Jemaa el Fna is a sprawling open-air square and marketplace in the medina of Marrakech that is one of the most storied public squares in the world. For centuries, the pulsating and extraordinary Jemaa el Fna has been the nerve center of Marrakech where medieval and modern mix comfortably on a daily basis to play host to an alluring and fascinating sensory spectacle. A visit to Jemaa el Fna is one of the most incredible travel experiences in the world and a must for all cultural travelers. Here is our comprehensive guide to Jemaa el Fna which will help you make the most of your visit there.
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Table of Contents
Where Is Jemaa el Fna Located?
Jemaa el Fna is located in the very heart of the medina (old town) of Marrakech and is virtually impossible to miss. The irregularly shaped Jemaa el Fna is positioned between the famed souks to the north of the square and lies approximately 300 meters northeast of the Koutoubia Mosque, another signature landmark in the city.
It is surrounded by a slew of hotels, cafés, and restaurants as well as a few administrative buildings. Jemaa el Fna is a pedestrian-only square as the place was closed to vehicle traffic in the early 2000s.
History of Jemaa el Fna
For such a historical place, it is not entirely known how or when Jemaa el Fna came into being – nor even what its name means. A popular explanation comes from its literal translation as “the gathering/congregation area.” Jemaa in Arabic means “congregation” or “mosque”, probably a reference to an Almoravid dynasty-era mosque that once stood on the site where the square stands today. Fna or fana can mean “death/extinction” or “a courtyard, space in front of a building”.
Another common hypothesis about how Jemaa el Fna got its name stems from its possible meaning as “assembly of the dead.” This refers to the practice of heads of executed criminals and sinners being displayed at the Jemaa el Fna on spikes, a mid-11th century custom that carried on well into the 19th century.
Regardless of Jemaa el Fna’s original meaning, the square has probably played its present role as a marketplace and meeting point ever since the Almoravids founded Marrakech in 1070. Throughout its long and storied history, the Jemaa el Fna has also been used for political, military, and civil purposes.
Today, Jemaa el Fna can best be described as a playground teeming with people, where storytellers, snake charmers, soothsayers, acrobats, dancers, and players all converge together to create a surreal and almost Disneyesque extravaganza, which in turn have made it one of the best things to do in Marrakech.
Despite the surge of large-scale international tourism to Marrakech, it should be noted that Jemaa el Fna is primarily a social meeting place and entertainment junction for locals and visiting Moroccans. Much of the amusement is aimed at the Arabic- & Berber-speaking locals rather than tourists. While it is true that tourist traps exist in Jemaa el Fna, a visit here is still more authentic than some may have you believe.
Jemaa el Fna UNESCO
Being the soul and living legacy of Morocco’s oral tradition, the Jemaa el Fna square was proclaimed by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001. This goes well with the fact that the Medina of Marrakech has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.
UNESCO’s decision to protect Jemaa el Fna came in large part due to the efforts of the Spanish bard and writer Juan Goytisolo, widely recognized as one of the greatest Spanish novelists. Goytisolo, who since 1997 had lived in Marrakech, was known to be an ardent supporter of Jemaa el Fna and its oral traditions, both of which figure in his novels and short stories.
When the local authorities planned to build a new tower block with a glass façade and an underground parking lot beside Jemaa el Fna, Goytisolo feared that these plans would irrevocably destroy the traditions of the square. He personally reached out to UNESCO and pleaded with them to place Jemaa el Fna under protection.
Jemaa el Fna During the Day
Since Jemaa el Fna is an open-air public square it is open 24/7. What you will get to see at Jemaa el-Fna rests entirely on what time of the day you visit. The square slowly starts to come to life at 9 am and the morning is definitely when Jemaa el Fna is at its least manic, with only a few porters carting luggage on wheeled barrows.
By afternoon the square is largely filled with just a few troupes of snake charmers, monkey handlers, water sellers, acrobats, musicians, and henna artists. The square also hosts a daily market and at this time there are plenty of spice vendors, dry fruit vendors, confectionery vendors, and souvenir stalls selling bric-à-brac and miscellaneous items.
Another highlight to see at Jemaa el Fna during the day is the colorfully dressed water sellers. Known to the locals as gerrab, the water sellers—with their colorful wide-brim hats, studded leather girdles, and necklaces of polished brass cups, roam the square ringing copper bells to announce their arrival. The water in their leather pouches is surprisingly cool!
One of the more amusing spectacles at Jemaa el Fna is watching the various toothpullers in action. These self-proclaimed “dentists”, who display their most recent extractions in neat piles as a testament to their ability are more than eager to assist cash-strapped locals with their fearsome pliers.
The most loathsome spectacle about Jemaa el Fna for us was seeing chained Barbary macaques wearing nappies being paraded to caper and dance for tossed coins. Equally repugnant was seeing cobras being coerced into performing for music for tourist cash. We often saw snake charmers cajoling tourists into draping the majestic reptiles over their shoulders for a photograph.
