Morocco is one of those countries that’s inherently cheap, but it’s also easy to go broke there. During the 12 days of my first visit to Morocco, I resisted countless scams, fell victim to a couple of them, and generally learned how to get by on a minimal budget. Here are my tips for traveling to Marrakech as a backpacker.
Please note that credit cards are very rarely accepted in Morocco, and ATMs can be scarce. Make sure you withdraw some money from an ATM at the airport when you arrive. Don’t use money exchangers – that’s never a good idea anywhere.
Tripadvisor lists over 2000 places to stay in Marrakech, ranging from as little as $5 a night to well over $1000. As usual, the quality varies just as widely as the price. The resorts definitely aren’t backpacker budget-friendly, but they are idyllic paradises if you do happen to be able to afford them. Many of them are all-inclusive and you’ll get royally pampered. Then again, some of the cheaper hostels are actually quite nice.
The first thing to know is that Marrakech doesn’t disclose the full price of their hostels right away on booking websites. The hostels are listed for as cheap as $5 a night, but you have to read the fine print to see that the city tax is not included. That comes out to another $3 per person per night. While that’s not a lot, just make sure that you plan for the extra expense if you’re on a really tight budget. Most places will be expecting you to pay the city tax in cash when you leave.
For my first five days, I stayed at the Dream Kasbah – one of the cheapest options in town. There’s hardly anything good I can say about them. I waited half an hour for their 24-hour reception to open up for me when they knew I was arriving late, and another 45 minutes to get change after paying for my room. The breakfast was served so late I never had a chance to eat it, the rooms were noisy, busy and dirty with minimal security, the location was far from the main attractions in town, and I had to walk 15 minutes just to visit an ATM to pay for my room. Simply put, you get what you pay for.
My second hostel was the complete opposite. Located just a couple minutes from the main square of Marrakech, Bed Square is a newer hostel with only a couple dozen beds (including private rooms). For about $14 a night, you get a huge, uber-comfortable, sturdy bed in a 6-bed dorm with comfortable bedding and pillows, and a curtain that completely blocks out the light. The whole hostel is beautifully decorated, and the staff is so friendly and helpful. Breakfast in the morning is up on the terrace (or downstairs if it’s raining) and the staff serves you at your seat! I’ve certainly never had that at a hostel before.
Another great example of a hostel is Equity Point, which has won Hostelworld’s award for best hostel in Morocco, not to mention third best in Africa! They have hundreds of beds available, a beautiful swimming pool with their name in it, a massive rooftop terrace and bar where you can get all kinds of meals, a business lounge, laundry room, etc. I’d happily stay there the next time I’m in Marrakech, although I did like the smaller feel of Bed Square. Rooms are as little as $10 a night, plus city tax.
A slightly more expensive option for accommodations in Marrakech is Riads. What’s a Riad? Think luxury guesthouse. These are located throughout the Medina (walled old town) and are usually built into ancient homes. They almost always have a functioning indoor swimming pool which also helps to keep the premises cool in the summer. While I didn’t stay in any, I visited a couple and found them opulent, to say the least. They serve fancy, homemade meals, have rooftop terraces with great views of the city, and one even had separate internet connections in each of its rooms!
Riads aren’t the most budget options, but neither are they as much as most of the resorts. You can find a good Riad for as little as $20 a night, and most include a delicious local breakfast. The difficulty with the Riads is finding them. Google Maps only shows perhaps 10% of the streets in the Medina. The rest are small alleyways which comprise the ultimate labyrinth. The specific location of the Riads isn’t accurate on Google Maps either, and you might wander around for several minutes before you find the right door. Finally, some of the doors are barely marked. The beautiful Riad Star which I visited was simply marked with a single star on the door at the end of a long, dark, winding alleyway. Luckily, many of the Riad managers will come to meet you in the main square to show you the way.
Hotels and Resorts
First of all, there aren’t any resorts in the Medina. Some are just to the west of the old town, while others are in the palm tree-filled Palmeraie region to the northeast of town. As mentioned before, many of these are all-inclusive. They start at around $50 a night and go up to well over $1000. If you have the budget for it, the higher-end resorts offer quite a luxurious experience.
I had a chance to visit the Mandarin Oriental Resort and Spa and saw one of their pool villas. The self-contained villa includes a large private swimming pool and jacuzzi surrounded by a kitchen, lounge room, master bedroom, massive bathroom with hot tub and sauna, dining room, and even a separate house with a double bedroom and bathroom for the kids! But that’s nearly $1000 a night.
