We spent Christmas in Morocco and it was by far one of the most unique trips we’ve been on. It had the perfect mix of adventure and relaxation, cultural experiences and shopping, exploring and eating. We came back with an additional checked bag, belated Christmas gifts, and a newfound appreciation for the art of haggling. Marrakech was more than I expected, and it is definitely a trip I recommend taking!
Stay in a Riad
When deciding on where to stay in Marrakech you have two options – a riad or a nice hotel/resort. Riads are traditional Moroccan homes, filled with open air courtyards, tiled pools and terraces overlooking the city. It feels like you are walking through your own little sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of the streets below. I would definitely recommend staying in a riad for at least one or two nights, if not for the whole trip, just to get the full Moroccan experience. Most riads have breakfast included, and you can add on lunches and dinners as you wish. We stayed at Riyad el Cadi and had a great time! Book your riad as soon as possible, because they get booked out in advance, especially in their busy seasons.
Take a Cooking Class
Most riads offer a cooking class, but we found Cooking with Najlae for a better price, and it included a trip to the market to buy vegetables and spices. I can’t recommend this cooking class enough! I honestly think this was my favorite part of the whole trip…and I loved everything about this trip. I loved going to the market with a local, seeing how to properly make mint tea, learning and cooking traditional Moroccan food, but most of all, I loved hanging out with Chef Najlae. She is passionate about sharing the Moroccan culture and gave real, honest advice about our stay in Marrakech. She also gave us price ranges for the items we were planning on buying in the souks, which I found extremely helpful.
For the class, we met at 9am and decided as a group that we would make five Moroccan salads and chicken tagine with preserved lemon. We went to the market to buy fresh vegetables, and then headed back to Chef Najlae’s house for a quick breakfast and mint tea. I love mint tea, but it was eye-opening to see the process it takes to make traditional mint tea, and that made me appreciate it even more. After tea, we set out to make our five salads and chicken tagine, and that too was eye-opening. Traditionally, Moroccans don’t use cutting boards and they surely don’t use food processors to puree their vegetables. I learned so many new techniques and uses for cheese graters!
While the tagine was cooking over the stove, we went to the bakery around the corner to pick up fresh bread. The bread was so fresh and hot that it burned through the plastic bags! And wow, that bread was amazing. We came back to a feast. Our five Moroccan salads included two warm ones – an eggplant salad and a tomato & pepper salad – and three cold ones – sweet cucumber, tomato and garlic, and zucchini. It was hard to pick a favorite, but I know those recipes will definitely be a staple in our house now. The chicken tagine was also delightful. We had never heard of preserved lemons before, but now it’s on our list of things to try to create.
This cooking class is high on my list of things to do in Marrakech, and I’d recommend doing it sooner on in your trip because of the insight she gives. You can read her raving reviews on AirBnb, but you can message her directly on Instagram to book a class with her! She also teaches an Argan Oil making class, which is of course on my list for the next time I’m in Marrakech.
Go to the Atlas Mountains
If you have enough time, you definitely have to do a day trip to the Atlas Mountains. There are so many companies out there offering day trips from Marrakech so it was pretty overwhelming trying to find the right one. We knew we wanted to do a little bit of hiking, see a Berber village, and have a traditional lunch. We also knew we did not want to use a company that set up camel rides on the side of the road. Camels have been an important part of the Moroccan culture, especially for transportation through the desert. I would definitely do a camel ride through the desert (read about supporting camels in Culture Trip’s article here), but we weren’t planning on going that far for this day trip.
Ultimately we ended up booking The 5 Valleys Day Tour that one of Rory’s friends went on and highly recommended. It was a fun day! The tour started at 8am, but since breakfast at the riads don’t start until 9am, I’d recommend bringing a few granola bars to snack on. We were able to see some amazing views of the mountains and valleys that make up the Atlas Mountains. We stopped in a small village to have mint tea and to see a few traditional Berber ladies make argan oil. We had learned about the benefits of argan oil from Najlae during our cooking class, so it was interesting to see how it was made.
