Now in the middle of King Mohammed VI's Plan Azur, this former royal city in North Africa has vowed to double the number of annual tourists to 20 million by 2020. Due to the king's plan, a city that has enticed hippies and bohemians since the sixties is now attracting hordes of the rich and famous for its exotic design, frenetic shopping, and distinctive cuisine. But not to worry–there's something for everyone.
Here's a complete list of the best and most important things to do and see on a trip to Morocco's capital.
The Medina, the dense, centuries-old portion of the city, is what Marrakesh is all about. Donkey-drawn carts take the right of way on dusty derbs, stray cats slink out of doorways that look like abandoned mine shafts, and skinned carcasses dangle near bee-covered nougats in defiance of food safety standards. In the Medina, women hidden behind black veils and men dressed in robes like Jedi Knights move through wafts of honeyed smoke, past tethered falcons and caged chameleons, as false guides beseech in every language and calls to prayer are sung from the mosque's minarets.
Within the Medina, a trip to the Souks is an unforgettable, timeless market experience. Moroccans have been honing their bartering skills in these labyrinthine alleyways long before the notion of capitalism was even a twinkle in Adam Smith's eye. If you truly don't want Starbucks and Irish pubs choking the marketplace, embrace this opportunity, turn the souks into a game and don't get aggravated. Most of the common stuff is crap anyway. A subtle smile shows you are enjoying the process, which is key to getting the price you want (and to being a good ambassador). Say "shokran," thank you in Arabic, and watch their smile echo yours.
Riads are traditional Moroccan homes with plain, windowless exteriors and an interior built around a garden courtyard. Riads are the embodiment of Muslim notions of privacy and modesty. But now many of these small palaces have been restored into amalgamations of ancient Moorish design and 21st century chic. Cool and inward looking, these respites from the bizarre Medina streets are vacation-worthy in their own right.
Hammam, Arabic for spreader of warmth, is a traditional cleansing ritual that is elevated to a kind of therapy in the finer hotels. It may be brusque and utilitarian in traditional bath houses, but when it is done fancy the custardy black soap is rubbed on and drubbed off by a practiced masseuse, and at the conclusion of the restorative treatment, when she pours a warm water rinse over you from a golden bowl, it will feel like a scene from a late night Cinemax movie.
Where To Stay
Located in the Hart Essoura neighborhood of North Medina. (Just remember, whatever good that is to know is often because it is still hard to find.) This gem is close to the teeming souks but on a quieter side street that lets you feel a bit like a local. Opt for the larger, second floor accommodations if possible and enjoy this place that's like a museum of old furnishings that manages to still feel authentic. The mood complements the calls to prayer chanted from the nearby mosque, which resonate within the space and make the experience seem otherworldly. The staff is helpful and fit, sometimes turning and running when asked for an extra bathrobe or bottle of wine. Don't expect much in the way of ahammam, though - when I was there the hammam was little more than a moldy steam room. But the meals, especially breakfast, taken on the roof terrace are a North African delight of twittering birds, pistachio yogurt, and fresh orange juice.
This boutique hotel on the southern end of Medina takes its name from the storks that nest on the merlons of the Royal Palace's battlement walls, which can be seen from their spectacular rooftop terrace. Though small, Dar les Cigognes has big aspirations for luxury. It's on a street busy with taxi traffic and the noise starts early in the alleyway behind some of the rooms. But these are small distractions from the superior service provided by Bordeaux-born manager Pierre and his staff. Pierre, conspicuous with his shock of white hair levitating above a black cashmere turtleneck, provides all guests with a list of "preferred addresses" for buying rugs and jewelry and where to eat given the particular time of day. He genuinely seems to have a finger on the pulse of a city with many hearts. Consider a cooking class offered by the hotel which begins with a market tour through the Mellah or Jewish Quarter. Pierre leads the tour, shaking hands and kissing cheeks like a black-clad mayor. The rest of the service team follows his lead. If you enjoy one hammam in Marrakesh, reserve it here. The patience with which the black soap is applied, drubbed, and rinsed is as soothing as any massage.
