A couple of weeks ago I surprised my son with a trip to Morocco. Our first stop was Marrakech. Marrakech is a vibrant and colorful city and the tourism center of Morocco. I chose Morocco because I wanted my son to have a unique cultural experience in a place very different from where we live. Morocco is an Islamic nation and while it is a very popular vacation destination for many Europeans families I don’t think it is as popular with American tourists. It also allowed us to check another continent off our travel list.
When I was in the initial planning stages for this trip, I solicited feedback from a travel Facebook group I follow. The feedback on my proposed trip was decidedly mixed. The first issue was in January 2021, when I began trip planning, Morocco was still closed to visitors due to Covid. It was set to reopen to tourists in early February. Our trip was planned for early April. I was warned in advance that Morocco closes its borders with very little advance notice so planning a visit could be risky. The second concern was that many women relayed their negative experiences traveling in Morocco. In fact, several were women adamant that visiting Morocco was one of their worst travel experiences ever. One world traveler even told me that she had visited forty-two countries and Marrakech was a place she would never go again. That sentiment was echoed by others who said it was one of the scariest places they had visited. Female travelers expressed that it was the most unsafe destination they had ever been to largely because of the unwanted attention from men and incessant cat-calling and overall harassment on the streets. I was going to be accompanied by my teenage son so I wasn’t as concerned about being a solo female traveler but safety is a legitimate concern for female tourists. The final concern in my trip planning was that our visit was to take place during Ramadan. As I mentioned earlier, Morocco is a Muslim nation so there was some concern that some of the things we wanted to do or dining options would not be open.
Still I was undeterred by the mixed reviews on my proposed trip. I felt certain it was the destination and experience I was looking to share with my son. We experienced no difficulties with the border closing unexpectedly. Morocco’s two main industries are tourism and agriculture. Because they had been closed to tourists for nearly two years we were warmly welcomed into the country. The Moroccan tourism industry suffered greatly because of Covid and they are eager to get back on their feet.
My son and I have differing opinions on the safety issue. My expectations were set early from the feedback in my early trip planning. Because this was a surprise destination for my son, however, he did not benefit from knowing what to expect in advance. Walking to dinner on our second night in Marrakech we experienced some harassment from locals who were trying to redirect us away from our destination by telling us the street was closed and that it was a mosque and we could not go there. We were instructed by our Riad to rely on the app Maps.me for walking directions as they would be reliable so we stuck to our path and we were able to avoid getting lost but it is unnerving to be approached by people in the shadows of the Medina. Because I knew to expect locals to try to lead us astray I was able to shake it off but my son does not have fond memories of the experience. His reaction to Merrakech is very similar to the commenters on my Facebook post who felt unsafe as a tourist. As for my experience as a female traveler, perhaps because I was accompanied by my son or perhaps because it was Ramadan and men are trying to be more respectful and pious I did not experience any unwanted attention.
Traveling during Ramadan did not pose any significant difficulties for us. Generally religious observers shift their schedules so they are at home during the day, work hours are shorter, and everyone takes a long break for a meal when the sun goes down. Planning the trip from abroad I did not have much certainty about what would be open or closed so having a detailed itinerary and travel plans eliminated that concern. I used Kaouki Tours Morocco based on a connection from a dear friend For us, the only impact Ramadan had on our travel plans was that dinner reservations could not be made until after 7:30 pm which is actually the norm for us.
:: Getting There
We were traveling from Europe so we took a low-budget airline from London and flew directly to Marrakech. From the United States, there are direct flights from New York, Washington, D.C. and Miami to Casablanca on Royal Air Maroc. Casablanca is a financial hub in Morocco so as a tourist you won’t want to spend much time there.
:: Where To Stay
I highly recommend staying at a riad (a large traditional house built around a central courtyard within the Medina (old city). We stayed at Le Riad Yasmine. I found it on Instagram when I was initially considering a trip to Morocco. It is so beautiful as are most of the riads in Morocco and very affordable by American standards. I have paid far more to stay in lesser quality hotels within the United States.
I usually pay my cell phone carrier’s ten dollar a day charge to have service when I’m traveling abroad because I rely on my phone for just about everything and I want to keep in touch with my family back home. I was prepared to purchase a Moroccan SIM card in the airport upon our arrival expecting that my phone would not work as well as it does in Europe but I did not need to. My phone worked great all throughout Morocco with the exception of our travels through the High Atlas Mountains where service was spotty.
The currency is the Moroccan Dirham. At the time of this post, 1,000 Dirhams is the equivalent to $100. I used an ATM in the Marrakech airport to withdraw cash for the trip since some places, especially vendors in the Medina operate on a cash-only basis. Prior to our trip I utilized money-wiring services like Western Union and TransferWise to make payments to our travel agent and vendors.
French and Arabic are the official languages spoken. I had hoped my son would utilize more of his French language skills but English is widely spoken too. I recommend learning some key phrases in Arabic.
