Marrakech, Atlas Mountains and Essouira

  • Photo of Marrakech, Atlas Mountains and Essouira
  • Photo of Marrakech, Atlas Mountains and Essouira
  • Photo of Marrakech, Atlas Mountains and Essouira
  • Photo of Marrakech, Atlas Mountains and Essouira
  • Photo of Marrakech, Atlas Mountains and Essouira
  • Photo of Marrakech, Atlas Mountains and Essouira
  • Photo of Marrakech, Atlas Mountains and Essouira
  • Photo of Marrakech, Atlas Mountains and Essouira
Photo of Marrakech, Atlas Mountains and Essouira
Photo by flickr user jcb2u

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 Djemaa el-Fna at the heart of the medieval Medina. The traditional atmosphere hasn't been spoiled by the tourist trade, it's always been a busy market place, and visitors only add to the bustle.

Essaouira, Morocco Essaouira is a very different kind of place with a heart rate only about half the beats per minute of frenetic, colourful Marrakech. It's only three hours travel from Marrakech, but there on the coast, in its whitely shimmering glory, it feels like a lot further. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix once relaxed here in the traditional atmosphere, but these days Essaouira is better known for its UNESCO World Heritage listed medina, and as a mecca for windsurfers and kitesurfers.

Between these two memorable towns this seven to ten day itinerary recommends a trip up to the High Altas Mountains, for another, entirely different view of Morocco again.

Marrakech, MoroccoDay One: Marrakech

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 - Four: Marrakech

Many of the main cultural and historic sights to see in Marrakech are within walking distance of the Djemaa el-Fna.  

Ben Youssef Madrasa and Mosque 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 deserving of 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 probably deserves at least half a day, enough time to appreciate both the detail in its architecture and the variety of exhibits, both artistic and historic.

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 nice warm evening when you can hear the hum of the prayers going on inside.

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.

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. 

Souq of MarrakeshAs 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 need to haggle as much here, this is the upmarket area where locals who can't be bothered haggling make their purchases.

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 opt for one of the other treatments, this one sounds a bit rough...

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

Day Five - Six: High Altas Mountains

The Western High Altas Mountain 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, then 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.

If your trip is more about shopping than the mountains spend another day making your final purchases or catching up on the sights you missed.

Day Seven - Ten: Essouira 

Essaouira, Morocco Essouira has only a few purpose built hotels within its 18th Century fortified ramparts, but most visitors prefer to stay in one of the old maisons d'hôtels. It helps get you immersed in the atmosphere of this ancient setting, which is what most visitors come here to do: shrug off the vigilance needed in Marrakech, and relax on the beach and around town and maybe pop off into the desert of admire the local art and culture.

After locating your accommodation, start exploring the city's pedestrian only streets, heading first to the medina, with its cobbled streets lined with white, blue doored buildings - that UNESCO has World Heritage listed - hiding the cafes and restaurants and craft stores and galleries it's loved by visitors for. The town centre has looked like this since the 18th Century, when it was built, and the whole town, with its fortified ramparts is one of the only of its kind that's survived to the modern day. The wares the medina is most famous for are cabinets, boxes and carvings made from thuya wood and embroidered cloths and carpets, but just off the centre are the many souks: Souk des Bijoutiers is the jewellery souk, Souk el Ghezel for spices; and place Marché de Grains, the old corn market.

Some of the other highlights of Essouira town are the Essaouira Museum, which has an exhibition explaining the patterns and symbols used in locals arts and crafts, so is a good place to visit before you go buying up traditional crafts from the markets; and the military end of the port which has some impressive cannons as well as the same view up to the ramparts used in all the travel brochures.

Île de Mogador  The port also has a good view of Île de Mogador, and the falcons who are the protected island's only inhabitants. You can hire a boat out if you want a close up view or are interested that these isles are the Purple Isles of history.

The sandy beaches and deeply curving bays take a hit from the trade winds on a regular basis, which is excellent for windsurfers and kitesurfers - both beginners and more experienced riders, but not so great for people relaxing on the beach, who it's recommended bring some kind of parasol for protection. The other way to experience this coastline of beaches in on the back of a horse or camel.

Horse and camel trips into the desert are also run out of Essaouira, some of them involving overnight stays in tents on the sands. If you're worried about the smell, opt for a quad biking trip on the dunes.

If you come in off the beach or desert feeling like you could do with a bath, try a traditional hammam Turkish bath experience. One of the best places to get one locally is the Hammam Lalla Mira which is one of the oldest public baths in town, and a decorative charm in clay and green tiles. Guests at the Hotel Lalla Mira get free entry, other treatments range in price but start from around $15 American.

If you have cooking facilities where you're staying visit the fish markets on the harbour to get something for your dinner.  Unlike other fish markets the best time to go is in the afternoon when the fishermen come in. If you don't have cooking facilities you can get your purchases prepared on the spot. The local specialities are sardines and conger eels, which are the most abundant catches along this bit of coast.

For a shorter itinerary check out Holiday Idea #42: Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains.

For help planning your holiday in Morocco enquire with one of World Reviewer's Moroccan Travel Specialists.


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