Ironically, Barbary macaques and cobras are both protected species in Morocco, but it seems that anything goes at Jemaa el Fna and the local authorities tend to turn a blind eye. Please be a responsible traveler and skip all performers using live animals as the exploitation of animals for entertainment purposes is downright cruel!
Jemaa el Fna at Night
Though busy in the day, Jemaa el Fna really comes to life at sunset and the hubbub on the square reaches its zenith. This is when most of the people and performers who occupy the square throughout the day gradually begin to disperse and are subsequently replaced by acrobats, raconteurs, magicians, clowns, jugglers, herbalists, fortune-tellers, and Chleuh dancers. En masse, they create an atmosphere that is often considered to be the world’s greatest open-air show.
It’s amusing to watch the medicine-cum-holy men or fakirs at Jemaa el Fna as they offer miracle cures over psychic forces. Regal-looking turbaned herbalists are also popular and are a testament to Moroccan belief in natural remedies. Desiccated animal parts, ground roots, compounds of dried herbs, and spices are offered as elixirs for everything, from curing impotence to warding off the evil eye.
Also vying for the people’s attention are the fortune-tellers—elderly women seated beneath umbrellas with packs of Tarot cards revealing the fortunes of the people who dare to know.
The most traditional and popular entertainment at Jemaa el Fna, at least for the locals, is the storytelling ritual. The storytellers of Jemaa el Fna always lure the biggest crowds. The art of storytelling has always been part of Moroccan culture and the gifted raconteurs narrate their tales at a tremendous pace to the halqa—the spellbound listeners who congregate to hear tales passed down by generations of storytellers.
Their tales not only feature royalty, beautiful women, temptations, and riches, but also beggars, thieves, poverty, and wisdom. Unfortunately, since all the stories are told in Arabic and local Berber dialects, many performances cannot be understood by foreign tourists. It’s still worth watching a performance though to appreciate the expressive performances and the rapt audience.
Entertainment at Jemaa el Fna also comes in the form of transvestite dancers and a smattering of Gnaoua musicians. Transvestite dancing is an
age-old practice and the dancers consist of men cavorting wildly while dressed in women’s clothing. Their dervish-like performances lend a slightly surreal air, to the goings-on on the square.
The Gnaoau musicians also stand out due to their silky robes, cowrie-trimmed hats, and the distinctive instruments they use: a three-stringed bass lute (gimbri) and a pair of metal castanets (garageb). The Gnaoua came to Morocco as slaves from sub-Saharan Africa and their music is known for its distinctive blues-like style, thrumming rhythms, and uncanny ability to produce a hypnotic, almost trance-like state.
Besides entertainment, Gnaoua music but has a deeply rooted spiritual and healing purpose derived from Sufi Islam. Their performances are usually fairly tame, but when the vibe and audience are right, their music continues unabated well into the night.
Jemaa el Fna Food
One of the things you’ll immediately notice when strolling around Jemaa el Fna is the sheer number of orange juice stalls. These stalls bedecked with oranges come in very handy on days when it’s sweltering hot (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 unadulterated drink. You won’t be disappointed!
In the evening as the sun goes down Jemaa el Fna transforms into a huge open-air dining area. Makeshift stalls with gas lanterns are set up on the east side of the square and the air fills up with fragrant smells and plumes of cooking smoke.
Tables and benches are laid out to create one gigantic al fresco eatery. A vast array of Morrocan cuisine is on offer with nearly every stall serving its own specialty. Grab a seat by one of the food stalls alongside locals to score ringside seats to the authentic action!
Ingredients arrive fresh each evening and you have the pleasure of seeing the food being cooked in front of you. The variety of food is vast with spicy merguez sausages, grilled meats, tajines, salads, harira soup, fried fish, and much more on offer. The quality of the food varies but eating here is not about the food, it’s about soaking up the atmosphere in one of the most unique and intoxicating venues in the world.
For the more daring traveler, Marrakech specialties such as snails in a spicy broth, sheep’s brains, camel spleen skewered hearts, and goat’s head complete with teeth and eyes are also on offer at Jemaa el Fna.
The snails are cooked while still alive and the broth is highly desired due to its purported therapeutic properties. The smell wasn’t too strong and the texture was very chewy. I sampled the snails and found them surprisingly tasty but totally balked at the prospect of eating offal.
Best Jemaa el Fna Viewpoints
Night or day, the stunning spectacle unfolding at Jemaa el Fna deserves to be photographed for creating unforgettable memories. In order to get the best view of Jemaa el Fna, you’ll have to access the roof terraces framing the edge of the square. The best of these rooftop terraces can be found at Le Grand Balcon du Café Glacier – perfectly positioned at the southern end of Jemaa el Fna to capture the bedlam brewing on the square.
Entry to Café Glacier is only possible with the purchase of a mandatory over-priced soft drink. Don’t bother about ordering food here as it’s terrible and you’ll just be wasting your money! Besides Café Glacier, Café Argana and Café de France offer panoramic views of Jemaa el Fna, both from slightly different angles. Similar to Café Glacier, the food at these establishments is terrible and they are overpriced.