Getting around Marrakech can be a very difficult challenge and just might be where you end up spending the most money while you’re in town! Public buses don’t always show up on Google Maps, taxis very rarely follow the law and use the meter honestly, and walking around the Medina can get you lost in a heartbeat. Here are some tricks to keep yourself oriented and save money.
Outside of the Medina, I would always recommend using the city buses…if you can find the right one. They cost a paltry 4 dirham, which is about $0.42. There’s a good network of them around the city. Bus 19 from the airport (which is only about 15 minutes from the Medina) costs 30 dirhams. Some of the buses do show up on Google Maps. For the rest, you can use the interactive map here.
Several locals tried to dissuade me from taking the buses. They told me the buses would be overcrowded and wouldn’t take me to where I wanted to go. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Google Maps told me that there were four buses from the main square to the train station. I jumped on the first to arrive. There were only two other people on the bus. Sure, it looked like a 1960’s relic, but it got me to where I needed to go when a taxi would have charged me twenty times the price or more.
Speaking of taxis, that’s the next option, although I can’t call it a budget option. If you look at the official city websites, they will tell you that there are two taxis available: Petit Taxis and Grand Taxis, both yellow. Legally, they are supposed to use the meter, which would probably cost about $1-5 for a 15-minute trip. In my 12 days in Marrakech, I didn’t succeed in getting a single taxi to agree to use the meter!
I have a confession. I actually only used one taxi in all the time I was in Marrakech. A couple times I helped a friend get a taxi, and I talked to several to see how much they would charge me. The one I did take was back from the Movenpick Hotel to the city center, and we got a deal of 100 dirhams ($10.50) for 8 people. On the other hand, I heard several stories of friends getting charged as much as 350 dirhams ($37) for the 15-minute ride from the airport.
The biggest tip I can give for getting a taxi in Marrakech is to avoid picking one up at the Medina or airport. Walk a couple streets away from either and there should be a higher chance of finding a taxi that will agree to use the meter, or at least give you a price which isn’t ridiculous. Marrakech isn’t like Rabat, where you can actually get taxis (the white one) for 5 dirhams per ride.
The best way to get around Marrakech is simply by walking. Unless you’re staying in a resort far from the city center, there are few places that you’ll need to get to that aren’t in walking distance. Even the airport and bus station are less than an hour’s walk from the city center, although I know that’s a bit much for most people.
When it comes to getting around the Medina, walking really is the only option. Taxis can’t navigate the small streets. Motorcycles can, but unless you have a friend who will give you a ride, you’re not likely to find a motorcycle taxi service. Navigating through the endless maze of the Medina is a challenge, especially if you’re trying to find a particular store or Riad. While not everyone seems to have your best interest at heart, I actually got a lot of help from the locals who gave me directions. Don’t be afraid to ask, but keep your Google Maps handy, if only to verify which direction you’re walking.
Some of the Riads I visited had more detailed maps than Google Maps provided. They still didn’t show nearly all the small streets and alleyways of the Medina, but they do help. See if you can get your hands on one, especially if you plan to explore the Medina in depth.
Years ago, my sister brought me to a Moroccan restaurant in Portland, Oregon, ironically called Marrakesh. It was one of my favorite restaurants in the US, and thus I fell in love with the Moroccan cuisine. It’s rare that a country’s cuisine tastes better outside its place of origin. Moroccan food is no exception. By the end of my stay there, I felt like an absolute glutton.
Within the Medina, there are dozens of street vendors selling pastries, kebabs, soups and such. I sampled several items, although many times I had no idea what it was I ate! On my first night, I had a couple triangular savory pastries I thought were samosas, but they tasted fishy (like fish, not questionable). I think I got two of them for 12 dirhams ($1.30). Another time, a tour guide purchased a bowl of soup for me from a vendor. I was told it was harira, but it didn’t look like any of the photos I’d seen of the traditional chickpea soup. It tasted like hummus submerged in argon oil. Served with a fresh loaf of bread, it was delicious.
I’m certainly no expert on the street food of Marrakech. I definitely recommend trying it, but perhaps grab a local to show you around and direct you to which meals to try. However you choose, it will be your cheapest option for eating.
