The exotic atmosphere of Jemaa el Fna entertains the evening crowds with mystical readings, snake charmers and delicious street food. An essential, if touristy, Moroccan experience.


For buzzing, middle eastern atmosphere it doesn’t get much livelier, more exotic or more mystic than Jemaa el Fna. From dawn to dusk, the main square in Marrakesh entertains crowds with musical, religious and artistic expressions in a rotating roster of performance. During the day it’s a massive market specialising in orange juice sellers and water carriers. Fortune tellers, traditional medicine men and snake charmers set the afternoon scene. All day there’s strong competition for the crowd’s attention.

But as the sun sets and darkness descends on this mysterious spot on the edge of the medina, it transforms into your wildest Arabian fantasy. The fortune tellers and snake charmers make way for tables and chairs. Chefs fire up their grills, and the square fills with intoxicating smoke. Gas lanterns provide patchy light as locals and tourists make for the square in their hundreds.

Marrakesh is on Europe’s doorstep, yet it feels like it’s all taking place eons ago. Despite the culture shock, it’s an easy weekender from Europe. But, if you have more time to indulge in this exotic destination, read our 9-day driving itinerary to make the most of every day.

ORIGINS OF JEMAA EL FNA

Founded by the Almoravids – a Berber tribe from the Atlas mountains –  during 12th and 13th centuries, Marrakesh was transformed into a leading centre for culture and learning. Later it became the capital of an empire that ruled Morocco, most of Spain and Algeria. The general layout of the souks and squares of Marrakesh are largely as the Almoravids created them centuries ago. The triangular entrance to the medina – Jemaa el Fna – still bares it’s ancestors design principles.

Jemaa means “congregation” in Arabic while Fna conveniently covers both “courtyard” and “death.” So, translations for Jemaa el Fna range from “congregation area” to “courtyard of the dead”, a reference the public executions that took place around 1050. Either way, it’s a magical place to visit, which holds on to the historical layout developed by the Almoravids. It also continues the tradition of culture and learning with Berber storytelling, dancing, preaching and poetry.

GETTING YOUR BEARINGS AT JEMAA EL FNA, MARRAKESH

Jemaa el Fna is 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 create high piles on carts. Towers of spices match the colour of the handbags on display and the waft of orange juice weaves through the laneways. The sound of water sellers banging brass cups together – in an attempt to frighten customers into thirst – captures your attention. The hum of thousands of people being seduced by local preachers, musicians and storytellers, beckons you in.

Throughout the middle of the day, you’ll find mostly Moroccans in Jemaa el Fna, listening to tales from storytellers and selecting the best oranges from the vast orange sellers. But tourists provide important input into Jemaa el Fna –  atmosphere and money. Snake charmers entertain tourists with crazy stories and weird rituals, that wouldn’t impress locals. Kids use Barbary Apes as photo props, encouraging tourists to pose with the animals – or even feed them- for a fee. The practice of using these animals for tourism affects their well-being, so we suggest doing what you can to not encourage their use.

In addition to the storytellers, magicians and dancers that keep the crowds gasping at Jemaa el Fna, it’s also a hot spot for traditional medicines. Got a tooth that’s bothering you? No problem. A local medicine man can extract it on the spot at very competitive rates.

NIGHTFALL AT 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.

There’s no special trick to eating at Jemaa el Fna, just take your cue from the locals. Order some Moroccan delicacies and grab a table nearby to consume your feast. Some of the treats on offer include spicy merguez sausages, harira soup and fried fish. There’s little ceremony at the tables, just grab a spot with enough seats for all of you and tuck in. The more adventurous eaters might want to try a whole sheep’s head with eyes still intact. But if food staring back at you is not your idea of atmospheric dining, you’ll be happy with the amazing Morocco sausage.

After dinner immerse yourself in the ritual of Jemaa el Fna. Take a stroll around this superb square where belly dancers entertain, Berber storytellers mesmerise and henna tattooists get to work.

Squat down beside a group being entertained by a storyteller and toss in a dirham or two. Perhaps head up to Café du Grand Balcon for a mint tea on the terrace overlooking the madness. Yes it’s touristy, yes it’s overpriced, but it’s the best place to view the entire scene of Jemaa el Fna and you’ll be glad you did.

Jemaa el Fna is an atmospheric, exotic slice of night-market goodness. Of all the local markets we’ve encountered this is definitely up there.  With top points for originality, quirkiness and sublime photo opportunities, it’s a delight to stroll around. In a country with so much to see, it’s a definite highlight. And that’s saying a lot.

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The exotic atmosphere of Jemaa el Fna entertains the evening crowds with mystical readings, snake charmers and delicious street food. An essential, if touristy, Moroccan experience.

The exotic atmosphere of Jemaa el Fna entertains the evening crowds with mystical readings, snake charmers and delicious street food. An essential, if touristy, Moroccan experience.

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