By: Shannon Tennyson
Marrakesh with Kids
When it comes to visiting Marrakesh with kids, there are two wildly different experiences you can have; braving the Medina for a truly local experience or basing yourself outside. The ‘new’ part of the city offers quiet resorts and hotels (such as this one), some within walking distance to shops, gardens, and other attractions. While this experience has a lot to offer, it differs greatly from staying inside the Medina, which provides the most authentic Marrakesh experience with its kaleidoscope of sounds, smells and colours.
For families visiting Marrakesh, opting for the local experience is a must. Immersing yourself and your children in the Moroccan culture is a true eye-opener; the bartering, the hustle and bustle of the market, choosing places to eat and picking up a few words in different languages provide invaluable life lessons.
‘Old’ Marrakesh has the feel of an old southwest city in the U.S. with its dilapidated stucco and cement architecture. Weathered buildings are coloured by red clay and the narrow, cracked stone pathways are often bustling with mopeds and misguided donkey carts. Chunks of crumbling walls appear underfoot along with electrical wires running amiss. As you journey through the area, you will notice loads of stray cats darting and cautious. Old city streets, which more accurately feel like tunnels, lead to somewhere, others seemingly to nowhere.
Inside the Medina or Outside?
The layout of the inside of the Medina is truly like a maze, lined with colourful rows and baskets of nuts, spices, leather, and shoes. Try to remember landmarks or storefronts as you embark on your journey to avoid getting too lost until you get a feel for the area in which you are staying. If you are uncomfortable with mazes, you can always stay closer to the Jemaa el-Fnaa square. With its abundance of merchants, entertainers and food, it can get pretty loud at night, but may ease the anxiety and stress that comes from being a first-time visitor.
Of course, it can be unsettling to travel to a place where the culture and language may be very different from your own. The primary languages spoken in Marrakesh are French and Arabic. Luckily, there are plenty of locals who speak English and are accustomed to English-speaking visitors. Tourism is their life-blood and they know it, especially as their numbers grow. Between 2000 and 2014 alone, visitor numbers increased from 591,142 to 2.12 million. If you need directions, don’t be afraid to approach a child or younger adult who will gladly help (and may also ask for a ‘donation’). You can dismiss the street begging – it’s just part of the local culture.
Where to Stay in Marrakesh
Throughout the Medina there are many riads (guesthouse hotels), known by their distinguished antique wooden doors. Upon entering, the air may seem to expand, and you will likely find yourself standing in the light of a sun-filled room decorated by vibrant, colourful rows of tiles. Expect to see a collection of fountains, large towering palms, sitting spaces with an abundant supply of Berber wool pillows, and the glow of metal lanterns at every turn. After taking in the gorgeous scene, you will most likely be handed a customary mug of mint tea. Welcome to your riad!
A personal favourite of mine, is the smaller Riad Les Trois Palmiers. Set in a typical 18th-century Moroccan house, this charming riad is just 10 minutes walk from Jemaa El-Fnaa square and is a good option for families. The guesthouse is run by a lovely French and English speaking couple, Patrick and his wife Caroline, who are more than happy to ensure your Marrakesh experience is one to remember. They offer free transport to and from the airport, and Patrick can help with hammam (spa) and excursions such as desert trips, hot air balloon rides, cooking lessons, quad biking, camel riding and more.
What to See in Marrakesh with Kids
The city is a wonderful and chaotic sensory experience. As with any destination, beware of pickpockets. When shopping in the souks (markets), negotiating is expected, (desired, even) and a natural part of the culture and shopping experience. With a little patience you may negotiate down 30%-60%, although there are exceptions such as special tiles, musical and historic wooden items.
The following sites and experiences should be on your shortlist:
Jardin Majorelle: a beautiful garden that was created over 40 years by French landscape painter, Jacques Majorelle. The garden and its electric blue villa was purchased by Yves St Laurent and gifted to the city to preserve the vision of its original owner. The property is now home to a Berber Art Museum and is well worth a look.
Jemaa el-Fnaa: Head to this central square in the Medina at dusk to watch it transform with street performers like you’ve never seen; a colourful mix of organised chaos, fantastic people watching and delicious street food until 2am.
El Badi Palace: A 16th-century palace that was once paved with gold. The gems have long since disappeared (stolen just 75 years ago) but it’s still worth visiting – especially for its exceptional views of Marrakesh.
Bahia Palace: The word ‘bahia’ translates to ‘brilliant’ and the story behind this palace is just that. Built for a former slave who rose to the lofty position of grand vizier, the palace features gorgeous Arabic architecture, painted ceilings and stain glass windows.
Street Markets / Souks: Throughout the Medina, you’ll find wood carvings, paintings, antiques, ceramics, cookware, lanterns, Berber rugs and pillows, tassel trinkets, leather goods, tiles, and musical instruments among other items. A collection of tourist-friendly goods can be found in and around the streets leading to Jemaa el-Fnaa square (e.g. between the square and El Bacha).
Ben Youssef Madrasa: Built in 1570, Ben Youssef Madrasa was formerly North Africa’s largest Islamic school. It’s a surprisingly quiet retreat even though it’s close to the hustle and bustle of the nearby souks. Visitors can enjoy the stunning architecture and reflect on the rich history of the site.
Hammam: Experiencing a hammam, the famous Moroccan spa bath is a must while in Morocco. Your riad will be able to recommend one, however my personal recommendation is Hammam de la Rose. Located in the heart of Marrakesh, this traditional spa features modern, private facilities that allow you to unwind and indulge while you experience the traditional black soap, rose water, and unforgettable exfoliating scrub.
Other Highlights in Marrakesh for Kids
- The bread; one kind every day at every meal. I came to love it!
- Being awoken at dawn by the sounds of the call to prayer
- Delicious food and brochettes ‘til you drop
- Intoxicating spices, herbs, and the colourful souks
- Opportunities to feed baby camels while traveling outside the city
- Friendly, welcoming people of ALL ages
- A Moroccan spa bath like no other
- A flurry of activity day and night
- Gorgeous tiled doorways, fountains, and floors
- Practice your bargaining skills and learn a word or two of French and Arabic!
What to See Outside the City
There are many tour companies or excursion guides that offer day trips or extended trips of 2-3 days outside the city. While tour operators vary, the trip routes typically don’t. Take your traveling companions into account before picking a destination; for example, day trips to the Atlas Mountains can be an easy choice for families. There are also trips to the ancient cities and Sahara Desert, which include camel rides and tented camp stays. These trips will feature long days on windy roads and are probably best suited for kids ages 8 and up. Do your homework (TripAdvisor and other travel sites will be your friend here).
What You Should Bring With You
If travelling with children, the following items will be useful:
- Baby wipes / hand wipes are a must
- Tissues – also to double as travel toilet paper
- Purifier drops for food and water if you are travelling to more rural areas (e.g. be sure to use it on the dessert excursions!)
- Dirhams – getting lost in the medina is part of the package, so you should have currency on hand for the “help” you will inevitably need. ATMs are available but can often be out of service
- A stroller or pushchair is redundant in the medina, bring a baby backpack or carrier with you instead. Note that even a larger carrier can become challenging to manage in the souks since the pathways can be crowded, hectic, and wonderfully chaotic. For walking age children, holding onto little hands is a MUST!
However you plan your visit to Marrakesh with kids, you are sure to leave with incredible memories and a greater understanding of all that this culture has to offer. Have fun and remember, getting lost is part of the adventure. The unknowns you face may lead to some of your best experiences!
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