For an utter departure from American suburbia, make like Crosby, Stills & Nash and hop aboard the Marrakesh Express. The famous train ride across the North African landscape can be booked with a variety of tour operators, or you can simply fly into Menara Airport and get right down to the business of colored cottons and charming cobras.
For the best balance between pleasant weather and manageable crowds, visit between March and May or October and November. These spring and fall dates fall outside peak season and will be easier on your wallet as a result.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the best way to immerse yourself in Marrakesh’s exotic landscape – or, indeed, any city – is to forget about your map and let yourself get lost in the winding markets or souqs in the center of town. The labyrinthine network in Jemaa el-Fna is chock full of vendors hawking a variety of wares, from carpets to spices and everything in between. Haggle your way to an authentic souvenir or just enjoy a leisurely stroll in this heart of Moroccan culture. This public square truly comes alive at night, when you’ll find dramatic performances, live music, and good eats aplenty.
Even more important to local culture is the religion of Islam. The towering minaret of Koutoubia Mosque is recognized internationally and while non-Muslims are not allowed inside, you can still admire its majestic exterior on a walk through central Marrakesh. When it’s time to cool off indoors, you can get closer to local religion at the Ben Youssef Medersa, a medieval Quranic school, where you can explore stunning courtyards and richly decorated prayer halls.
One of the most popular attractions in town is the Jardin Majorelle, marrying natural beauty with manmade art and design. The famous home of high fashion king Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé captivates visitors with its iconic vibrant color scheme and kaleidoscopic array of botanicals. Inside you’ll find a practically unrivalled collection of indigenous Moroccan art and artifacts, including textiles, leather, woodwork, musical instruments, and traditional costumes.
Less aesthetically pleasing, but equally synonymous with Marrakesh, are the nearby tanneries. From the unmistakable, pungent aroma to the otherworldly view, nothing could be a greater departure from your average workaday life. Exercise extreme caution and be very wary of “friendly” locals offering to give you a spontaneous tour – countless scams designed to wring money out of tourists revolve around this site. You’re safest to join a larger organized tour group from a reputable company instead of going it alone.
Don’t just get adventurous in your sightseeing. To fully engage with Moroccan culture, make sure to enjoy several meals at authentic local restaurants. Hopping among the food stalls in Jemaa el Fna is a popular activity with travelers, but do so just for the experience – don’t expect high quality here. Like you would in any other city, head away from central squares, main thoroughfares, and major tourist attractions to find the best eateries. Load up on lamb tagines and couscous at locally favored spots like Ksar Essaoussan and Bejgueni, or join a special foodie tour to uncover the best Moroccan delights in town.