The low, red walls that surround the thousand year old Medina of Marrakesh seem to protect the city from time above all else. Within these ramparts you will find relatively few monumental structures, and a surprising abundance of foreign tourists, but there remains a certain magic in this city of mosques and markets, of sufis and storytellers. Few cities in the world can simultaneously be so nearly what you have always imagined them to be while still managing to surprise you.
Of course, everyone comes to Marrakesh having heard tales of its network of souqs, the largest of its kind in Morocco, and those who arrive with the sole aim of shopping will not leave disappointed. Though the central souq is largely crammed with tourist shops, smaller souqs and alleys lead off through a dizzying series of covered lanes that open onto bazaars and small squares secreted away in the dark recesses of the city. Magnificent carpets, hand dyed scarves and some of the finest metal- and leather-work in the world are all on offer here, spilling out of tiny store fronts.
Wander farther still and Marrakesh reveals another face. Alleys lead from the busy commercial souqs into various residential districts, some silent and still, others dusty and anxious. Smoke streams from open grills and steam rises in great billows as the lids are lifted from slow-cooking tajines. The call to prayer sounds and the sun begins to set, painting the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas a pale pink. At dusk, the spare symmetry of the 11th century Koutoubia minaret is cast in outline against the sky.
Around this time the Djemma el Fna—the expansive, asymmetrical space at Marrakesh’s heart—really comes to life. Filled by day with the whine of snake-charmers’ pipes, by sundown it fills with dozens of open-air restaurants, sending a massive cloud of smoke into the night sky to obscure the darkened outlines of the surrounding rooftops of the medina. Basic Marrakshi staples like cous cous and cups of steamed snails serve both locals and tourists alike, while stalls serving whole lamb’s head (brains included) attract a more adventurous clientele. On chilly winter nights, when warm daytime temperatures drop precipitously after sundown, vats of rich spice tea, redolent of cloves, ginger, cardamom and fennel, accompany dense, nutty sweets at a row of stands next to the food stalls.
In the darker corners of the Djemma el Fna, away from the calls of food purveyors all attempting to attract customers with near-identical menus, clusters of people stand in circles, a tantalizing barrier to the storytellers and acrobats at their centers. Tourists mill about, entranced though understanding little, peaking over the heads of Marrakshis gathered to hear the same tales their parents and grandparents might have heard in this exact spot. These traditions, unchanged for centuries, yet constantly evolving, are the reason for the square’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, preserving one of the world’s richest, living oral traditions.
Like the walls of the medina itself, the dense circles of people preserve something uniquely Marrakshi, protect it from time without freezing it into a museum piece. Marrakesh has always been a city of merchants and travelers, and today is no different. No matter how much you may buy, Marrakesh is not a city to be seen or owned. It is a city to be lived.
LOOK TIPS: Don’t go to Marrakesh with too many plans—this is a city for wandering, not sight-seeing. Things can heat up considerably in summer, so winter is probably the best time for walking comfortably, and while temperatures in the day can often be extremely comfortable in the high 60s F, evenings often get cold, so bring a sweater.
As for shopping, understand that bartering is not just acceptable in the souqs, it is expected. Do not be surprised when invited to sit down for a cup of tea while doing your shopping—this is a standard gesture of hospitality and one to be enjoyed. It is probably best to accept only if seriously considering a purchase. Sitting down to tea sends the message that you’re settling in for the long haul. That said, never feel pressured to purchase if you aren’t happy with the price. Always begin bartering with a price lower than what you would be willing to pay. Know that you will never convince someone to sell you something at a loss. Be polite but firm and above all, enjoy yourself.