Jemaa el Fna square is a large open-air square and marketplace in Marrakech’s medina that is one of the world’s most famous public squares. For decades, the pulsating and remarkable Jemaa el Fna has been the nerve center of Marrakech, where medieval and modern blend comfortably on a daily basis to stage an appealing and interesting sensory show. A visit to Jemaa el Fna is one of the most wonderful travel experiences in the world and a must for all cultural tourists. Here is our full guide to Jemaa el Fna to help you make the most of your stay.
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Where is Jemaa el Fna square?
Jemaa el Fna is located in the center of Marrakech’s medina (old town) and is practically impossible to miss.
The irregularly shaped square is located between the famous souks to the north of the square and is approximately 300 meters northeast of the Koutoubia Mosque, another local icon.
It is flanked by a spate of hotels, cafés, and restaurants, as well as a few administrative buildings. Jemaa el Fna is a pedestrian-only square that was restricted to vehicle traffic in the early 2000s.
History of Jemaa el Fna
For such a historic location, it is unclear how or when Jemaa el Fna came to be, or even what its name signifies. One popular interpretation stems from its literal translation as “the gathering/congregation region.”
Jemaa is Arabic for “congregation” or “mosque.” Probably a reference to an Almoravid dynasty-era mosque that formerly stood on the spot where the square now exists. Fna or fana can imply “death/extinction” or “a courtyard, space in front of a building”.
Another popular theory for how Jemaa el Fna earned its name is that it means “gathering of the dead.” This refers to the practice of displaying the heads of executed criminals and sinners on spikes at the Jemaa el Fna, which began in the mid-11th century and continued well into the 19th.
Regardless of Jemaa el Fna’s initial function, the square has served as a marketplace and meeting place since the Almoravids founded Marrakech in 1070. Throughout its long and illustrious history, the Jemaa el Fna has also been used for political, military, and civil purposes.
Today, Jemaa el Fna is best described as a bustling playground where storytellers, snake charmers, soothsayers, acrobats, dancers, and players all collide to create a strange and almost Disneyesque extravaganza, making it one of the top things to do in Marrakech.
Despite the increase in large-scale international travel to Marrakech, it should be highlighted that Jemaa el Fna is primarily a social meeting spot and entertainment hub for locals and visiting Moroccans.
The majority of the entertainment is geared toward Arabic- and Berber-speaking locals rather than visitors. While there are tourist traps in Jemaa el Fna, a visit here is nevertheless more real than some may have you believe.
UNESCO Jemaa el Fna
In 2001, UNESCO designated the Jemaa el Fna plaza as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This is consistent with the fact that Marrakech’s Medina has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.
The decision by UNESCO to safeguard Jemaa el Fna was made in large part due to the efforts of the Spanish bard and writer Juan Goytisolo, widely regarded as one of the best Spanish novels.
Goytisolo, who had lived in Marrakech since 1997, was known to be an avid admirer of Jemaa el Fna and its oral traditions, both of which appear in his books and short stories.
Goytisolo was concerned that the local authorities’ plans to develop a new tower block with a glass façade and an underground parking lot next to Jemaa el Fna would irreversibly damage the square’s traditions.
He personally approached UNESCO and begged them to conserve Jemaa el Fna.
During the day, go to Jemaa el Fna square.
Because Jemaa el Fna is an open-air public space, it is open 24 hours a day. What you see at Jemaa el-Fna depends depending on the time of day you arrive.
The square slowly comes to life at 9 a.m., and the morning is clearly when Jemaa el Fna is at its least crowded, with only a few porters hauling luggage on wheeled barrows.
By midday, the square is mostly occupied by snake charmers, monkey handlers, water sellers, acrobats, musicians, and henna artists.
The square also holds a daily market, with plenty of spice merchants, dry fruit vendors, candy vendors, and souvenir shops selling bric-à-brac and various products.
During the day, the colorfully clad water merchants are another attraction at Jemaa el Fna.
The water merchants, known as gerrab by the locals, stroll the plaza ringing copper bells to announce their approach. They wear colorful wide-brimmed hats, studded leather girdles, and necklaces of polished brass cups. The water in their leather pouches is shockingly chilled!
Observing the numerous toothpullers in action is one of the more entertaining sights at Jemaa el Fna. These self-proclaimed “dentists,” who exhibit their most recent extractions in neat stacks as proof of their competence, are more than willing to aid cash-strapped residents with their terrifying pliers.
For us, the most repulsive aspect of Jemaa el Fna was witnessing chained Barbary macaques wearing nappies being paraded to caper and dance for tossed coins.
Seeing cobras forced to sing music for tourist money was equally disgusting. We frequently observed snake charmers enticing tourists to drape the gorgeous reptiles over their shoulders for a photograph.
Ironically, both Barbary macaques and cobras are protected species in Morocco, but it appears that everything goes at Jemaa el Fna and local authorities tend to turn a blind eye.
