Where Europe, Africa and the Middle East mingle and merge
Founded almost a thousand years ago, Marrakech is one of the great cities of the Maghreb. Somehow this bursting-at-the-seams city exists on the edge of the Sahara Desert, its pink pise (rammed earth) palaces framed by the snow-capped High Atlas. In its seething souks, Europe, Africa and the Middle East mingle and merge, and the past and present are hard to tell apart. But make no mistake, Marrakech isn’t some petrified piece of history. Instead, this centuries-old trading hub is a creative sweet spot where ideas thrive and a buzz of entrepreneurialism charges the air with an intoxicating, and sometimes, intimidating energy. This isn’t a place you can gracefully glide through. Instead, you’ll find yourself telling jokes with snake charmers, hankering after the latest henna tattoo or getting a scrub down in the local hammam. Pause for unexpected beauty and banter, after all, what are the chances you’ll come this way again?
Hot right now . . .
Paula Hardy, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the best things to do and the hottest places to eat and stay this season.
Visit the beautifully crafted Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech (Rue Yves Saint Laurent; 00 212 524 29 86 86) for its dynamic cultural programme promoting art, design and music. 2019 highlights include a series of Moroccan portraits by celebrated French-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui (until Februrary 5); and the first exhibit in Africa of American abstract artist Brice Marden, including 60 previously unseen works created in Marrakech from February 22 to March 12.
The Ville Nouvelle’s hottest new eatery is the bright and breezy +61 (96 Rue Mohammed el Beqal; 00 212 524 207 020), which serves the city’s best coffee and cakes alongside a seasonal, modern Moroccan menu, which has been garnering rave reviews. It is the brainchild of Australian Cassandra Karinsky, who, after settling here, was at a loss to find the sort of modern, ingredient-focused eatery that she was used to in Australia.
Lovely Riad Tarabel has just launched a full-service spa, Les Bains de Tarabel. Housed in its own courtyard mansion, the facilities are generous while massage treatments utilise organic Moroccan products from Nectarom. Later, you can bed down in one of the 10 large rooms and suites that sport a moody, romantic, turn-of-the-century vibe.
48 hours in . . . Marrakech
Start by discovering the city’s history at the 16th-century Saadian Tombs (Rue de La Kasbah), where Sultan al-Mansour spared no expense decorating his mausoleum with imported Italian Carrara marble and a gilded honeycomb muqarnas ceiling that still dazzles those who look upon it. The entrance to the tombs is unmarked and hard to spot. You’ll find it at the southern end of the Kasbah Mosque, opposite the Kasbah Café. Note you should arrive when it opens to see it at its most peaceful.
Move on to al-Mansour’s once magnificent Badi Palace (Ksibat Nhass), now a monumental ruin with vast reflecting pools and impressive views of the city from its ramparts. Don’t scrimp on your ticket here as the additional MAD 10 (80p) to view the Koutoubia’s original minbar (prayer pulpit) is worth every cent.
From here it’s a short hop to the beautiful Bahia Palace (Avenue Imam El Ghazali), a vast, gorgeously decorated palace once owned by slave-turned-vizier Abu ‘Bou’ Ahmed. Allow plenty of time to enjoy the different spaces, the most impressive of which are the quarters of Bou Ahmed’s favourite concubine, Lalla Zineb.
Lunch on exotic salads and vegetarian tarts in the shady patio of La Famille (34 Derb Jdid; 00 212 524 385 295), before heading northwest across the Djemaa el-Fna and picking up Rue Mouassine, which is lined with some of the souk's chicest shops. Just past the landmark mosque and Mouassine fountain, you can slip into Le Jardin Secret (121 Rue Mouassine; 00 212 524 390 040), one of the Medina’s largest and most important gardens set out in the shell of a 19th-century palace. Divided into two distinct areas, the gardens are a triumph of Islamic design.
The first area faithfully recreates a Persian 'paradise' garden, featuring tufty grasses and traditional fruit trees such as olive, pomegranate, fig and date; while the second, smaller garden nurtures exotic plants in a fourfold layout. Just as interesting is the elaborate irrigation system that weaves through the gardens, part of an ancient network that once distributed water from artesian wells (fed by the ring of mountains around Marrakech) throughout the city.
