With a mind-boggling array of sights to see, from mosques and tombs to gardens and souks, it’s no wonder that Marrakech is one of the busiest cities in Africa. This is a place where history is still very much alive, with architectural marvels around every corner, forging their creators’ presence into the walls of the city.
You could spend anything from a few days to four weeks in this mesmerising city, but four days was enough for me to get a taste of its excitement; and an appetite for more.
How to get around
If you’re staying at a riad in the centre of the city, walking is the best way to explore the souks, shops and hidden riads and restaurants (although locals prefer to career down the narrow alleyways on mopeds). You may want to get a taxi to places on the outskirts of the city centre, like the Jardin Majorelle, as it is quite a walk from the medina. If you’re not staying in the middle of it all, then taxis are the best way to enter the city. Often your driver won’t ask you to pay there and then, but will say he will return at your chosen hour to take you back to where he picked you up from, where you will then pay for the two journeys in total.
What to see and do
Visit the busiest square in Africa, then find somewhere for a drink to recover. The first time I ventured into the madness that is Jemaa-el-Fna, I must have resembled a rabbit caught in a pair of headlights. Or rather, a rabbit caught in between a clattering horse and cart, three screeching mopeds and a speeding taxi. Whilst trying to acclimatise to the sudden chaos, the first time visitor undergoes an attack on the senses. Pipes and drums invade the ears with their raucous reverberations, whilst snakes lash out from their charmer’s hands. Men adorned in garish red, green and yellow demand money if you so much as point a camera at them. Guinea pigs and confused-looking hedgehogs emerge from brown sacks at the feet of robed men. But by my last night, swatting away any unwanted attention and tuning in to the clamour became second nature, and I was able to enjoy the plethora of market stalls selling everything from little Moroccan pastries to beautiful handmade shoes and baskets.
Get lost in the huge network of souks and boast your best bartering skills. They range from multi-level markets of shops bursting with vibrant clothes, shoes and jewellery, to cobbled streets lined with dark Aladdin caves of treasure. Although the Medina area, just north of Jemaa-el-Fna, is more commercial, the further you venture into the labyrinth the more interesting the shops become. My favourite places to shop were the street markets in the Mouassine district, where stone archways open up to reveal a dazzling display of colours and textures. Watercolour paintings and ceramic bowls hang alongside printed woven rugs and cushions; I would have needed another suitcase for all the things I wanted to buy!
Psst… Keep your eyes peeled for a large blue door and enter the world of KIS (Keep It Secret) Boutique, for exquisite clothing and a small terrace café in the middle of the Mouassine markets.
Take some time out and appreciate the arts in Dar Cherifa, a restored 16th century riad that now serves as a literary café just down the rue Fehl Chidmi from KIS Boutique. Just as we were about to declare ourselves lost in the souks, I spotted a sign for Dar Cherifa and followed it down a rabbit-hole of an alleyway, leading to a large wooden door. Climbing through the dark entrance, a beautiful sunlit patio surrounded by orange pillars and intricate archways appeared, with a rose pool in the centre. Order from the selection of fresh fruit juices and admire the work of local artists, whilst tiny sparrows flutter around the pillars. The riad regularly hosts art exhibitions, workshops and events, so be sure to check out what’s going on during your stay in Marrakech.
Escape the heat of the medina and search out one of the city’s gardens. Jardin Majorelle provides a cool oasis away from the cacophony of noise in the busy square. Formerly the property of French artist Jacques Majorelle, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent saved the garden from becoming a hotel complex in 1980 and restored it back to its original beauty. The pathways that weave through cacti and palm trees and the trickle of streams through bamboo forest make for the perfect setting to while away an afternoon. (See here for more photos and my review of the famous garden).
Psst… Don’t forget to stop for an Italian gelato on the rue Yves Saint Laurent, then browse through the concept store 33 Rue Majorelle for funky clothes, candles and art deco trinkets.
Step back in time at Maison de la Photographie, a gallery with three floors filled with vintage Moroccan photography. I read about this place in a magazine and was desperate to visit, for the 100-year-old prints and rooftop café with panoramic views of the city, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to hunt down its hidden location.
Feel revitalized after having a traditional Moroccan hammam. Being scrubbed within an inch of my life by a complete stranger was a rather odd experience, but the results were incredible! My skin was practically glowing after being washed with warm water, lathered and soaked with savon noir and vigorously scrubbed with a sandpaper-like glove. Moroccan men, women and children will go to these steam rooms at least once a week as part of a traditional social and cleansing ritual embedded deep in Moroccan culture. Hammams can be found all over the place, from luxury spa hotels like La Mamounia to Hammam Dar El-Bacha, the city’s largest traditional hammam located in the middle of Marrakech.
Try as much traditional food as you can, from the food stalls of the Jemaa-el-Fna to the experimental cuisines at hidden rooftop restaurants, which brings me onto the wonderful subject of Moroccan cuisine…
Where to eat and drink
Kosy Bar for dinner and drinks with a cosmopolitan crowd. We stumbled upon this fusion bar perched on top of a quiet square, where craftsmen hammered metal lanterns into shape. Although the square is a bit of a building site at the moment as part of a three-year regeneration project, the terrace is the perfect place to wind down after a hectic day of haggling and watch the sun set over the busy city.
Nomad for traditional Moroccan food with a modern twist. Its fresh local produce and steamy tagines were well worth the hour we spent trying to track this place down. I finally spotted the rooftop terrace rising above the Rahba Kedima market square, after (mistakenly) asking young locals for directions. Although there are seats inside, it’s nicer to dine al-fresco at the black and white tiled tables and cushioned benches, where you can look down onto the busy square below. An equally pleasant place for lunch and dinner, make sure you wrap up warm for the chilly evenings.
Comptoir Darna for dinner and a show. A dimly lit, multi-floored restaurant-cum-club, the food and entertainment here will not fail to amaze (or keep you up- the party doesn’t stop until 3am). Think mouth-watering tagines, shimmering belly dancers adorned in sequins and foot-stomping live music from jazz funk bands.
La Mamounia for those who fancy a bit of luxury. Enjoy a cocktail in the most peaceful of settings, with numerous terraces and patios to choose from, then wander through the regal gardens and admire the vibrant pieces of the current pop-art exhibition by French sculptor Julien Marinetti.