Here is our recommended itinerary for Marrakech:
- Day one, Land in Marrakech, and have El Fenn’s driver pick you up at the airport and take you back to the riad (note: we wrote El Fenn before we even went on our trip to schedule their driver pick us up. Just make sure you do this before your trip), have dinner at sunset and take a dip in the pool with a mint cocktail before heading to bed. If you have an earlier flight and have a full day ahead of you, we recommend a tajine cooking class at La Maison Arabe.
- Day two, Meet your tour guide in the lobby and embark on a 4 hour tour through the Djemaa-El-Fna and Medina. Shop for a rug. Visit Bahia Palace. Visit the Ben Youssef Medersa, an Islamic school attached to the Ben Youssef Mosque, is home to some of the most beautiful art and architecture in Marrakesh. Return to your hotel, take a shower, eat on the roof listening to prayers from mosques around the city.
- Day three, Have El Fenn transport you to the Atlas Mountains and stay at Kasbah Tamadot. Schedule a tour to visit the Berber tribes, have tea, and enjoy a camel ride. Enjoy dinner back at your hotel.
- Day four, plan to have Kasbah Tamadot‘s driver take you back to the airport for your next adventure. Be sure to exchange all your dirham back into dollars or your next location’s currency.
How long is the flight to Seville, Spain from Marrakech? Only 1.25 hours!
Money: The Moroccan dirham. Morocco is very affordable therefore shop as much as you can and have it shipped home! We just got Moroccan money from an ATM on the street walking around and make sure you exchange all your Moroccan money before you leave Morocco…we still have a bunch of Moroccan money we don’t know what to do with now. We’ll probably mail it back to El Fenn to give as a tip to their wonderful staff. If you do have extra change before you leave the country, leave it as a tip. If you just have too much to leave as a tip, we recommend exchanging it before you leave Morocco. By the time we got to London we didn’t have enough dirham for the money exchange to even make the transaction (about $40 worth of dirham we couldn’t exchange). There are places to exchange your money back at the Moroccan airport before you leave.
Poverty: I’m adding this just as a warning to those who might not travel very often. You can read more about it here. You will see people living in the streets. You will see pretty intense working conditions. You will see horses that are too skinny (don’t do a carriage ride). But this is the reality of travel, the world progresses at different paces. If you want to give back to the community of Morocco, I really love this organization Project Soar which helps kids stay in school, specifically empowering young women.
Religion: Muslims account for about 99% of Morocco’s population, so it’s no surprise that its practices and philosophy dictate most aspects of daily life. The Arabic word “Islam” literally means “submission to God”. We went to Morocco during Ramadan. It was peaceful. It was beautiful. People prayed 5 times a day filling the city streets. We listened to the singing prayer echoing from various mosques all over the city. Overall, Muslims are told to be the best Muslim they can be during Ramadan, to be kind, peaceful, giving. It breaks my heart when I hear that so many American’s are fearing Muslims due to terrorist attacks. These generalizations must be stopped, people must love one another, protect each other, and embrace cultural differences and accept everyone’s religious beliefs and backgrounds. Our differences are what make this world so beautiful. If you are, or know, an American who doesn’t understand Islam, go to Morocco with an open heart and mind. We love all religions and beliefs. You could say humanity and traveling is our religion 😉
Overall: We LOVED Morocco and the people were really friendly. Make sure you say hello to everyone and don’t ignore them, but just keep walking and say no thank you if you don’t want to engage in bartering. We actually felt bad for not saying “no thank you” as if they weren’t there…we quickly learned that was rude. So…”Hello, it’s beautiful, no thank you or not today” was our new mantra. Staying at El Fenn and their tour guide was our highlight, and we fell in love with the the culture and color of the city, but I also think we were paired up with a positive experience and people to make our stay knowledgable and enjoyable.
Food for thought: We 100% believe that travel is the best education you can give yourself, and your family. Travel let’s you see the truth from your own experiences. You cannot believe what you read online. You cannot believe the news or publications. We also believe that “humanity” is the religion of travelers. Embrace the beautiful people you meet on your adventures, learn from their culture and understand no matter the color of one’s skin or god, we all want peace, friends and family. It’s equally as important to share that you are a kind, understanding, embracing-of-all-cultures, listening American in order to break down our own stereotypes of arrogance (this is something Americans will struggle with all over the globe).