Essential Tips For Visiting Jemaa el Fna
Strolling around Jemaa el Fna can be a fun experience, but it can also be quite overwhelming (I know both Jacky and I felt that way on our first visit to the square). Indeed, it can get so wearisome that some tourists come to loathe their experience here. I’ve made a list of top tips to keep in mind when exploring Jemaa el Fna to help you make the most of your visit.
1. Relax: If it’s your visit to Jemaa el Fna, you’ll immediately notice that this place has some of the most aggressive touts in the world. They will hold on to your arms and shoulders, stop you in your tracks, follow you, and refuse to take ‘No’ for an answer. My recommendation would be to remain unperturbed and take all this with a sense of humor.
If you are too uptight, you will never enjoy the fascinating experience of Jemaa el Fna. Competition is fierce, and you must remember that this is their livelihood. It can be difficult to ignore them, but hold your ground and tell them firmly you’re not interested, and then just go about your own business. They will eventually give up.
2. Take photographs responsibly: When strolling through Jemaa el Fna, remember to take photographs responsibly. Don’t go shoving your camera or phone into people’s faces haphazardly assuming they’ll be happy to have their photos taken – women especially. From my experience, most Moroccans are averse to having their photo taken and will generally make it known they don’t want to be clicked.
Always ask permission before taking people’s photographs, and be aware that some locals, such as the water-sellers or street or musicians on the Jemaa el Fna, will expect payment in return for that perfect snap.
3. Dining: If you intend to dine at Jemaa el Fna in the evening, avoid choosing the tourist trap food stalls. To ensure an authentic dining experience, always grab a seat where the locals are dining. I would recommend sticking to the soups, fried foods, and meats. Steer clear of the seafood or anything uncooked, as there are no refrigerators to chill the food, and the bacteria can be a problem if anything is undercooked.
It might also be a good idea to forgo the plates and utensils as they are washed with the same water all day long. Get your food served on paper and dine with your hands instead. And finally, stick to bottled water.
4. Best time to take pictures: Go in the late afternoon or at dusk for the best photo opportunities on Jemaa el Fna square, when both the daytime workers and nighttime performers are out, ensuring magical scenes.
5. Haggle, Haggle, Haggle: If buying anything at Jemaa el Fna always remember to bargain and also take some time to compare what is on offer at different stalls. Haggling is a fundamental part of Moroccan life and culture and bargaining in the markets is expected. Start your negotiations well below the asking price (a third is often advised). Just remember never to start bargaining for something unless you have a genuine interest in purchasing it.
6. Carry cash: Keep a stock of coins and loose cash (Moroccan dirhams) on hand when visiting Jemaa el Fna. Virtually no place around here accepts card payment and you’ll require cash for tipping the performers if you intend to take pictures or when eating at the food stalls in the square. There are a couple of ATM’s around the square where you can withdraw cash.
7. Keep a close eye on your belongings: Remember to keep a close watch on your wallet and other valuables once you enter the Jemaa el Fna, as it is an obvious draw for pickpockets. I strongly recommend going without the usual tourist trappings such as watches, jewelry, or a belt-wallet.
8. Don’t endorse animal torture: Don’t support and encourage animal cruelty by getting up close with the monkey handlers and snake charmers. Please don’t pose for pictures with these magnificent creatures that are being mistreated and used solely as props for tourist money.
9. Stay Alert: Always be alert and streetwise so as to not get conned. Don’t assume that anything is free here even if someone says it is. If someone tries to give or sell you something which is illegal, do not be tempted into taking or buying it because you will almost certainly be caught and apprehended.
Riads Near Jemaa el Fna
There are plenty of great accommodation options in Marrakech and these come in the form of hotels and riads. To make the most of your trip to Marrakech, a stay at a traditional riad (a traditional Moroccan dwelling with an interior garden or courtyard) in the medina is a must. The following are some of the best riads near Jemaa el Fna that not only provide a great base for visiting the square but also the other must-see attractions in Marrakech.
Budget: Riad l’Heure d’Eté, this centrally-located riad is one of the best value for money riads in Marrakech. Just 5 minutes’ walk away from the Jemaa el Fna, plenty of shopping and dining options nearby.
Mid-range: Riad 11 Zitoune, an excellent mid-range choice that has the aura of a boutique hotel and comes with the necessary modern amenities. Rooms are tastefully decorated and the breakfast is top-notch. The location is excellent, Jemaa el Fnaa is just 200 m away.
Luxury: Ryad Art Place Marrakech, one of Marrakech’s best luxury riads. Its location is unbeatable, with both Jemaa el Fna and the souks only 100 m away. With a characteristic central patio and decorative furnishings, it preserves the typical structure of an ancient luxury riad. All rooms are wonderfully decorated, creating the sumptuous look of a luxurious Marrakshi home.
Now, what do you think? Is visiting Jemaa el Fna on your bucket list? Or is there anything else that shouldn’t be missed at Jemaa el Fna? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!