The Medina and the Kasbah are fascinating areas and one can hardly visit Marrakech without exploring them. But they’re not where I recommend staying. The importuning left and right, and the very dirty streets, are not only tiresome, but they contribute to a less positive attitude towards the town than it deserves, I think. When you are on the sunny broad boulevards, passing impressive government buildings, beautiful parks and lines of palm trees, you have a very different feeling. When I left the Kasbah in a taxi to head up to the Guéliz area, I felt happier right away. Exotic is fascinating, but clean streets and winds carrying fresh air smelling of trees, grass and gardens were a relief. I didn’t miss the snake charmers and the men with their sad, emaciated monkeys.
Guéliz is called the European area. Built in the early 1900s, it stayed small until this century. A banal but useful indoor mall, Carré Eden, has replaced the historic market of the area. The major point of interest is Yves St-Laurent’s Majorelle Garden. The train station is also on the edge of this district.
I’d first gone up to Guéliz for that indoor mall, on an outing with dorm-mates, when we wanted a warm and comfortable wifi spot – and I wanted cash from an off-the-street ATM, and some wine from the Carrefour, one of the few stores that sell liquor. I’d decided that day that this zone should be where I’d go my third week. Meantime, I’d gone back for a good laundromat, ONWASH on Rue Oum Rabii.
While I was more than ready to leave behind the cold, cheap hostels (US $8-$10 a night), I was still determined to stay on a low budget, and Guéliz, being more European, tends to have moderately pricey to quite expensive modern hotels. I’d looked for hostels around Guéliz, and found only one: reviews for it said it was only on an upper floor, over a restaurant that guaranteed inescapable odors of frying oil and fish. So I read dozens of reviews of the cheapest hotels. They all had about the same mediocre ratings and the same range of complaints, but didn’t sound intolerable. I picked one called Hotel El Hamra that was on a main boulevard, Abdelkrim Al Khattabi. If I didn’t always want to walk, there would be city buses a few doors away.
This was actually just beyond Guéliz, in a zone on its north side called Semlalia, but businesses there tend to refer to themselves as being in Guéliz. It’s plainer and less bustling than the heart of Guéliz just north of the central post office.
Is a bottom-dollar hotel better than a hostel?
When I arrived at Hotel El Hamra, I found the lobby was up a flight of stairs. Oh great, with my heavy luggage. Still, at every place I’d been since starting all these travels, even the cheapest hostels, someone has jumped to help me with my bags. Ah. Not here. Take a close look at the third photo below. The one man in the lobby stayed at the reception desk, head down, eyes on a paper, not going to see me or watch my three trips with my bags. (I don’t take stairs with both hands loaded with heavy things. ) He did not stir. So much for my welcome.
And then my room. I couldn’t believe the table and chair that comprised the furnishings. So low and small! I took a photo, went back to the reception and asked, what is this? A child’s set? As it obviously was. He agreed to change it out. At that point he also decided to change the flickering light bulb in the bathroom, and then a housekeeper brought me a wrapped soap the size of a mint. No issue, I always bring my own. Now things seemed okay, but it turned out that internet didn’t reach this room. Some staff tried to check on it but after two nights they simply had me move to a room over the reception, where the signal usually held. Good solution.
So, was it worth the difference? I’d gone from an average of about $10/night to $26, a significant difference, even if most readers may think it pocket change. This was supposed to be my cheap month to balance off European expenses. The pluses were a calmer neighborhood, a private bathroom, and best of all, warmth. I thought the climate control system wasn’t working, but at least the room was closed to the outdoors, not like the hostels. Then on the third night a fellow got the heat turned on for me. And, even though the balcony overlooked the empty pool below and a zone of rubble that could someday be a very pleasant patio area, I enjoyed the open sky view and trees when weather allowed eating there. The notable minus in my view was the lack of hostel-mates, because I’ve been meeting such interesting and fun people, many of whom I hope to keep hearing from and see again. Another big minus was having no refrigerator or chance to cook. But given that I wasn’t feeling really well, resto and delivery meals were cheap, and the weather stayed cool and rainy too many days, YES, it was worth shelling out a bit more.
In fact, when my five-night booking was ending, I was looking online again, still in the same neighborhood, considering changing. So many little things were broken in this hotel. They must be working on some things because daytimes there were construction noises; sometimes hall lights were out and that signaled that the elevator wasn’t working either. But the staff had gradually tried to make things a little better. And none of the similarly-priced hotels sounded worth moving to. I went with the “better the devil you know” choice, and booked another eleven nights, the entirety of my remaining time.
