Marrakech food stall
List Words : Wanderlust Journeys | 17 August

Ultimate top 5 guide: Marrakech

Marrakech is an exotic, sensory overload – so who better to guide you than Wanderlust readers? Here's our REAL travellers' top 5 guide to the Moroccan city

This dye is made from poppies,” explained the smiling scarf-seller. “It’s the colour of Marrakech.” The Red City certainly lives up to its name: from the red cloth drying on the rooftops, to the pink-and-cinnamon-hued walls, to the flashes of terracotta ceramics and crimson bags in the souks.

But it’s far from a city of just one hue. The marvellous Moroccan Medina town in the shadow of the High Atlas Mountains, long a stop-off for caravans crossing the desert, is Edith Wharton’s “great market of the south” – a place where bright colours, exotic spices, herbalists and a hint of black magic waft about the souks’ secret corners, warmed by the heat of the communal bread ovens. A place where trading has continued for centuries, but where cloaked men driving donkey-carts laden with vegetables now share the narrow passageways with whining mopeds. 

Come dusk, as the muezzins of the mosques call the faithful to evening prayer, Marrakech takes on a different aspect. The lights of the Djemaa el-Fna (or Jemaa el-Fna), the Old Town’s main square, flick on to illuminate the fruit-sellers, snake-charmers and henna-painters in one of the world’s greatest meeting places. Here are traders from the Sahara; buses discharging passengers after long journeys; Berber and Tuareg tribesmen completing a deal; and friends meeting over supper, the fizz, sizzle and billow of cooking smoke filling the evening air.

There are tranquil places to be found in Marrakech, however. Wander (and get lost) down quiet backstreets and you’ll find men playing draughts with bottle-tops, while glorious riads – oases of intricate tilework and breezy courtyards – hide behind unassuming wooden doors. A little further outside the city, the elegant Jardin Majorelle is a calming sanctuary of pools and palms. 

For the more adventurous, Marrakech is a gateway to experience more of Morocco, perfectly placed for forays into mountains, desert and sea. You can sleep out under the stars and experience Berber life amid the Saharan sands, or try canyoning and rafting in the Ourika Valley (just 45 minutes away) to raise your adrenaline levels. The coastal resort of Essaouira is only a two-hour drive, for more Moroccan culture as well as refreshing Atlantic air. 

But whatever your choice, you will feel mahabba – the warm welcome of the Marrakechi people.

Top 5 experiences

1. Sip mint tea on a terrace overlooking the Djemaa el-Fna

Marrakech’s main square, as the sun sets and the night market sets up: the square comes alive with music, acrobats, snake charmers and dancers, while the rich smells of spices and street foods drift up from the stalls.

2. Scrub off those layers of dirty skin in a hammam

Public baths, hammams, are extremely cheap (take your own towel); private hammams offer a relaxing spa experience.

3. Watch the sunset behind the Koutoubia Mosque

From the roof terrace of the Kosybar with a cold beer in hand, watch the storks, listen to the chill-out music and enjoy the views over Place des Ferblantiers, the tin-makers’ square.

4. Get utterly and hopelessly lost in the souk

After a while you'll realise there’s nothing for it but to go and have another pot of mint tea and a plate of little cakes.

5. Stay in an atmospheric riad

The perfect haven after a hectic day’s sightseeing. Sit on your roof terrace and listen as the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer fills the air.

Top 5 places to stay

1. Maison MK

One of Morocco’s most sumptuous boutique hotels. The central pool is surrounded by intimate places to relax, while the en suite bedrooms are fitted with everything a guest could need, including mobile phones for those who get lost in the souks. Rooms from €350 (£295).

2. Riad Marrakiss

Central but budget-friendly, this is a classic riad with its own rooftop terrace. Rooms have en suite bathrooms; there’s also air-con and WiFi. Rooms from €35 (£29).

3. Riad Miski

Small and charming this riad is in a quiet area less than ten minutes’ walk from the main square. Rooms are comfortable and beautifully decorated in oriental tones. The French owners (one speaks English) are extremely helpful. Dinner is excellent (200 DH); meals are served on a delightful roof terrace. Argan-oil massages come recommended. Rooms from €49 (£41).

4. Al Fassia Aguedal

For sumptuous colonial rooms with the fluffiest towels imaginable, try Al Fassia Aguedal. Situated outside the city walls, it has 27 airy rooms, ranging in architectural styles from Arabo-AndalucÍan to Berber. It feels like a riad but with hotel facilities, including a pool, open fires, lounges and an upstairs bar like something out of PG Wodehouse. Rooms from €150 (£126).

