The exotic atmosphere of Jemaa el Fna entertains the evening crowds with mystical readings, snake charmers and delicious street food. But there are some tourist traps to avoid in the interests of ethical travel.


For buzzing, middle eastern atmosphere it doesn’t get livelier, more exotic or more mystic than Jemaa el Fna.

During the day this main square in Marrakech is a massive open market that specialises in orange juice sellers with stalls stacked high. But as the sun sets and darkness descends it is transformed into a mix of Berber and Arab fantasy. Chefs fire up their grills. The square fills with intoxicating smoke. Gas lanterns cast patchy light across rows of stalls. A hubbub rises from tourists enchanted with live music, fortune tellers, snake charmers, story tellers or simply sitting down for a local meal.

But, unfortunately, tourism has cast a spell on the square. Each night hawkers parade chained monkeys wearing nappies, and snakes are aggravated into performing for music. Stall holders can hassle you to get money, and pickpocketing is rife.

So, read on for some wonderful things to do at Jemaa el Fna while supporting tourism in a positive way.


1 / COLLECT THE BEST VIEW OF JEMAA EL FNA

At night, Jemaa el Fna takes on an exotic ambience. Food stalls are in full swing and smoke from grills fill the air. Tables are set up and Jemaa el Fna becomes a makeshift dining space for thousands of hungry locals and tourists alike. It’s a stunning scene. Backed by the Koutobia Mosque and surrounding buildings, the square is illuminated with atmospheric lanterns, providing texture to the hundreds of stalls below.

The best view of Jemaa el Fna is from one of the roof terraces framing the edge of the square. And the best terrace is at Le Grand Balcon du Café Glace – perfectly positioned to witness the full scale of the activity on the square below.

The cafe itself is as bad as the name suggests. Entry is only possible with the purchase of a compulsory over-priced soft drink and it is more of a buffet bar than a cafe. But head here just before dusk and be treated to a remarkable scene as the final rays of light drain the colour from the medina. Once night falls, the lights and smoke from the stalls pierce the gloom as the hubbub rises. It’s nothing short of breath-taking.

2 / EAT STREET FOOD LIKE A BERBER KING

There’s no special trick to eating at Jemaa el Fna – each of the stalls basically serve the same thing.

But eating here is not about the food, it’s about soaking up the atmosphere at one of the most exciting venues in the world. Avoid the more aggressive stallholders and gravitate to the most entertaining. The ones whose performance and banter bring a smile to your face.

Once you’ve selected your vendor, shuffle into your cramped seats, being careful not to displace the paper tablecloths and order a round of mint tea to warm things up. There’s little ceremony at Jemaa el Fna; the vibe achieves something that’s both relaxed and frenetic at the same time.

Offerings are likely to be merguez sausages, grilled meats, harira soup and fried fish. Plenty of bread will accompany whatever you order. The more adventurous might want to try a whole sheep’s head with eyes still intact.

Whatever you dine on, you’ll certainly remember your evening at Jemaa el Fna.

3 / LET THEM ENTERTAIN YOU

Tourists provide important input into Jemaa el Fna – atmosphere and money. After dinner, spend the evening strolling around soaking up the square’s theatrics. Both the entertainers themselves and the shrill of excitement from tourists add to the carnival atmosphere of the square.

Listen to storytellers recant the heritage of ancient Berber tribes. Watch magicians extract oohs and aahs from attentive kids. Enjoy the grace and energy of dancers silhouetted by the glare of naked lightbulbs.

Have an ailment that needs attending to? No problem, Jemaa el Fna is also a hot spot for traditional medicines. Got a tooth that’s bothering you? A local medicine man can extract it on the spot at very competitive rates.

The downside to the entertainment at Jemaa el Fna, is the nightly animal rights abuses. Snake charmers perform to crowds of tourists and kids use Barbary Apes as photo props. The practice of using these animals for tourism affects their well-being, so we suggest doing what you can to not encourage their use. We have some more tips about this further on.

4 / EXPLORE DURING THE QUIET OF THE DAY

Jemaa el Fna is one of the most incredible things to do in Marrakesh and it’s not easy to miss. The labyrinth of alleys that make up the medina all point towards the square. In the nearby souks, craftsmen sell their wares from makeshift stalls. Dates, figs, almonds and walnuts are piled high on carts. Towers of spices match the colour of the handbags on display and the waft of orange juice weaves through the laneways.

The hum of thousands of people being seduced by local preachers, musicians and storytellers, beckons you in; broken only by the water sellers banging brass cups together – an attempt to frighten customers into thirst.

Throughout the middle of the day, you’ll find mostly Moroccans in Jemaa el Fna, listening to tales from storytellers and selecting the produce for lunch. So, it’s a great way to see the square without the hassle and crowds of the evenings.

WHERE TO EAT

We highly recommend trying the street food on the stalls at Jemaa el Fna. However, if you’d prefer to soak up the atmosphere without digesting it, here are some recommendations for where to eat in Marrakech.

SNACK GRAND ATLAS / Although it may look like any other touristy Moroccan restaurant, Snack Grand Atlas is a cut above. With friendly service and high-quality food, this is the pick of the budget eating options in Marrakech.