What’s best about staying in Guéliz, Hivernage or Semlalia
I enjoyed the wide choice of cheap and decent restaurants close by in Semlalia, far superior to the street food stands of the Medina and Kasbah. Not to give the wrong idea: there are upscale places as well, plenty to choose from. And it was a pleasant and interesting neighborhood to walk in, with university buildings, a library and hospital nearby, but also a great variety of shops, cafes, hotels and restaurants. Street beggars were fewer in number, one or two a block, and usually sat quietly rather than approaching and insisting as happened quite a bit in the Kasbah. That is one reason why I found walks in this district more enjoyable; not fascinating like the Medina, but peaceful, and I could look at shops without hassle. And the last night I was in town, I ended up returning to the hotel quite late, 11:30 pm-midnight, something I would rather avoid when alone, but I could be at ease here.
On the bargain side, I went to Le Diamant Vert the first evening when I needed internet and had a decent little steak dinner for US 5 and a dollar tip. The next day I tried Haj Boujamaa Plates, which I’d picked out from Google Maps, with hopes it would be my stand-by: very cheap and such a varied menu, it could seem new every time. My first meals there were very good, later not so much, but the staff was very friendly and the place was always hopping. But there’s no wifi, and I needed it. So, many times I went to Cafe Kazem next door to my hotel, for internet and coffee or juice or a bit of breakfast when needed before taking medicine. I frequented a coffee cart just around the corner: US 70 cents for a latte and a bit of friendly conversation. When I wasn’t feeling great or the weather was cold and rainy, I got deliveries from the Glovo app. Everything pictured below is something I enjoyed and recommend.
Eventually I splurged a little on a steak dinner at Bor’Kan, $12.50 plus a $2 tip. It was a day of heavy downpour with some street flooding; my shoes didn’t dry for many days.
Guéliz has a lot of pricier restaurants, still moderate in a broader context, that I might have enjoyed had I been feeling great. It was fun to walk along the main boulevards and side streets and see all the variety of restos and shops. I wandered along to the Hivernage district and would recommend it for hotels and restaurants, as an upscale and attractive section of town. There I found a shop with organic Moroccan products, foods and cosmetics, where I spent my remaining cash on my last day out in town. Called Sens de la Forêt, at N 22, Complexe Al Harti, the shop doesn’t have a website, but I think a lot of its products are the same as this cooperative, Arij al Ghaba, whose name was also on the receipt.
I had few meal splurges. One was lunch an Indian restaurant, Clay Oven Kech, where I spent US$ 16.50 before tip; the food was good enough, not exciting enough for a second visit. But I had a wonderful last dinner at Plus 61, which I highly recommend; I had two delicious courses, no drinks (still on meds!), was given a big salad at no charge, and paid US $30 including tip. The main was braised lamb with fennel and sweet potatoes: it could almost have come out of my own kitchen!
I had gotten discouraged about breakfasts because I like eggs, and Moroccan hostels, hotels and simple restaurants generally either fry a beaten egg on one side till the bottom is dry and brown and much like cardboard – this is called an omelet (can you picture my tears?) – or else hard boil them till the yolk has a thick green-gray edge providing that familiar sulfur smell. There’s proof in nearly every restaurant photo as I searched online. Ah, the disadvantage of no kitchen access. But then, oh wouldn’t you know, my very last week I tried La Rencontre Café in Hotel Les Ambassadeurs just a few blocks from me. I ordered coffee and scrambled eggs a la carte; the waiter asked why I didn’t take the cheaper breakfast combo, and I said, to have scrambled eggs instead of “omelet” – and he offered to substitute them. So I had juice, coffee, rolls and the fluffiest, moistest scrambled eggs I could hope for, all for about $4 – and of course a dollar tip. I went back two more days, enjoying that breakfast was served even into lunch hours, no cut-off time. I would recommend trying the hotel as well, as its rates sometimes aren’t much higher than what I paid.
What did a cheap month in Marrakech actually cost?
I can’t swear I haven’t left something out, but going by the cash I withdrew and my credit card records, I can be fairly confident of a figure of about US$ 1,220. This does not include airfare or airport transfers. Here is the breakdown for my time early February to early March, 2023, when one Moroccan dirham was about 10 US cents.
- Lodging: US$ 566
- Food and alcohol: US$ 356
- Spa (1 pedicure, 1 hammam): US$ 30
- Gifts: US$ 50
- Private doctor visits and prescriptions: US$ 120
- Incidentals: US$ 98 (postcards, stamps, taxis, drugstore & cleaning items, tips)
Regarding the food total, I should explain that I do not eat three meals a day, just one main one and something light. Calculate accordingly. Alcohol was wine and a few beers, that I purchased at Carrefour and consumed in my lodgings. Most restaurants don’t serve alcohol – of course, the tourist-oriented ones do, but they are not a majority – and that is reason enough for me to often choose carryout or delivery. As for seeing a private doctor, I hope that won’t be called for when you visit.