The Marrakech Medina & Jemaa El-fnaa will blow your senses like nothing ever before
THe Marrakech Medina is the heartbeat of this historic city and the main square, Jemaa El-fnaa is the ball of electricity that will consume every fibre of your being!
Morocco has become a hotbed for tourism and for long term, solo and budget travelers. Most of us start backpacking in Marrakech before moving on around the rest of the country. However there is one problem…
Before you realise it, you’ll find yourself in the Marrakech Medina and in Jemaa El-fnaa (the main square). You’ll be swept up in in this crazy, chaotic, weird, energetic, sense pulsating, color engulfed city which rocks all your senses into oblivion.
Even for us experienced budget travelers and backpackers, budget traveling Marrakech blows our minds. So if you’re thinking of visiting Morocco and backpacking in Marrakech, I want to let you know, this post isn’t about what to see and do in the Marrakech medina, there are plenty of them for you to read.
In this post we’re going on a ground level journey of the Marrakech Medina, showing what you can expect inside the famous and historic walled city and show the craziness of the main square Jemaa El-fnaa.
Backpacking in Marrakech
Things to know about budget traveling Marrakech
Marrakesh: A former imperial city in western Morocco, is a major economic centre and home to mosques, palaces, and gardens.
- * Language: Arabic, French.
- * Is English Spoken: Moderate.
- * Currency: Dirham: (Closed currency.)
- * Backpacking Marrakech is: Fair, but can be done on a tight budget.
- * Check live rates here: XE.com – GDP to MAD
Visa options: British nationals don’t need a visa to enter Morocco for the purpose of tourism for up to 3 months. When entering the country, make sure your passport is stamped. Some tourists have experienced difficulties leaving the country because their passport bears no entry stamp.For more information visit: www.gov.uk
Things to bear in Mind for Morocco & the Marrakech medina and jemaa el-fnaa:
- – It’s a shame to say but females can get objectified in Morocco, especially western female tourists.
- – Remember to be respectful of their beliefs even if you don’t agree with them. You’re the one that’s chosen to go their country.
- – Dress accordingly and respectively.
- – Prayers are played over loud tannoys at different times of the day.
- – Although Arabic is the main language, French is also widely spoken – It’s good to learn a few French words before you go.
- – Be prepared for long-waits in passport control at Marrakech Airport – So make sure you go with adequate time.
- – Marrakech can basically be being split into two parts for travelers; New town and the Medina (old town.
- – Although generally safe there are pickpockets and scammers all over the Marrakech Medina
- – The store owners can turn nasty inside the marrakech Medina if you try take pictures without their permission
- – Snake charmers are scattered around the Marrakech medina
- There are touristy parts and local parts inside the Marrakech medina
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The New town
(Located in the Gueliz suburb) The new more modern, and up-market part of the city brimming with new businesses, Western franchises, shopping centres, casinos, hotels, and bars. Prices in this part of the city are hiked up to more European prices and not really budget travel friendly – I can’t really tell you anything about this side as I didn’t spend anytime there.
Book your stay in the New town through Booking.com
The Famous Marrakech Medina (Old Town)
While a lot of western tourists, holiday makers and even some backpacking Marrakech, choose to stay in the more expensive new town area because of the aforementioned. The old town however, is the main attraction. Like many other budget backpackers I stayed within the Marrakech Medina walled city. There are plenty of us backpacking Marrakech who choose the very affordable accommodation options inside the Marrakech medina
Book your Riad/hostel in the old town through HostelWorld
The Marrakech Medina, is where all the action happens, so budget marrakech is made even more fun
The Marrakech Medina is a densely packed, walled medieval city dating to the Berber Empire, with maze-like alleys where thriving souks (marketplaces) sell traditional textiles, pottery, and jewelry. A symbol of the city, and visible for miles, is the Moorish minaret of 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque. – Source google. Want a history lesson on the Marrakech Medina?… Check out: History of Marrakech
The main square of the Marrakech medina: Jemaa el-Fnaa
The main square Jemaa el-fnaa will serve as your main point in the Marrakech Medina. It’s where everything starts, access points and entrances to the souks, palace’s, mosques, restaurants, cafes, ATM’s and will be your reference point to get your bearings.
TIP: head to one of the terrace cafes to get an oversight of the Jemaa el-Fnaa square. Draw a mental map in your head of where things are and use it as a navigation tool. Or simply use google maps.
