I had wanted to visit Marrakech, Morocco for years and was a little concerned about traveling as a solo female. Looking through the web and through various guidebooks, it seems like whether to travel in Marrakech solo is a common question, so I thought I would put together a few ideas about my experience. I hope this post helps other travelers–whether single or in groups–about whether to visit Marrakech.
1. Firstly, do visit Marrakech as the city and its people are wonderful. I would emphasize that the security is very good as with secret police in the Medina, as well as the king’s emphasis on the importance of tourism to Morocco, visitors are not going to have any serious problems.
Marrakech is vibrant, historical and filled with amazing sights and shops and I already want to go back. Be sure to visit the Badii Palace, Dar Si Said, Jardin Majorelle, the main square, Djemaa El-Fna (both in the day and at night as the square changes hourly), Ben Youssef Medersa, Bahia Palace, the gardens of the Koutoubia Minaret, the Saadian Tombs and the souqs just as starters. There is so much to see in Marrakech and I was very surprised that one of my guidebooks said that Marrakech is short on sights. I spent five days in the city and easily could have spent more time.
2. If you are staying in the Medina, everything will be handled through your riad. Before booking my trip, I was having a little trouble searching the web, trying to find tour groups and guides.
My riad, Riad Assakina (highly recommended), advised that they could book tours for me so I took advantage of a half-day tour of Marrakech my first morning in the city. This tour was extremely useful as I quickly got a feel for the layout of the Medina as well as details about some of the city’s history. I actually chose a female guide, Nora, who is part of a company called Tours by Locals. With roughly just 10 percent of all guides being female, I wanted to help out Nora’s business. It was also interesting getting a woman’s perspective on things, as for instance, one area of the Djemaa El-Fna is filled with women selling goods. These women are sadly very poor, being widowed or divorced, and are trying to make a living selling what few goods they have.
Nora was funny and surprised I was not married. She looked up and said a prayer “May God grant you a husband”, which I thought was cute. The guides are flexible and will ask what you want to see. While you will be taken to the souqs to shop, my guide was up front that she makes the majority of her pay from commissions and that I was under no obligation to buy anything. I appreciated Nora’s honesty, she was extremely knowledgable about the city’s history, and I would recommend a guide as a starting point for visitors.
3. Do research. I could tell just leaving the airport what tourists had done no research about what to see, cultural differences, language barriers, etc. as some just rode around in horse carriages with glazed looks.
I read several guidebooks going in, as well as reading several websites (including asking for help from some travelers who have been to Marrakech). With all the information available about Marrakech (as this is a major tourist destination), I had a very good idea of what to expect.
4. Be respectful. I can’t emphasize this point enough. Dress to fit local culture and learn a few words of Arabic or French. I found that a smile along with a salam (hello) went a long way. Some instances were very funny and one of my favorites was a shop owner calling out if I wanted to visit his shop. I answered “La shukran” (“no thanks” in Arabic) and then said in English that “I’m good”. The shop owner answered back “I’m good too”. If you are respectful, people genuinely want to help you in return.
As an example, I went to the post office to mail a few cards and was surrounded by people trying to help. Between a few words of Arabic, French and English, we worked out together that I was trying to send some postcards to the United States and the United Kingdom. Everyone at the post office was much more helpful than what you would find in the United States.
Someone is always watching out for you in the Medina. Your riad treats you like family and they are a wealth of information of the “dos and don’ts of Marrakech”. In addition, if you buy something at a shop, the shop owner will be watching for you and calling out “salam”. I visited one herbalist, which was very interesting. Many people cannot afford doctors so there are various shops offering herbal remedies.
As a solo female, I had to laugh that the female clerk was showing me all sorts of remedies from anything from stomach ailments to depression to menopause to even Berber Viagra (!!). The shop I visited was in the Mellah (former Jewish quarter) near my riad and anytime I walked past, this clerk would give a big smile and say “salam”.
5. Traffic in the Medina is chaotic but that’s part of the fun of visiting. Between cars, scooters, donkey carts, horse carriages and bicycles, crossing the street may be the most dangerous part of a visit. Most parts of the Medina do not have traffic lights. I was advised to stay to the right and hold out my hand to stop traffic. Sometimes that worked and often it didn’t, but if all else fails, get behind a group of locals and follow them.
The Medina is a bustling community and it may seem strange going from the peace and quiet at your riad into chaotic streets, but it’s part of the experience of Marrakech (and a part I loved!). You will quickly learn the Arabic word “Belak!” which means get out-of-the-way.
6. There will be beggars but this is more a financial reality than anything scary. As with any country in the world, there will be people who are poor. I felt particularly bad for some of the women with small babies and as a rule, 1 to 2 dirhams is what the locals give in donations. I was told not to give any money to child beggars–always give to adults. I was advised that there are few social services, so giving a few dirhams to the people who need it most will be appreciated.
