Marrakesh is most people's first taste of Morocco and what an introduction it is. The heart of Marrakesh is the medina, the most ancient part of the city where narrow, doodling alleyways will make you lose all sense of direction. Most visitors to the Red City don't venture far outside of the medina, but even within its high walls, subtle differences lend character to the medina's various quarters.
Here are the best neighborhoods to explore on your visit to Marrakesh.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel. Check the latest guidance in Morocco before departure, and always follow local health advice.
Djemaa El Fna and Southern Central Medina
Best neighborhood for being in the center of the action
Roll up, roll up: if there's one thing you can't miss in Marrakesh, it's the reeling, free-wheeling circus that is Djemaa El Fna. This chaotic square is the heart and soul of Marrakesh, where snakes are charmed by day, music troupes shimmy and shake at night and hordes of hungry revelers come to chow down at food stalls.
To truly appreciate the size and drama of Djemaa El Fna, you need to see it from a roof terrace. All the action in this area is overlooked by the serene minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, just a short hop away. There's also a couple of excellent museums to the south.
Marrakesh's biggest concentration of budget hotels is in this neighborhood, most only a stone's throw from Djemaa El Fna. Upmarket riad accommodation is found off Rue Riad Zitoun El Jedid to the southeast.
Rues Riad Zitoun El Jedid and Riad Zitoun El Kedim are both excellent places to shop. You can get most of the same artisan wares on these streets as in the northern souqs, but the sellers are more laid-back, and there are fewer tour groups here. Recently Riad Zitoun El Kedim has also acquired a cluster of upmarket, fixed-price shops selling contemporary Moroccan homewares, clothes and beauty products.
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Gueliz and Ville Nouvelle
Best neighborhood for culture vultures
Gueliz is the yang to the medina's yin, and here you'll find broad European-style boulevards with art deco history, designer shopping and French-influenced cafe, restaurant and bar culture. It is the traffic-clogged heart of the Ville Nouvelle, the area to the west of the medina walls where the French put down roots when Morocco became a protectorate in 1912. On its edge is the popular Jardin Majorelle, but don't just come for the gardens: delve a little deeper, and you'll find modern Moroccan life just as authentic as the medina hubbub.
Compared with Marrakesh's medina, the neighborhood of Gueliz still feels quite off the beaten track for tourists, yet it has a couple of worthwhile museums, including the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, and its contemporary shops, cafes and restaurants are a good place to survey the pulse of modern Morocco.
Medina hotels beat those in the Ville Nouvelle hands down for atmosphere, but if you prefer a more contemporary sleep, Gueliz has plenty of options. It's no better value to stay here, but most hotels have on-site bars and larger pools than you'll find in the medina. Some families prefer Gueliz as a base, and it's also handy if you're driving into Marrakesh because most hotels offer parking.
If you want to eat alongside Marrakshis, come to Gueliz. This is where office workers chow down at the city's best no-frills grills, Moroccan families gather for pizza, and couples share platters of fried fish and calamari. Most of Marrakesh's high-end, contemporary restaurants can be found in this neighborhood. Ville Nouvelle's nightlife is thriving; it's far easier to get a drink outside the medina.
Marrakesh is undoubtedly one of the best places in the world for homewares, textiles and accessories shopping, and Gueliz is ground zero for inventive local designers producing top-quality souvenir pieces. There is a cluster of independent shops around Jardin Majorelle, but serious shoppers should allocate a day to browsing central Gueliz and the industrial quarter of Sidi Ghanem, where many of Morocco's best designers have their flagship stores, outlets and studios.
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Kasbah and Mellah
Best neighborhood for sightseeing
When the Almoravids founded Marrakesh in 1062, the Kasbah area was where they set up camp. Many of Morocco's top historical sites lie in this area of the medina, but tour groups rarely linger, and the atmosphere is a little more mellow than in the northern souqs. Adjoining the Kasbah is the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter.
Place des Ferblantiers is the busy nexus of the Kasbah and Mellah area. From here, it's easy to navigate to the area's three major sights: Bahia Palace, Badia Palace and Saadian Tombs. The entrance to the Mellah, with its quiet alleys, synagogues and whitewashed cemetery, is around the southern side of Bahia Palace, or through the small covered spice souq off Place des Ferblantiers. There's loads to see in this area, so plan to spend a day here.
Rue de la Kasbah is one of the liveliest streets of the southern medina and makes for an atmospheric early evening stroll, when snaks (kiosks) are firing up their grills. At the northern end of the street, local women congregate in front of the mosque, one of the oldest and largest in the city.
Further down, cubby-hole shops reveal authentic medina life: grease-monkeys working on motorbikes, tailors chatting with customers, teenagers hanging out at barbers and children congregating at computer clubs.