Scattered around jemaa el-fnaa are large and well-known cafes and restaurants like Cafe De France (You can’t miss it.) These restaurants and cafes will act as good reference points. Hostels, Riad’s and tour companies will use them to direct you and even serve as pick up points for tour companies.
Don’t worry you will be confused the first few times wondering around Jemaa el-Fnaa, but once you start getting reference points, navigating the Marrakech medina gets easier.
Jemaa El-Fnaa – Let the craziness begin
I’ll be honest, it can feel quite overwhelming inside the Marrakech medina at first. But don’t panic, the first time you experience it, just take a breath, try and relax, ignore everybody trying to sell you hashish and breath it all in. After a day or so, you’ll actually start to get used the Marrakech medina and Jemaa el-fnaa
As I mentioned at the top of the post, walking into the Marrakech Medina for the first time, will make your eyes pop. Your brain will go into hyperdrive, your wide eyes will ping from left and right trying to take in everything going off in front of you.
Try and imagine navigating a human assault course with all the snake charmers, henna artists, musicians, street artists, hawkers, bootleggers, beggars, street performers and market stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs swarm all over the square.
Backpacking Marrakech and walking into the Marrakech Medina for the first time makes a South East Asian night market seem tame. Your nose will be engulfed with all sorts of smells, your ears will hear all sorts of accents, chatter, music, everywhere.
And it’s not like you can just walk around the Marrakech medina or Jemaa el-Fnaa trying to take in or take pictures without being hassled. You will be hassled; the vendors, hawkers, merchants, snake charmers, and anybody whos looking to sell something are always on top of their game, so you have to be on yours. They don’t slack. They can sniff tourists and cameras a mile away and will be on you like a rash.
Snake Charmers in Jemaa el-Fnaa
These guys are the experts; not just at snake charming but sniffing out tourists and cameras. They have different tactics to get you too. Some will approach you and innocently ask you where you are from while leading you closer to the snakes and offer to take a close up picture of the snakes. Others will sneak up on you like a stealth ninja; and bam! Before you know it, you have a snake around your shoulder and they’re taking a picture.
No matter what their tactics are, they have one end goal; to get a tip from you and sometimes (usually) try and rip you off but stay firm.
I’ll be honest on my first day budget traveling inside the Marrakech medina, I was still a bit all over the place trying to process everything around me, I was sucked in by the vibrancy of the square and I made a schoolboy error. I should have known better but my guard was down and I got snagged.
School boy error in Jemaa El-Fnaa
I pulled out my camera too close to them and before I knew it my friend and I had a snake around our necks and the guy had my camera taking close-ups of snakes. The one that got me wanted 200 Dirhams as a tip (which is a lot), I stuck to my guns and only offered him 15 Dirhams. After a a lot back and forth, he took the 15.
TIP: You have to be savvy and stay firm while not just backpacking Marrakech but the whole of Morocco. – They will initially ask you for a ridiculous tip but keep to your guns and offer minimal. (Remember this isn’t haggling, these guys just try to get the most out of you because you’re a tourist and they think you’re obviously rich.)
Play the game when backpacking Marrakech
Once you’ve been there a couple of days, half the fun of budget traveling Marrakech medina is trying to dodge them, getting in snaps without them noticing you; it’s a fun game to play with the O.G’s of the Marrakech medina and Jemaa El-Fnaa.
But, if you have a recognizable face, after a few days of seeing you, they actually start leaving you alone. They have fresh faces to go after and not bothered about you anymore. (I actually got a little sad when they started to leave me alone.)
Beggars/hawkers/ vendors/ kids in the Marrakech medina & Jemaa el-fnaa
It’s not just the snake charmers you have to watch out for in the Marrakech medina or on Jemaa El-Fnaa, you’ll be approached by beggars, vendors, hawkers, and kids too. Like I said, you always have to be on guard when budget traveling Marrakech
The beggars are not too much of a problem just don’t make eye contact and a simple ‘no’ or just wave them away and they will not bother you.
The bootleggers and hawkers will approach you trying to sell you anything from sunglasses, hats, tissues, (yes random I know) selfie sticks to fake Iphones – Again they’re not too much of a problem, a simple “no thanks”, “I’ve already got one”, or “No Merci.” does the trick, Unless you want to buy something that is.
