The “Red City”, the “Daughter of the Desert”, the “Ochre City” – whatever you know it as, Marrakech is undeniably iconic and worthy of a spot on any travel bucket list. Densely packed with palaces, gardens, souks, and mosques, it’s easy to get caught up in all the sights and smells that Morocco’s fourth largest city has to offer, especially if you’re a first-time visitor. But there are some things to look out for when navigating its fragrant mazelike alleyways and market squares.
Marrakech is Morocco’s most popular destination with international travelers, with more than three million tourists flocking to its aroma-filled streets every year. However, tourism has given way to some challenges that you should be aware of.
From where to go to what not to eat, how to dress, and how not to get scammed, these are all the things to avoid in Marrakech to ensure you have a problem-free trip. Let’s get into it.
Disrespecting the culture
Morrocan culture is a blend of tradition and religion with Berber, African, Arabian, and Jewish influences. However, more than 90 percent of Marrakech’s population identifies as Muslim and Islam is the official state religion of Morocco, meaning Islamic customs are part of the way of life in the city.
Many of Marrakech’s citizens follow the Sunni branch of Islam that adheres to orthodox tradition and treats religious teaching as law. Failing to acknowledge Islamic tradition could cause great offense to locals, and although a touristy place, you have to remember that Marrakech is welcoming you as its guest, and respecting its customs is paramount.
Morocco is more liberal than some Arab countries, but there is etiquette to follow. No guest should upset their host, shoes should be removed before entering mosques and Islamic homes, and religious talk should be censored. This means that while you can ask questions about Islam, discussions should be limited to fact rather than opinion, especially if your thoughts on religion are potentially controversial.
Conservatism and Islam go hand in hand. Modern Muslims have a lot of freedom when it comes to how they dress. Many women in Morocco might choose to veil or wear hijabs, but locals are by no means expected to dress the same. However, modesty is respected, especially in religious areas or if you simply don’t want to stand out like a sore thumb.
Women are advised to cover their shoulders, legs, and decolletage in Marrakech unless they’re relaxing at their hotel or partaking in an activity that requires a specific dress. Loose trousers, long skirts, and high-neck tops are perfect and can also help protect you from the sun. Men can get away with wearing shorts and t-shirts but knees should be covered for entering places of worship.
Showing a bit more skin might not get you in trouble in Marrakech, but you’ll likely receive unwanted stares, attention, and even outward judgment. Even if you don’t agree with censoring your body, covering up will save you a lot of problems.
Down talking the monarchy
Like religious talk, political conversations are somewhat out of place in Moroccan culture. So much so that mocking, criticizing, and talking badly about Morocco’s king is actually a criminal offense. Misguided slander will cause offense, at least, but taking it too far could land you jail time, and trust us, getting in trouble with the Moroccan police is the last thing you want to do.
Eating with your left hand
One of the more traditional pieces of dining etiquette that Moroccans still follow today is eating with their hands. This is commonplace in many African and Arabian countries and looking down on this way of eating will be your first mistake.
Eating with your hands is deemed very sanitary in Marrakech, but that’s because Moroccans have strict rules around how to do it. You should use just your thumb and first two fingers to eat – using your whole hand is deemed greed – and if you find yourself enjoying a traditional Morrocan meal or, better yet, you’ve been invited into someone’s home in Marrakech, be sure to only eat, pass, and pick up things with your right hand.
The left hand is considered unclean in Moroccan culture because it’s typically the hand you use when going to the toilet, even though you should wash both hands before every meal. Even shaking hands with your left is seen as unsanitary. You won’t cause any huge drama by eating with the wrong hand in Marrakech, but you might get some strange looks, laughs, or grimaces.
Buying cookies from carts in Djema al Fnaa
Street food is part of the culture in Marrakech and the souks (markets) are an unmissable part of any trip, but not all street food is made equal.
Use your judgment and eye to decide what to eat on the street. You can usually see when things are kept clean, and a good queue at a stall is a sign that the food is good. The stalls in Djema al Fnaa are touch-and-go and only a few will have Moroccans eating around them – these are the best to choose from.
