Great For: People looking for a honeymoon that feels like an adventure (without, you know, having to think of putting on a single hiking boot). Folks who want to get some serious home decorating shopping in. Couples who want to go to a place where everything is intense and intensely beautiful.
Not So Great For: Anyone just flat-out tired after the wedding. Anyone who doesn’t want to constantly have to be on the lookout for how (or if) they’re getting hustled or doesn’t like bartering. Anyone who likes sticking to a specific schedule or is wedded to “time” as a construct.
I’ve wanted to go to Morocco for as long as I can remember, so when we booked a work trip to Lisbon, and I realized that Marrakesh was just an hour-plus flight away, I jumped at the chance. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to research honeymoons for y’all, and to adventure for me. And boy, was it.
I love to travel because it profoundly reorders the way I think about the world and what I take for granted. (Thanks, Scotland, for teaching me that castles can live in the middle of a bustling city, NBD.) But when I travel to a non-western culture, my worldview is shifted in more profound ways. And on this trip to North Africa, I realized that time is not a construct that we all approach the same way (nor is money). And while learning your way around a very different culture can be exhausting, it’s also really mind expanding. And the entire culture of Morocco (and I hear much of North Africa and Middle East) is built differently than ours. It is less sterile, less distanced, and less concerned with self-imposed deadlines, and it is instead more hospitable, with a slower pace, and bustling colorful energy.
All this to say that while I loved our trip (A+, want to go again for a longer trip), I came away feeling like Marrakesh is not going to be a great trip for everyone… particularly not for everyone’s honeymoon. Let’s discuss.
- Every little detail is beautiful. From the moment you get off the plane at the airport in Marrakesh (see above), you’re overwhelmed with gorgeous details.
- Morocco is someplace that feels really truly different from the U.S., but where most people will happily speak English with you.
- Marrakech can be done affordably (minus those plane tickets). While it’s perfectly possible to spend a fortune on a luxury hotel (I would like to stay here, please), Airbnb has a great selection of riads to stay at (either to rent a room, or rent out) for affordable prices. Often meals will be cooked by the owners for affordable prices, as well.
- There is nearly endless shopping. If you’re looking for home goods, particularly rugs, you’ll feel like you’ve died and gone to rug heaven. Yes, you’ll want to do some research before you go (here is a good read on rug shopping in Marrakech), but you need zero skill to find something beautiful.
- The food. It’s amazing, it’s plentiful, and it comes at every price point. While you have to practice some basic food safety (you might want to wash the fruit you bought at a stall in bottled water, though the tap water is reasonably safe for westerners within the city), the goodness doesn’t stop, from early morning to late, late at night.
- The people. As much as Morocco is a land of hustling, it’s also a land of kindness. Most people speak English, and they’re happy to talk to you and tell you about their home. They are delight with kids (our kids’ feet never touched the floor), and are nearly always willing to help you out in a jam.
- If I had to sum it up in one sentence, the true draw of Marrakech is the balance between the bustling life of the Medina (the market), and the amazing quiet of the riad courtyards, where you can sit, drink tea, spend time together, and truly get away from it all.
- I’ve been all over the world, but I’m not sure I’ve been anywhere quite as exhausting as Marrakech. It’s partly the mobs of humanity (the Medina is the heart of the city, so everyone from merchants to families with tiny children to crowds of tourists will be out on any given night).
- Everything is a negotiation. Other than places like restaurants, there is no such thing as a fixed price in the Medina, and unless you’re a sucker, naming of a price is just the start of an elaborate negotiating ritual.
- Everyone in town is running a hustle of some sort. And I’m not using hustle in an altogether bad sense—everyone has to make money and put food on the table, and tourists are a big part of the way people do that. On our taxi ride from the airport, our driver told us he gave private tours, but he wasn’t allowed to tell us that because our Airbnb got a cut from another guide. (I have no way to confirm or deny this.) Our Airbnb host took us to a rug shop that had more expensive but better quality rugs. (The quality was better, the prices were also way higher, and I know the guide got a cut.) And the list goes on and on. That constant negotiation, figuring out if you’re getting played, and how much you’re willing to get played, takes energy.
- Before I went to Marrakech, I had this idea that time was a fixed thing, and we all interacted with it in a similar way. NOT SO, my friends. We were disabused of that notion within the first hour in Morocco, when our hosts lead us to another riad to “wait for five minutes” till our riad was cleaned and ready to go. Three hours and a full (delicious) meal later, we left. Morocco is a place where whatever is happening is what’s happening. We quickly learned that you can start the day with a rough goal and see where the day leads you, since things often happen one to three hours after the proposed start time.
- The shopping. I mean, the shopping is so good that it’s not just a pro, it’s also a con. I bought two large rugs, and then tried to go in for a third (and a fourth?), when my husband told me we were both out of hands to carry them with at the airport and out of floor space, because he doesn’t understand fun.
What To Do:
Stay in a Riad
There are many options of places to stay in Marrakech, including some fancy (FANCY) hotels. However, the more affordable way to travel is to rent out a riad, often through Airbnb. Riads are the traditional homes (or palaces, but let’s assume you’re not renting out a palace) in Morocco, with a very plain exterior with no windows, and an interior courtyard that all the rooms open onto (and if you’re lucky, a roof deck).
Some riads function like hostels or hotels, and you can rent out a single room and sometimes pay the host to cook (delicious) meals for you. Other riads you can rent out in entirety, often for the price of a standard issue hotel room. The hustle and bustle of the city is amazing to experience, but coming home to relax in your own courtyard is the true magic of the trip. You can find a ton of private riads at various price points on Airbnb. And if you want to stay at a larger, more lux, riad-style hotel, this list is not a bad place to start. (If you do decide to stay in a hotel however, this residence owned by a longtime blogger and human rights activist donates a portion of their profits to a very good cause.)
