It took nearly four decades, but I finally made it to Africa. For my 40th, Helen and I traveled to Marrakesh in Morocco (the French spell it Marrakech, if that matters to you). We spent the better part of a week in Riad Ben Youssef, located in the Medina, a central business region of the city and an official UNESCO World Heritage Site that was founded nearly a millennium ago.
Other than an excursion for some Moroccan barbeque and a visit to a liquor store, we spent all of our time within the Medina. At 230 km², there is plenty to see and do there, and more than enough ways to get lost, which we did plenty. It didn’t help that the winding streets were often crowed with a mix of merchants, tourists, and motorcyclists speeding through.
Nonetheless, by the time we left, I felt like I had at least a basic understanding of the layout. Of course, on our way to meet our ride to the airport, we walked through a completely new area and I realized I hadn’t even seen a fraction of the city.
Getting Around in Marrakesh
Other than a bus from the airport and a return taxi (well, a guy in a van with his three children in the back), we got everywhere by walking. The host at the riad (our hotel; a “riad” is a residence with a courtyard within it) helpfully let us know about Maps.Me, an app that allows you to download full city maps to use offline. This was especially useful because neither Helen nor I had data, and Google Map’s offline mode is pretty weak.
With the help of our map and a list of places to visit, we haphazardly made our way around city. I say haphazardly because we didn’t really plan anything on this trip. In fact, though Helen had been to Marrakesh once before, neither one of has done that much planning ahead of time. We mostly went to relax and enjoy good food, which we did, and good drink, which took a little more effort.
Where to Find Alcohol in Marrakesh
As it turns out, one thing we would have known if we’d done more research ahead of time is that finding liquor in Marrakesh is pretty hard. Most restaurants don’t serve it and liquor stores are nowhere to be found in Medina. The only time we could get alcohol with a meal (including beer and wine) was when we ate at the fancier restaurants (liquor licenses are expensive in Marrakesh). Even at those spots, it wasn’t always available.
We also wanted alcohol for enjoying poolside at our riad, which required the aforementioned trip out of the city central. Another couple at the riad told us about a liquor store, the Mini Marché Majorelle, near Jardin Majorelle. There we filled a backpack with various inebriants and hiked it back to our riad under the hot sun. We lucked out in that our week there was relatively cool (32° rather than the ~40° it had been the week before), but when you’re saddled with a few pounds worth of alcohol, it doesn’t feel cool.
For our hunt for alcohol in Marrakesh, we initially turned to a common tool familiar to any traveler: travel blogs. When we searched for restaurants and other information (like, “where to find alcohol in Marrakesh”), Google spit out blog posts. It makes sense. Most serious travel bloggers (which, as I’ve said previously, I manifestly am not) know the tricks to getting recommended by the various search engines. They involve using keywords and key phrases, things like “best restaurants in Marrakesh” and “top hotels in Marrakesh”. If you insert enough of those into your blog, you’ll pop up when people search those terms. (Or, at least, that’s how it used to work; Google is always changing their algorithm, so who even really knows anymore?)
The thing about blogs, though, is that there’s really no reason to assume the information is correct. I mean, generally speaking, what we found was helpful. But a lot of writers who write these blogs present themselves as experts on cities they’ve visited three or four times. As I’ve said numerous times in this blog, even after a year living in cities, I never felt like I was an expert. And considering how quickly places change now, I don’t feel like I can claim to have much insight into the cities I lived in for 10 Cities. Which is to say, the blogs were generally helpful, but some of the “best restaurants in Marrakesh” were just places this guy had happened to walk into. And they didn’t help us find alcohol.
The Best Restaurants in Marrakesh
I have no idea if the places we ate at could qualify as the best, but we did have a few great meals. In fact, after a somewhat disappointing lunch of shawarma and falafel for our very first meal (both were dry), the food was fairly uniformly great. For more casual meals, we enjoyed the Google-challenging Falafel restaurant (if you want to find it, go to Maps and search for “Cafe restaurant Falafel”). Nothing fancy, but we had two meals there and both were exactly what we wanted (definitely try the falafel sandwich).