This area is less popular than Mouassine and Djemaa El Fna for accommodation, but it can actually be a far more pleasant option because it's a little quieter and tourists receive less hassle here than in the northern souqs.
In recent years, more sleeping options have opened in the Mellah, which has a more local vibe. Place des Ferblantiers is about a 10-minute walk from the Djemaa El Fna, a little further away from the heart of the medina but easier to access by taxi, which can be useful for visitors with children or walking issues.
Mouassine and Central Souqs
Best neighborhood for shopping
The lanes that spool north from Djemaa El Fna sum up the push and pull between old and new in Marrakesh. This atmospheric area is home to the city's biggest concentration of souqs and qissariat (covered markets), where shafts of sunlight strike through palm-frond roofing and hawkers bid you hello in 10 languages.
But then you hit Mouassine – a showcase of the medina’s changing face, where a fresh breed of boutiques, Mediterranean-inspired rooftop restaurants and lounge-style cafes are making their mark.
Mouassine and the Central Souqs is one of the oldest areas of the medina, and as such, there's a high concentration of museums, fanadiq (ancient inns once used by traveling caravans) and palaces. You could easily spend a couple of days here, soaking up the history and dipping in and out of attractions between souq shopping.
It's a hot contest, but Mouassine and the Central Souqs area might just be Marrakesh's best shopping district. Between Place Rahba Kedima and Place Ben Youssef is the best hunting ground for artisan crafts, while Rue Mouassine and the area around Rue Amesfah are home to a burgeoning high-end local design scene.
Avoid shopping at the southern end of Souq Semmarine: prices are high here because of the steep cost of real estate on the main drag and the fact that most large tour groups will pass through.
The best time to stroll around the central souqs is before 11am when traffic (both human and two-wheeled) is at its lowest. Many souq stalls stay open for a few hours after dark – a good time to shop if you don't like crowds and want to mix with local families.
If you want to stay right in the middle of the medina to absorb the old city's ambiance, Mouassine is the place. Most of the riad accommodation in this area is in the middle or high-end categories, but there's also an excellent new hostel.
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Kâat Ben Nahid and Bab Debbagh
Best neighborhood for riad accommodation
Along with Mouassine, Kâat Ben Nahid is the core of the old medina, with scrawls of close-knit alleyways hiding sumptuous 17th-century riads. On its western edge is the Mnebhi Palace, now the Musée de Marrakech. This is also where you'll find Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, a clutch of excellent museums and, to the east, one of the medina's poorest districts, home to the malodorous Bab Debbagh tanneries.
Plenty of Marrakesh's big-hitting sights are scattered through the dense quarter of Kâat Ben Nahid. Skip the tanneries if you don't have a strong stomach for persistent touts and hassle (or hire a guide). There's enough to keep visitors busy for at least a day – and a busy one, at that.
Kâat Ben Nahid is home to some of Marrakesh's most beautiful, historic and stylish riad accommodation, and visitors who choose to stay in this neighborhood will find everything on their doorstep. However, it's not the safest area of the medina, and its location deep in the souqs means it's not the best option for solo female travelers. Lack of car access makes it difficult for families or those with mobility issues.
There are fewer restaurants here than in Mouassine and the Central Souqs, but there are a couple of outstanding options for foodies. While all budget ranges are catered for, it's not easy to get Western food in this neighborhood except at the high-end restaurants, namely Le Foundouk and Le Trou Au Mur, which both have international menus alongside Moroccan options.
Kâat Ben Nahid is not a major shopping district. However, you'll find the occasional gem sandwiched in between the main museums.
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Bab Doukkala and Riad Laârous
Best neighborhood for local life
Bab Doukkala and Riad Laârous are the shrinking violets of the medina: quiet neighborhoods with few visitor attractions and still enough residents to outnumber tourists. And therein lies their charm. There are just a couple of small museums in this area, but the real attraction is the Bab Doukkala market strip running northwest from the mosque to Bab Doukkala gate, thronged by local shoppers.
Bab Doukkala in particular is a wonderful window into authentic Marrakshi life without the tourist trappings. This neighborhood has all the fun of medina life with little of the wear-you-down hassle that's commonplace in the souqs. Unsurprisingly, this makes it one of the nicest quarters to book riad accommodation, and there are some lovely options.
Restaurants are a low point of these neighborhoods: there isn't a whole lot of choice. Neither Bab Doukkala nor Riad Laârous have big craft souqs or contemporary design shops, though you'll still find areas where artisans can be seen at work and sell a small selection of pieces, particularly behind the Bab Doukkala Mosque and along Arset Aouzal.
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