My favorite food in Marrakech was at the plethora of small cafes around the city. The food they offered was usually of surprisingly good quality, and a full meal could often be purchased for only $3-4. As usual, the cafes are more expensive closer to the main square or the more “touristy” they look. Head for the smaller streets to find better and cheaper options.
My “go to” cafe for the latter half of my visit to Marrakech was Roti D’or, just around the corner from my Bed Square hostel. It’s a family-run shop offering a handful of different options. The menu is separated into different cuisines – local, Latin, oriental and burgers, all with a local twist. Over the course of a week, I tried the chicken chawarma wrap (twice), the quesadilla, and the double burger. It was often hard to find a seat at a table…always a good indicator. The ingredients tasted fresh, the flavor was wonderful and the portions were large – all served with a side of skinny fries.
There’s another cafe I found with a fellow blogger, almost by accident. Within the warren of streets north of the main square is a veritable hole in the wall called Naima Couscous. As you might have guessed, they serve couscous. Chicken couscous to be specific, and that’s all! It’s three elderly ladies who prepare and serve the meal as an endless chain while they’re open. The meal started off with the usual mint tea, although theirs was anything but usual. After all the too sweet or too bitter teas I’d had in Morocco, it was almost a shock to find one that was just right. The bowl of couscous and vegetables was enough for four people. We barely made it through half of it before we capitulated. After a couple more cups of tea, one of the ladies brought us dessert – a choice of baklava pieces she had in the fridge. The price was a little high – 200 dirhams – but that would have been fine if split four or five ways.
This probably doesn’t fit your lifestyle as a backpacker, but if you’re looking for something a bit fancier, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. They’re not going to be kind to your wallet, but the experience will probably be unforgettable if you find a good one. Here are a couple that I had the pleasure to eat at while in Marrakech.
My first indulgence was at Restaurant Dar Zellij. Located one mile north of the main square, this hidden gem serves some fantastic dishes. The Trablin International Summit welcome dinner was held there. It wasn’t a dinner, strictly speaking. Instead, a constant stream of waiters brought dish after dish around the gathering. I honestly didn’t know what half the dishes were, but all of them were special. Morocco really does love their spices, and Dar Zellij used them to the full. Throughout the dinner, we had several different entertainment shows. I didn’t know the names of half the dances, and I was surprised there wasn’t a belly dance (I guess that’s only in American-Moroccan restaurants) but we did get to watch women balancing candle trays on their heads while dancing. At the end of the evening, we were brought into a separate room where they had an epic dessert display. Morocco certainly knows how to make sweets!
Then there was the Mes’Lalla restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Resort. I was invited to have a meal at Mes’Lalla after missing the Trablin speakers’ dinner there (I was still on my African desert safari). The restaurant is beautifully decorated with Berber styles everywhere, while books and ancient artifacts line the walls. My first course was a cream of celery soup, garnished with smoked salmon. This was followed by a selection of six different Moroccan salads, (Peppers Taktouka, M’charmel carrots marinated with Atlas spices, M’aslaa tomato with Saffron from Taliouine, Seasoned eggplant Zaalouk, Beetroot and Granny Smith apple, Cherry tomato and pickled onion with cumin). The main course was lamb tajine with prunes and caramelized almonds. That was as good as it sounds. Finally I had dessert: almond mhancha, a Moroccan almond pastry coiled like a snake and topped with ice cream and an orange blossom. If that’s not decadent, I don’t know what is. Honestly, I don’t even know how I made it through all that food, except that it was so good I would never have been able to stop myself.
Marrakech is a city absolutely full of attractions. It’s also full of tourists. Perhaps too much so. Personally, I would recommend getting out of Marrakech to see one of the other cities – Rabat, Tangier, Fez or Casablanca. Then there’s Chefchaouen – the blue city. A trip to Merzouga for an African desert safari is an absolute must if you’re visiting Morocco. Unfortunately, all those locations are several hours away from Marrakech and not feasible as a day trip. So if you just have a day or two to explore the city, here are some of the highlights.
In northern Africa, the walled old town of a city is called the Medina. Also, the fortress (usually within the Medina) is called the Kasbah. The Medina in Marrakech dates back nearly 1000 years, Walking around the endless maze of streets, you certainly get the feel that the place is ancient. Crumbled ruins are everywhere, with slightly more modern ruins piled on top of them. Hardly anything in the Medina could be referred to as “modern,” at least until you walk into one of the Riads or fancy restaurants.