Market merchants and vendors inside the Marrakech medina will try to entice you to buy a souvenir – With these guys, the best thing to say is “Maybe tomorrow” – They will reply with “Maybe?” – Which you come back with a nod, smiling and say “Maybe” – They know you’re brushing them off but not being rude in just saying no. Remember they are just trying to make a living.
Now, the ones you do have to be wary of – the kids. They are not easy to shrug off, they will follow you, some will even try to reach into pockets or bags (I’ve seen it.) Do not fall for their charm or puppy eyes. They will pretend not to speak English but once you deny them, they will start speaking in English swearing at you. Watch out for these fucks inside the Marrakech Medina.
Even if you do give them something small, most will throw it back at you saying it’s not enough. When the kids harass you, even the locals, hawkers and vendors will step in to get them away from you; And for once they won’t even ask you for a tip.
TIP: It’s important when budget traveling Marrakech to teep your valuables close. Although it’s relatively safe, there are some pickpockets around, especially the kids.
It’s common while backpacking Marrakech and especially in the Marrakech medina and around Jemaa El-Fnaa locals will offer to help you. Don’t be fooled, they’re not doing it out of kindness. They will want to show you places, give directions, offer to be your guide, even offer to take you to your accommodation. Do not accept any offers from them, although in most cases, they will take you to the correct destination, they will ask for a big tip. And, more importantly, walking guides are illegal.
Food Wars inside the Marrakech medina!
When day turns to night inside the Marrakech medina the fun and games continue as the street food stalls join in. All of them come armed with reps vying to get you to eat at their stall; these guys will try everything to persuade you.
There are some amazing street stalls to eat at, but the close to Jemaa El-Fnaa they are the more expensive they become.
Pretty much everywhere you go, not just in the Marrakech Medina or around the whole city but all over Morocco, you’ll get offered hashish. You can literally be walking down the street and it will be offered to you by anybody you pass. Some might approach you, some might be more obvious than others, some even walk past you whispering “hashish” in your ear. An old man even offered it to me, I’m not joking if the stray cats could talk they would try selling you hashish too.
Laneways and alleys
It’s Inevitable while your budget traveling Marrakech you will wonder into the laneways and alleyways towards the souks.
The lane-ways and alleyways can be just as frantic as the souks. Nearly all of are lined with shops, souvenir stalls, grocery shops, food stalls, small hole in the wall food stops, cafes, juice bars and backstreet hammans. I wont lie they are very tempting, but sometimes you have to just look down at your feet and carry on walking.
Some are busier than others, the busy ones, sometimes they can be like rush hour traffic. People will whizz by you on mopeds, and don’t be surprised to come across standoffs and arguments with Donkey/mule/Ass owners and other transporters. The saying stubborn as a mule must stem from here!
Getting lost in the lane-ways can be quite easy for the first few days. You should pick out some memorable spots, things that stick in your mind to help you get around and after a few days, you’ll be an expert at navigating them.
Backpacking Marrakech: food and drinks
Food lovers heaven
Budget traveling Marrakech is great for us on tight budgets; food and drinks are so cheap and Marrakech can be a foodies heaven! There are so many options from traditional tagines, international cuisine, to modern fusions. If you love your food, you’re going to be in for a treat in Marrakech. You might even come across some delicacies like sheep’s head, or crunchy crickets but the only thing you won’t find is pork. – Side note, Moroccan lamb is to die for.
Don’t just take my word for it Kate and Kris from ‘What Kate and Kris did‘ had an amazing food experience during their time in Marrakech, they provide some amazing visual examples here.
Moroccans are big on their pastries and desserts, so if you have a sweet tooth prepare for your mouth to water.
Best of all, for us budget traveling Marrakech, most places are cheap. Around the Medina keep an eye out for small hole in the wall joints for the cheapest options but even restaurants are pretty cheap. The night food stalls in the square are typically more expensive than places in the laneways.
Tea – Moroccans love their tea, mint and jasmine tea, you won’t be able to escape it. It’s served everywhere, in hostels, cafes, restaurants, even shopkeepers will entice you with tea. I have to say, watching a local serve tea can be quite mesmeric, they try to get as much distance from the glass and teapot as they pour it. I found out they do this for the bubbles; the more bubbles the more flavor in the tea. In some places you might be offered Moroccan whiskey – Don’t get too excited, it’s not alcohol, it’s just another name for the tea.