For fancier meals, we ate at Le Trou Au Mur (alcohol), Nomad (no alcohol), and, on our last night, Le Foundouk (alcohol). Le Foundouk was both of our favorite meals; cannot recommend the pastilla with chicken and the fennel salad with grilled halloumi enough. I’d describe some of the food as a slightly earthier take on foods you might find in Greece, though there were plenty of other options available beyond the local cuisine.
Also, the common drink you’ll get whenever you go to cafes or restaurants is Maghrebi mint tea (Thé à la menthe). It’s surprisingly refreshing, especially since I generally don’t like mint drinks. Most servers will pour it the way Spanish cider is poured in Asturias, well above the glass so that it waterfalls from nearly a meter up. Even if tea isn’t your thing, give it a try.
What to Do in Marrakesh
Again, I can’t actually tell you definitively what to do in Marrakesh. We only spent five days there. But, of the things we did while there, going to a hammam (Le Bain Bleu) for a hard scrub and a massage and shopping in the Medina markets were two highlights. Helen found a selection of kaftans that she negotiated a good price for, and I found a leather jacket that I negotiated a less good price for. In all, though, it was a successful shopping adventure (considering that we spent half the time dodging speeding motor bikes and donkey-drawn carts, it really was an adventure).
We were warned at the riad to not allow people on the street to “guide” us through the city or to the local tannery. We were told they would take us to more expensive shops or demand a tip for their “help.” There were people all over the city, mostly young men in their teens and twenties, who called after us as we walked the streets. They always assumed we were looking for the main square or the tannery, which we never were. Sometimes they were persistent, but most of the time if we just said “No thanks” or ignored them they moved on.
Morocco is a poorer country (a Moroccan dirham is worth about a tenth of a euro) that draws in relatively rich tourists. So, that kind of gamesmanship is to be expected. Call it running a scam or simply call it hustling, but people are going to find a way to get by.
Passing Time in the Riad
Ultimately, the highlight of our trip might have been the Riad Ben Youssef. Located around the corner from the historical Ibn Youssef School (which we didn’t visit), our modestly priced hotel was a perfect oasis in the midst of a often hectic city. It’s a three-story residence-cum-hotel with maybe four to six rooms available to rent. There were a few common areas, and breakfast was served daily on the main floor, but the first impression wasn’t immediately great.
Our room changed that impression. When we reserved our third-floor room, we didn’t realize we had the entire rooftop terrace to ourself. It included multiple seating areas, a separate tented area of seats (that one of the local workers used as his personal hookah tent when no one was there), and a black and white cat who regularly hung out. The cat wasn’t technically a feature of the hotel, but it felt like it.
We also had, via a spiral staircase, direct access to the pool. It wasn’t a big pool, but it was gorgeous, enclosed by four towering walls, and since none of the other guests used it, it was essentially our private pool. Even after we checked out, the riad let us hang out by the pool in the afternoon to kill time before our late-night flight. If you’re visiting Marrakesh, I can’t recommend highly enough having a pool all to yourself. In fact, if you’re going to visit anywhere, I recommend that.
The End of Our Trip to Marrakesh
As I said, we had a late flight on Friday. So, before we left, we visited one of the “landmarks” that we were told to see, the Secret Garden (Le Jardin Secret), which is situated in the heart of the Medina.
It was a small but beautiful enclosed park that, like so much in Medina, spoke to the long history of the city. Once a palace, the grounds now house various vegetation and animals (including, oddly, turtles), an ornate gazebo, and an elevated café. Worth a visit, though there were numerous other parks and gardens around that we didn’t visit that appeared to be larger.
It was a short trip to Marrakesh, but a memorable way to finally make it to my third continent; it’s a place I would definitely return to someday. We didn’t even scratch the surface.
So if Google brought you here while looking for “the best shawarma in Marrakesh,” sorry, I can’t help you out. Just try somewhere random, you may be pleasantly surprised.