20 great things to do in Marrakech
Marrakech is a bold and vibrant city and has a lot to offer both the adventurous traveller and those who are looking for a bit of luxury. It’s essentially a city of two halves; the Old Town – or Medina – offers a beautiful but chaotic melding of ancient Moroccan music, culture, food, and architecture, with influences from sub-Saharan African, Islamic, French and the native Berber tribes. In contrast, the New Town offers a more Western European vibe, with designer shops, fancy hotels and restaurants.
With so much on offer, what the 20 great things to do in Marrakech ?
1. Circle the Koutoubia Mosque
The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech’s most famous symbol – built in a traditional Almohad style and topped with four copper globes – is visible from near and far. It’s not really that high (77 metres), but thanks to local topography and a local ordinance that forbids any other building in the Medina to be higher than a palm tree, it towers majestically over its surroundings. It’s still an active place of worship, and non-Muslims may not enter. But it’s possible to get a good view of the exterior by walking around either side.
2. Spend your dirhams at the souks
There are few more pleasurable ways to spend time in Marrakech than wandering around the seemingly endless maze of markets in the Medina. The area of the Medina, just north of the Jemaa El Fna, is commercial – at least in its more central areas – with a fibrous network of souks. Beginning on the north edge, the souks comprise alleyway upon alleyway of tiny retail cubicles. The further in you venture the more interesting they become.
The two main routes into their heart are rue Semarine (aka Souk Semarine) and rue Mouassine; the former offers the more full-on blast of bazaar, the latter is a more sedate path leading to choice boutiques. Every section has its own speciality: carpets and textiles; woollen hats and cooked snails; spices and magic supplies; cotton, clothing, kaftans and blankets – and most importantly raffia bags and baskets, which you’ll need to carry all your purchases in.
3. Learn about Islamic scripture and law
The Ben Youssef Medersa, a Quranic school, dedicated to the teaching of Islamic scripture and law, was founded in the 14th century, then enlarged in the 16th century. It was given a further polishing up in the 1990s courtesy of the Ministry of Culture. Entrance is via a long, cool passageway leading to the great courtyard, a serene place (before the tour parties arrive) centred on a shallow, water-filled basin. The surrounding façades are decorated with zelije tiling, stucco and carved cedar, all executed with restraint. At the far side is the domed prayer hall with the richest of decoration, notably around the mihrab, the arched niche that indicates the direction of Mecca.
Back in the entrance vestibule, passageways and two flights of stairs lead to more than 100 tiny windowless students’ chambers, clustered about small internal lightwells. Medieval as it seems, the medersa was still in use until as recently as 1962.
Ben Youssef Medersa, Place Ben Youssef (+212 524 44 18 93). Open 9am-6pm daily. Admission 50dh. Children under 12, 30dh.
4. Dig out some new threads
Algerian-French designer Norya ayroN’s Moroccan-inspired womenswear is becoming a hit with the stars. Trendy, yet comfortable, colourful kaftans and one-of-a-kind robes are what her Pop-up Shop is known for.
Norya ayroN 32 Souk El Jeld, Sidi Abdelaziz, near Souk Cherifia, +212 661 29 59 90.
Fashion creative Artsi Ifrach has a boutique store – Art/C – in Souk Cherifia. His signature style sees him reinterpreting clothes that are one-offs: you’ll find a gorgeous deer tapestry in deep bordeaux refashioned as a dress, trousers embellished with handira blanket sequins, shoes made from carpets, a vintage linen piece crowned with a fur collar and the non-kosher pig print dress. Cartoon flamingo print kaftan, anyone? It cannot get more fabulous.
Akbar Delights (45 place Bab Fteuh, +212 671 66 13 07, www.akbar delightscollections.com) is an upmarket French-owned boutique specialising in luxury clothing and textiles from Kashmir, with some items made to their own designs. The tiny space is crammed with embroidered tops and dresses, cotton robes, silk shawls and scarves, plus shimmery, shoulder bags.
Akbar Delights 45 place Bab Fteuh, +212 671 66 13 07.
5. Get into garden living
With green space at a premium in Marrakech, it’s good to know where to seek respite from the African sun. Just outside the Medina is the glamourous, world-famous La Mamounia (Avenue Bab Jedid, +212 524 38 86 00) with its equally famous gardens.
The Arset El-Mamoun gardens were established in the 18th century by Crown Prince Moulay Mamoun on land gifted to him by his father, the sultan, on the occasion of his wedding. Designed in traditional style, on an axis, with walkways, flowerbeds, orange groves and olive trees, non-residents who want to enjoy their splendour can visit for a buffet lunch at the poolside restaurant, take afternoon tea at Le Menzeh tea and ice-cream pavilion in the gardens, or on the back terrace overlooking the gardens.