Talking about alcohol, with this being a Muslim country Alcohol is not readily available. It’s not illegal and some places will serve it but you have to be careful because it might turn out to be non-alcoholic. There is a couple of bars and hotels within the Medina that serve actual alcohol but it will be pricey. Also, some hostels will sell beer, cheaper than the hotels and bars however for the cheapest option head down to ‘carfour’ –
Carfour is a large supermarket close to the New town, it’s about a 20-minute walk from the main square. And, it’s the cheapest place to buy alcohol and your groceries if you want to.
Water – Drink bottled water. Just like Bali belly and Delhi belly – Morocco’s belly is a thing.
Hostels/ Riads have great prices for budget traveling Marrakech
There are plenty of accommodation options within the medina, including hostels and Riads. Most are off the main square and hidden within the lane-ways. They might seem confusing to get to and from at first but the lane-ways are not actually that complicated.
I opted to stay at Hostel Riad Marrakech Rouge, it was recommended to me by a friend and constantly voted the best hostel in Marrakech. The place was one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in, friendly staff who will come and pick you up from wherever your transport drops you off. They make guests feel at home and go out of their way to get to know you. This was a sociable hostel but not a party one (except for New years eve.) Don’t forget to read my post on different types of hostels.
Choose your perfect Riad or hostel through the Worlds most popular hostel booking site; HostelWorld
Things to know about budget traveling Marrakech
Morocco has a closed currency, you can’t exchange money into Dirhams before you arrive so your best option is to take money out of ATM’s once you arrive. However, I would advise on checking with your bank in regards to any fees and charges that may incur. If you are going to incur high charges, then look at investing in a travelers cash card.
Within the Medina, you’ll find ATM’s clustered around the big Post office towards the open end of the main square as you head to the big mosque. There are plenty of ATM’s and although I had no problem in taking money out, there were other travelers who found the ATM’s didn’t have enough money in them. So keep an eye out but if you find that’s the case just simply try another ATM.
TIP: Take out the maximum you can at the ATM so you incur the least charges. 2000 Dirham was the maximum I could take out, and as I was quite frugal with my money it lasted me all week.
Another option is to take some native money and exchange it while you are in Marrakech. There are plenty of places to exchange money however you will have to shop around for the best rate and lowest commission fees.
I took some English pounds with me, and after some shopping around and advice from the guys at the hostel, the best place I found was a little exchange place behind the big main post office under Hotel Ali. (It’s very well known, so just ask people in your hostel about it.)
Tour companies for budget traveling Marrakech and around Morocco
Everywhere you turn you will see a tour agency or operator. Do some research before your trip on what excursion you might want to do. If you’re long-term backpacking, it may be cheaper just to do your excursions independently.
Hostels will also offer tours but most will work with another agency. Do be careful on the type you book though, most tour companies do the same trips and sometimes will just cram everybody together on a big bus.
I was quite lucky as I booked my Sahara desert trip from home, people who booked from the hostel were packed together with other tour companies on a big bus. Their experience was ruined because there were just too many people and missed key parts of the whole trip.
Budget traveling Marrakech taxi tip
Everything around the Medina is within walking distance but if you want to venture out further and need to take a taxi, then there are a few things to bear in mind. Whatever you do, agree on a price with the driver BEFORE you sit in the taxi. The taxi’s in Marrakech are notorious for ripping off tourists. They will quote prices triple to what they actually should be. Haggle with them to get the price down, they will be stubborn and you will need to be prepared to walk away if they refuse to lower the price.
No taxi ride in Marrakech should cost more than 50 Dirhams. It only cost me that to get to the airport from the main square.
TIP: Talk to the workers in your hostel about where you want to go, ask them how much it should cost to get there or get them to organize the taxi for you.
You may have noticed I’ve not talked about the souks – You can read my post about the souks here.
My overview of backpacking Marrakech
The highlights for me budget traveling Marrakech was just the whole experience in the Medina and Jemaa El-Fnaa. The madness, the chaos, dogging the snake charmers, haggling, the food it was amazing.
Hopefully by reading through this, you’re more convinced about backpacking in Marrakech. I can honestly say, the Marrakech Medina and Jemaa El-fnaa, will be an experience I never forget. And, I’m pretty sure if you go, it will be one you never forget either.
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