Marrakesh & The Agafay Desert

Marrakesh

A smoky, pulsating main square, incomparable moorish architecture, exquisite glinting metal treasures and handmade leather goods in rainbow shades, hot dusty days punctuated by the muezzin’s call, the most delicious lemon and olive tagines, washed down with sweet Moroccan mint teait’s no challenge to see why Marrakesh’s draw is so irresistible. 

With increasing numbers of airlines offering great deals and a flight time of less than four hours, Marrakesh and its surroundings are the perfect location for a city break. It’s easy to reach, with British Airways, Easyjet, Ryanair and numerous other airlines all flying there regularly. Flights might be on the pricier side compared to closer European capitals, but factor in the cost of food and accommodation once you’ve arrived and it definitely balances out. 

Why not combine some time in the city with a ‘Moroccan desert experience’ at Terre des Etoiles desert camp? Giving you the perfect combo of hustle and bustle and peace and quiet. We have everything you need in this Marrakesh travel guide!

Explore Transportation
Getting to Marrakesh: Flying

Arriving at Marrakech Menara airport can be a little overwhelming if you’ve not visited before. The queues can be lengthy to get through the customs and passports checks, and once outside you’re immediately immersed in the hustle and bustle, bartering and negotiation. We’d advise pre-booking your transfer from the airport; speak to your accommodation provider about whether they can organise this. Riad rates are fairly standard to get to the Medina, and you’ll benefit hugely from having your host show you through the winding streets the first time you get there.

Morocco is a ‘closed currency’ country, which means you can’t get cash at home before you head over. Seek out the ATMs in the departures hall rather than using the exchange desks in arrivals - you’ll get a far better rate this way. If you’ve pre-booked your transfer through your riad you may be able to wait until you get into the city. 

Getting to the Medina is an experience in itself as your taxi winds through traffic, past rows of palm trees, market stalls piled with exotic fruits, and of course a few weary-eyed camels. If you’re lucky enough to time it right, you’ll even hear the muezzin’s call to prayer across the hot and dusty roads. 

How to get around Marrakesh: Train | Bus | Taxi | Caleche | Car Rental

If you’re staying in the Medina, the best way to immerse yourself in your surroundings is on foot. This way you’ll really get see what life in Marrakesh is like. Most of the streets in the Medina are really narrow, though you’ll see plenty of locals squeezing mopeds, donkeys and even cars down the narrow lanes! To get out to anywhere like Beldi Country Club we recommend pre-booking a taxi and doing so through your hotel or riad. 

For longer journeys across Morocco, you’ve got various options at your disposal, and in Marrakesh many of them are located near each other.

Train:

Many travellers recommend train as the best way to get around Morocco. Prices are reasonable and trains are generally comfortable and run on time. In general tickets need to be purchased at the station, and it’s recommended to do this at least 24 hours before you wish to travel. There are also various rail passes available for anything from a week to six months or a year. 

Bus/coach:

CTM and Supratours run extensive routes across the country to major cities and towns. You can pre-book tickets online in advance (we recommend at least a couple of days ahead if you can) and buses are air-conditioned and some have extra luxuries such as greater legroom and wifi on board. A three hour one-way trip from Marrakesh to Essaouira costs from 80 dirhams (approximately £6). Baggage can cost extra, around 5 dirhams for a suitcase with CTM. Supratours is run by the ONCF train network, which means it’s possible to buy tickets to cover an entire journey on both rail and bus. 

Taxi:

In Morocco there are ‘grands taxis’ and ‘petits taxis’. The grands taxis are shared saloons that link up cities, and depart once the vehicle is full. They are a little pricier than buses, but still reasonable. Within cities the ‘petits taxis’ operate. Here you need to be prepared to negotiate; ask the driver to turn on the meter if there is one, or agree a fare in advance. Prices rise after 8pm, and you may find that you prefer to book through your accommodation instead of haggling on the street. 

Caleche:

They might look like the ultimate tourist-mobile, but Moroccans have been travelling by caleche (horse-drawn cart) for centuries. You’ll see them lined up in key tourist hot spots. If you fancy it, we recommend combining the experience with the trip either to or from somewhere like the Jardin Marjorelle. Be prepared to negotiate on price!

Car Rental:

In our opinion the experience on the roads depends on whether you’re in a city or travelling from location to location. We’d warn against trying to do too much city driving as streets are narrow and congested, while more rural roads are quieter with interesting views, and the autoroutes are generally fine. We’d also advise sticking to driving during daylight hours where possible. As with driving in any new country, it’s worth keeping your wits about you, keeping your distance and treating other drivers with caution. Lots of rental cars come fairly battered - make sure any pre-existing dents and scratches are recorded on your paperwork. 

Lastly, if all you’re looking to do is travel between two locations and back like we did, it’s always worth seeing what kind of transfer your accommodation at either end can provide. 