Dining in the Medina is an adventure wherever you choose to eat. Like a magnet, everyone is drawn to the Djemaa el-Fna where smoke rises from hundreds of barbecues and storytellers, Gnawa musicians, acrobats and fortune-tellers attract throngs of Marrakshi’s out for their evening constitutional. You can eat here on long trestle tables, but regardless you should come for the show. Carry a handful of coins so you can tip the performers (a few dirhams is appropriate). If you do decide to eat in the square, stick to your own bottled water and use your bread instead of rinsed utensils.
Afterwards, you can head to the famous Pâtisserie des Princes (32 Rue Bab Agnaou) for ice cream and sweet treats. For a more refined Moroccan dining experience, hunt down Le Trou au Mur (39 Derb el Farnatchi; 00 212 524 384 900), where you can sample traditional dishes in a beautifully renovated traditional house; or, for something more contemporary, head to the rooftop restaurant of Riad El Fenn (2 Derb Moulay Abdullah Ben Hezzian; 00 212 524 441 210), where Fouad Ajili serves an inventive modern Moroccan menu.
When fashion icon Yves St Laurent first arrived in Marrakech in 1964 he was overwhelmed by the city’s vivacity. The experience changed the way he saw the world and he ditched his previously rigorous monochromatic look in favour of an outrageously bold palette of Fauvist colours. It comes as no surprise then that Jardin Majorelle (Rue Yves St Laurent; 00 212 524 313 047), the home where he lived with his partner Pierre Bergé, is painted an intense shade of ultramarine blue. Arrive early to enjoy the extraordinary desert garden filled with giant cacti, palms and bamboo groves.
Then tour the gorgeously curated Berber Museum, which is filled with St Laurent’s personal collection of indigenous jewellery and fashion from which he drew much of his subsequent inspiration. Stay in the garden and enjoy a salad at Café Majorelle or, if its busy, pop across the road to 16 Kawa (00 212 524 310 016) for a plate of crunchy briouat (pastried stuffed with spinach and cheese, or meat) and a smoothie.
Continue following St Laurent’s development in the Musée Yves St Laurent (00 212 524 298 686) next door. Christophe Martin’s stunning choreography presents the clothes in a dramatic all-black hall where dresses stand like paintings and echo the outrageous silhouettes and embellishments of the garments you’ve just seen in the Berber Museum. Suddenly, you can see that the strikingly bold jewellery, shapely clothes and extravagant accessories do just as well at New York dinner parties as Berber weddings.
After such inspiration, it only makes sense to go shopping in Gueliz, where young Moroccan designers like Artsi Ifrach (96 Rue Mohammed el Beqal; 00 212 524 430 124) are now attracting international attention. Other makers to look out for are Lalla (35 Boulevard el Mansour Eddahbi; 00 212 524 447 223) who does a chic line of slouchy bags, Atika (34 Rue de la Liberté; 00 524 439 576) for beautifully made leather shoes in rainbow colours, and Moor (Rue des Vieux Marrakchis) for chic homewares.
As the sun sets follow the crowd to the terrace of the Grand Café de la Poste (Avenue Imam Malik; 00 212 524 433 038) for a glass of rosé on its chic, secluded terrace or beneath the slow-moving fans in its beautiful bistro-style interior.
Then push on to Chez Mado (22 Rue Moulay Ali; 00 212 524 421 494) for Oualidia oysters and towering seafood platters, or Al Fassia (55 Boulevard Mohamed Zerktouni; 00 212 524 434 060) for a high-brow Fez-style feast in one of Marrakech’s most highly respected Moroccan restaurants. Afterwards, pop in to Le 68 (68 Rue de la Liberté; 00 212 524 449 742) for late-night drinks and an arty intellectual vibe.
Where to stay . . .
Where other properties have borrowed from traditional Moroccan interiors and architecture, the Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech has forged a new modern Moroccan style lexicon informed by the colours of the desert and the rich creative heritage of Morocco’s original Berber inhabitants. The result is a cool, contemporary oasis.