Please be a responsible traveler and avoid all performers who use live animals, as the exploitation of animals for entertainment purposes is inhumane!
Jemaa el Fna square at Night
Though busy during the day, Jemaa el Fna really comes to life at sunset, when the bustle on the square reaches its peak. This is when the majority of the people and performers who have been occupying the square all day begin to disperse.
Acrobats, raconteurs, magicians, clowns, jugglers, herbalists, fortune-tellers, and Chleuh dancers replace the day performances. Collectively, they create an ambience that is frequently referred to as the world’s greatest open-air spectacle.
It’s entertaining to watch the medicine-cum-holy men or fakirs at Jemaa el Fna as they give miracle treatments over psychic energies. Regal-looking turbaned herbalists are also common, demonstrating Moroccan belief in natural cures.
Desiccated animal parts, pulverized roots, dried herb and spice compounds, and spices are sold as elixirs for everything from impotence to warding off the evil eye.
Fortune-tellers—elderly women seated beneath umbrellas with packs of Tarot cards revealing the destinies of those who dare to know—are also competing for the public’s attention.
The storytelling routine is the most traditional and popular entertainment at Jemaa el Fna, at least among the locals. The storytellers of Jemaa el Fna always draw the most crowds.
The art of storytelling has always been a part of Moroccan society, and exceptional raconteurs recite their tales at breakneck speed to the halqa—the entranced listeners who convene to hear tales passed down through generations of storytellers.
Their stories include not just royalty, beautiful women, temptations, and wealth, but also beggars, thieves, poverty, and wisdom. Unfortunately, because all of the stories are performed in Arabic and local Berber dialects, many performances are incomprehensible to international tourists.
It’s still worth seeing a performance to admire the emotive performances and the rapt crowd.
Transvestite dancers and Gnaoua musicians provide entertainment at Jemaa el Fna. Transvestite dancing is an ancient ritual in which men cavort wildly while costumed as ladies.
Their dervish-like acts add a slightly bizarre touch to the goings-on on the square.
The Gnaoau musicians are further distinguished by their silky robes, cowrie-trimmed headgear, and the peculiar instruments they use: a three-stringed bass lute (gimbri) and a pair of metal castanets (garageb).
The Gnaoua arrived in Morocco as slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa, and their music is noted for its particular blues-like style, thrumming rhythms, and extraordinary ability to induce a hypnotic, almost trance-like condition.
Aside from enjoyment, Gnaoua music has a significant spiritual and healing purpose drawn from Sufi Islam. Their shows are typically quiet, but when the energy and audience are right, their music continues unabated far into the night.
Jemaa el Fna square Food
One of the first things you’ll notice when going around Jemaa el Fna is the abundance of orange juice shops. These orange-adorned stalls come in useful on hot days (which is often the case in Marrakech).
There is nothing more refreshing or thirst-quenching than a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Just make sure the oranges are squeezed in front of you to ensure a truly ‘fresh’ and pure drink. You will not be disappointed!
When the sun goes down, Jemaa el Fna morphs into a massive open-air dining area. On the east side of the square, makeshift stalls with gas lanterns are put up, and the air fills with fragrant aromas and plumes of cooking smoke.
Tables and benches are arranged to form one massive outdoor dining area. A wide variety of Moroccan cuisine is available, with practically every vendor presenting its own specialty.
Grab a seat near one of the food stalls beside locals to get ringside seats to the actual action!
Each evening, fresh ingredients are delivered, and you can watch the dish being prepared in front of you. Spicy merguez sausages, grilled meats, tajines, salads, harira soup, fried fish, and much more are available.
The food quality fluctuates, but eating here is about soaking up the ambiance in one of the world’s most distinctive and intoxicating places.
Snails in a spicy soup, sheep’s brains, camel spleen impaled hearts, and goat’s head replete with fangs and eyes are among the more daring Marrakech dishes available at Jemaa el Fna.
The snails are cooked while still alive, and the broth is greatly sought after for its reputed healing benefits. The smell wasn’t overpowering, and the texture was rather chewy.
I tried the snails and found them to be quite good, although I was terrified of eating offal.
Best Jemaa el Fna Viewpoints
Night or day, the breathtaking spectacle unfolding at Jemaa el Fna deserves to be shot in order to create memorable memories. To get the greatest perspective of Jemaa el Fna, go to the roof terraces that frame the square’s perimeter.
The nicest of these rooftop terraces can be found at Le Grand Balcon du Café Glacier, which is perfectly located at the southern end of Jemaa el Fna to capture the chaos brewing on the square.
Entry to Café Glacier is only accessible with the purchase of an overpriced soft drink. Don’t bother ordering meals here since it’s horrible and you’ll be wasting your money!
