TRAVELLER | GUIDE TO MARRAKECH
Prepare for your senses to be slapped. Marrakesh’s heady sights and sounds will dazzle, frazzle and enchant. Put on your babouches and dive right in.
Red baked-mud medina palaces beneath the snow-capped High Atlas and a powder-pink ring of ramparts around 19 kilometres of seething souqs, Marrakech is Morocco’s most memorable experience and a feast for the senses. Founded almost 1000 years ago on the edge of the Sahara, this southern market town grew to become one of the great cities of the Maghreb and a Unesco Heritage site, bursting at the seems with an intense density of life.
It won’t take you long to see why Marrakesh is called the Red City. The natural red ochre pigment that bedecks its walls and buildings can at times seem dominant, but there’s no shortage of other colours. Like all Moroccan cities, it’s a town of two halves: the ancient walled Medina, founded by Sultan Youssef Ben Tachfine in the Middle Ages, and the colonial Ville Nouvelle, built by the French in the mid-twentieth century. Each has its own delights – the Medina with its ancient palaces and mansions, labyrinthine souks and deeply traditional way of life, and the Ville Nouvelle with its pavement cafés, trendy boutiques, gardens and boulevards.
See: Musée de Marrakech
The Musée de Marrakech exhibits a collection of Moroccan art forms within the decadent salons of the Mnebhi Palace. The central internal courtyard, with its riot of cedar archways, stained-glass windows, intricate painted door panels and, of course, lashings of zellij tile work, is the highlight, though don’t miss the display of exquisite Fez ceramics in the main room off the courtyard. Both the Palace Kitchen area and Palace hammam host much simpler interiors.
The palace was once home to Mehdi Mnebhi, defence minister during Sultan Moulay Abdelaziz’s troubled reign (1894–1908). While Minister Mnebhi was away receiving a medal from Queen Victoria, England conspired with France and Spain to colonise North Africa, and autocrat Pasha Glaoui filched his palace. After independence, the building was seized by the state and became Marrakesh’s first girls’ school in 1965. It was only after a painstaking restoration in 1997, by the Omar Benjelloun Foundation, that the palace swung open the doors to the masses as the Marrakech Museum.
See: Jardin Majorelle
Yves Saint Laurent gifted the Jardin Majorelle to Marrakesh, the city that adopted him in 1966. Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé bought the electric-blue villa and its garden to preserve the vision of its original owner, landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, and keep it open to the public. The garden began cultivating in 1924 and thanks to Marrakshi ethnobotanist Abderrazak Benchaâbane, the psychedelic desert mirage of 300 plant species from five continents continues to be preserved.
even if you’re not that into plants, come here to visit Majorelle’s art deco studio, home to the Musée Berbère, which showcases the rich panorama of Morocco’s indigenous inhabitants through displays of some 600 artefacts. By far one of the country’s most beautifully curated museums, the collection includes wood, leather and metalwork, textiles, musical instruments, religious trappings, and a display of the various regional traditional dress. Best of all is the mirrored, midnight-black octagonal chamber displaying a sumptuous collection of chiselled, filigreed and enamelled jewellery that reflect into infinity beneath a starry desert sky.
From the museum, you exit into the boutique with its handsome coffee-table books and pricey souvenirs: Majorelle blue slippers, perfume and pillows embroidered with YSL.
See: Musée Yves Saint Laurent
This captivating museum showcases finely selected collections of haute couture clothing and accessories that span 40 years of creative work by legendary fashion designer Yves St Laurent. The aesthetically warped and wefted building designed by Studio KO resembles woven fabric and holds a 150-seat auditorium, research library, bookstore and terrace cafe serving light snacks.
