What to Do on a Layover in Marrakech

Inside the medina of Marrakech, Morocco | © ::ErWin / Flickr
Inside the medina of Marrakech, Morocco | © ::ErWin / Flickr
Photo of Sarah Williams
25 October 2017

Marrakech is a popular holiday destination, with many visitors choosing to spend at least a long weekend enjoying the city’s delights. A longer stay also allows you to take trips to nearby destinations, such as Ourika Valley, Essaouira, and the Atlas Mountains. Don’t despair, however, if your time in the Red City will be limited; there are still many highlights that you can cram into just a few hours.

Marrakech Menara Airport (RAK) is located around seven kilometres from the thronging heart of the medina. While public buses operate between the airport and the city’s main square of Djemaa el Fna, with a journey time of between 20 and 30 minutes, the easiest way to get around the city and hit the highlights comfortably is to negotiate the price with a taxi driver to act as your transportation for the day. If you leave the airport, make sure that you allow plenty of time to get back to the airport and pass through security controls in time to make your next flight.

Ornate details on a building in Marrakech | © Johan Kuno / Flickr

Three hours

With just three hours to spare, you may want to simply relax in the modern airport building. A contemporary architectural beauty, airport facilities include shops and restaurants, comfortable rest areas, and plentiful artwork to admire.

The beautiful Menara Gardens are only 3.5 kilometres from the airport, so it is easy to jump in a taxi and spend an hour or so strolling in the shade of the trees and admiring the gorgeous reflecting pool. Refreshments are available throughout the park. You can then travel a few minutes by car to the wide and elegant Boulevard Mohamed VI that runs through the newer colonial area of Gueliz and pop into some of the local art galleries and shops, grab a bite to eat in one of the many restaurants and cafes, and maybe add on a stroll through the lush Oliveraie.

Menara Gardens, Marrakech | © Cody Long / Flickr

Alternatively, if you really want to get under Marrakech’s skin in just a few hours, head straight to Djemma el Fna in the heart of the old medina. Watch snake charmers and performing monkeys, browse the many market stalls, sample deliciously sweet orange juice, and savour some of the city’s best street eats. Take an hour or so to explore the nearby maze of souks (don’t stray too far though or you will almost certainly get lost!) and feast your eyes on traditional goods and souvenirs. Ask your driver to make a quick photo stop at the iconic Koutoubia Mosque before returning to the airport.

Tall minaret of Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech | © Jean-Marc Astesana / Flickr

Five hours

You can take in a fair amount of Marrakech in five hours and get a good overview of the city. Go to Djemma el Fna first, soak up the energy, see the sights, and spend some time haggling for bargains in the nearby souks. This would be a great opportunity to stock up on exotic spices and buy hand-crafted Moroccan goods. Next, head to either the Saadian Tombs or El Badi Palace. Each offers an enticing glimpse into Morocco’s past. The Saadian Tombs showcase fine craftsmanship, with zellige tile work and other exquisite designs, and the El Badi Palace stands in a graceful state of ruin, with storks nesting high on the outer walls. Visit Koutoubia Mosque for some snapshots and a walk through the gardens, and then make your way back to the airport via the Menara Gardens.

Orange juice vendor at Djemaa el Fna | © Jeremy Couture / Flickr

Seven hours

With seven hours to spare you can enjoy more of Marrakech’s historic and cultural sites, and also include one or two of the city’s beautiful gardens. Get an overview of the city’s past at the Marrakech Museum and hire a local guide to take you through the hustle and bustle of the medina and the colourful souks. Having a guide for a few hours not only stops you from becoming lost in the tangle of streets, but it can also help to prevent excessive hassle to buy items in the souks. Visit Ben Youssef Madrasa, Koutoubia Mosque, and El Badi Palace or Saadian Tombs. After ticking some of the historic highlights from your list, make your way to Djemma el Fna to absorb the energy and have a rest in one of the roof terrace cafes around the square. Watch the action below over a pot of mint tea and a plate of sweet Moroccan pastries.

