Jemaa el-Fna is a vibrant square in Marrakech. I share my top things to do in Jemaa el-Fna including places to dine & where to stay
“Snakes?” I asked, wiggling my hand vertically, mimicking the moves of a cobra.
“Snakes finished,” Replied the tall, skinny Moroccan man, beckoning me to sit down on a plastic stool. Disappointed, I sit and wait for the evening entertainment.
The sun has set on Jemaa el Fna, Marrakech's famous tourist square. Gone are the snake charmers and tourist touts and the locals are out in force.
The music begins and I fall into a trance, sitting in a circle with transfixed locals, clapping to the beat of the drums. Morocco's version of Brian May is crooning on a guitar and the crowd looks on in awe. I have no idea what's going on. The music stops and ‘Brian' struts around the circle in his cowboy boots, shouting something I cannot understand. Others nod furiously and repeat his last word like a mantra.
Is this another weird cult I've stumbled across, a religious circle perhaps?
I want to leave but people are watching. Then the music begins again, and I too am transfixed by the vibe and the hypnotic beats. I only came here to see the snake charmer and as the music lifts me even higher, it crosses my mind that I am now the snake that I came to see.
About Jemaa el-Fna
Within the centre of Marrakech, Jemaa el-Fna is known as the place of convergence and culmination of rich Moroccan culture. Snake charmers are just part of the entertainment here.
But the history of how this buzzing agora came to be is a bit of a mystery. Its history may be vague but around the 12th Century, the square was apparently known for hanging criminals as well as holding military parades.
Then in the 17th Century, Saadian Sultan Ahmed El Mansour prompted a construction of a Mosque in the square. It was initially called Djemaa El-Fna which means the ‘Mosque of Happiness’. But because of some problems, the construction did not push through and so instead, they switched the name to Djemaa El-Fna which now translates to the ‘Mosque of Ruins/Demolition’.
From then on, Jemaa el-Fna started its transformation as a place of commerce and entertainment. And in 2001, UNESCO proclaimed the square as a site of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But as well as seeing snake charmers, what else is there to do in the square?
Things To Do in Jemaa el-Fna
1. Enjoy the street food
Food must be one of your top agendas for visiting Jemaa el-Fna. Well, you’re never likely to run out of choices because there are at least 50 food stalls operating in the square. These food kiosks begin opening at dusk and offer a wide variety of dishes: grilled meats, meat skewers, grilled vegetables, chicken barbecues, fish, chips, fries, pastilla, and of course, the staple Moroccan (khubz) bread among other options.
If you want to taste something of local origins, try Harira (legume soup), and Chebakia (flower-shaped or curled honey-drenched sesame cookies). You’ll also find some Marrakech specialities such as Couscous (steamed granules or little pasta made of wheat or barley) and of course the Tajine (a slow-cooked stew with chicken, vegetables, and fruits).
If you want exotic or unusual delicacies, there’s a spicy soup with snails and an actual sheep’s head available! Yep, you’ve read that right, a sheep’s head served to you on a platter. Aside from these food stalls in the main square, there are also cafes and restaurants littering the area.
1. Try mint tea and orange juice
Witness the hustle and bustle unfold from the comfort of a rooftop restaurant. The most recommended types of refreshments in the area are mint tea and fresh orange juice (Panache). Take a break from walking, chill for a while at a rooftop vantage point with a mint tea and observe Jemaa el-Fna from above.
2. Watch the entertainers
Besides the food and drinks, entertainment also adds to the Jemaa el-Fna dynamic. For hundreds of years, storytelling or Hakawti has been a constant fragment of Arab art and culture. Regular local listeners are often found in a circle listening intently to the master storyteller. The tales are told in Darija (Moroccan Arabic dialect), so us tourists most likely won’t be able to understand.
But you don’t have to linger for long as you can just stay for a while to satisfy your curiosity as to how these storytellers hook their audiences through their words and music. Watch the evening performances of Berber musicians and Gnaoua dancers. Plus, there are magicians and acrobats showcasing their stellar tricks and skills to the bystanders.
And then, there are snake charmers and monkey handlers that you may find a bit intriguing but you may also feel uncomfortable with how they handle their animals. So you may want to avoid these.
3. Visit Koutoubia Mosque
Not far from the square, you’ll find Koutoubia Mosque, the largest mosque in Marrakech with its impressive minaret. Aside from the magnificent architectural structure, you’ll find a tranquil garden behind the Mosque with palm trees and plants where you can get some respite from the busy square. Take note that non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the Koutoubia Mosque but taking souvenir pictures is still possible outside.
4. Get the full-day experience
If you’re not a fan of the hectic and people-swarmed night scene, visit during the bright hours. The square is rather quiet and peaceful with only a few stalls, stores, and entertainers around. In the morning, you are likely going to see orange juice vendors, potion sellers, henna-tattoo artists, and some snake charmers. You’ll get the chance to stroll around under the early rays of the sun while sipping your sweet orange juice and taking in the ambience before the crowds.