Eating And Drinking
The traditional meal will start with what are called Moroccan salads, though not a leaf can be found in the lot of them. Instead expect stewed tomatoes, fried eggplant, or roasted bell peppers. Sometimes both briouettes (ground meat wrapped in filo dough and fried) and pastille (a roasted filo wrap of chicken with sweet spices like cinnamon) will follow. The main course will be a tagine of chicken or lamb accompanied by boiled vegetables and a mountain of couscous. There is a reason diabetes is a growing concern in the country. After a meal like this, dessert is a formality that is usually left to sit, barely touched, at the far end of the table.
No trip to Marrakesh could be complete without the Bourdainian thrill of giving street vendors their due. Before the souks are bustling, when the peddlers are still setting up their wares, the haggling mood is groggy. Find a random stall and enjoy fresh crepes and honey as you watch donkey carts being unloaded. Lean in the shade next to old men in djellabas and drink mint tea. For the paltry price of 20 dirhams you can fuel up like a local.
Jemaa el-Fnaa square is the Medina on steroids, a place that leaves you with more questions than answers. Brave the gauntlet of stall vendors that claim seven Michelin stars for their food and position themselves squarely in your path. Pick a place and sit down if you want to be left alone to take it all in - you won't be figuring this place out anytime soon. Nearby are drum circles and a wilder brand of traditional music along with small boxing bouts for teenage boys, snake charmers, and cruel masters of diapered monkeys. Eat a brouchette, a skewer of chicken or lamb, and watch beggars swoop scraps from nearby tables. It is insanity.
All aimless wanderings in the Medina eventually lead to the square, and once you are in the square, you will end up at the Cafe De France. When you first get to the square, you'll be overwhelmed by the mixture of tourists and locals watching from the safe sidelines of the Cafe de France patio, but you'll know that this cafe is where you want to be. Find a seat and enjoy a mint tea as you watch persistent peddlers and bug-eyed tourists clash. When the call to prayer comes, the nearby mosque overflows and worshipers lay out their rugs and cardboard boxes to face Mecca as onlookers sip tea and fan themselves. So prime is this real estate that it's rumored McDonalds tried (and failed) to buy this property several years ago. Remember to bring change for the bathroom attendant, even if you don't need to use the toilet paper she is selling.
A foundouk is a building used by tradesmen, travelers, and merchants. In the old days, the open courts of these buildings would hold the wares and the animals used to transport them as the merchants used the rooms upstairs to rest. Now these buildings often serve as collectives, where craftsmen make their artifacts and use the courtyard as a kind of open studio for display and sale of their wares. Here, Le Foundouk has been transformed into a restaurant, intimate lights and lounge music prevailing on the lowest floor with a rooftop terrace offering jasmine-scented breezes and only the faintest buzz from the Medina streets below. Two menus are offered, Traditional Moroccan and French/Italian. The food is straightforward, the service brisk, and the prices reasonable. A chicken tagine with vegetables and couscous will come with coarsely cut with roasted peppers, carrots, fennel and onions. Two people can split the tagine and a salad or two. The portions are large.
Hidden down the alleys and side streets of the Bab Laksour area, Le Tobsil occupies the restored riad of owner Christine Rio. Considered among the best restaurants in Marrakesh, the interior is elegant and the traditional Moroccan fare is deftly executed. The dining room is intimate - if you are there with one of your bros, you will feel awkward - think candlelit with rose petals everywhere. Gnaoua (a people from West Africa) musicians played softly from an arched nook in the wall, fez tassels swinging in time. The Moroccan salads and the pastille (chicken baked in filo dough) were highlights, and the menu is fixed with house wine included in the price.
Located inside a remodeled 17th century mansion, this is one of the most comfortable places we found for an afternoon lunch. A garden courtyard is painted in shades of green with well-fed cats and small turtles moving about beneath the tables. Remixes of pop songs play in the background while young locals sip wine and look like they are in the midst of planning the next big thing in Marrakesh. The duck confit salad with lentils and dates is classic and well-executed.
Visitors love Kosybar. One of the first places to serve alcohol in the Medina, it has a good selection of spirits, wine, and cold beer. It's squeezed between the Mellah (Jewish Quarter), the Baldi Royal Palace, and the Bahia Royal Palace, prime real estate to lure the thirsty foreign visitor. Though the downstairs seem dark and dreary, the terraces above have sweeping views of Kzadria Square and the Koutoubia Mosque in the distance. The food might not stand up to the ambiance, but you should still come here to have a drink and take in the incredible scenery.
