Sooner or later it seems, all paths in Marrakech lead to the Djemaa el Fna. The name (sometimes spelled “Djamaa el Fna” or “Jamaa el Fna”) means “Assembly of the Dead” in Arabic but a visit here suggests life in all its vibrancy. To call this the city’s main square doesn’t begin to do justice to it. This is a meeting place, a shopping centre, a performance space, a happening. It is surrounded by restaurants and cafés, each with a roof terrace to offer a ringside seat from where to observe all the action, but better by far to get immersed in it all yourself.
Here is a snake charmer with a sleepy cobra waiting for tourists’ dirhams before luring him into action. Here is a man with a monkey wanting payment to pose with him perched on your shoulder. And over there a colourfully dressed water-seller is making more money from posing for photos than he ever will from selling water.
Rows of stalls sell dried fruits; others freshly squeezed orange juice. Women offer to decorate your hand with henna, and men to shine your shoes – even if you are wearing trainers. You can buy a leather handbag or a packet of tissues, a lantern or a cigarette lighter. Mopeds weave past pedestrians, men push carts and donkeys pull them, horses trot past with tourist passengers perched in the caleche behind.
Over it all towers the minaret of the Katoubia Mosque, the tallest building in the city, and at regular intervals the call to prayer rings out above the hubbub. But that one spiritual note barely seems to make an impression on all the secular activity at its foot, although the faithful no doubt pause briefly in their actions before returning to earthly matters of commerce and enterprise.
Come here with an open mind, and with your wits about you. If you are unused to travelling “out of your comfort zone” you may find it unnerving at first, but take your time, watch from the sidelines for a while, and you will soon get a sense of how best to experience this place. You will probably be hassled for money, and almost certainly to buy (juice, water, henna decoration …) but say no firmly and if necessary move away – there are many other tourists and the would-be seller will soon pass on to the next one. Of course you must watch your possessions, but that is true in any crowded city square, anywhere in the world. And remember that a small sum to you can mean much more here, so if you really want that photo of a snake charmer or water-seller by all means pay a fair fee – it will bring back great memories long after your visit so will be worth the outlay.
At night the square is even more vibrant – but that is a subject for another, Nightlife, tip. But first, in my next 2009 tip, a warning
The Jemaa El Fnaa has been around since about 1000 years, sort of quiet in the daytime, some snake charmers, tattoo artists, water sellers and fruit juice stalls, it becomes alive in the late afternoon with about 100 food stalls where you can get very reasonable food, mostly Couscous, Tajine and similar.
Jemaa El Fnaa is the main place in the city center
The heart of Morocco beats in Djemaa el-Fna, where everything happens, and everything has a price, in a non-stop touristy happening.
The size of the square, very uncommon in old Moroccan quarters, may explain this intense merging of business and popular arts.
The square is a living stage, performing for tourist everything that may lead to a deal.
If you go to Marrakesh, you must see Djamaa El Fna.
Or, I guess so... Like if you visit Barcelona, you must see La Rambla.
I felt the same tourist-trap feeling!
Well, at last Djamaa El Fna was more 'exotic' for me :-)
Yes, it is big, it is impressive and everything. But, apart of crossing it, passing by at different hours of the day and night (easy, when your riad is 10 minutes away!) I did not feel it was worth to spend much time on it.
Just my opinion...
This is easily Marrakesh's main sight and a place where you can easily spend a couple of hours just walking around or watching the scene. Here, you will find all kinds of arts and all kinds of food in an entertaining setting. The square is what comes the closest to a place out of 1001 nights and is known for its snake charmers, henna tattooists and storytellers. The name can be translated as “assembly of the dead” and is the main entrance to the medina.
Djama El Fnaa sees action in the time from 8 am to 1 am. However, in the morning hours you will find life only in the cafés and restaurants around the square and a couple of stalls (mainly souvernirs and orang juice) catering for tourists. Artists arrive in the early morning and most food stalls do not open before 4 pm. If street food is your thing, you will not get disappointed! The soup for three Dirhams was great, other stalls offer traditional elements such as tajine or mint tea. Just be aware that when they are giving away extras such as olives or bread, they are not for free and will be added to the bill. Decline them friendly.
TIP: Besides throwing yourself into the action of Djama El Fnaa, go to one of the rooftop cafés (like Café de France) and see the scene from above. As the prices are higher here than elsewhere, consider coming to these places for a coffee or drink and come
Of course, you will be approached by vendors and touts which will try to get the best out of you: Your money. Among them, kudos to the orange juice sellers – they are not obtrusive and can sell you a good product for a fixed and more then fair price. Artists demand a small tip if you have been watching their show (10-20 Dirham per person is fine). Be aware that people such as snake charmers ask for money if you want to take pictures of them. Taking pictures without paying or even asking is a no-no and you might get an unpleasant surprise! I preferred not to engage with the snake charmers as snake charming is not the most animal-friendly activity and I do not like to be close to snakes anyway.
Have plenty of change in your pocket and some sweets for the begging kids.
Be careful where you point it at an entertainer they will want 200dh. Give them 20-50 and walk away. They will probably follow you wanting more. Don't get ripped off. (Better to take one good picture and make it count)
Get used to the fact you will be hassled and be polite.
A polite no thank you is much better than ignoring them. (Do no be a bad tourist)
Things you should do.
Have a mint tea and people watch.
Get you shoes polished.