Our next stop was the waterfall. To hike to the Ourika valley waterfall, you must be accompanied by a mountain guide. Our guide, Jamil, was great – he was passionate about his village, super informative about the mountains, and very helpful on this hike. Now, I like to go hiking and I definitely enjoy a challenging off-road hike, but I was not mentally prepared for this one. So this is my warning: it is a hike and you will be climbing and hoisting yourself up (and down) rocks, so do not bring a big purse! It really was a fun climb, though, with a gorgeous waterfall and definitely one of the highlights of the day trip.
My favorite part of the day trip was of course lunch. I’m a food-driven person and I love my food, but especially when it’s been cooking for four hours and comes with an amazing view. I loved going inside this traditional Berber house, with its simple living room and kitchen, and beautiful outdoor dining space. The women of the house had been cooking our tagine for four hours, so it easily fell off the bone and melted in our mouths. This was also the first time I had had Moroccan soup, and it was absolutely divine. The views were breathtaking, as you can see below.
Next time, when we have more time, we will hopefully do a full two or three day trip through the Sahara Desert, or we’ll do a day trip to the ancient settlement Ait Benhaddou.
See the Marrakech Sights
There are so many sights to see in Marrakech, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to see them all, so I had to pick and choose a few. If you are staying in a riad, you’ll be staying within the Medina and you’ll likely pass through Jemaa el-Fnaa, so you can cross those two off your list. The Medina is the old part of town and is surrounded by the red clay walls. Jemaa el-Fnaa is the main square of Marrakech, and is filled with street food, snake charmers, vendors, and musicians.
The Badi Palace is the ruins of a palace built in the 1500s and then destroyed in the 1700s. The vast courtyard, with sunken gardens and a giant pool in the center is still magnificent. Exhibitions in old rooms show pictures of what the palace would have looked like, compared to what they are today. There are still gorgeous tiles on the floor and stairs, the doors are still impressive, and when you climb to the terrace, you can get wonderful views of the city with the Atlas Mountains in the distance. Also, if you look up there are the biggest birds nests I’ve ever seen – apparently European White Storks live up there. The Badi Palace is open from 9am to 5pm. For reference, we went in around 4pm and it wasn’t very crowded.
Palais de la Bahia is the complete opposite of the Palace El Badi. The Bahia Palace is an actual old palace – filled with impressive fireplaces, painted ceilings, sprawling courtyards, fruited gardens, and tons and tons of beautifully tiled walls. The intricately detailed architecture has been well preserved and it’s easy to get lost wandering around the rooms and gardens. It is, however, a touristy spot. In other words, get there early to avoid the crowds. It opens at 9am, so skip your riad breakfast and be the first in line.
The Majorelle Gardens are unlike any other I’ve seen. Filled with a wide variety of cacti, bamboo, agaves and ferns from all over the world, the Gardens are a peaceful oasis within Marrakech. The birds are singing songs of gratitude and joy, and every gate, pot, curb and building is painted a gorgeous bold blue that is both calming and electrifying. The pictures are beautiful for sure, but this is definitely a stop that you don’t want to miss! I could have spent hours in there. The Gardens open at 8am – again skip your riad breakfast and be sure to miss the crowds. We got there a little before 9am and by the time we left an hour later, the place was buzzing with tourists and local field trips. The Gardens are also connected to the Yves Saint Laurent Museum. We went to the YSL Museum in Paris, but sadly the Marrakech museum was closed when we went. Next time!
Other Sites We Missed
The Saadian Tombs are known for their exquisite architecture, with intricate tiles and carved columns. Ben Youssef Madrasa is an old Islamic college and is a beautiful historic site. Unfortunately it is closed for renovations until next year. The Dar Si Said Museum of Weaving and Carpets is supposed to be a unique museum, with beautiful buildings and gorgeous courtyards.
Certain cities are known for shopping for specific items – leather jackets in Italy, sandals in Greece, and a lot of cool things in Morocco. I knew I wanted a rug; my office has been incomplete without one, and I love the style of Moroccan rugs. Actually a lot of Moroccan-style home goods items are trendy right now – pillows, blankets, living room poufs. I plan on doing a whole post on what to buy in Marrakech so stay tuned for that! The most important thing to know about shopping in Morocco is that you must haggle. Read this post about the podcast I listened to that helped me prepare to haggle in the souks.