Marrakech is a bit of a crazy place. There is a lot of action on the streets — scooters, donkeys, rickshaws, and people zigzagging through the narrow alleys. Unlike most European cities where I would usually pick up a taxi or uber from the airport, I pre-arranged our airport transfer with our riad. Our shuttle was 200 Dirham per person which was roughly $40 for the two of us. It was so worth the peace of mind of knowing we would arrive safely at our riad before we had a chance to acclimate to our new surroundings. Once you are in the city, walking and taxis are your best bet. We had a guide with a car who took us to our outing outside of the Medina to Le Jardin Marjorelle. If you are catching a taxi yourself, pre-negotiate the price before you get in.
At the recommendation of our riad, I downloaded the Maps.me app as soon as we arrived in Marrakech. It is a very reliable offline street map that was extremely helpful in navigating the narrow streets in the Medina without wifi or network. I was warned in advance to never ask for directions from anyone standing in the streets. They will tell you directions that are completely wrong or will offer to show you the way and ultimately demand compensation. Fortunately the Maps.me app proved to be very reliable and we did not get lost. If you do, step inside an establishment like a pharmacy or restaurant and ask for help or for a touk touk (small taxi) to take you where you need to go.
:: What To Wear
I was surprised by the weather in Morocco. It was rainy and cool in early April. Most days were below 70 degrees Farenheit so I was grateful I packed a denim jacket but often wished for a rain coat. Since we were coming from London we also had our winter coats which we were grateful for when we were driving through the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains.
Because Morocco is a Muslim nation I wanted to be sure to dress respectfully and in line with cultural expectations for Western women. It was probably more overwhelming to think about what to pack than it needed to be. I made sure to pack pants and skirts/dresses with hems below the knees and to wear tops that were not revealing and covered my shoulders. I did not pack tank tops, shorts, or skirts with hems above the knee. I packed a jumpsuit with spaghetti straps so I made sure to have a button front shirt to wear over it. I also carried a belt bag that I could wear close to the front of my body. You do not want to carry your money on your back while you are in the Medina.
What To Do
The highlight of our experience in Marrakech was acclimating to a very different style of life and cultural norms. Morocco is an Islamic nation so throughout the day you will hear the call to prayer which is an extraordinary experience if it is not something you are used to. The colorful mosaics and architectural design unique to that part of the world is a visual delight. The markets (souks) are vibrant, busy, and simply fascinating. Walking through and observing the goods being sold at the stalls and shopping for souvenirs is a fun afternoon activity. Finally, Moroccans are serious about gastronomy and taking the time to delight in the dining experiences is a key component to any visit to Marrakech. After spending a few days in the city, there are many day trips to consider. Essaouira is a beach town that is very popular with tourists. Hiking in the High Atlas Mountains or a trip to the Agafay Desert are also popular destinations. I highly recommend a half-day visit to experience a Berber village. We opted to make the long trip to the Sahara Desert. I’ll share more about that in a future post.
After arriving in Marrakech, we were brought to Le Riad Yasmine by our pre-arranged airport transfer. We were immediately greeted with a pot of Moroccan mint tea (my favorite!) and a plate of cookies which is customary for greeting guests. We were able to unpack and then head out to lunch at Henna Cafe, a restaurant recommended by the Facebook group. We ordered authentic Moroccan dishes prepared by women in a small kitchen. It was absolutely delicious. Despite my son’s trepidation about getting sick from food and water (we only drank bottled water) we had no issues during our travels. In fact, every meal we had in Marrakech was absolutely fantastic.
After lunch we had pre-arranged for a guide to show us around Jemaa el Fna so we could explore the souks (small shop vendors in the old city). For Dinner we had to rearrange our plans because we had reservations for a rooftop dining experience and it was raining but our new alternative at Les Jardins du Lotus was an absolutely fantastic fusion of Mexican and Moroccan Cuisine.
We started day two with a traditional Moroccan breakfast at our riad. Afterward we met our driver who droves us to Le Jardin Marjorelle (Yves Sant Laurent’s mansion and gardens) outside of the Medina. We had our driver meet us after our visit and drop us off at a souk so we could buy some souvenirs. A word of caution about the souks, be prepared for heavy bartering. It’s not something I am used to and a practice I don’t personally care for but it’s customary in the souks.
From there we walked to La Mamounia for lunch and a chance to see the exquisite architecture. More exploring through the Medina and an opportunity to relax at our fabulous riad was the highlight of our afternoon. We arranged for a rooftop dinner at another fabulous restaurant, L’Mida Marrakech.
Where To Eat
There are many fabulous restaurants within the Medina in Marrakech. This is a list of recommendations I compiled.
- La Terrasse des Epices
- Bacha Coffee
- La Famille
- El Fenn
- Le Foundouk
- Atay Cafe Food
- La Table du Palais
- Les Jardins du Lotus
- Pikala Cafe
- La Maison Arabe
- Dar Cherifa
- La Mamounia
- Cafe des Epices
- Cafe de France (has a great view on the Jemaa El Fna Square)
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