To describe what is on this place and what is special is to best explain what there is and isnt on this square and its hard to imagine something which isnt there at some point of the day... food stalls selling you everything from fresh juices to bbq to cooked snails and hot sweet mint tea..... to hundreds of musicians, performers and story tellers. I almost also stepped on a few snakes on my first night here which taught me to look at the ground when walking more than around me at everything else....
Best tip i can give anyone who is not a moroccan.. is not to give anyone eye contact. You will be left in peace so much more than if you look at them and say no not interested... Also try to have dinner on one of the terraces... and then you have the most spectacular view of the square and all its drama....
I made the grave mistake of asking my guide if the meaning of the name of Marrakech's great square was "unknown". I meant in general, but he took it as a personal slander, and politely and firmly corrected me. Of course he knew the meaning of the name, but his mumbled explanation didn't make much sense to me. On further reading it seems that nobody is really sure of the meaning - does it mean "the Mosque at the end of the World" or maybe something more prosaic like "The assembly square in front of the mosque". Whatever the truth, you should never question the knowledge of your guide - it is something they take great pride in.
Whatever Djemaa el Fna was may have been lost in the mists of time, but what it has become is clear: an arena in which to pass on the cultural legacy of the region in the form of music, theater, dancing, food and all kinds of breathtakingly strange and unusual performances. Depending on the time of day it can be hypnotic or awe-inspiring, or sometimes even banal; it's not every minute of every day that the best performers turn up. To get the most out of the square you'll need to turn up several times, in the morning, afternoon, evening and night. Sunset is a popular time when the square changes into an open air restaurant filled with smoking food wagons.
Don't forget that everyone performing in Djemaa el Fna is an actor, singer, dancer or some kind of performance artists who doesn't work for free. If you decide to watch their show or take pictures, expect to hand over some cash - around 10 dirhams should be enough. Everybody pays - they aren't just milking tourists (although they probably will if you let them). Typically someone will walk around with a hat or bag and you drop your money in - payment is often expected per person and per activity (watching and taking photos are separate activities).
A visit to the square is a must when in Marrakech.The ambience of this place is amazing,with so many colours,sights and sounds which seem to change depending on the time of day.
If you visit during the evening (when most of the activity is) a good idea is to find a terrace restaurant where you will have great views of the square,and is also a discreet place for taking photos.
This seems like a popular place for the locals and it was nice just being able to mingle with them during the evening.Some of the activities that go on in the square i would not agree with,such as the snake charmers and monkey handlers,and you do wonder how these creatures are treated when out of public view.
Also surrounding the square are numerous stalls selling orange juice and dried fruits ... these guys are less aggressive since they work by themselves and can't leave the stalls to chase you ..... many will let you try 1 piece of dried fruit, but of course if you try more than 1 your buying it !!!!!!!!
We weren't interested in dried fruits but I wanted to try the orange juice ..... and WOW !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! this was the best I have had anywhere in the world !!!!!! it was amazing and cheap .... a large glass for 4 dirhams $.50 US cents ..... it was sooooooooo good that I had 5 glasses of it even though I wasn't thirsty !!!!! it was soooo good that I just kept drinking it !!!!!! the vendor made the glasses right in front of me !!!!!!!!!
The vendor was real nice and even allowed me to take a photo behind his booth !!!!!! for a change he wasn't aggressive ......
A MUST DO !!!!!!!!!! too bad they don't sell it by the gallons, because I would have bought some .... I'm sure if you had a container they would sell it to you !!!! so come prepared because it's that good !!!!!!!
One of the facts in being Marrakech is the constant touts trying to get you to either buy something in there store or trying to be friendly just to try to take you to a store where they get commission for items ......
Same thing applies to the square at night .... 4 rows of food stalls become alive as soon as the sun starts to set ..... If you could only walk thru and not have these touts in your face and give you a chance to see what they are cooking the experience would have been the best in Marrakech but as soon as you start walking they stick menu's in your face... or stand in front of you to the point that if you don't step on them they won't move ..... they know all the phrases in English, Spanish, French, German ... you name it they know everything here ... amazing !!!!!
What I don't like is they grab your arm and try to get you to sit down at there stalls .... that's the most annoying part of Marrakech ..... We were finally able to see some interesting foods and actually weren't harassed since there stall was full of locals, there was no space so we were left alone for a change ..... once the locals got up were were seated and left alone to take as many photos and ask as many questions we wanted .....
My cousin was not convinced to try anything so I went ahead and had goat tongue .... and since my mother has cooked beef tongue for us since childhood I did not find it gross or anything like that ..... and for 20 Dirham about $2 US.... I found it pretty good .... also at this stall we had the best tea on our trio for a only 2 dirham a glass !!!!!!!!!!
Take your time going thru here and try.... even though its hard ... try to ignore the touts and try something different ... everything is cooked right in front of you .... don't be like some people that we saw eating "fish and chips" ... really you can't go 1 day without comfort food ?????? Be a TRAVELER NOT A TOURIST !!!!! Open your mind, you'll be surprised how well locals will interact with you if your open to there customs and foods ........
A MUST DO !!!!!!!!!
Much can be said about this square ..... but just be on your guard, plenty of pickpockets, and shady people trying to take your money via all types of entertainment !!!!!!! but don't get me wrong .... enjoy yourself for you have never seen anything like this anywhere in the world .... and this is the main attraction of Marrakech .. both during the day and at night ..... there is tons and tons of people at all times here ..... so your never in any type of danger but be careful of your possessions ....... a must do !!!!!!!!!