“Always stay to the right,” our riad manager told my daughter as we tried to walk through the chaotic narrow streets of the medina after our 36-hour travel day. Despite the motorbikes whizzing by donkeys and pedestrians, the hum of the city as the sky turned to night was the perfect welcome to Marrakech, a foreshadowing of the excitement and surprises to be uncovered during our visit.
From the echoes of the adhān to the rainbow-color stalls that line the souks, it is impossible to ignore the blend of sights, sounds and tastes that come to live in this Moroccan city. Nor would you want to. Instead of being overwhelmed, families can soak up the energy and thrill of the city with these family-friendly activities, plus one great place to eat and one great place to stay while visiting Marrakech with kids.
Activity 1: Imagine what life was like at the Medersa Ben Youssef
Out of all the historic sites in Marrakech, walking into the Medersa Ben Youssef took my breath away. A visit is a chance to learn what life was like as a student at this Koranic theological college, once the largest medrasa in Morocco. Dating back to the 14th century, the walls of the Medersa Ben Youssef are covered in geometric, floral zellige tilework and calligraphy. I found myself wishing I knew Arabic to be able to read the murals. Kids will enjoy visiting the 130 dormitories which at one time were filled with 900 eager students and peering out the small windows across the inner courtyard. The blend of marble from Italy, cedar wood from the Atlas mountains and the (now empty) pool in the courtyard made me dream of redecorating my home with even just one of these features. Medersa Ben Youssef is open from 9 am to 6 pm. Click here to find out more about the Medersa Ben Youssef.
Activity 2: Buy spices at the Mellah
While most people think of the Spice Square as the go to spot to buy spices, I wanted to venture away from the crowded souks to get a taste of daily life and spices at the Mellah market. The Mellah was home to the large population of Jews once living in Marrakech and known for artisans and spice traders. At the Mellah Market you’ll see (and smell) everything from chicken and rabbits being sold to spices like curry, turmeric and saffron. Yes, this can be overwhelming for young children (my daughter still talks about throngs of people that were there to get a chicken for dinner). I loved that we saw locals shop for everything they need here, from food to pots and pans to black soap for their next trip to the local hammam. Although the presentation of spices isn’t as elaborate as the sellers in the main souks, the prices are less expensive (bartering is always recommended) and the local experience is unparalleled. In fact, don’t be surprised if you are offered a cup of Berber tea while you are perusing.
Tip: Depending on the age of your children, seeing chickens and rabbits being slaughtered can be overwhelming. Consider preparing children for what they might see as locals use this market for their daily shopping needs.
Activity 3: Get lost in the souks
You cannot go to Marrakech without getting lost in the souks. My family would tell you that it was my mission to get us lost, feeling like it was a rite of passage to any trip to Marrakech. The maze of shops rivals any mall in the United States. The souks of Marrakech are organized by specialty, even if it seems like every turn looks the same. For instance in the Souk des Teinturiers you will find linens and scarves and can learn to tie a Berber knot by a shopkeeper. I loved seeing the powdery dyes in a rainbow of vibrant colors, ready to be applied to textiles. Whether you are admiring the carpets, metalwork or trying on babouche slippers, the trick to any shopping in the souks is to barter, always starting with a price much lower (go for at least half) than the asking price. And? Never be afraid to say no. The souks open at 9 am.
Tip: For a change of pace and perspective, roam the souks early in the morning before they open and fill up. And for children that love cats? Have them keep a daily tally of cats that they see sprawled out in corners around the souks.
Activity 4: Soak up the color at Majorelle Gardens
As much as I thrived on the energy from medina, there is an entirely different side to Marrakech outside of the old city walls. And at the Jardin Majorelle, I felt like I was being granted a sensory reprieve, replacing the chaotic buzz with the sing song of birds. The lush greenery comes alive with over 300 species of plants in the gardens that were the inspiration of painter Jacques Majorelle. While I am not a naturalist, and struggle to name varieties of plants, there is something restorative about this being immersed in so much greenery. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé discovered the Jardin Majorelle and later purchased them to restore the dreamy space to the home of deep and vibrant hues and a museum dedicated to Berber Culture. Children will love the colors and watching fish and turtles in the ponds.
Tip: Instead of taking a taxi, take a carriage ride from Jemaa El Fna to get to the gardens. Click here to find out more about the Majorelle Gardens.
1 great place to eat: #98 in Jemaa El Fna
The main square of Marrakech – Jemaa El Fna – comes alive at night with foods stalls and music. Although my daughter wanted to see a snake charmer and the many dancers that fill the square during the day, I had been looking forward to experiencing the night scene that transforms the square into a food mecca. For the ultimate in local delicacies, make your way straight to stall #98 for an eat-with-your-hand meal unlike any other. While I am not a connoisseur of fried food, I quickly found myself elbow deep in fried seafood, french fries, eggplant salad and hot bread. The casual picnic table atmosphere is a great way to meet locals and tourists alike. Be patient if all of the seats are full, as they turn over quickly.
Tip: Go early to grab a before dinner soda or tea from the rooftop of the Le Grand Balcon Cafe Glacier to watch the sun set over Jemaa El Fna.
1 great place to stay: Riad Camilia
Deciding where to stay in Marrakech can be tricky, with options that range from large resorts and hotels that lure you with swimming pools and golf courses to a riad (a traditional Moroccan house) in the heart of the median. For a luxurious and authentic experience, the Riad Camilia is the ultimate pick. Appointed with rich textiles, Moroccan lamps and unique art, the riad offers six rooms – each with their own distinctive style. Families will appreciate room 6 which has two bedrooms plus a separate sitting area. Though, you probably won’t be spending much time in your room thanks to a lush inner courtyard that beckons for afternoon tea or the rooftop which boasts panoramic views. The rooftop is also the best place for breakfast, where you will feast on tea, breads, jams and behrir – Morocco’s version of pancakes – each morning. Worried about finding the riad in the maze of the medina once you arrive in Marrakech? Don’t be. Nicolas – the riad’s generous and thoughtful manager – will meet your taxi and lead you on foot to the front door. One note: the Riad Camilia (like many riads in Marrakech) only allows children over 12 years old unless you are reserving the entire riad. Click here to find out more about the Riad Camilia.