Marrakech may be best-known for its romantic, old-world ambience, but this Moroccan city-break favourite is also home to a glossy modern quarter.
The postcard image of Marrakech is one of winding alleys, snake-charmers, vendors in hooded cloaks and donkeys swishing flies away with their tails. But that’s only one part of the city – and the story. Beyond the ancient heart lie modern, manicured areas where the cafes are funky, the shopping is chic and the museums are architectural statements. If that sounds like your idea of a city break, make for the district of Gueliz – and check out the top things to do in our must-experience list.
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A work in progress, the Theatre Royal Marrakech was begun in the 1970s by celebrated Tunisian architect Charles Boccara, who, inspired by Roman art, added fancy architectural flourishes such as an imposing cupola and columns. Unfortunately, the inside was never finished, but the 1,200-seater amphitheatre remains a cultural hub in the city, hosting al fresco concerts, ballets and shows throughout the year.
Fashionistas flock to this fascinating museum – it houses 40 years’ worth of haute couture clothing and accessories by Yves Saint Laurent, the French designer who made Marrakech his home. The windowless facade appears as a series of abutting cubes with a lace-like covering of bricks. Inside, the main exhibition space tells the great man’s story via personal artefacts, drawings and rotating displays of clothes and accessories. Contemplate it all afterward over a refreshing mint tea in the cafe. The museum is right next door to the Jardin Majorelle, so visit both together and buy a combined ticket.
Whether you want a bag, a purse, or a belt, make a beeline for Place Vendome boutique on the corner of Rue de la Liberté and Boulevard Mohammed V. This terracotta-fronted store stocks impeccably designed goods made using Morocco’s finest leather and reproduces some of Europe’s most elegant designs, apparently in homage to big-name creatives, without the giveaway faux logo. Consider, too, the soft suede jackets and luggage.
A ten-minute walk from the chaotic Jemaa el-Fna square is this budget-friendly hotel, with an oasis of peace: its serene spa and wellness centre, as well as a roof-top terrace with a swimming pool that has a fine city skyline view. The top-floor Nautilus SPA has two massage rooms, a sauna and a traditional hammam where you can be soaped and scrubbed with Ghassoul, a natural Moroccan soap. Note that they do manicures to soothe souk-worn hands and pedicures for feet that have walked all day.
Less touristy than the more well-known gardens in other areas of Marrakech, Parc El Harti has become, for many, a haven away from the honk and shove of the city proper. Immersed in beautiful exotic flowers, shaded by majestic trees, this is a place you come to relax and listen to birdsong, which is louder than the faint hiss of the traffic. Bring a picnic as it’s the perfect place to eat lunch, or even meditate. If you’re with the family and the kids need to let off steam, bring them here and give them an hour or so in the dinosaur-inspired playground.
Sporty visitors to Marrakech often find themselves frustrated at the lack of facilities. Thankfully, the city is not short on hotels with facilities – for a fee, they welcome non-guests to use their pools to tennis courts. In Gueliz you’ll find the Royal Tennis Club of Marrakech, with its nine courts (plus a stadium court). This is the oldest and largest tennis club in Marrakech, which explains the number of people turning up to play. Sporting events take place here too, so check with them by phone or online before you roll-up.
This park, abutting Gueliz, has the stunning Atlas mountains as a backdrop and an endless water supply feeding into it. What was in olden times earmarked for development as a food-processing district was transformed into an admired botanical garden during the period of French occupation. Following decades of neglect, more recently the park was restored to its former glory. The historical garden is a welcoming space where visitors can sit and appreciate the cool, meditative foliage.
Jo Fernandez-Corugedo contributed additional reporting to this article.