Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains

  • Photo of Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains
  • Photo of Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains
  • Photo of Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains
  • Photo of Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains
  • Photo of Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains
  • Photo of Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains
  • Photo of Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains
  • Photo of Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains
Photo of Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains
Photo by flickr user The Javelina

Marrakech is a town of market places and hidden souks linked by narrow streets and tunnels, high walls hiding lush courtyards and ancient riads – flooded with the sometimes intoxicating scent of Moroccan delicacies, permeating out from the Djemaa el-Fna at the heart of the medieval Medina. The traditional atmosphere hasn't been spoiled by the tourist trade, the visitors like the ancient feel of the place – it's always been a busy market place, and modern visitors only add to the bustle. Old palaces have been made into luxury hotels, offering the same treasured quiet and privacy, while the Berber tribes, Saharan nomads and Mahgrebis people from the plains have a larger pool of takers for their traditional wares.

Marrakech can be a short visit from Europe, people have been visiting for long weekends since the 60s and 70s, but to do Marrakech properly you need about a week.  This suggested itinerary includes a one or two day visit to the High Atlas Mountains, only two hours away through increasingly spectacular countryside. 

Travel Marrakech via caleches, local horse and carriages and on foot.

Day One: 

Marrakech is potentially warmer and busier than you're expecting, no matter how many times you're told it will be warm and busy. People are also going to try and sell you things at every opportunity, so spend your first few hours in Marrakech just acclimatising round the Djemaa el-Fna, a place like something out of the Arabian Nights or Disney's Aladdin, depending what generation you're from but don't buy anything! Just enjoy the floor show of snake charmers, monkey acts and musicians. There's an art to shopping in Marrakech's marketplaces and it's advisable to visit the fixed price Ensemble Artisanal on Avenue Mohammed V first to find out what you should be paying for things before you do.

As the sun gets lower in the sky note the change in the colour of the entertainment, the snakes and monkeys go to bed and the storytellers and traditional healers come out and the number of food stalls doubles very quickly. Before it gets too late find a place in one of the terrace cafes and give in to buying a freshly squeezed orange juice and whatever follows and watch the life of Marrakech unfold below you.

Day Two:

Many of the main cultural and historic sights to see in Marrakech are within walking distance of the Djemaa el-Fna: The Ben Youssef Madrassa and Mosque, though still an active mosque, allows visitors to look over the madrasa, impressive for the beautiful scripts that have been carved into it, and should be allocated a few hours of your visit. The Bahia Palace, was built to be the most beautiful convergence of Moroccan style and Islamic traditions of its time, and while it's not quite considered that today, it still warrants a few hours, before or after visiting the Dar Si Saïd Museum of Moroccan Arts , which has an impressive collection of both ancient art and every day objects: on the ground floor are the Berber pieces and on the second, Moorish and Spanish influences can be seen creeping into the art and design.

The Marrakech Museum has a similar collection of exhibits, in a more impressive setting, an ornately decorated and designed palace.  

Day Three:

As well as seeing the sights, one of your days in Marrakech should be spent exploring the souks and markets. One of the easiest ways to do that is to hire a guide for a full or half day and have them help you explore the souks you're most interested in – heading out from the tourist tat of the centre. Souq des Bijoutiers is the jewellers souk, Souq Sebbaghine is the dyer's souk, Souq Smata is where the famous slippers are made, Souq Hadadine is the Blacksmith's souk, Souq el-Kebir is the leather souk and Criée Berbère is the carpet souk.

If shopping is one of your reasons for choosing Marrakech explore the districts of Guéliz and Hivernage, near the old city walls, where there are boutique jewellery and clothing shops – you don't have to haggle as much here, this is the upmarket area.

If you have a spare few hours one of the other unique things to do in Marrakech is to have a gommage at a hammam bath, which is a vigourous black soap scrub given with rough gloves. Many hotels will have their own hammam, but there are public ones, as well as private, luxury baths. A gommage is just the starter treatment on the hammam scale, if you're more interested in relaxing than invigorating.

Day Four:

Majorelle Gardens The Majorelle Gardens, with their raised pathways, cool sunken pools and groves of bananas, coconuts and bougainvillea, enclosed with dark blue walls and stonework, are best done in the morning before it gets too hot and before they're flooded by the tourist buses.

The Saadian Tombs, lay buried under the centre of Marrakech for four hundred years, but when they were finally rediscovered their decorative tiling was lauded all round, and they're now one of the most popular places to visit. Both the tombs and the remains of El Badi Palace, once a 360 room glory, deserve a half day each if you have time.

You might have seen the sun set behind the minaret tower of the Koutoubia Mosque from your terrace over the market, and though non Muslims aren't allowed in, it's still nice to stroll around it, especially on a warm, light evening when you can hear the hum of the prayers going on inside.

It may seem like everywhere you turn in central Marrakech you run into a gorgeous old fountain or pass under an impressive set of gates. The 12th Century Bab Agnaou gates, near the El Badi Palace and the Saadian Tombs, and the green tiled Shrob ou shouf fountain are two landmarks to look out for.

Day Five: The Atlas Mountains

High Atlas, Morocco The Western High Atlas Mountains are only a two hour drive away, so many visitors opt to take a day trip out to visit them by hiring a driver for the day or else joining a small bus tour. Many of the hotels and riads will recommend a service, and most journeys take you round the small villages of Imlil, Ouirgane and Oukaïmeden, the traditional living gateways to some of the highest mountains in Morocco and some spectacularly mountainous countryside. Most organised trips visit old tea houses where guests are served mint tea by Atlas Berbers and have lunch in one of the region's resorts.

If you want to spend more time away from the busy city exploring the mountains stay overnight and do some walking in the Ouirgane and Azaden Valleys and the Toubkal National Park. These aren't strenuous High Atlas treks, but gentle walks though traditional Berber countryside past traditional stone villages surviving off their orchards, olive groves and carefully cultivated terraces.

Day Six & Seven:

If not opting to stay in the mountains spend the last days catching up on shopping and visiting the sites you missed the first time round.  One of the important things to remember when buying things in Marrakech is that you can always walk away, find out what something's worth and come back.

Get more advice about travelling to Marrakech from WR's Moroccan Travel Specialists.

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