With its warm days, busy nights and abundant fragrances, Marrakech is a fascinating city for even the most discerning traveller. Though a booming tourism industry can stifle some of its charms, there are still ways to get a touch of magic in ‘The Red City’.
While many people may associate this thousand-year-old Moroccan city with labyrinthine alleyways and snake charmers, Marrakech is actually equal parts ancient and modern.
This guide will introduce you to both the old-world charms of the medina and the city’s jet-set side, taking you through some of the best restaurants on this side of the Mediterranean, the hippest underground bars and, of course, the famous performers of Jemaa el-Fnaa along the way.
Baromètre infuses spirits with local spices | Courtesy of Baromètre
For the brothers who started top nightspot, bar and restaurant Baromètre, the lack of local spirits didn’t pose a problem. Along with a menu of classic drinks, the underground bar brings in a bit of the medina with spirits infused with local spices in-house.
The rooftop restaurant at Nomad is a great spot to catch the sunset | Courtesy of Nomad
There are a few choices when it comes to rooftop old-city restaurants with sunset views of the Atlas Mountains, but Nomad is in a class of its own. Being one of the best rooftop restaurant bars, it’s got a following to match. Book early or you won’t get a table.
The top terrace of Café de France offers guests the perfect vantage point from which to observe the changing Jemaa el-Fnaa scenery. Order a pot of sinfully sweet mint tea and watch the scene unfold as the juice vendors make way for impromptu restaurants and street performers.
Leather making is one of the oldest crafts in Marrakech – and one that features unsavoury-smelling substances in the process. The traditional tanneries are located in the Bab Debbagh quarter in the northern end of the medina and are best reached through an organised tour.
If you want a break from the bustle, then do as the Moroccans do and head up to the mountains. The beige shared cabs (or petit taxis) parked just down from Jemaa el-Fnaa can get you up to the Atlas Mountains in an hour and a half. Here, you can breathe in the mountain air and walk around Berber villages. You can also trek up to Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa.
Wind your way through the crowds of late-night Jemaa el-Fnaa to watch performers show off their talents and ply their wares. Jokesters and storytellers run the roost in this ancient square, while games and even acrobatics sometimes find a way in. Avoid anyone in Jemaa el-Fnaa who’s got a snake or a monkey. Apart from obvious animal-cruelty issues, the owners will put the animal on your shoulder, let you take a picture and then demand cash in return.
The old medina is good for whatever you need. Vegetables? There are a few markets. Handmade table and chairs? Head to the furniture area. Light fittings? There’s a section. Wherever you go and whatever you buy, just make sure to haggle – it’s part of the experience and mostly expected. Keep a light disposition but stay firm, and you’ll soon earn the respect of old-town shopkeepers.
Outside the medina and the Nouvelle Ville, a short walk past some stalls selling candy, you’ll find yourself somewhat inexplicably at a brilliant square pool, built in the 16th century by a sultan. Take a seat poolside and enjoy the garden around you.
For hundreds of years and several generations, the families of Mechoui Alley have woken up early in the morning, stuck a whole lamb on a stick and put it in a large underground oven to slowly roast for four to six hours. The result is a deliciously succulent and tender plate of meat that practically falls off the bone. Sprinkle on some cumin and salt for an extra layer of flavour.
With its Art Deco stylings, Café Grand Atlas cuts a particular figure in the Nouvelle Ville. As it’s situated next to one of the city’s busiest roundabouts, taking a coffee on the café’s terrace will give you a different perspective on Marrakech. Try a nous-nous, a Moroccan speciality that’s half espresso, half milk.
There are few things as quintessentially Moroccan as a weekly trip to the hammam. Head on down to the largest public one: Hammam Dar el-Bacha. Here, you pay a cover and get scrubbed down and massaged in the steaming rooms. You’ll leave feeling like a new person. Make sure to check the timings for men and women before you go.
Indulge in French fine dining at the Grand Café de la Poste
Restaurant, French, $$$
The Grand Café de la Poste is a European restaurant in the Gueliz neighbourhood | Courtesy of Grand Café de la Poste
Located in the Gueliz neighbourhood, the Grand Café de la Poste has Moorish and European elements throughout its homely interior. Guests can even relax on old Berber carpets by the fireplace while taking in the warm atmosphere. The restaurant serves French- and Moroccan-inspired food – the confit de canard (duck) is highly recommended.
Each region and city in Morocco has a different style that sets its carpets apart from the others, usually with fascinating historical backstories. You can see some magnificent examples of traditionally made rugs at Musée Dar Si Saïd while also learning about the processes used to make them.
See old Marrakech at the Maison de la Photographie
Courtesy of Maison de la Photographie
Morocco’s proximity to Europe has made it a top destination for travellers in recent years – and also some time before the advent of budget airlines. At the Maison de la Photographie, see the work of early photographers, who cast a special silver-hued light on the Moroccan way of life and how it has changed over the past century.
Marrakech and Fez are both known the world over for the quality of their leather – often leaving leather’s more luxurious sister product, suede, out in the shadows. Fear not, the kindly folk at Atika have some of the best handmade suede loafers in the city.
If you’re looking for English-language books to pass the time on your bus journey down south, then Marrakech isn’t very helpful as most bookshops might only have a shelf of French novels. Luckily, the immigrant-run Café du Livre keeps a good selection of second-hand books to satiate your need – it also has the only weekly pub quiz in town.