In Marrakech’s medina | © ::ErWin / Flickr

Having revitalised, and with still a couple of hours to spare, you can either spend time in Gueliz, the fancier part of town, or head to the popular Majorelle Gardens. Gueliz boasts a number of great places for shopping, eating, and drinking, and you can visit some of the quirky art galleries and take a stroll along the wide Boulevard Mohamed VI.

Wide streets of Gueliz, Marrakech | © *SHERWOOD* / Flickr

If gardens and nature are more up your street, the pretty Majorelle Gardens won’t disappoint. Previously owned by the late well-known fashion designer Yves St Laurent, a memorial stone to the fashion legend sits in the verdant gardens. There are benches in tranquil spots throughout the park, an abundance of plants and flowers, a pond, water features, and more. The onsite Berber Museum offers interesting insights into Amazigh culture, arts, and heritage.

Fountain at Majorelle Gardens, Marrakech | © tjabeljan / Flickr

Twelve hours

It is possible to hit many of Marrakech’s most significant attractions with half a day in the former imperial capital. While there is plenty to see and do in the old medina in twelve hours, you can also include parts of the city outside of the terracotta-coloured walls, such as gardens and the newer colonial-built area.

Ease yourself into your Marrakech experience by beginning at the tranquil Majorelle Gardens. Located around seven kilometres from the airport, the drive should take around 20 minutes. Spend around an hour or two strolling through the peaceful gardens and enjoying the Berber Museum. There is an onsite cafe too if you start to feel a bit peckish.

Lush greenery at the Majorelle Gardens | © Anna & Michal / Flickr

Next, head to the medina and hire a licensed local guide to take you on a private walking tour. A six-hour walking tour will show you snapshots into Moroccan life as you pass through historic residential areas with myriad doorways into the high buildings. You can also haggle hard in the souks, enjoy street food, and see lots of glorious architecture.

Street treats in Marrakech | © www.twin-loc.fr / Flickr

Highlights of a walking tour include the Marrakech Museum, the Koutoubia Mosque with its soaring minaret, El Badi Palace, El Bahia Palace, the Saadian Tombs, Ben Youssef Madrasa, Musee de Mouassine, Dar Si Said Museum, the leather tanneries, and the old Jewish quarter, known as the mellah. Of course, you can make as many or as few stops at the diverse attractions as you like, depending on your preferences and how much time you want to spend at each one. For example, many people manage to enjoy the Marrakech Museum in less than an hour, whereas others can spend a couple of hours poring over the exhibits. With attractions within reasonably close proximity, it really is possible to see many of the city’s headline attractions if you wish.

Saadian Tombs, Marrakech | © Tracy Hunter / Flickr

Your guide will allow plenty of flexibility, and there are many places along the way to break for lunch. Try a local tanjia, popular tagine, or couscous dish for an authentic taste of Marrakech.

End your walking tour at the famous Djemaa el Fna, the city’s biggest public square. It is filled with vendors during the day, and you will spot monkeys, snake charmers, and henna tattoo artists too. Come evening time, the square transforms into something of an open-air circus-cum-carnival, with musicians, acrobats, story tellers, poets, fortune tellers, dancers, and more. If you wish to do more shopping, the streets around the square are home to many treasures, or you can sit and catch your breath and relax for a while in one of the cafes around the square’s edges. The terrace cafes offer prime vantage points for watching the hive of activity below.

Lanterns in Marrakech’s souks | © Martin and Kathy Dady / Flickr

This could be an ideal time to hop in a horse-drawn calleche and rest your feet for a while with a one- or two-hour ride around the city. See Marrakech from a different perspective as your horse leads you along the city streets.

If time permits, make a quick stop in Gueliz on the way back to the airport to contrast the architectural styles of the two major city areas, grab a drink in one of the bars, enjoy a meal in a top-notch restaurant, or step into an air-conditioned shopping centre.

There are many ways to make the most of Marrakech on a layover of almost any duration.

Colourful rugs hanging from the walls in the medina of Marrakech | © Mar10os / Flickr

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