Explore What to See and Do in Marrakesh
Marrakesh La Jardin Secret
Explore Marrakesh's Gardens

Le Jardin Marjorelle

Le Jardin Marjorelle was designed by the French artist Jacques Marjorelle in 1924, taking over 40 years to create. In 1980, Yves Saint-Laurent and his partner gifted the Le Jardin Majorelle to Marrakesh as a way to preserve it and keep it open to the public. This beautiful garden combines an impressive cactus collection with tranquil pools and fountains against a cobalt-blue backdrop. There is also an impressive YSL and Berber museum that are definitely worth a visit. Go early to avoid the crowds.

Cost: Around 70 Dirhams (€7)

Opening Times: 8am-6pm (shorter hours during Ramadan).

Le Jardin Secret

Le Jardin Secret was founded in the 16th century and only opened to the public in 2016 after years of restoration. Compared to much of Marrakesh, is it still a ‘secret’. The space is divided into an exotic and an Islamist garden with stunning planting, tiling and pagoda. Don’t miss a drink on the veranda looking out over the view.

Cost: 50 Dirhams for an adult ticket (€5)

Opening Times: 9.30am-7.30pm (shorter hours during Ramadan)

Marrakesh Souks
Getting lost in the Medina, souks and tanneries

Marrakesh is home to the largest souks in the world, and they offer an incredible and authentic Moroccan experience. Traditionally, all souks were divided in accordance to what commodities were being made and sold. With the most valuable products positioned in the centre of the souk area and the less expensive items on the outer borders. Despite some modernisation of goods, the products being sold today are much the same as they were 1000 years ago.

The Medina and souks are an assault on the senses, filled with aromatic and improbably tall spice towers, colourful leather and metal goods, and irresistible textiles. Take your time wandering, savouring the experience, and don’t worry about getting lost, you’ll soon work out where you’ve got to. Hone up your haggling skills and step right in - What are you visiting Marrakesh for if not to indulge in some good-natured bartering?!

The souks run from Jemaa el Fna square and continue until they reach the Musée de Marrakesh. The souks open from 9am  and run until 9pm. We recommend visiting in the morning or evening when it is a little cooler.

Marrakesh Bahia Palace
Explore Museums, architecture and interiors

Don’t miss the stunning architecture, intricately carved doors, beautiful tiling (you’ll be desperate to recreate at home) and peaceful outdoor spaces at Marrakesh’s key sites. We suggest seeing some or all of the Bahia Palace (pictured), Ben Youssef Madrasa school and the Dar Si Said museum.

And, for the perfect end to a day, a wander around the Musee de la Photographie finished off with a pot of mint tea on its floral rooftop looking out over Marrakesh really hits the spot. 

Beldi Country Club Marrakesh
Experience a Hammam experience 

The full Moroccan deep cleanse comprises hot steamy rooms, a personal scrub-down with traditional black soap, and thorough washing with hot and cold water. It’s described by many as an out of body experience, and we think it’s unmissable!

We visited Les Bains de Marrakech, but there are lots of options for a range of budgets, including the stunning Royal Mansour with its intricate white lace fretwork interior. Many riads can also include a hammam experience as part of your stay, but the dedicated hammams are rarely bettered. 

In need of a bit more R&R? The Beldi Country Club (pictured) is just 10 minutes from the centre of Marrakesh by taxi, and is a calm oasis away from the city. The gardens comprise cool relaxing pools, rose gardens and olive groves, with views out to the Atlas Mountains and complete with its own spa and restaurant (there are also hotel rooms if you’d prefer to stay a little outside Marrakesh itself). 

Marrakesh Jemma el Fnaa Square
Explore Jemaa el Fnaa and the Koutoubia Mosque

Overlooked by the towering minaret of the majestic Koutoubia Mosque, Jemaa el Fnaa is a bit of a tourist trap but equally an unmissable sight in Marrakesh. As the busiest square in Africa, this chaotic space is filled with acrobats, musicians, snake charmers and traditional dancers and comes into its element at night. The nightly food market turns it into a smoky, hectic space, with propositioning hawkers keen for your custom. We visited stall number 1 (there are plenty of signs stating that it is stall number one, even if its location doesn’t!) to sample the menu, but I imagine they are all much of a muchness. Ask your accommodation provider for tips if you’re unsure. 

Marrakesh Riad and food
Sample the local cuisine

Melt in the mouth vegetable tagines, lemon and olive chicken falling off the bone, fragrant couscous, freshly baked flatbreads, sweet mint tea poured artistically from a great height, what’s not love about Moroccan cuisine?! Many riads also offer cooking courses to teach how to recreate the dishes you’ve sampled during your stay.

The Agafay Desert

Before we get into the details we should highlight that the Agafay desert is definitely not the Sahara. If you go expecting endless rolling golden sand dunes you may be disappointed! The Agafay desert is rocky, barren and vast, with expansive views and starry nights. It’s located just 45 minutes from Marrakesh, compared to the 5-6 hour journey to the Sahara. 

We spent a night at Terre des Etoiles, a sustainable eco-lodge in the midst of the Agafay and it was the highlight of our trip. Our experience was a pleasure from start to finish; a 4x4 collected us from our Marrakesh riad, transporting us out to the desert, where we were met with mint tea and a tour of our base for the night. 