5. Take photos
If your goal is to take the best photos, the best time to do photo ops of the market’s entirety and scenes is at dusk and sunset. I’m pretty sure the vivid colours of the sky and clouds as the backdrop and the gleaming lights from the stores will turn out incredible. And if you’re ready for the night crowd, stay in the square and haggle with the vendors to experience the thronging evening atmosphere.
Best Places To Eat in Jemaa el-Fna
A classic and authentic Moroccan restaurant that offers dishes at very affordable prices. The place is simple and visited by many people every day. Don’t miss tasting their Harira, it’s one of the best!
Restaurant Le Foundouk
A popular go-to restaurant with an open rooftop terrace displaying a panoramic view of Marrakech. They serve both Moroccan and international cuisines. You can also order some cocktails to complete the night. If you want to experience this lovely posh place, it’s recommended to make a reservation first.
A sophisticated and refreshing dining space with a layout of greens and Moroccan handicrafts. Try their beef tagine and chicken pastilla. They even have pizzas too! Le Salama has over three stories and a rooftop, making it an ideal set-up for watching the beautiful sunset with a glass of champagne in your hand.
If you’re looking for something beyond traditional cuisine, Nomad may just be the perfect place. The place exudes a chic and vibrant atmosphere. It also offers Moroccan and international dishes but with a modern twist. They have salads, soups, and various meat dishes, all made with fresh and local ingredients. Nomad also has two rooftop terraces providing their diners with an overview of the Medina.
Café Kif Kif
Cafe Kif Kif is a homey place to dine. As well as a Moroccan-style menu they also offer a French-style one. Salads, tajines, couscous, burgers, and desserts, name it, they have it all and they take pride in serving fresh and healthy specialities. The restaurant also has three floors and a terrace where you can see the stunning beauty of the Koutoubia mosque.
La Cantine des Gazelles
This is one of the best budget local restaurants in the area. It’s known for its colourful and warm exterior and interior designs. It’s always packed with people but if you get to visit, try their classically delicious Harira, Tajine, and Couscous platters.
Tips For Jemaa el Fna
Jemaa el-Fna gets extremely busy with thousands of tourists and locals going through the market and stalls each day. If you don’t like crowds, it can feel a bit overwhelming. Even though there are authorities roaming the area, you do need to be careful with your things and watch out for pickpockets (you may want to carry a money belt or a zipped bag).
Marrakesh in general does seem to have a few scammers (other areas in the country are easier solo). So you may be approached by people asking you for money or wanting to help you if look lost. They usually ask for money in return so just be firm if you don’t want any help.
When taking photos, don’t take pictures of people (or even monkeys at that) as they will either charge you or ask you to delete the image. Always ask first before taking pictures of people, and expect to pay in return.
When deciding which food stalls to buy from, choose those regularly visited by the locals or those with prices clearly indicated so you won’t be unfairly charged. If you don’t see any displayed prices, negotiate with the vendor first before you buy anything.
This square is known for its animal entertainers and you may encounter some that are treated unethically. Snakes or monkeys may be treated in less-than-acceptable ways. If you feel uncomfortable, don’t engage or give them money for their shows.
One thing is for sure, Jemaa el-Fna is an experience. It’s a square to enjoy the food and drinks, watch the good performances and immerse yourself in the ambience. As you bask in the abundant culture, you really get to experience Moroccan heritage at its raw finest.
Marrakech Medina Tours
If you don’t feel comfortable exploring Jemaa el-Fna alone (especially at night), you could take a Marrakech Medina tour. Get Your Guide uses recommended local tour companies and is really easy to use. Choose from a Marrakech monuments & souks tour, a Medina by night tour, or you can even bike your way around Marrakech with a guide.
There are plenty of Marrakech day tours to choose from including a historical and cultural tour taking you around Marrakech. I have personally used Get Your Guide several times and recommend them. Read my review here or click the link below to see all their tours.
Places To Stay Marrakech
Hostels in Marrakech
The hostels in Marrakech are really good and if you’re on a budget there are several to choose from. I have stayed at the Madrassa hostel in the Medina which was within the Medina and walking distance of the square. * Click here for Marrakech hostels
Best Riads in Marrakech Medina For Solos
But for the true Moroccan experience, I recommend staying at a traditional riad. These are the best places to stay in Marrakech Morocco. Not only are they beautifully designed but they also give you a glimpse into Moroccan culture. I’ve included recommended riads for solo female travellers below:
$ – Riad Jennah Rouge: This budget-friendly hostel is located within the maze of the Medina. If you like the sociability of a hostel but want your own ensuite room instead of a bed in a mixed dormitory, this hostel is a good choice. Prices from £10 / $12 p/n * Check dates & availability
$$ – Riad Anais Marrakech: I’ve personally stayed here and it’s beautiful with a peaceful ambience. It’s close to the attractions and a lovely breakfast is included too. Prices from £76 / $92 p/n * Check dates & availability
$$$ – Riad NayaNour: Just moments away from the souks, this beautiful riad is located in a quiet area with a roof terrace and heated pool. Prices from £123 / $148 p/n * Check dates & availability