The highlight of the Medina is the souk, or market. While it might seem like one continuous market, there are actually dozens of souks, although I have no idea how to tell where one ends and the next one begins. Many have different items they focus on, such as the dyeing souk, the metalsmith souk and the jewelry souk. The rest seem to feature the same general wares and spices.
One of my favorite shops within the Medina was the Herboriste la Sagesse, an herbalist shop a few minutes north of the main square. They have a list of certificates from the government showing that they are a genuine herbalist, and the number of herbs and oils they have available is staggering. The clerk gave a full indoctrination of Moroccan herbs to fellow bloggers and me. Two that were most interesting to me were eucalyptus crystals which could be liquefied in hot water and sniffed to completely open the sinuses, and nigella (black seed) which is the miracle herb of Morocco. I ended up purchasing both, although I’m still researching nigella to ensure it doesn’t have any harmful or drug-related properties.
One thing to keep in mind is limiting your photography. Many places will get upset if you take photos of their wares or artwork (which isn’t unusual). If you take photos of any of the workers, whether it’s the dyers, the metalsmiths or the ladies grinding nuts for argon oil, you’ll be expected to tip them and they can get quite nasty if you don’t.
The Secret Garden
One of the more impressive attractions within the Medina is the Secret Garden, Dating back to the 1600s, this garden is a hidden gem, and really does seem out of place in Marrakech. The gardens were renovated in the past century and now offer a beautiful respite from the hecticness of the Medina. Tickets to the gardens are 50 dirhams ($5.25), but I’d recommend paying an additional 30 dirhams to climb the tower over the gardens for the best photos.
Bahia Palace is a rather new addition to Marrakech. Built in the 19th century, it was one of the more beautiful palaces in Morocco. The Grand Vizier of Marrakesh, Si Ahmed ben Musa (Bou-Ahmed) built the palace for his four wives and twenty-four concubines, not to mention all the children. As such, he wanted a bit of privacy and built the palace with numerous doors which prevented anyone from being able to see in.
Entrance to the palace is 70 dirhams. The website says it’s only 10, but that’s only for the locals. You can give yourself a self-guided tour, or go in as part of a guided tour. I would recommend the guided tour as there are no information panels and you’d miss all the history and stories behind the beautiful architecture and artwork.
Saadiens Tombs in the Kasbah
This is actually the one key attraction in Marrakech I didn’t make it into. It was part of my walking tour, but there was a confusion about the entry costs to the different attractions and we ended up skipping this one. I only bring it up as it was important enough to be one of the three attractions on our walking tour. I’ll be sure to visit the next time I’m in Marrakech. Tickets are 70 dirhams (again, 10 for locals).
Essaouira is actually a coastal town about three hours away from Marrakech, but it’s accessible as a one-day excursion. I would say Essaouira is the perfect counterpoint to Marrakech. While beautiful and old, it doesn’t have the over-crowded Medina, the crazy souks or the mass-tourism feel. It’s also the location for a key Game of Thrones scene, and Jimi Hendricks made it his home. The tours are as little as $25 (which just covers the van to and from Essaouira), which I’d consider a great deal. Essaouira is a must if you’re visiting Marrakech.
Read my full article on A Day Trip to the Coastal Town of Essaouira, Morocco.
There a ton more I could say about Marrakech, but to keep this from becoming a full-length e-book, I will publish the rest of the information as separate articles. There are a couple key points which I will expound upon in those articles, such as how safe Marrakech is, some of the fantastic meals to try, tricks for navigating through the souks and how to avoid the scams (perhaps a little in contrast to how safe it is).
In a nutshell, I really liked Marrakech, but I didn’t love it. It was a little too crowded, too touristy, too scammy and too dirty. I preferred other Moroccan towns I visited (what little I saw of them), and I found Morocco as a whole to be completely enchanting…mainly due to that incredible African desert safari. I certainly can’t wait to get back to Morocco and explore all the other cities I missed, eat some more of the delicious food and hopefully have a repeat of the desert safari.
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Headed to Morocco? Here are my other articles about my first 12-day adventure in the country.
- How Easy and Hard Getting Into Morocco Was for Me
- Marrakech Excursions: A Day Trip to the Coastal Town of Essaouira, Morocco
- A Fantastic African Desert Safari at the Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
Cover Photo Credit: Luis Martin Castell