Exploring the Red City: A Snapshot of Morocco’s Magical Marrakech

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Mosque dome from rooftop of Cafe Clock, Marrakech

Marrakech provokes strong reactions in people. They either love it or hate it. I experienced both sides of the city when I visited.

It has a reputation for being an exotic, evocative destination. Full of sights and sounds and smells outside the everyday experience of most visitors.

Street art on the red buildings of Marrakech

Rooftop view of red buildings, flowers and street art

But the flip side is the notorious hassle: both of the aggressive-vendor and unpleasant-man sort.

I had an up-down/love-hate experience in Marrakech, which I think is fairly common. Despite its increasing popularity and huge selection of incredible boutique and luxury accommodation, it can still be a challenging destination.

Friends who had been put themselves firmly in the latter camp.

‘Too much hassle’, they said. ‘Give it two days then head somewhere else’.

‘And prepare yourself for food poisoning and awful men’ (and it’s true, I experienced both of these things).

You will feel everything vividly, the highs as well as the lows of travel. Morocco intensifies everything; that’s why it remains such a draw.

Archway of a red building in Marrakech

Ornate mosque exterior

When I first arrived in Marrakech I was in love! I landed with my heckles up, prepared for a sensory onslaught of noise and people and traffic and smells. But the airport is a work of art, and the light and colours of the city took my breath away. Swallows swoop in the skies and the streets smell of mint and fennel and dust.

I found the people laid-back and friendly. The medina is a well-kept warren of striking red and pink hues, and a notable lack of garbage – even the donkeys and horses had poop-bags to help keep the streets clean.

The famous Djemma el Fna market square was surprisingly mellow during the day, only becoming a cacophony at night. Although bustling, the medina felt quiet thanks to the absence of music blasting from cafes or shops or traffic. Just birdsong. Like a city of mornings. There’s a detectable undercurrent of gentrification, with cool cafes and French jazz and courtyards adorned with plants, tiles, and lanterns.

Reflection of palms in pond, Jardin Majorelle Pond at the Jardin Majorelle Close-up of cactus against blue backdrop, Jardin Majorelle

I relaxed into a dozy daily routine of date smoothies and wandering the alleyways of the medina, exploring abandoned palaces and rooftop cafes, and plotting out all the textiles and trinkets to buy before I left.

A week later, returning from the Sahara, beaten down by food poisoning and the brutal desert landscape, I had completely the opposite Marrakech experience.

As I wandered the streets, I encountered more and more hostility. Haggling that felt playful before now felt aggressive. The narrow alleys dark and sinister.  The heat soared above 40°C. Feeling vulnerable, I confined myself to the zen-like courtyard of my accommodation. Was I even in the same city? 

Marrakech is a masterclass in how mindset can alter your experience of a place.

The more I tried to make sense of the city, the more it evaded me. The more I tried to find my way, the more I got lost. This is what makes it a thrilling destination, but not an easy one. It’s a place of soaring highs and crushing lows.

Come with an open mind but resilient heart and a steely gaze.

Koutoubia Mosque with plant in foreground

Close up of a bush Marrakech view across the rooftops Early morning traffic on a central road, Marrakech Ornate window Close up of shadows on cushion fabric Pink and green alley in medina with bikes Red mountains heading into the Atlas Blue and yellow walls of Jardin Majorelle Colourful cactus at Jardin Majorelle Towering palms at Jardin Majorelle Countryside outside Marrakech Moroccan pancakes on griddle Empty alley in Marrakech medina Another empty alley in Marrakech medina

Sheeps heads stacked on mechoui pots Pretty alley with arch in Marrakech medina Bikes outside ornate doorway in Marrakech medina Rooftop view from cafe Rooftop terrace cafe with cushions Djemma el Fna during the day Close up of bright orange cushion fabric

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