7. You will get lost but that is part of the experience. If you are in the Medina, there are very few street signs and with the narrow alleys (derbs) and coverings in the souqs, you will quickly lose track of where you are. Even with a good map, be sure to pay close attention to landmarks, as many derbs are dead ends, and you will need to retrace your footsteps. If all else fails, look up for the Koutoubia Minaret, which towers over the Medina. The Koutoubia is on the west side of the Djemaa El-Fna, and if you see the Koutoubia, you will have an idea of directions. I consider myself to be good with directions and still got lost. I ended up at the end of one street where taxis were being repaired and suddenly realized I was the only tourist.
Several people came up and asked if they could help me find my way.
8. Be sure to wear closed-toe, comfortable walking shoes, as with donkeys, horses, etc., sandals might not be practical. Parts of the Medina are also very uneven so be sure you have something that’s easy on your feet.
Also be sure to carry any medicines you may need. While there are pharmacies in the Medina, with the difficulty in directions and the possible language barriers between Arabic, French and English (English will be third), it’s easiest to have any medicines with you.
9. The Medina is constantly changing during the day especially around the Djemaa El-Fna. In the mornings, the main square is filled with orange juice vendors, spice vendors, makeshift dentists constructing dentures (one vendor had a shoebox full of dentures, snake charmers (which I avoided even though the cobras are defanged) and henna painters.
If you are going to get a henna tattoo, be sure to get the red versus the black. I was told by several locals that the red henna is more natural, while the black has chemicals that could cause blisters or burns.
At night, the Djemaa El-Fna is filled with food stalls and story tellers. I loved watching the animated crowds around the story tellers who emphasize their stories with tamborines. The better story tellers seem to draw bigger crowds. Locals in the square are happy to explain what is happening, as I was watching one game with fishing rods, where plastic attachments are looped over coke bottles. Apparently, this is extremely hard to win and one local advised that a few dirhams may be bet on the winner. The square seemed to have more tourists during the day with more locals at night.
10. There are two types of taxis being petit taxis and grand taxis (Mercedes). I never took a grand taxi, but in a petit taxi, be sure to either agree a price up front or make sure the meter works. A “broken” meter is illegal, but it will be difficult to enforce this. A petit taxi may try to charge 100 dirhams to get across the city, which is grossly inflated. I was told that correct rates should be in the area of 20 dirhams by day and 40 by night. Petit taxis are allowed to pick up three passengers total, so do not be alarmed if your taxi stops to pick up others. I mainly walked everywhere but if you want to see the Jardin Majorelle, you will need to take a petit taxi.
11. If you are looking for other tourists to exchange information, try Kosybar in the Kaspah. I went here a few times mainly to watch the storks fly to the Badii Palace at sunset, but there are several tourists at this bar. While prices at Kosybar are expensive, I met some other solo females as well as some couples traveling and it’s a great place to strike up a conversation.
12. There is an open air bus that circles Marrakech that can be picked up at the far end of the Djemaa El-Fna, across from the Koutoubia Minaret. While this bus is expensive (145 dirhams), the ticket is good for 24 hours and you can get on or off the bus at any stop. Information is provided in eight languages and this will give new visitors a general idea of the layout of Marrakech.
13. Public facilities are uncommon and be sure to carry some tissue paper. Some of the restaurants around the Djemaa El-Fna will let you use the restrooms for 1 or 2 dirham. I found the Ensemble Artisanal (which sells crafts at fixed prices) a good place to stop for facilities and there is a small outdoor cafe for tea and chocolates at the Ensemble as well. Be aware that Morocco is a tipping society and the attendants in restrooms will expect a tip. This is how these individuals make their living and a part of local culture, so respect this accordingly. I was very upset with another American female who was very rude to an attendant because she was upset with the tipping culture.
14. I never quite figured out the souqs as some shops will say they have set prices, others will emphasize that they are not the souqs, while others will want to bargain. I had to laugh that at one shop, I was told I “bargained like a Berber” (I knocked 50% off the price to start) and it’s hard to know what price is actually the correct one. Shop owners are usually helpful, though, and I loved looking through all the amazing handicrafts in different stores. Marrakech is filled with talented craftsmen and I could easily have brought back another suitcase of goods. One of the couples at my riad had to go out and buy another suitcase.
Overall, I loved Marrakech and want to go back. The city is an amazing mix of cultures and well worth a visit. As a solo female, while you may have a few comments made, it’s more amusing than anything else (and nothing worse than you get at home) as most people are extremely helpful and hospitable.