5. Riad Adore

Welcoming and immaculately renovated, traditional in style but with contemporary touches (including excellent showers). It’s well placed for both the Medina and the restaurants, bars and shops of Gueliz, in the New Town. Rooms from €140 (£118).

Top 5 historical gems

1. Bahia Palace

Built in the late 19th century by a powerful Grand Vizier, the beautiful Bahia Palace’s name translates as ‘brilliant’: the walls are covered with marvellous zellij (mosaic tilework), calligraphy and stucco. It’s a labyrinth of rooms and courtyards complete with palms and fountains – an Arabian Nights idyll. Open daily, 8.45am-11.45am and 2.45pm-5.50pm; 10dh (75p).

2. El Badi Palace

The storks are the inheritors of El Badi Palace: their cumbersome nests adorn the ancient walls of this once splendid building. Built by Sultan Ahmed el-Mansur in the 16th century, it was looted 100 years later. Nowadays the remnants are a mournful reminder of past glories. Open daily 8.30am-11.45am and 2.30-5.45pm; 10dh (75p).

3. Ben Youssef Medersa

The striking decorations in the Ben Youssef Medersa bear strong similarities to Granada’s Alhambra. Marrakech’s Islamic school was rebuilt by the Saadians in the 1560s; it’s assumed they brought Andalucían artists over to produce the exquisite stucco and zellij. Open daily, 9am-7pm (6pm Oct-Mar); 40dh (£3), 60dh (£4.50) combined with Musée de Marrakech.

4. The Musée de Marrakech

Residing in a former 19th-century palace, contemporary Moroccan art is housed in the former kitchens and there are displays of traditional jewellery, coins, daggers and costumes. However, these are eclipsed by the building itself, especially the magnificent courtyard. Open daily, 9am-6pm; 40dh (or 60dh combined, see above).

5. The Saadian Tombs

Hidden down a narrow passage off the rue de la Kasbah, the Saadian Tombs are the final resting place of Sultan Ahmed el-Mansur. The entrances were sealed off around 1630, not rediscovered until 1917. Much of the original splendour has gone, but bygone grandeur can still be sensed. Open daily 8.30am-11.45am and 2.30pm-5.45pm; 10dh.

Top 5 city escapes

1. Jardin Majorelle

French painter Jacques Majorelle first laid out his cacti and palms in this spot, north of the city, in 1924; after his death, Jardin Majorelle fell into disrepair, but was restored by Yves Saint Laurent in 1980. Today it’s a cool, peaceful retreat. The artist’s vivid-blue Art Deco studio is now an Islamic art museum. Open daily 8am-5pm (6pm Jun-Sep); 30dh (£2.25).

2. Dar Cherifa

If you manage to find Dar Cherifa, you might think it closed. But ring the bell of this cultural centre to enter a haven of calm. A beautifully restored 16th-century riad, it’s the Medina’s oldest; browse the art exhibitions or sip tea on the roof terrace. Cookery courses available. Address: 8 Derb Chorfa el-Kebir Mouassine; open daily, 10am-5pm.

3. Beldi Country Club

Take a 10km taxi ride to Beldi Country Club where, for 200dh (£15), you can spend the day cooling off in the enormous pool; add 150dh (£11) for lunch or dinner in the garden restaurant.

4. Tour the Medina in a horse-drawn calèche (carriage)

Found lining up in Place de Foucauld; agree a price before getting on – a 45-minute ride should cost about 120dh (£9). Note, all horses are given regular ‘MOTs’ by welfare charity SPANA.

5 Head to the Ville Nouvelle’s Grand Café de la Poste

Candles flicker on terracotta-potted palms while smooth jazz wafts by – it’s hard to believe this was a sorting office in the 1920s. Nibbles are included in the drink price; note, if you sit outside, you won’t be served alcohol.

Top 5 activities

1. Suzanne Porter’s Photo Experience walking tour

No matter what your level of photographic expertise, by the end of snapper Suzanne Porter’s Photo Experience walking tour you’ll have a more rounded knowledge of the Medina as well as some killer portrait shots. $300 (£250) for up to five people.

2. The Atlas Mountains

Seen from most rooftops in Marrakech, it’s easy to arrange excursions. Take a day trip to the stunning Kasbah du Toubkal for a scrummy lunch; walk it off on a two-hour trek or sit on the terraces marvelling at the 360° views.

3. Ourika Valley

45 minutes from the city, a wealth of activities is available. Splash Rafting Morocco offers whitewater rafting, tubing, kayaking and canyoning, plus quad-biking, desert tours, mountain-biking and ballooning, all using qualified guides and UK safety standards. A half-day canyoning trip costs £50; a long weekend rafting on the River Ahansel costs £299 (including accommodation).

