A cultural blend of the old Middle East and the new North Africa, Morocco doesn’t touch the extremes of either, yet exists as “just tangible enough.” Formerly referred to as the gardens of Africa, Marrakech offers visitors a taste of its exquisite flora and fauna that influenced the Romans to nickname this Moroccan gem. Yet it’s the contrast of the juxtaposition of the vibrant colors, spices and motorbike horns of the city bustle against the fountains and open courtyards of the riad oases that expose visitors to an awakening of the senses.
Welcome to a city where buildings are no more than five stories, in compliance with the medina’s tallest structure, the Koutoubia Mosque. Where the Moorish influence from the country’s neighboring Spain, only separated by a thin stretch of the Alboran Sea, is prevalent in the architecture of the riads and design of the tiles. A walled city that immerses you into a maze of wonder, leaving you to discover what’s behind each door, to find the tranquil corners of an imperialist, bustling city.
Wake up at Riad de Tarabel and opt for breakfast on the roof as the roosters crow and the sun rises to illuminate the medina in its soft morning light, accentuating the pinks hues of the terracotta town. Enjoy a typical breakfast of fresh mint tea, Moroccan crepes, pastries and the fruit of the season (pomegranate was in-season during my stay in November but I was told oranges fill the spring and watermelon signifies the winter).
Set out to stimulate your senses with an early start at the Mellah (former Jewish district). You’ll discover markets along the outskirts of this square ranging from tourist traps to authentic holes-in-the-wall, particularly for spices. Spend some time browsing the spice racks beyond the bright towers that are as visually enticing as they are fragrant, and witness the shop owners freshly grind your chosen spice–from basic necessities like cinnamon and cloves to Morocco’s famed ras el hanout blend.
Wander over to El Badi Palace and experience its ironic grandeur as a deserted, 16th-century palace. As you stroll through the adobe ruins, allow your mind to paint a picture of the ornate layout of the once elaborate palace, where orange trees now fill the former swimming pools and Morocco’s national bird, storks, are its most recent inhabitants.
After understanding the bare bones of a former Moroccan palace, experience the intricacies of one of Marrakech’s most popular attractions–the Bahia Palace. Named after this 19th-century sultan’s favorite wife, the palace presents visitors with an elaborate welcome into the typical Moroccan townhouse. There are no shortage of fountains, courtyards, gardens, and of course, tiles, as the palace stands as one of the most photo-worthy spots in the medina. Spend some time admiring the Moorish-influenced architecture, ornate designs of the tiles, and appreciating the open spaces in an otherwise chaotic surrounding.
Give your feet a rest as you settle in for lunch at Le Jardin. This courtyard dining venue transports your soul to 1960s Marrakech, while it treats your tastebuds with contemporary Euro-Moroccan cuisine. Start with local favorites such as seafood pastillas and mixed briouates before moving onto tagine–I went with the kefta tagine with eggs (Moroccan meatballs in tomato sauce with a fried egg). Wash it all down with an avocado smoothie or fresh mint tea, and as you digest, be on the lookout for the restaurant’s courtyard turtle; a symbol of good luck in Moroccan culture.
After a relaxing lunch, it’s time to unwind in traditional Moroccan style; at the Hammam. Signifying a Turkish bath, this Moroccan routine consists of a 90-minute spa treatment that includes a cleanse, steam and massage. It’s pampering at its finest and the ideal way to end an afternoon of sensual awakening–checking off the final sense of touch.
Spend some time unwinding at your riad and witnessing the transition from natural daylight to handlit, candle light as the air cools and the riad transforms into a fiery oasis. Candlelit courtyards are a tradition throughout the medina and although coming back to the candles already burning is a spectacle, appreciating the time that the riad workers contribute to this nightly routine only heightens the significance of this ritual.
Enjoy an early evening stroll to dinner at Cafe Arabe as the souks close up for the evening and the stalls are rolled into populate Jemaa el-Fnaa, an event in itself to allot time for during your stay in the medina. Known for their Mediterranean-Italian twist to classic Moroccan-fare, order up couscous and seafood for a fresh meal to cap your first day of Marrakchi adventure.
Upon visiting Marrakech for the first time in the 1960s, french designer Yves Saint Laurent fell in love; so much so that he bought a house in the medina. Years later he also bought the two and a half acres of garden belonging to Jacques Majorelle and restored it to a unique cacti collection and oriental oasis. Now, the Jardin Majorelle exists as a true reflection of Marrakech’s ancient nickname of “the garden of North Africa” and tribute to the late designer. Upon your visit, be sure to arrive at the gardens early to wander through at your leisure–taking in the serenity and uniquety of this historical and treasured space before the crowds pickup.
After wandering the gardens, it’s only natural to visit the Yves Saint Laurent Museum (closed on Wednesdays) for a dive into the fashion designer’s personal past and creative collections. Laurent always said he was inspired by the colorful clothing of the Berber’s, therefore, he incorporated vibrancy into his early designs–keep an eye out for his early pieces of bright blues and yellows as you are granted a rare peek into this designer’s closet.
Once you’ve spent a couple hours perusing Laurent’s carefully curated museum, refuel at Souk Kafé with salads, assorted vegetables or hearty classics like lamb and meat tagines. The cafe is tucked in the heart of the medina and offers the perfect location to walk to the main square post-lunch.
After a morning of creative insight, it’s time to dive deeper into Marrakech’s cultural exposition at Jemaa el-Fnaa (Morocco’s main square). With stands ranging from fresh fruit and roasted nuts to performers with monkeys and snakes, this square is the heart of Marrakech; a local’s hub, just as much as it is a tourist’s cultural display. Stroll through the stands and pick up some goodies for your riad or venture up to a cafe with a terrace to watch the hustle and bustle from a distance.