See: Saadian Tombs
Saadian Sultan Ahmed Al Mansour Ed Dahbi spared no expense on his tomb, importing Italian Carrara marble and gilding honeycomb muqarnas (decorative plasterwork) with pure gold to make the Chamber of the 12 Pillars a suitably glorious mausoleum. Al Mansour died in splendour in 1603, but a few decades later Alawite Sultan Moulay Ismail walled up the Saadian Tombs to keep his predecessors out of sight and mind. Accessible only through a small passage in the Kasbah Mosque, the tombs were neglected by all except the storks, until aerial photography exposed them in 1917.
Do: The Souks
The heartbeat of Marrakesh is undoubtedly the souks or markets of the medina in the old city. The biggest in all of Morocco, they are a honeycomb of connecting alleyways where all five senses are alive. There’s the whiff of lemons, mint, and olives, the flavour of nuts, figs, and apricots, and the dazzling eye-catching colours of intricate lanterns, leather bags and rich carpets. If you decide to book a guide, make sure to do so through your hotel or agency. The most interesting times to visit are in the early morning (6.30–8am) and late afternoon, at around 4 to 5pm, when some of the souks auction off goods to local traders. Later in the evening, most of the stalls are closed, but you can wander unharassed to take a look at the elaborate decoration of their doorways and arches; those stalls that stay open, until 7 or 8pm, are often more amenable to bargaining at the end of the day.
Do: Quad Biking in the desert
The high-octane adventure of quad biking in the desert is a must for any thrill seeker. Enjoy a few hours of dirt biking across the undulating plains of Marrakech taking in the sights. Stop off and have traditional lunch and refreshment at a Berber village and see a new, calmer side of Morroco.
Eat: Comptoir Darna
Comptoir Darna, in the well-to-do Hivernage area, remains a legendary haunt spot for world travellers and Marrakech’s in-crowd. The two-level former villa is renowned for its East meets West cosmopolitan vibe and is home to a sexy bar area, stylish restaurant and even a boutique for some retail therapy in the night.
This place to see and be seen, with less-than-demure belly dancers and skilled musicians, has a fantastic energy, making it a fabulous spot to dine and drink. Choose to eat traditional Moroccan or international cuisine. The bar is fun for a pre-dinner drink, even if you are not dining at Comptoir Darna Restaurant. Head out to the small garden where you can lounge on the purple, orange, and pink cushions and heavy Berber carpets.
Sleep: Les Jardins De La Koutoubia
This hidden oasis is located away from the main square of the Medina, offering stunning views from the rooftop pool, luxurious decorations and modern touches including WiFi in rooms for your convenience.
Decorated with gold doors, red velvet seating, candelabras and red roses, Jardins de la Koutoubia provides a peaceful and luxurious escape from the busy streets of Marrakech. Relax in the central pool on one of the loungers, or take in the views from the rooftop pool.
The adult-only spa provides a contemporary Oriental style, hidden away under the property. With a traditional Moroccan Hammam to ease your muscles, massage rooms and a Jacuzzi.
Providing a wonderful selection of dining options, including the only nearby Indian restaurant, you can also indulge in a selection of French or local cuisines, then have a sundowner cocktail accompanied by soothing tones at the Piano Bar.
When to visit Marrakech?
The most pleasant time to explore Marrakech is spring (mid-March to May) when the roses bloom and the days are fresh and sunny. Next best is autumn (September to November) when the summer heat has subsided. Winter can be idyllic in the day time, but nights are chilly enough to warrant booking that bedroom with a fireplace. Don’t underestimate the extreme heat in the summer, when daytime temperatures can hit a sweltering 45C. Also bear in mind that during Ramandan, the traditional month of fasting and purification, some restaurants and cafes close during the day and general business hours are reduced.
What to wear in Marrakech?
Long Dress: Mes Demoiselles | Asymmetrical Khaki T-shirt: Marques’Almeida | Orange Bag: See by Chloe | Khaki Bag: See by Chloe | White Trousers: See by Chloe | Orange Flat Mules: Malone Souliers | Yellow Flat Mules: Malone Souliers | Saffron Ruffle Dress: MSGM | White Dress: Zimmermann | Straw Bag: Muun