CAFE DE EPICES / This little café is perfectly positioned on the edge of Rahba Kedima and there can be few finer people-watching places in the city. Select from their large menu and sit back and enjoy the comings and goings while giving your feet a rest.

NOMAD / If you fancy an escape from the madness of Jemaa el Fna head to Nomad – an eclectic mix of European and Moroccan food served on a lovely terrace overlooking Kedima square.

LE FONDOUK / Dine in style on the upstairs terrace at Le Fondouk, the class act in town. Stare up at the skies as the cool evening air descends and sample some of the best cooking in Morocco

KSAR ESSAOUSSAN / Set in an opulent Riad, Ksar Essaoussan has a set menu offering a selection of Moroccan flavours. There’s only a small number of tables dotted around the central courtyard, so bookings are essential.

WHERE TO STAY TO VISIT JEMAA EL FNA

There’s no shortage of accommodation options in Marrakech.

Riads (traditional Moroccan house) are popular choices for their authentic feel and family-run service. Many have been meticulously and beautifully renovated and offer not just a good place to sleep, but also a glimpse into Moroccan life. Greta’s Travels has a great list of riads in Marrakech for every budget.

Another popular option are the high-end resorts located on the outskirts of the centre which provide all the modern comforts (and space) if you don’t mind travelling into the media every day.

All our accommodation recommendations are in our 3-day Marrakech itinerary.

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TIPS FOR VISITING JEMAA EL FNA

The magic of listening to storytellers, enjoying the atmosphere from above or engaging with animated hawkers is best enjoyed if you can avoid the more annoying side to Jemaa el Fna. So here are some tips for how to get the most out of this fascinating place.

AVOID THE HASSLE

Hawkers clearly make money from tourists engrossed with the novelty of Jemaa el Fna. And for the most part, they’re engaging, entertaining and add to the overall atmosphere of the square. But, at times they can hassle tourists to the point of frustration. Henna tattooists have been known to offer a quick design for what appears to be free, only to chase customers for payment later. Food stall hawkers can get a little too aggressive when trying to lure customers or deliver food you didn’t order then demand you pay for it.

Our best advice is to avoid engaging if you don’t intend to make a purchase and don’t accept anything for free. If someone is trying to sell you something you don’t want or give you something for free, just politely decline.

IT’S A PICK POCKETERS DELIGHT

Jemaa el Fna is a busy place that entertains thousands of people each night. With so many distractions going off around you, it’s easy for pick-pocketers to excel at their craft. Fortunately, Morocco is a very cheap destination so there’s never a need to carry to much cash on you. But stay alert and keep an eye on your belongings.

GO AT DUSK FOR THE BEST PHOTO OPPORTUNITIES

The magic of Jemaa el Fna is the transformation from relatively functional market square during the day to bustling food stalls in the evening. As the light fades from the day and darkness descends on the square the atmosphere is electric. With the last fragments of light still on the square the photo opportunities are amazing.

The best plan of attack is to arrive at Le Grand Balcon du Café Glace just before sunset to get photos from above. Then make your way down to the square to have dinner and take some photos of the stalls in the evening.

BUT, DON’T PHOTOGRAPH PEOPLE

Moroccans don’t like their photograph being taken. Something you will become very familiar with when trying to capture the atmosphere of the souks. They’ll cover their faces and generally make it known they don’t want their photo taken.

It’s a similar situation in Jemaa el Fna except hawkers are here to make money from tourists wishing to take a photo of them holding a monkey or charming a snake. If they see you take a photo without paying, they’ll hassle you for money, or ask you to delete the photo. I had to scroll through a heap of photos on my memory card just to prove I hadn’t actually taken a photo from someone who was adamant I had.

Jemaa el Fna is one of the most photogenic spots in Marrakech. Enjoy it, but take a bit of care with what you capture.

DON’T SUPPORT ANIMAL CRUELTY

Throughout Jemaa el Fna, animals are used to entertain the crowds. Snakes are kept in baskets only to be released sporadically and tormented by their owners. Monkeys are carted around with chains on their necks and treated like toys.

Unfortunately, there’s a market for this type of entertainment because tourists give money for the novelty of getting a photo with a creature not seen every day.

By all means, enjoy the magic of Jemaa el Fna. But please don’t support the animal handlers by giving them any money.


WHERE NEXT?

If you found this guide useful, please head over to Instagram and follow us to stay up to date with our adventures.

We’ve loved Morocco every time we visit. And everytime, something surprises us. For all the information including costs and accommodation options on our road trip, see our 10-day Morocco itinerary.

For more inspiration, here’s some additional Morocco articles you might like.

If you have any questions please leave them in the comments section below – we will always reply. To stay up to date with our travels, follow us on social and signup to our NEWSLETTER.

The exotic atmosphere of Jemaa el Fna entertains the evening crowds with mystical readings, snake charmers and delicious street food. But there are some tourist traps to avoid in the interests of ethical travel.

The exotic atmosphere of Jemaa el Fna entertains the evening crowds with mystical readings, snake charmers and delicious street food. But there are some tourist traps to avoid in the interests of ethical travel.

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