However, the cookie carts in Djema al Fnaa, although often sanitary, aren’t great places to enjoy Marrakech’s sweet delicacies. Stick to patisseries for the most authentic treats and quality ingredients. Plus, a little break to sit down and enjoy a pretty interior goes a long way when you’re navigating the sticky streets of the city.
The restaurants in the main square
As can be said for many tourist hotspots, the restaurants right off Marrakech’s main square, or Djema al Fnaa as it’s locally known, won’t offer the most authentic and reasonably priced food.
The square and marketplace in Marrakech’s medina quarter, or old city, is the center of tourism and is still the main place of trade for locals too. It’s definitely worth visiting but there’ll always be crowds of tourists, and with that, comes inauthenticity and steep prices.
Restaurants with hassling waiters who try to lure you in with picture menus and English names are usually the worst ones to pick. If a restaurant is worth visiting, queues and busy tables should be able to speak for themselves. Hidden, hole-in-the-wall gems or word-of-mouth recommendations will usually afford the most authentic dining experiences in Marrakech.
Losing sense of your surroundings
When it comes to places like Djema al Fnaa and any of Marrakech’s souks and narrow alleyways, it’s also important to take extra precautions to protect your belongings. It can be easy to relax and dip from stall to stall taking in all the sights and smells but don’t relax too much. As in any city, tourist areas are hotbeds for petty crime and big crowds make it even easier for pickpockets and scammers to strike.
Tourists are the first targets for petty thieves, so keep your valuables close to your person and wear bags and rucksacks on your front or under clothing to protect money and electronic devices. Don’t wear your camera round your neck – this makes you a walking bulls-eye, and don’t be bamboozled by decoys. Criminal organizations will often deploy distractions in the way of beggars, commotion, and even children in need so that someone else can swipe into your pockets and bags when you’re not looking.
Marrakech is generally safe for foreign visitors and millions of people enjoy it every year without problems, but it has also been a target for terrorist attacks in the past and places where large groups congregate, like tourist areas, religious sites, and protests, are usually the first places to be hit. Always be aware of your surroundings.
Forgetting to haggle
The colorful markets, known as souks, are a symbol of Marrakech and you can get anything from traditional clothing and footwear to spices, shisha, tea sets, and lamps, as well as jewelry, watches, and designer leather goods. It’s hard to resist stocking up on souvenirs to take home, especially when you can get them at reasonable prices, but don’t let yourself be taken for a fool just because you’re a tourist.
Haggling is a huge part of the trade in Marrakech, and Morocco in general. Taking it too far can cause offense, but almost every vendor will give you a massively inflated price with a much lower-end price in mind on the assumption that you’ll haggle. Never take the first price you’re given and negotiate as much as you can, it’s all part of the fun.
Also, take the vendors negotiating methods with a pinch of salt and try walking away if they won’t budge on price, this can help you secure the lowest offer.
Confusing the currency
This goes hand in hand with haggling in the souks. If you want to avoid hefty fees, paying in cash is the best idea but don’t let Morrocan Dirham confuse you or cause you to lose out after you’ve secured a great deal from negotiating.
1 USD is equal to around 10 Moroccan Dirham, so do the maths before you hand over the cash. It’s easy for market vendors to swindle tourists by giving back the incorrect change or asking for more money and using your ignorance when it comes to the currency as an excuse to do so. Familiarize yourself with exchange rates before you go, as they’re always changing, and make sure you’re clued up before visiting the souks, or at least ensure your vendor thinks you are.
When it comes to dining etiquette, eating in the wrong way can seem greedy, but there are other ways of overindulging in Marrakech that could cause offense. Many Islamic countries have laws around the consumption of alcohol and most Muslims completely refrain from drinking, no matter their age.
Alcohol is forbidden in some areas of Morroco, but Marrakech is not one of these places and buying alcohol is much easier than in other parts of the country thanks to the thriving tourism scene. However, it can only be purchased and consumed in licensed hotels, bars, and restaurants. You can buy alcohol from some supermarkets and liquor stores, and there are even two specialist wine merchants in the Newtown district of the city, but you cannot drink it in public, and acting drunk and disorderly in the streets is strictly punishable by law in Morocco.