Aside from Café Glacier, Café Argana and Café de France provide panoramic views of Jemaa el Fna from slightly different positions. These restaurants, like Café Glacier, serve lousy food and are pricey.
Tips for Visiting Jemaa el Fna
Strolling around Jemaa el Fna can be a delightful experience, but it can also be rather overwhelming (I know both Jacky and I felt that way on our first visit to the square).
Indeed, it can get so tiresome that some visitors start to despise their stay here. To assist you get the most out of your visit to Jemaa el Fna, I’ve compiled a list of top tips to keep in mind:
- Relax: If this is your first time to Jemaa el Fna, you’ll realize that this area has some of the most aggressive touts in the world.
- They will grab your arms and shoulders, stop you in your tracks, pursue you, and refuse to take ‘No’ for an answer. My advice is to be calm and take everything in stride.
- If you are too self-conscious, you will never be able to enjoy the amazing experience of Jemaa el Fna. Competition is tough, and you must realize that this is their livelihood.
- It can be difficult to ignore them, but be firm and tell them you’re not interested, and then go about your business. They will ultimately give up.
- Remember to take photographs appropriately when going through Jemaa el Fna. Don’t go putting your camera or phone into people’s faces haphazardly, believing they’ll be glad to have their photos taken – especially ladies.
- Most Moroccans, in my experience, dislike having their photos taken and will generally make it known that they do not want to be photographed.
- Always seek permission before photographing people, and be aware that certain locals, such as water sellers or street performers on the Jemaa el Fna, would expect payment in exchange for that perfect shot.
- Dining: If you plan to dine at Jemaa el Fna in the evening, avoid the tourist trap food kiosks. Always take a seat where the locals are dining to ensure an authentic dining experience. I’d stick to soups, fried meals, and meats.
- Avoid seafood and anything uncooked because there are no refrigerators to chill the food and bacteria can be a problem if anything is undercooked.
- It could also be a good idea to skip the dishes and utensils because they are washed with the same water every day. Get your food on paper and eat with your hands instead. Finally, stick to bottled water.
- Best time to snap photos: Go in the late afternoon or at nightfall for the best photo chances on Jemaa el Fna plaza, when both daytime employees and nightly performers are out, ensuring stunning scenes.
- Haggle, Haggle, Haggle: When shopping at Jemaa el Fna, remember to negotiate and compare what is on offer at different vendors. Haggling is an essential element of Moroccan life and culture, and bargaining at markets is expected.
- Begin your talks substantially below the asking price (a third is often advised). Just keep in mind that you should never begin bartering for something unless you are genuinely interested in getting it.
- Carry cash: When visiting Jemaa el Fna, keep a supply of coins and loose cash (Moroccan dirhams) on hand.
- Almost no shop around here accepts credit cards, and you’ll need cash to tip the performers or dine at the food stalls in the square. There are a few ATMs located around the square where you can withdraw cash.
- Keep an eye on your belongings: Keep an eye on your wallet and other valuables as you enter the Jemaa el Fna, as it is a popular target for pickpockets. I strongly advise not bringing any typical tourist trinkets such as watches, jewelry, or a belt wallet.
- Do not condone or encourage animal abuse by getting up close and personal with monkey handlers and snake charmers. Please do not pose for photos with these wonderful creatures, which are being abused and utilized only as tourist attractions.
- Be Vigilant: Always be alert and streetwise to avoid being fooled. Even if someone says it’s free, don’t assume it is.
- If someone tries to give or sell you something unlawful, do not be tempted because you will probably certainly be caught and apprehended.
Tours in Jemaa el Fna
If the notion of visiting Jemaa el Fna on your own overwhelms you, or if you simply don’t want to cope with the trouble, you should consider taking a guided tour.
Riads Near Jemaa el Fna
There are numerous excellent hotel and riad alternatives in Marrakech. To make the most of your trip to Marrakech, stay in a traditional riad (a traditional Moroccan house with an inner garden or courtyard) in the medina.
The following are some of the greatest riads near Jemaa el Fna that not only give a wonderful base for viewing the square but also the other must-see sights in Marrakech.
Budget: Riad l’Heure d’Eté, this centrally located riad is one of the greatest value for money riads in Marrakech. The Jemaa el Fna is only a 5-minute walk away, and there are numerous shopping and dining options nearby.
Mid-range: Riad 11 Zitoune, an outstanding mid-range option with the feel of a boutique hotel and all of the required modern conveniences. The rooms are attractively designed, and the breakfast is excellent. Jemaa el Fnaa is only 200 meters away.
Luxury: Ryad Art Place Marrakech, one of Marrakech’s greatest luxury riads. Its location is exceptional, with both Jemaa el Fna and the souks approximately 100 meters away.
It has the classic structure of a historic luxury riad, with a central patio and ornate furniture. All of the rooms are well adorned, giving the impression of a luxurious Marrakshi home.