The ONMT (Office National Marocain de Tourisme), on avenue Mohammed V at place Abdelmoumen Ben Ali (tel. 0524/436131), is open Monday to Friday 8:30am to noon and 2:30 to 6:30pm, Saturday 9am to noon, and Sunday 3 to 6pm. Although this is the region's main tourist office, the offerings are limited to a free map, a list of recommended accommodations and restaurants, and some pretty useless glossy brochures. There is also a local Syndicat d'Initiative, or tourist information bureau, 170 av. Mohammed V (tel. 0524/436179), which is open the same days and hours but is even less useful.
The Institut Français, Route de la Targa, on the outskirts of Guéliz (tel. 0524/446930), is open 9am to 7pm Tuesday to Saturday and regularly shows films and hosts exhibitions, plays, and other cultural events. Set among pleasant gardens, there is an open-air theater, cafe, and a library housing a small collection of Moroccan-related French literature.
Despite its size, Marrakech is reasonably easy to navigate thanks to the two clearly defined areas: the ancient walled medina and the French-designed ville nouvelle. The medina's walls enclose a surprisingly open, busy area with the fascinating Jemaa el Fna -- a broad square lined with food and juice stalls that hosts all manners of entertainment daily -- at its heart. It is only once you reach here that you encounter, to the north and south, the seemingly never-ending maze of alleyways that are what most people expect from this city. Heading west from Jemaa el Fna, past the city's most prominent landmark, the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, along avenue Mohammed V and through Bab Nkob will bring you to the ville nouvelle. The two main areas of the ville nouvelle that are of interest to travelers are Hivernage and Guéliz. Hivernage is home to a selection of mainly expensive hotels and offers little of interest other than the photogenic Menara Gardens and a number of nightlife options. Guéliz is the working center of the ville nouvelle, and it is here that you'll find the bulk of Marrakech's offices, shops, and cafes along with a high concentration of the city's moderately priced hotels. Most sights and areas of interest, however, are in the medina. North of Jemaa el Fna are the souks and some of the city's more important religious monuments, while to the south is the old Jewish quarter (the Mellah) and the kasbah, home to many of the medina's past and present palaces.
To the northeast of the city is the area known as the palmeraie, home to more than 100,000 date palms whose origins, legend has it, come from the Almoravid leader Youssef ben Tachfine's extensive army, who left behind thousands of discarded seeds during their initial siege of the city in the 11th century. Today this is where many of the city's chic luxury villas are housed.
Tip: Although the medina is relatively easy to navigate on your own, a guide can be handy to both give you insight into the area and protect you from the plethora of fellow guides who surreptitiously attach themselves to you as "your friend."
Jemaa el Fna -- The pulsating heart of Marrakech is no doubt Jemaa el Fna, where medieval and modern mix comfortably on a huge, open square that daily plays host to one of the most fascinating spectacles in the world. The activity on the square never slackens, though different times of the day and night have their own distinctive character.
For such a historical place, it is not entirely known when or how Jemaa el Fna came into being. The popular explanation comes from its literal translation as "assembly of the dead," and refers to when the square was a place of execution, complete with severed heads on display, well into the 19th century. Whatever the square's original meaning, it is agreed that it has probably played the joint role as the medina's open market area and social focal point since the earliest days of settlement. Immediately upon independence in 1956, the new "modern-thinking" government converted the square into a corn market and parking lot. This unpopular move lasted less than a year before the square's tourism and social value became obvious, and it reverted back to its traditional role. In 1994, the entire square was paved for a GATT, or General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now WTO, or World Trade Organization) meeting, and in 2002 it was deemed pedestrian only, a popular move appreciated by Marrakchis and visitors alike. In 2001, UNESCO proclaimed the "cultural space" on Jemaa el Fna as one of only 90 "outstanding examples of the world's intangible cultural heritage."
First and foremost, Jemaa el Fna is a social meeting place for Marrakchis and visiting Moroccans, with much of the entertainment, particularly in the evening, aimed at Maghrebi-speaking locals rather than visitors, which only makes the experience even more authentic for the traveler. During the day, the western part of the square can be relatively quiet, with just a few troupes of snake charmers, monkey handlers, and metal castanet-clanging gnaoua musicians jostling for your attention along with veiled women, termed nakkachat, armed with henna ready to tattoo your hands and feet in the traditional style. These acts are circled by a string of stalls selling freshly squeezed orange juice for just a few dirham a glass. To the east of this action, you'll find hawkers with all manner of unusual goods spread out on the ground for perusal. The city's West African history can often be seen here in the potion salesmen, or herboristes, purveyors of various animal body parts and unusual dried herbs and spices still used today in traditional medicine. Here you may find local dentists displaying their most recent extractions in neat piles as some sort of assurance, along with public scribes and fortune-tellers, although unless you can speak Arabic, you might be better spending your money on a photo rather than a reading. Toward late afternoon, don't miss the square's acrobats. There may also be jugglers, magicians, and child boxers (girls included), along with what seems to be the most traditional and popular, at least for the locals, entertainment -- the halkas. These tellers of myths and fables derive their name from the circle in which the crowd gathers around to hear the storyteller. Sometimes accompanied by a musician, he will recite his tale well into the evening, with appropriately dramatic pauses for passing the collection hat around.