It’s a luxury for tourists to be welcomed into an Islamic city and be allowed to enjoy alcohol, so remember this in Marrakech and stick to your limits to avoid being disrespectful. Throwing back cocktails, shots, and bottles of wine will be frowned upon in hotels and restaurants, but if you can stay controlled, you can drink as much as you want without getting into trouble.
Leaving without trying mint tea
If couscous is the food of Marrakech, then mint tea is the drink. Overflowing with sprigs of fresh mint and sugar for sweetness, mint tea is a huge part of the local culture and ridiculously refreshing in the hot and sweltering climate. You can get it at every cafe, restaurant, and hotel in the city, and sitting down over a hot pot and watching the world go by is one of the best ways to enjoy Marrakech.
As the people of Marrakech don’t drink much alcohol, caffeine is one of their vices, and coffee as well as other caffeinated herbal teas are hugely popular with locals. However, tea in Morroco is just as much about socializing as it is about having a vice, just like alcohol is in western culture. Mint tea is used to savor the moment and enjoy time with friends and family.
Visiting certain neighborhoods – especially at night
Some locals will tell you that the old Jewish quarter in Marrakech is not safe for visitors. The Essalam neighborhood, to the south of Djemaa el Fna square, has been a site of contention for many Morrocans and has higher rates of crime than other districts.
Many traditional Jewish homes here were given to poorer Muslim families, creating poverty and conflict. Despite being recently revived, it still has problems with crime. However, don’t let this confuse you. Marrakech is a welcoming city and absolutely safe for Jewish and Israeli visitors.
Al-Azzouzia, in the suburbs to the North West, is not a place for tourists either and suffers from poverty and deprivation. The Medina in the center is one of the most visited areas of the city, but the narrow dark streets of the interior can feel unsafe at night too and women shouldn’t walk alone here.
Limiting yourself to Marrakech
Marrakech is usually top of the list for visitors to Morocco, and it’s not hard to see why with its electric energy, historical attractions, and unique culture. You’ll even find upmarket bars and restaurants in the Gueliz neighborhood and stunning gardens and art galleries dotted all around the city. However, there’s so much more to explore beyond the walled limits and although visiting Marrakech is a must, don’t neglect the beaches, mountains, deserts, and charming towns that the rest of this country has to offer.
Even if you only have a limited amount of time and are heading to the Red City for a long weekend, consider a day trip to Essaouira, Ouarzazate, the Ouzoud Waterfalls, or the Ourika Valley, which are all reachable from Marrakech, to explore some of the spectacular surrounding wildlife and get a different taste of Morrocco.
You can book these tours all over the city and vendors will be trying to sell you the best deal at every turn, but comparing prices online, where you can read reviews, is the best way to go about finding a day trip for you.
Is Marrakech safe?
Morroco has been riddled with internal conflict for decades and petty crime, as well as terrorism, has damaged Marrakech’s reputation in the past. However, the crime situation has been stable in the city for a number of years and it is deemed a relatively low-risk place to visit, like many European cities. Visitors should take certain precautions as they would in other touristy places and women be extra careful and walk with a chaperone when possible, but Marrakech is by no means off-limits to solo travelers.
Can you go clubbing in Marrakech?
Despite rules that prohibit drinking in Islam, Marrakech is a good city for nightlife and caters to its tourist crowds with western bars and even nightclubs playing live music and hosting DJs. The locals are also known for letting loose with karaoke and traditional dancing even if they refrain from drinking, and visitors are allowed to buy and consume alcohol from licensed vendors as they please.
When is the best time to visit Marrakech?
March to May and September and November are the shoulder seasons in Marrakech and the best times to visit. These months are known for their desirable weather with temperatures varying between the low 70s and low 90s, but you’ll also find cheaper hotel rates than in summer and winter.
How many days do you need in Marrakech?
You could spend weeks in Marrakech and still not see all that this exciting city has to offer, but two or three days is a good amount of time to get a taste for the culture and visit most of the major attractions. You can enjoy Marrakech with even less time, but if you want to head out of the city to enjoy some of Morocco’s other sites, we recommend at leave four or five days.