The souks wind all through the Medina. There are some areas of the souks that are grouped by trade (e.g., vendors selling straw bags in one corner, vendors selling shoes in another, lamp vendors over there). This is where we bought the majority of our items. If you are alone, or are prone to get lost, hire a local guide to take you on a tour of the souks. Don’t buy with the guide though, because he will take you to his buddies who will give him a commission. Instead, just look around and get a feel of the souks and an idea of what you want. My advice: spend your first time in the souks walking around and looking at everything. Then, the next day or a few days later, once you’ve seen a lot of the souks and know what you want, go back and buy the items. But make sure to haggle!
Other advice: if you get lost, ask a shop owner. Don’t ask a random young man because he will lead you to “the big square” or to wherever you’re looking but then demand you pay him a tip. If you’re alone, keep that mean mug on your face and hold your head up high. Shop owners will cat call you and ask you to look around their shop, but for the most part they are respectful. It’s just more of a cultural thing and they’re just trying to get your business. You will get used to this after the first day. Lastly, watch out for pickpockets. Keep your purse zipped tight and your wallet secure.
Chef Najlae told us about the pottery village where pottery is actually made before it’s sold in the souks. That area of town has larger shops filled with tons of plates, bowls, tagines, spice dishes, large vases, outdoor tables, and more, for better prices than you would find in the main souks of the medina. Timmer and I went here one morning, and were pleasantly surprised by the variety and inventory that they had. It is quite a hike out of the medina however, so my advice is to take a taxi there and back. We only ended up paying 50 MAD (so about $5) for the taxi ride back, so if you are on the lookout for some handmade pottery, it may be worth the hike. Finding anything about this place is pretty hard on google, but it’s called Souk Rbiaa, and is near the Cimetiere de Bab Ghmat.
Hammams are important rituals in the Moroccan culture. They are meant to be a relaxing and cleansing experience, similar to Turkish baths. For locals, hammams are for bathing, cleansing and socializing. In Marrakech, you can go to a local hammam or to one catered more towards tourists. If you’ve never been to a hammam before, I’d probably stick with the second one. We ended up doing a hammam at our riad, and it was a great experience, but I wish we had time to do another one just to compare the two.
I felt like a whole new person after my hammam. It’s funny because when you’re scrubbed down with a kessa, a Moroccan exfoliating glove, you finalize realize how much dead skin you’re walking around with. Just writing this is making me cringe, so I think I’m going to have to incorporate a hammam in my life ASAP. I just bought this DIY hammam kit.
Four Seasons Pool Day
I was a little unsure about spending Christmas in Morocco. I love Christmas and I was worried about the lack of Christmas cheer in a predominantely Muslim country. Luckily we had spent the previous three weeks at Christmas markets, so Marrakech ended up being the perfect little holiday getaway. We had drinks at a few hotels that were decorated to a T in Christmas decor, and our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were perfect. We spent Christmas Eve on a fun adventure in the Atlas Mountains (read above), and then spent Christmas Day relaxing by the Four Seasons pool.
Year-round you can buy a day pass for the Four Seasons pool for 500 MAD, or you can add on a three course lunch for 800 MAD total. We had such a memorable Christmas lounging by the pool and enjoying the sun we had been missing in Germany and Amsterdam. Beth brought festive headbands and we took some pretty epic photos. The three course lunch was absolutely delicious, and like all good Christmases, the day passed by way too fast.
Where to eat/drink in Marrakech
I wrote a full post on where to eat and where to drink in Marrakech here. My favorite place to grab drinks was Le Salama – they had great views of the city and a garden on the ceiling. We ended up going there two nights in a row to watch the sunset. As far as places to eat, I’d recommend El Fenn, Le Jardin, and Dar Marjana. Full post on that here!
All photos taken by Laura McCarthy, Timmer McCarthy, Rory Junius or Beth Winter, and have no filters added because Morocco is too pretty to put a filter on, and we took way too many photos to filter them all.