In addition to entertainment, from around 4pm onward you'll find row upon row of open-air food stalls. Here the hawkers, some with an amazing array of one-liners spoken fluently in a variety of languages, can be painfully persistent for your dining business until you choose a stall and are sitting down -- come armed with a sense of humor, and your experience will remain pleasant. Joining the juice stalls on the perimeter of the square are others selling dates, figs, apricots, and nuts, all of which you can try before you buy.
Music is a constant throughout the day but rises to a crescendo come early evening and continues unabated well into the night. Within 20 paces you may encounter full-blast renditions of traditional Atlas Berber, hypnotic gnaoua, and popular Moroccan folk. These simultaneous performances combine to create a powerful din that draws you in the closer you get to the square.
The most popular time of the day to visit Jemaa el Fna is late afternoon, and the presunset rush to find a seat at one of the rooftop cafes overlooking the square can become ugly.
Late afternoon is also the best time to take photos on the square, when both the daytime "workers" -- regal-looking turbaned herbal doctors, cross-legged snake charmers, and veiled henna ladies -- and nighttime performers -- leather-faced Atlas Berber musicians, veiled she-boy dancers, and circus-dressed acrobats -- are out. And don't forget the water sellers, with their brightly colored wide-brim hats and goatskin water vessels. Bring along plenty of Moroccan dirham (foreign currency is generally scowled at) in small change if you are planning on taking photos, as all of these people rely on gratuities. I usually make a standard, upfront payment of 10 dirham, which allows me to shoot a number of images with a relaxed subject who isn't worried about whether payment will be forthcoming or not after the event.
Remember to watch your wallet and other valuables once you enter the square, as it is an obvious draw for pickpockets. The prevalence of street children during the evening is also on the rise. Female travelers should be careful when crowding around an act, as this unfortunately affords an opportunity for the odd bit of groping. The ever-present Brigade Touristique is on hand to stop much of the hustling by guides and shopkeepers, but can be conspicuous sometimes by their lack of action when some other unfortunate act takes place.
Getting around Marrakech is relatively straightforward thanks to the two distinct areas of the medina and ville nouvelle, which are joined by avenue Mohammed V. The only really geographically challenging area is the maze of nonsignposted alleys and souks to the north of Jemaa el Fna. You might consider taking a guide here (you'll certainly have enough offers), though you should still give yourself some time to explore on your own.
By Bus -- You aren't likely to need a bus within the city, although bus no. 1, which runs right up avenue Mohammed V from the Koutoubia Mosque to Guéliz, can be a fun way of traveling this busy route and only costs 3dh; it helps to have exact change.
By Caleche -- These green, horse-drawn carriages are part of Marrakech's scenery and are a great way to see the city. An added incentive during peak hours is the relative ease with which you can catch a calèche rather than a petit taxi (plus these carriages can carry twice the amount of cargo -- six people at a squeeze). You'll find calèches lined up between Jemaa el Fna and the Koutoubia Mosque, as well as outside some of the more expensive hotels. Most routes have a fixed price: 50dh from Jemaa el Fna to Guéliz; 150dh for a complete circuit of the medina's wall; or an hourly charge of 100dh, though reconfirm this with the driver before you set off.
Tip: Support the work of SPANA by choosing only those calèche that are displaying the SPANA brass "badge of honor" on the front of their carriages. This signifies that the owner/driver has been singled out by the animal welfare organization as taking particularly good care of his trusty steeds. Seeing business specifically going to these badge holders may inspire other calèche owners to raise their standard of care and husbandry.
"When in Rome . . ."
As with any travel, be aware of what the locals do and when they do it. In Marrakech, take note of the lack of activity from midday to about 3pm, which is the hottest part of the day. Try to give yourself a break during this time; perhaps even head back to your accommodations for a midday siesta. During the oppressively hot months of July and August, dehydration is a real risk, so carry some bottled water, which is cheap and available everywhere.