4. The souks

A shopper’s paradise – if you can cope with the constant attention and haggling. Go to www.wanderlustonassignment.co.uk/marrakech for our guide to surviving a good day’s trading. Can’t bear haggling? Try the government-run Ensemble Artisanal, near the Koutoubia Mosque, which has fixed prices.

5. Join a cookery class with Souk Cuisine

For a foodie insight: learn about the range of spices available – and how to spot the genuine article. Then cook them in the courtyard of a traditional riad, before eating the end product.

Top 5 places to eat

1. Djemaa el-Fna’s food stalls

The atmosphere alone makes eating at the Djemaa el-Fna’s food stalls a must. The adventurous can try steamed snails, tongues and sheeps’ intestines. Fortunately, there are many other stands offering freshly cooked fish, kebabs and veggies for those with less adventurous stomachs.

2. Terrasse des épices

Hidden away atop a collection of upscale shops, the Terrasse des épices has a lush, garden-like feel. Enjoy a soothing nutmeg, chamomile and cardamom tea or a fusion meal of French, Moroccan and Italian cuisines. Unlicensed at present.

3. Earth Café

Find veggie and vegan global cuisine at the funky Earth Café, complete with comfy seating, friendly staff and low prices. Unlicensed, but with a comprehensive list of juices and teas.

4. La Maison Dar Saada Marrakech

A hidden jewel down Derb Zaari, a dark alley off the Djemaa el-Fna. This former riad is one of the few Iicensed restaurants in the Medina. The main salon has dining tables, while two smaller rooms have couches and low lighting, perfect for chilling with a drink and hookah pipe.

5. Al Fassia

Run by running women, in Gueliz, serves traditional Moroccan food at good prices, including vegetarian options and local wine. Advance booking advised.

NB: only a few restaurants within the medina are licensed

Planning your trip

When to go

Spring and autumn are the best times to visit: there’s plenty of sunshine but comfy temperatures (23-28°C during the day). It can be hot in summer (38-40°C) and cool in winter (18°C). Peak times are Easter and Christmas. Note any religious festivals when planning your trip: in 2011, Ramadan runs sunset 31 July-30 August. For rafting, March and April offer the best waters.

Getting there

Menara Airport is 6km south-west of the Medina. British Airways will fly Gatwick-Marrakech from 27 March. Other options include Royal Air Maroc, Ryanair, easyJet and Atlas Blue (booked through Royal Air Maroc).

Taxis are available from the airport, just outside Arrivals; the drive takes around 15 minutes. There’s also a cheap shuttle bus, which departs hourly, 6am-midnight; it makes several stops, including Djemaa el-Fna. If staying in the Medina ask if your hotel provides transfers – it can be confusing finding your way around, especially at night.

To reach Marrakech by train, take an afternoon Eurostar to Paris, then an overnight train to Madrid, a train to Algeciras, a ferry to Tangier, and an onward train to Marrakech; see www.seat61.com. The Gare de Marrakech is well worth a visit to see its dazzling architecture.

Getting around

Marrakech is difficult to drive in: the Medina’s streets are too narrow for cars and congestion is bad. Walking is the best bet. Those brave enough to explore by scooter or bicycle can find well-maintained vehicles at m2r.

Use local petit taxis to travel between the Medina and New Town; agree on a fare before travelling. Trips around the city centre should cost 20-30 dirhams (£1.50-2.20; 50% surcharge after 8pm).

Use grand taxis if going further afield: usually Mercedes holding up to six, they depart when full. Each leaves from specific points in the city based on destination; your riad/hotel can advise. Cost is 300dh/day (£22). Public buses are clean, cheap and safe.

Getting your bearings

Marrakech’s Medina is a wonderful muddle of 43 districts, which merge into one big labyrinth of incomprehensible, haphazard streets, snaking off to potential hidden gems within 16km of old city walls.

However, getting lost is part of the experience. Top tip: stop and breathe – there are always plenty of locals to help (for a tip). A confident “non merci” accompanied with a smile will keep the more persistent at bay. If you want to retain a modicum of independence, ask directions from a shopkeeper, who is less likely to leave his business.

A City Map is widely available from most riads. The Djemaa el-Fna, the Medina’s heart, and the Koutoubia Mosque, just south-west, are great points of reference, as are the speciality souks. Also, look up – there are numerous mosques, and the towers act as useful waymarkers.

The Ville Nouvelle (New Town) is west of the Medina, a much more orderly area with modern roads flanked by manicured borders of olive and topiary-styled citrus trees. The Gueliz area has lots of bars and restaurants.