Another treasure hidden in the Medina back streets, this French-owned restaurant serves a synthesis of Moroccan and European cuisines. From a covered terrace complete with clean couches, guests can venture into Moroccan flavors while holding onto the comfort of European classics. A warm goat cheese salad with orange honey, smoked duck, and walnuts was spot on. The Mqualli chicken with orange and mezgueldi onion introduces khlii, a fat-cured Moroccan beef. The accompanying apple chakchouka is a take on a dish of eggs poached in tomato, chili, and cumin though here diced apple is substituted for the eggs. Important note: no alcohol served.
The Amanjena Resort is a luxurious oasis of palm and olive trees, large swathes of groomed grass, spraying fountains, and green-tiled pools. Located outside the Medina on a desolate desert road, the place feels like a resort, the type that has guards at the gated entrance, the kind of place locals would never stay. It's nice though. On our visit, the place was empty. We wanted Asian food and this is where the guidebooks sent us. We enjoyed a solid green curry by the pool and drank a bottle of Medaillon Rose, a Moroccan wine found on many lists for good reason. If you can stomach all of this misplaced luxury, this is a good escape from the Medina, especially if you need an Asian food fix.
In the modern Gueliz neighborhood, you can find regular stores with price tags, along with this 1920's colonial french bistro. Potted sago palms, black and white checkered tiles, and rattan chairs make the grand space feel like an authentic conqueror's respite. The spirit and wine selections are among the best in the city. Sip in a comfortable upstairs lounge or dine on their covered sidewalk terrace. Classic dishes like calf's liver and mashed potatoes or rabbit terrine will not disappoint.
Outside The City
Less than an hour away, the High Atlas Mountains offer an escape where traditional Berber culture flourishes and native Aleppo pines, green oaks, and junipers vie for space against cultivated olives, apples, and apricots. Channeling northern California in the spring, the hillsides are green and wildflowers bloom in the orchards. Avoid the villas on the outskirts of Marrakesh. These were foolishly developed in conjunction with golf courses. Instead opt for renovated kasbahs in the further river valleys. Perched fortresses for Berber leaders, kasbahs are becoming the riads of the countryside, luring visitors that prefer the pastoral experience. In places like the Ourika Valley you can hike through rolling, red-earthed hillsides where goats are shepherded through the scrub and ancient Berber villages crop up in cleverly irrigated glens.
Where To Stay Outside Of Marrakesh
About ninety minutes east of Marrakesh, in the Berber Village of Ouirgane, this quaint hotel looks like it's been plucked right out of Tuscany. Now in its second location after the original was displaced by a reservoir, Chez Momo resides above a chalky green lake which echoes the hues of the native hillsides in spring. Open balcony windows are framed with bougainvillea and overlook a pool while calls to prayer lilt with the twittering of the birds on the breeze. Mustapha, the property manager, offers a down-to-earth air to this place that's off the beaten path. The restaurant on the property serves solid Moroccan fare at reasonable prices. The rooms have fireplaces but no bathtubs. A hike on the trails behind the property reveals a series of ancient Berber villages and their orchards of stone fruits and nuts, pastoral scenes that do not seem to have changed much for hundreds of years.
Although the Ourika Valley is less than an hour from Marrakesh by taxi, its lush landscape summons thoughts of Northern California at some vantages, and Utah's Bryce Canyon at others. Small Berber villages dot the river shores, each one distinguished by the minaret of their mosque. Kasbah Bab Ourika sits above one such village with only a rutted road leading up to it. But once inside the Kasbah's walls, visitors are treated to sweeping views, a series of comfortable patios, a proper pool, and some of the best food in and around Marrakesh. The kitchen uses a large vegetable garden at the far end of the property to their advantage. There may be many activities to pursue in the valley, but I was content to lounge around the grounds, sip in their bar, and eat in their colonnaded dining room.
The traditional hammam offered here has all best: steam room, black soap, exfoliating rub down with the Velcro glove. But the execution was less delicate than at Dar les Cigognes with the therapist throwing buckets of warm water at me as if I were in a vaudeville act. In all, a recommended service at this highly recommended accommodation.
Photo Credits: Plan Trip to Morocco, Dar Darma, TripAdvisor, Artplace-Marrakech, Bed and Breafkast Marrakech, leJardin, ASW Marketing Guide, A Luxury Travel Blog, Booking.com, CoxandKings,