It may sound contrived, but we decided to tour Marrakech after looking at a map and deciding it seemed as good a place as any to visit. Our trip was in two stages, we first visited Madrid and then flew down to Marrakech to spend a week in this North African nation. What I didn’t realize was that there really isn’t anything to do there.
That’s not to say that there aren’t dozens of well-intentioned guide books each describing the rich brilliance of the city, there are. We even had one in our possession and used it in our self guided tour of the city. The problem wasn’t necessarily the lack of things to see and do, it was their quality.
I love history and seek out both sites of historical value, as well as museums that will teach me more about the places I visit. I was excited as I flipped through my guide book on the short flight to Marrakech; there seemed to be dozens of sites that were both unusual as well as historically significant.
The first site is the most obvious to any visitor, the Koutoubia, a massive 200-foot tall minaret that rises above the nearby square, the Jemaa el Fna. It was a very pretty building and it’s age, more than 900 years old, astounded me. I would have loved to tour inside the building, but alas, it is an active mosque and was closed to non-Muslims. So we spent a few minutes looking at the Koutoubia, took some photos and trudged on to the next site of dubious interest, the Saadian Tombs.
I knew nothing about the Saadian Dynasty or their ornate tombs prior to my visit, and thanks to a poorly interpreted site, I still know almost nothing about them. Apparently, according to Wikipedia and my guide book, the royal tombs are four-hundred years old and were rediscovered in 1917. I think we paid 10 dirhams to enter the tomb complex, a series of small chambers expertly and ornately decorated. They were fine, I mean they were empty rooms with absolutely no explanation. We weren’t allowed to go in them, so everyone stood at each entrance way looking at what was supposed to be important. We wandered for a few minutes and left.
Not wanting to give up, we decided to try one more place, the Badi Palace. According to my guide book:
“No place in Marrakech kindles the imagination quite like the Sultan Ahmed el-Mansour’s 16th century palace.”
Sounds pretty nice, right? It sounds like a great place to learn more about Morocco’s past and imagine what the magical city of Marrakech must have been like in its heyday. Yeah, not so much.
Again we paid 10 dirhams each to the dozing docent, entered through a mammoth doorway and found ourselves in the middle of a tremendous courtyard. The palace area was huge, with the red walls crumbling all around. The courtyard was occupied by two, immense pits which at one time were opulent pools. But that was it. There was no one there and nothing to see. We walked around the ruins, wondering what we were seeing. There were stairways leading down to closed off rooms, formally dungeons, and plenty of side chambers that I guess were royal changing rooms. It was almost noon and the intense, Moroccan sun beat down on us, so we walked around for a bit and left.
Overall, our attempt to explore and understand Marrakech’s past was a complete and utter disaster. We gathered our things and scurried off to the souks to find a tagine for lunch.
I thought about our morning as I devoured the tasty tagine, and realized that I learned more about Morocco from eating lunch than I did looking at the long abandoned ruins. In Marrakech, the real experience isn’t walking through museums or finding once splendorous palaces, it’s enjoying Marrakech as a living city and not as a mammoth museum exhibit.
To truly learn about and enjoy Marrakech, you have to walk through the labyrinthine souks, getting lost but having fun in the process. You have to stop at small food stalls and sample everything from fresh spice cake to steaming hot tagine. You have to add your voice to the cacophony in the Jemma el Fna when, every night, it turns into a massive night market. Once you live the city, it is only then that you really start to appreciate it.
I loved my time in Marrakech and would not hesitate to return. I’m also thankful to the city for teaching me an important travel lesson, that the real travel experiences aren’t found in famous sites or buildings, they’re found with the people who live there.
17 thoughts on “There’s Nothing to do in Marrakech”
Now that’s a way to describe Marrakech! I love your angle and on the one hand you are right. We also visited Badi Palace and were only astonished by the number of storks! However, on the other hand there will be many first-time travelers who will adore these kinds of places. Are we a bit spoiled?
But I am completely with you on the fact that it’s the people that make the experience! It’s the people that make you want to come back.
Maybe you can add one more historical site to your list (http://vandenboomen.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/the-hidden-treasure-of-marrakech/) although this one really was impressive :)
Cool! Thanks for sharing, love it. Maybe I was a little cheeky in my analysis, but Marrakech, for me at least, was all about the experiences and not the sites.
So sorry to hear about your experience! I loooooved Marrakesh.
So did I! :) Did you read the end?
I just did my last week’s Photo Friday on Marrakech and am also dying to go back! So much fun stuff to see and do.
You certainly caught my attention with the title! Great recommendation about how to make the most of the city. Have you been to Fes? Now THAT’S a place to see….
Thanks – glad you liked it. Marrakech is definitely a very unique place. I haven’t been to Fes, but obviously would love to explore more of Morocco.
Great post, Matt. I was waiting for you to get to the part where you mentioned that all was not lost on your visit to Marrakech. I find it is only the seasoned travelers who are able to enjoy a foreign place without the distractions and entertainment of tourist sights. I’m glad you had a nice experience – I am planning a visit to Marrakech and look forward to soaking up some of the local experiences.
*Tania @ Passport2Design.com
You’ll love it, it’s a neat experience. I also strongly recommend you get out of the city and do something like this: Whitewater Adventure in Morocco https://landlopers.com/2010/07/20/whitewater-adventure-morocco/
I often felt the same way about Korea. Most of the historical and cultural sites have very little, if anything, in the way of explanatory text in the form of signs or guidebooks. Most of the time that I went to a historical site it turned into what you describe here: aimless wandering, looking at things that I guessed were supposed to be important, but that I had no information about whatsoever. Sometimes there was explanation in Korean, but not in any other language, which struck me as somewhat defeating of the purpose of attracting foreign tourism! Because of this, like you, I much preferred just wandering around “everyday” Korean areas, and learned much more about the culture that way.
Great Post! Interesting to hear your angle and I wonder if going to Madrid first may have impacted your experience in Marrakech in the beginning.
Sometimes if I’m in an action-packed exciting city like Madrid, I tend to feel a bit let down at the next city I visit just because I’m always comparing it to the last place I’ve been.
You brought it all together in the end though and have definitely inspired me to add Marrakech to my bucket list!
Thanks for the comment. All in all we loved Marrakech, it’s just a different travel experience. You should definitely visit, great place.
Funny hook, and a great point overall about how a tourist site doesn’t make a city. Course all that wandering around souks, delicious food and absorbing Jemaa el Fna is “something” to do in Marrakesh! I’d add going to the baths to the list …
By the way, probably the most interesting thing we saw in the Badi palace was an old male tourist with a really raunchy t-shirt. :)
Thanks for all your posts re Marrakech. We are about to go there v soon so all this helps. The idea of walking around with little ‘touristy stuff’ appeals and will be a change from our normal trips to Prague, Rome etc. Our favourite city is Venice and although there are lots of sites to visit there we just love to get lost and walk around and soak it all in.
This was really interesting – it’s also got me thinking of some great ways to present Marrakech. I am glad to hear you did get something out of your visit and your right it’s a living city, it needs to be approached as such.
Thanks Amanda and I’m so glad you got the fact that I do in fact like the city. It has its quirks, but I’d definitely go back in a heartbeat.
I’m glad in the end you realized how to live Marrakesh! I didn’t even tried to visit sites, spent all my time in Jemaa el Fna and the souks.
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