Hang out in the main square at night
Djemaa el-Fna is the main square of the Medina, and it’s the first thing you see when you arrive at the old city. At night it becomes its own (packed) attraction, full of local families enjoying the evening, tourists, snake charmers, food vendors, musicians, and stalls packed with toys and charms. Keep your wits about you (we watched some pickpocketing happen live), and enjoy the full range of life and entertainment happening in one small place.
Explore The Souqs
The main pull of Marrakesh is the Medina (the old city, and a packed marketplace). Whether or not you stay in the Medina, which is made up of a maze of small winding streets that are closed to car traffic, you’ll end up hitting it up sooner rather than later. When you arrive you’ll be tempted to buy… right away. There are rugs, blankets, baskets, spices, brass goods, and more. But hold your fire. The deeper you get into the Medina (and yes, it takes a reasonable amount of time to learn how to get out again), the higher quality the goods generally become. But what you really want to search out is the souqs dedicated to a particular product. Since we were shopping for rugs, we found the souq dedicated to carpets. Suddenly instead of finding one carpet we liked, we had thousands (and thousands and thousands) at our disposal, which meant that we could narrow down the type that we wanted, and then within that type find exactly the right one. The same holds true for any other product that you’re on the hunt for. Find the area dedicated to that product, and get to work.
Don’t be afraid to dig through piles and piles of carpets (or brass, or blankets, or… you name it) to find the right one for you, and remember that you’re expected to haggle. You’ll learn the art of haggling by doing it, but the whole ritual is full of posturing, drama, benevolent insults, larger compliments, and ends with everyone being best of friends. (If you can’t handle haggling, Souk Cherifia is supposed to be a great fixed price option.)
Go To A Hammam (together)
There are a few kinds of hammams in Marrakesh: the fancy tourist focused ones that command a hefty price tag, but promise pure luxury, the lower priced full-service hammams, and day-to-day ones that the locals frequent. Because we were staying in a riad and had local hosts, they guided us to a more everyday but still full-service hammam, where the prices were very reasonable. (Think twenty-five dollars plus tip per person for a full scrub and massage.)
Of course there is no such thing as a free
lunch massage, and we paid for that cheaper price in other ways. After we were taken upstairs to change into robes, we were moved to a waiting area. Where we proceeded to wait… and wait… for who knows how long, since there were no clocks, and we had no clothes. At one point we started referring to it as a naked hostage situation. But! Lo and behold we were in fact at a hammam, and we were eventually whisked into a beautiful blue steam room with cavernous arched ceilings completely naked. After a few minutes a woman wearing short cut-off shorts and a tank top marched in, and without any introduction dumped a full bucket of water on David’s head, and proceeded to scrub him and then me off, in the world’s most emotionless way. But damn if they didn’t get… everything scrubbed… every orifice included. After that we were whisked away to a no-nonsense couples massage. And after six hours mostly spent waiting around, we were done.
In short: Hammam, YES. But pick your hammam with a realistic understanding of what sort of adventure you might have at various price points (and how much time you have that day).
Get Some Henna Done
Henna is a traditional wedding activity in some cultures, and we often point out you shouldn’t appropriate because you love it (and who doesn’t love it). But! There are always respectful ways to engage in a culture, and I recommend this one: when in Marrakech, you should immediately take yourself to The Henna Cafe, a business dedicated to providing jobs and education particularly to women and children in Morocco. They employ henna artists, and offer traditional food and drink as well. I went all in and indulged in full henna on the palms and back of both of my hands (for a good cause!). You might even learn (as I did) a bit more about the history and symbols of the Berber henna designs. My only regret is that I didn’t have my feet done as well, so don’t make the same mistake I did. Go all in. It’s your honeymoon, after all!
Eat. And eat and eat.
The food in Morocco is amazing, and it’s everywhere you turn. In our experience, the more traditional local food was the best (if you’re staying in a riad, ask your host for recommendations). We were steered to the restaurant at Riad Omar for dinner (our hosts walked us over and sat us down at a table, they were so insistent that we try the food there), and it was hands down the best meal we had on the trip… and more than we could possibly eat in one sitting, though goodness knows we tried. There is plenty of more expensive food on offer, but in our experience it was pricey, but not as good. We tried NoMad, a restaurant that would have been at home in the hippest parts of San Francisco, and were underwhelmed by the food, but overwhelmed by the price.
Take a Break From The Medina and hit the museums and the New City
Once you’re in the Medina, it can be hard to get out. Set aside at least a day to explore the rest of the city. Must-see museums include the Écomusée Berbère (where you can learn more about the history of Moroccan Berbers), the Boucharouite Museum (about the process of making carpets), and the Musée d’Art Contemporain Africain (Museum of African Contemporary Art).
Make time to rest and relax over long leisurely breakfasts in your Riad
You’re on your honeymoon, right? I mean, sure, you should be out
shopping seeing the sights. But you should also make sure you schedule plenty of downtime, to just soak up being alone together, and the fact that OMFG you just got married. Breakfasts in your riad are a great way to do that. Most riads offer breakfast, which generally means that a Moroccan woman comes to your house and prepares a simple breakfast that is served in your courtyard. Our included things like the best orange juice you can imagine, a spongy Moroccan bread that sort of resembles a pancake, and so much good coffee. Add some conversation, cuddles, and just quietly enjoying the location together, and you have a perfect honeymoon morning.