Here, rooted in the landscape, Berber-inspired tents rise out of the sand and stones, set against desert views reaching across to the Atlas Mountains. Inside, the tents are simple but luxurious, combining an outdoor experience with all mod cons. 

Around the wider camp is a permaculture-based bio garden; supplying the kitchen ingredients for your meals, a camel paddock, livestock farm with chickens, goats and donkeys, a restaurant and two plunge pools. Activities range from hikes to bike rides, sunset camel tours, to quad bike adventures, as well as indulgences closers to home; massages, yoga, cooking classes and getting your hands dirty in the vegetable garden. 

Terre des Etoiles prides itself on its contribution to ecotourism and local sustainable development. The team is trained in responsible management, particularly in terms of waste and water use and they are proud holders of the Green Key Label, recognising sustainability in tourism and catering. 

We elected for a couple of hours relaxing by the plunge pools before exploring the kitchen garden (admiring and comparing notes on the courgettes and other veggies compared to what we have succeeded with at home in London). We then headed off on a sunset camel tour, gently plodding across the desert and taking in the views as the sun set ahead of us. Dinner is served in an achingly stylish communal tent (you’ll be recreating the indoor/outdoor look back home), and we had delicious vegetable and chicken tagine, perfectly seasoned. Heading back to our tent for the evening we were presented with a solar powered lamp to light our way. En route we couldn’t resist taking a seat beside the fire pit in the centre of the camp, gazing up at the millions of stars twinkling above us. 

Three other desert camps near Marrakesh:

Or, if you’ve got a bit more time, consider heading on to Imlil and the High Atlas Mountains for incredible hikes, stunning views and yet another side to this wonderful country.  

Explore Accommodation in Marrakesh
Riads (Mid Range option)

There are endless accommodation options in Marrakesh, ranging from tiny hostels and riads to luxurious sprawling hotel and pool complexes (well known names include Sofitel, Le Meridien, Movenpick).

Our tip would be to seek out a small, well-rated riad within the Medina walls, close enough to some of the key sights you want to visit. On this trip we stayed at Riad L’Oriental Medina, located close to La Maison de la Photographie, but also recommend Riad Dar Zaman, slightly further north in the city. 

Entering a riad is one of the most calming yet contrasting experiences you can have. The narrow, winding medina streets complete with bicycles, mopeds and street sellers disappear as you open the carved wooden door to the serene space within. With the increase in tourism to Morocco over the past decades, many riads have overgone a transformation, which means there is plenty of stunning accommodation to choose from, much of it on a really affordable budget - L’Oriental Medina currently has rooms for two for £54 per night.

Hostel (Budget option)

Riad Jennah Rouge is a fantastic option for solo travellers exploring Marrakesh. Set right in the middle of all the action and close to Jemaa El Fna square, this hostel offers luxury but at backpacker prices. The dorms are colourful and cozy and the beds are super comfy! And every room (private or dorm) comes with an ensuite! The courtyard is a space of opulence with three magical fountains, there is a secret garden on the terrace and they have a shisha annexe - a great place to meet fellow travellers.

Expect to pay around €8 for a bed in a mixed dorm.

Explore What and Where to Eat in Marrakesh

Street Food:

  • Marrakesh has plenty on offer when it comes to market stalls and 'street food'. Why not try Snail soup which can easily be found in and around Jemaa El Fna sqaure? This flavoursome broth may not look appetising, but it does have plenty of health and digestive benefits attached to it!
  • Fancy a delicious carby snack after walking around all day in the heat? Why not try Ma'qooda. These delicious deep-friend potato balls are a popular and filling snack. Why not team it with spicy harissa for a chili kick?
  • More of a sweet than savory person? Make sure you try Chebakia. A sweet Moroccan cookie, deep fried in syrup or honey. 

Local Food:

  • Terrasse des Epices: Offers the perfect setting for a relaxing lunch after a spot of souk shopping. Situated on the roof terrace of Souk Cherifa, this places offers a relaxed and stylish yet refined vibe. Head there early to make sure you get a table. The menu offers Morroccan and International cuisine at reasonable prices.

Something a Little Different:

  • Henna Art Cafe: Follow the blue sign in the metalworkers' souk and you will discover the sweet oasis of the Henna Art Cafe. This little health food cafe is also home to a gift shop, art gallery, cozy roof terrace and school for aspiring henna artists. As a visitor you can actually observe the artists at work. Run by a traveller who ended up calling Marrakesh his home and a local Berber, Henna Art offers incredible budget friendly food - from hummus soup to chicken gumbo. 

Vegan and Vegetarian Food:

  • The Earth Cafe is a great one for veggies. Head to the metal workers souk and you can't miss the signpost. Advocates of zero carbon footprint and sustainability, this cafe offers fantastic vegan and veggie meals - from filo pastry to homemade noodles. There are also cooking classes on offer and an organic food and beauty shop. Expect to pay around €5 for a main dish.