After a stroll and an afternoon tea, experience the sunset routine of Jemaa El-Fnaa as vendors roll in their carts for the evening rush of hungry locals and tourists on the hunt for authentic, cheap street food. From lamb and beef kebabs to a range of seafood, grilled vegetables and couscous the vendors serve up a variety of Moroccan flavors, gesturing you to stand and enjoy or to sit and stay awhile. It’s worth mentioning that many visitors may want to skip this option for dinner as they are worried about “traveler’s tummy” but if you’re tempted to try at least something, stick with vegetables and fruits, or very well-cooked meats to ease into your first street food experience.
Regardless of whether you partake in dinner from the mix of stands, or you choose to eat at any of the local cafes surrounding the squares, you still need to experience Jemaa El-Fnaa at night. Storytellers, performers and boxers congregate under a night sky cluttered with dozens of stands and smoke fuming from the local dishes–music fills the square and it’s an atmosphere you won’t experience elsewhere. Spend some time amidst the chaos before retreating to the quiet of your riad’s oasis and having a cup of mint tea, taking in the night stars.
Now that you’re well acquainted with Moroccan design, religion and culture, it’s time to see the souks. You may have passed some on your way to the main square, on your way to your riad or on your way to lunch, but in order to obtain the full experience, you need to immerse into the center of it all–where rugs hang from ceiling to floor, caftans line racks on end and shoes? Well, it’s every shoe-lovers dream; man, woman, or child; casual, classy, suede or leather. As you bargain your way through some of Morocco’s best, be sure not to neglect the various stands selling fresh juices, fruit, pistachio and sesame nougats, freshly baked bread, and roasted corn–fuel to keep you shopping for the majority of the day.
At the heart of the souks, tucked away in an oasis of its own is Medersa ben Youssef. Providing the ideal ending to a day of buying and bartering, this former Islamic boy’s college is a can’t-miss. The abandoned building remains intact as one of Marrakech’s definitive architectural attractions with its grandiose basins, open prayer rooms and marble pillars. Don’t forget to look up at the intricately carved designs in plaster, as you absorb this sacred site in all its enormity.
Although Morocco’s drinking culture is quite tame, your last night is a special occasion, so take your cocktail hour to Nomad’s terrace and sip on a speciality cocktail before indulging in one last Moroccan meal. As the sister restaurant of Le Jardin, you’ll experience similar qualities in atmosphere and aesthetic, however, the menu is meant to reflect modern Morocco, with fresh produce infused in classically heavy dishes. From Moroccan gazpacho to chicken brochettes, experience how the chefs of Nomad keep your tastebuds (and stomachs) guessing.
Where to Stay
Riad de Tarabel
Where: Derb Sraghna, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
Why: With modern touches accentuating traditional design, this blue and white riad is at the center of it all, yet its state-of-the-art appeal makes you never want to leave its courtyard.
Le Jardin Secret
Where: 121 Rue Mouassine, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
Why: The recently renovated palace, formerly fit for Marrakech’s political figures, signifies intricate and historical, Islamic architecture, as well as the many gardens which reflect the true significance of riads–“gardens of Eden.”
Where: 209 Rue Ank Jemel, Bab Taghzout, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
Why: This seven room riad offers classical Morocco in its courtyards and a new Morocco with its hammocks and teak touches on its roof. Private and at the heart of it all, you’ll experience intimacy and luxury.
Where: Derb Sidi Ahmed ou Moussa, Marrakech, Morocco
Why: The modern design of this riad and spa emphasize Marrakech’s pinkish hues in its common areas, while providing a cool sanctuary in its spacious rooms.
Where to Eat & Drink
Where: 32 Souk Sidi Abdelaziz, Marrakech Medina, Morocco
Why: Nestled in a cozy courtyard in the midst of the medina, Morocco’s take on classic food and modern atmosphere appeals to all generations as a place to refuel on a day tour.
Where: 1 Derb Aarjan, Rahbha Lakdima, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
Why: Known for its terrace and speciality cocktails, you’ll be so comfortable you won’t want to leave pre-lunch or pre-dinner, so sit back and stay awhile.
Where: 184 Rue Mouassine, Marrakech Medina, 40000 Morocco
Why: An ideal way to continue tasting Moroccan flavor with a slight Mediterranean-Italian flare.
Where: Derb Sidi Abd El Aziz, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
Why: Whether you’re up for a light bite or hearty lunch, this cafe captures traditional Moroccan cuisine from appetizer to dessert.
What to See & Do
Boutique at El Fenn
Where: Derb Moulay Abdullah Ben Hezzian, 2, Marrakesh 40000, Morocco
Why: A collection of artisanal homegoods ranging from pillows and linens to tiles and artwork, the eclectic boutique reflects its location inside this artsy riad.
Where: 61 Rue Yougouslavie, Passage Ghandouri Magazin N41, Gueliz، Marrakech 40000, Morocco
Why: Just outside of Marrakech’s medina lies a hidden gem for the upscale caftan. If you’re looking to splurge on quality, take your shopping outside the souks and head to Gueliz to purchase this traditional-wear.
Nora Aryon Boutique
Where: 32 Souk Sidi Abdelaziz, Marrakech Medina, Morocco (In Le Jardin Restaurant)
Why: From bags to wraps and caftans, this brand offers a modern twist to some of Marrakech’s famed style must-haves. While lunching at Le Jardin, don’t forget to take a peek at the store located on the upper balcony.
33 Rue Majorelle
Where: 33 Rue Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
Why: It is here where you can get a sense of all the work of Morocco’s latest and local designers. It’s the perfect one-stop shop for the weary shopper, or the ideal stop as an overview for the hottest items at the moment, to prepare you for your day at the souks.
Photography by Terry Munson