Perhaps more than any single other place in Marrakesh, the Jemma el-Fnaa Square is the city’s cultural heartbeat. This court is the old city’s multi-functional space par excellence: not only a large open air food court, but the site of numerous fascinating (if somewhat oddball) acts, including henna painting, fortune telling, snake charming, transvestite dancing, and more. Whenever visitors get lost, they can simply ask for the Jemma el-Fnaa and a knowing finger will point them in the right direction.
Centuries old, the Square has a somewhat shady past and was once thought to be used for executions. Perhaps this is the stuff of urban legend, but no matter, the Square is an obligatory stop for locals and travelers alike. And its chameleon-like personality means that a trip is necessary both by day and by night.
Here are some of my favorite things to do and see in the Jemma el-Fnaa.
Drink some juice
Ahem, long before the juicing craze hit America and Europe, there were the juice sellers on the Jemma el-Fnaa Square. Fresh squeezed orange juice is the staple, but grapefruit juice can also be had for double the price. A smile will get you a half refill for free.
Check out the herbalists/folk pharmacists/witch doctors
Call them what you will, but if you have an ill, it might be cured with a stop here. On display are bundled herbs, unidentified bones, snake skins, dried lizards, ostrich eggs and more. Come for a one-of-a-kind consultation. No appointments needed.
Watch the snake charming
Not just the stuff of storybooks but real—you’ll find the snake charmers charming their cobras and showing off their pythons at various spots on the Square. The charmers are thought to be protected by Baraka, a type of divine blessing and magic rolled into one.
Dine at the food court
Come about 6pm, much of the Square begins to transform itself into a large open air food court with picnic tables. Sellers vie for your attention from the numbered booths. Choose from plenty of offerings, from kebabs and salads, to sheep’s head and snails.
In the evening, my Moroccan friends can often be found at the square listening to storytelling (in Arabic), playing games (involving strength challenges or hand-eye coordination), listening to the musicians, or watching the transvestite dancers. Come with change in your pocket, as this is how these folks make a living.