Doubles from from €850 (£757). Route du Golf Royal, Palmeraie; 00 212 5242 98888
Little L’Hotel, Jasper Conran's 19th-century riad, is a haven of effortless good taste. Its extravagant green garden and art-filled suites channel the same soignée glamour as the 1942 film, Casablanca. Walk-on roles are played by a cosmopolitan guest list, who look every inch the part lounging fireside in the luxe salons.
Double rooms from €293 (£261). 41 Derb Sidi Lahcen ou Ali; 00 212 524 387 880
The well-located Riad Jardin Secret (it's just a five-minute walk from the souks) is arranged around a flourishing green garden. Fashion duo Cyrielle and Julien have worked hard to retain the artisanal authenticity of their historic Medina house while creating five simple, soulful rooms and host of artful niches and lounges. The riad has a unique-for-Marrakech vegan restaurant, which is situated on the bright pink roof terrace.
Doubles from €95 (£82). 43-46 Derb Arset Aouzal; 00 212 524 376 606
What to bring home . . .
French-Algerian designer Norya Nemiche is one of a new breed of Medina designers revamping traditional crafts with a cool contemporary eye. Buy her must-have kaftans, clutches and leather bags at Le Jardin (32 Souk Jeld Sidi Abdelaziz; 00 212 524 378 295) or La Mamounia (Avenue Bab Jdid; 00 212 524 388 600).
Chabi Chic (322 Rue Principale; 00 212 524 381 546) is a Moroccan lifestyle brand that turns out super trendy homewares including their signature ceramic range in bold colours, embossed leather purses, woven bags and painted glasses. It's a treasure trove for souvenirs.
When to go . . .
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 cafés close during the day and general business hours are reduced.
Know before you go . . .
British Embassy: Rabat: 00 212 537 63 33 33; gov.uk
British Honorary Consulate Marrakech: 00 212 524 42 08 46; 47 Boulevard Abdelkrim El Khattabi, Gueliz
Tourist police: 00 212 524 38 46 01
Polyclinique du Sud hospital: 00 212 524 44 79 99
Tourism Office: 00 212 524 43 61 79; Place Adbdel Moumen ben Ali, Gueliz
Currency: Dirham (abbreviated to MAD or Dh)
Telephone code: Dial 00 212 if calling Marrakech from the UK. From inside Morocco, substitute 00 212 in all the above numbers with 0
Time difference: +1 hour
Languages: Darija (Moroccan Arabic); French; Tashelhit (Berber)
Flight time: London to Marrakech is between 3hr 30min and four hours
Local laws and etiquette
While Marrakech is one of Morocco’s most liberal cities, a degree of modesty in how you dress will be greatly appreciated by your hosts. Both women and men should avoid revealing clothing and keep knees and shoulders covered.
Marriage in Morocco remains a highly respected institution. For this reason it is not in the least rude to enquire about marital status and new acquaintances are questioned early on in a conversation. Solo women travellers, in particular, may be prone to questions as to why they would travel unaccompanied. In addition, Moroccan laws still prohibit extra-marital sex, drinking in public and smoking kif (hashish).
Mosques, zaouias (saint’s shrines) and cemeteries are not open to non-Muslims. Also, the left hand in Muslim society is used for personal hygiene and should not be used to handle food.
Although Marrakech has largely eliminated the problem of faux guides (false guides), some still linger around the Djemaa el-Fna offering help with directions or recommendations for shops and restaurants (from which they get commission). Be firm, but polite when declining unsolicited company, and don’t feel embarrassed to ask for directions when lost. In such situations its best to ask the nearest hanout (shop owner).
Official guides can be hired through hotels and riads or at the tourist office. The official rates are £12 for half a day and £30 for a full day, but private operators and riads can charge up to £50 for a half-day tour and £90 for a full-day tour.
Paula has been shuttling back and forth between London and the Red City for over 15 years. During that time, she’s authored numerous guides to the city and amassed far too many kaftans.
Experience Marrakech with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel's best hotels, tours, cruises and holidays in Marrakech, tried, tested and recommended by our Marrakech experts.