While in Marrakech I spent my days exploring the medina, eating my weight in olives, and getting lost on my way to and from Jemaa el-Fnaa Square. The medina, or “old town,” is filled with markets, modest eateries, playing children, and the general bustle of day-to-day life.
Wandering through the souks is a captivating sensory experience of fragrant spices, exotic fruits, brightly painted ceramics, intricately woven fabrics, and calls to prayer. My first time in an Arabic country, I was careful to respect the boundaries of the culture and avoid, if possible, any faux pas.
If you plan to visit this enchanting city, be sure to have an idea of some things you should and shouldn't do to enjoy your stay (and avoid scams).
Do: Wander the Souks
The alleyways in the medina weave and wind like a maze, and you can find easily find yourself lost. That's not necessarily a bad thing (I'd recommend it actually!) as long as you find your way back before dusk. Wander long enough, and you will inevitably stumble upon the souks. A “souk” is an Arabic marketplace. Here, you'll find gorgeous handmade fabrics and rugs, spice vendors with an array of colors arranged in burlap sacks, and plenty of other artisanal goods you'll want to stuff your suitcase with. Grab an ornate hanging lantern with multicolored glass, or a Hamsa for protection and good luck.
Don't: Ask For (Or Accept) Directions...
...unless you are prepared to tip. As I mentioned, the medina is a very easy place to get lost, and people will try to offer a helping hand. But they WILL expect a kickback. It is almost a game that is played here – find the lost tourist, guide them toward the main square, then make it uncomfortably clear that time and effort are not free. Although Moroccans are very nice and helpful people, that doesn't stop a few clever “entrepreneurs” from taking advantage. And this is not limited to adults! Teenagers and children will do this as well.
Do: Eat Tagine and Drink Mint Tea
If you do nothing else of significance in Marrakech, you MUST eat this one traditional meal. Tagine refers to the actual vessel the meal is cooked in, which is a cone-shaped clay pot. Chicken and beef are common choices, slow-cooked with spices, vegetables, and LOTS of olives. It is a communal type meal, eaten by pulling the meat apart by hand with a piece of flatbread – but be sure to stay on your “side” (see below).
Mint tea is another staple, served throughout the day and alongside meals. Chances are your host will offer you a glass with your traditional meal, ceremoniously poured from a height from an engraved silver teapot.
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Don't: Eat From the Wrong Side
While eating from a tagine, be sure you stay on your “side.” Since this is a communal meal, eaten with your fingers, there is proper etiquette to be followed to ensure cleanliness. First, everyone will be offered hot water to wash your hands. Then, taking a piece of flatbread, which will be abundant, use your RIGHT hand to scoop up any vegetables, meat, and broth. Think of the round dish as a pie, and only eat from the slice of pie in front of you. Follow these simple rules and your meal should go off without a hitch.
Do: Visit the Main Square
There is so much to do at Jemaa el-Fnaa square, both during the day and evenings. Surrounded by restaurants and shops, the huge plaza fills up with peddlers, juice stalls, rug salesmen, and snake charmers. During the day it is an interesting and lively place, but to my surprise, when the sun sets it became even more festive.
When I returned at night, the square was replete with food tents, offering up more than just street food. I was quickly ushered into a tent for a hefty serving of lamb kebabs, couscous, salad, and of course, olives. As I sat next to strangers, eating and drinking mint tea, I watched families wander through the square, and large groups gathered around musicians dancing gleefully. It was the ultimate people watching experience, and one of my favorite memories of Marrakech.
Don't: Get Charmed by the Snake Charmers
As I mentioned, you can find many snakes and their charmers in the main square. Although intriguing, the ethics are questionable, and they are not just there for free entertainment. If you want to take a picture of or with the snakes, be prepared to pay, and negotiate a price beforehand (and have small bills on hand to pay exact cash).
Some other hustlers to look out for are the henna ladies. I was involuntarily henna-ed TWICE in the square... They literally grabbed my hand and started drawing designs before I could even blink. Then of course you are expected to pay for the service.
Marrakech was a magical place for me, but I've heard lots of stories of more unfortunate tourists. Make sure you research common scams, keep your money put away, and try your best not to get lost (this one is quite the challenge). You can always hire a guide or join a tour group if you are a solo traveler or want to ensure you won't be hassled.
Check out these guided day trips from Marrakech: