The wail of snake charmers’ horns will lead you to your departure point: Jemaa El Fna. This carnivalesque, open-air market in the medina — the ancient neighborhood where Marrakesh was born — brims with juice stands, restaurants and souvenir shops, to say nothing of musicians and performers.
Before you embark on this meandering 2.2-mile walk, you should have water and sunscreen (summer temperatures can pass 100 degrees Fahrenheit in this Moroccan city); outfits that cover most of your skin (doubly useful in Islamic societies, which discourage revealing clothes); and a willingness to lose your bearings. Nearly twice the size of Central Park, the medina enfolds a vast spider web of passageways that seem designed to disorient outsiders.
A good strategy is to follow well-known thoroughfares while allowing ample time to duck through beckoning doorways or slip into side alleys. Succumbing to detours is essential. Making strict timetables is folly. If you lack a golden thread, a decent map will return you to the beaten path.
A compelling route from Jemaa El Fna that reveals multiple Marrakesh personalities starts at the white horseshoe archway leading to Rue Riad Zeitoun el-Kadim. Walking southward on the uneven cobbled street, you’ll encounter sensory stimulation at every step. Sounds of clip-clopping mule carts and portable radios blaring Arabic pop music mingle with smells — fresh-baked bread, foul drains, rosewater perfumes and spices.
Small shops and lone peddlers display their wares: palm-woven baskets, bottles of golden argan oil, silvery jewelry inlaid with colored stones. Many people wear floor-length caftans or hooded djellaba robes. You’ll see just as many sport jeans, sneakers and T-shirts.
The street opens onto the palm-lined Place des Ferblantiers, humming with cafes and crowds. Cross to the southern gate and behold the soaring battlements of El Badi Palace (70 dirhams admission, or about $6.85), a glorious 16th-century ruin that is now a peaceful place to wander. Stone paths, wooden catwalks and mosaic-tiled floors carry you over sunken gardens and through unburied, ruined chambers while storks look down from their nests atop the ramparts.
As you walk eastward along Rue Bahia Bab Mellah, you’ll pass residential lanes on your right. The one called Derb Talmud Tora leads to the former Jewish quarter, the Mellah, which was built in the 1500s to house the many Jewish refugees fleeing Spain after the defeat of the Moors in 1492. (Only around 100 Jews remain in Marrakesh.) Halfway down the street is Slat Lazama, a synagogue and museum (10 dirhams admission) with a vaulted prayer hall and lovely interior courtyard. A few blocks farther east lies the Jewish Cemetery, a haunting sea of white horizontal gravestones.
Hair salons, pharmacies and machine shops materialize as you turn northward from the Mellah and head up Rue Djane Ben Chegra and then Rue Laarassi. This residential area is a reminder that more than 100,000 people sleep, work, study and raise families in the medina. The noises of electric saws, rumbling wheelbarrows and schoolkids shouting in darija — the Moroccan dialect of Arabic — echo off the high ocher walls.
Zigzagging east down Rue Sidi Boulabada and then north again along Rue Bab Ahmad turns up crowds of customers at ramshackle pushcarts and tiny storefronts selling shrieking chickens, skinned lambs, crates of tomatoes, boxes of cucumbers, sticky pastries glazed with honey. Scooters buzz through the crowd like bees. Be ready to leap aside.
At the fountain, take the rightward fork into Rue Tachenbacht and push upward to its own covered food market. Just beyond it, a perpendicular street on the left is your doorway into another dimension of the medina. Strolling westward along Rue Bin Lafnadek, you hear people speaking Spanish, Italian, English and especially French as djellabas and caftans give way to designer sunglasses and New Balance sneakers. Art galleries, design shops and fashion boutiques glow with chic creations. This is the edge of the medina’s international design scene and the souks, where traditional artisans ply trades ranging from woodcarving to metalwork to glassware design.
The Maison de la Photographie de Marrakesh (50 dirhams) is an ideal rest stop. The restored old mansion exhibits historical photos of Morocco, and its shady roof terrace provides quiet and refreshment. A lemonade with mint leaves (16 dirhams) and a tagine bubbling with meatballs in tomato sauce (80 dirhams) will fortify you for the next leg of your journey.
Distance: 2.2 miles
Time to walk: Two hours, which allows time for lingering
Good for kids: Yes