French painter Jacques Majorelle’s flourishing homage to the plant world is a much sought-after colourful and shady retreat from the bustle of Marrakech’s Medina. The lemon yellow and the striking cobalt blue (now named Majorelle blue), plus the palms, the soaring cacti and the multicoloured planters, seduce visitors in their thousands to this sanctuary in the Ville Nouvelle. Linger longer for the café, outstanding museum with Berber jewellery, Yves Saint Laurent’s Galerie Love, and the cluster of shops and cafés on the Jardin Majorelle’s doorstep (Majorelle Gardens, Rue Yves Saint Laurent, +212 524 31 30 47).
Majorelle Gardens Rue Yves Saint Laurent. +212 524 31 30 47. Open 8am-5.30pm daily. Admission 50dh; free under-9s. Berber Museum 25dh.
6. Get arts & crafty, Moroccan style
On display in Maison Tiskiwin, a private house owned by veteran Dutch anthropologist Bert Flint, is his fascinating collection of crafts and decorative arts from southern Morocco and the Sahara. The exhibition is designed to show Morocco’s connection to sub-Saharan Africa and is geographically laid out to take you on a virtual journey across the Sahara to Timbuktu. Exhibits include masks from as far afield as Mali and an entire Berber tent made of camel hair.
Maison Tiskiwin 8 Derb El-Bahia, off Riad Zitoun El-Jedid + 212 524 38 91 92. Open 9am-12.30pm, 2.30-6pm daily. Admission 20dh; 10dh children.
7. Be grave at the ancient Saadian Tombs
Flanking the south side of the Kasbah Mosque, the site of what is possibly Marrakech’s most visited monument is an ancient walled garden, the use of which far predates the Saadian era. Dotted around the shrubbery are early mosaic graves; the identity of those interred is long lost. Attention instead focuses on the three pavilions built during the reign of Saadian sultan Ahmed El-Mansour.
First on the left is the Prayer Hall, which holds numerous graves, mainly of Alaouite princes from the 18th century. Next to it is the Hall of Twelve Columns, a more ornate affair with three central tombs surrounded by a dozen marble pillars. The tomb in the middle is that of Ahmed El-Mansour, flanked by those of his son and grandson. A third, stand-alone pavilion has ornate Andalucian-style entrance portals.
Rue de Kasbah, Bab Agnaou (no phone). Open 9am-4.45pm daily. Admission 10dh. Children under 12, free.
8. Explore Morocco through its museums
The Dar Si Said Museum (Riad Zitoun El-Jedid, +212 524 38 95 64. Open 9am-6.45pm Wed-Mon. Admission 10dh. Children 3dh), former home of the brother of Ba Ahmed, builder of the Bahia Palace, now houses a ragtag collection of crafts and woodwork. Among all the ceramics, leather and weapons are beautiful examples of carved cedar, rescued from the city’s lost dwellings.
More engaging is the new Maison de la Photographie (46 Ahal Fés, +212 524 38 57 21. Open 9.30am-7pm daily, Admission 40dh. Children under 12, free) which displays exhibits from a collection of 8,000 photographs spanning the period from 1870-1950. The museum’s top terrace is perfect for a post-picture visit drink or light lunch.
The new Douiria Mouassine (5 Derb El Hammam, Mouassine, Medina, +212 524 38 57 21. Open 10am-6pm Sat-Thur, Admission 30dhs) showcases a restored, petite 17th-century reception apartment detailed with exquisite decorative plaster and wood work.
The Marrakech Museum of Photography and Visual Arts (MMPVA) has a temporary home inside the Badii Palace with a changing roster of exhibitions until the new Sir David Chipperfield-designed building is unveiled next to the Menara Gardens in 2016.
9. Breath in Marrakech’s pungent tanneries
To experience Marrakech at its most medieval – and most pungent – visit the tannery district. The tanners have been here since the city was founded and their work remains a pre-industrial process, using hundreds of vats full of foul liquids to cure animal hides. The eventual products can be seen and purchased at the leather shops near the gate – and all over the souks, but you may prefer to get the hell out of the quarter and purge yourself in the nearest hammam.
10. Step into a Sultan’s palace
Constructed by Sultan Ahmed El-Mansour (1578-1607), the Badii Palace is one of the two principal monuments of the Saadian era (the other is the Saadian Tombs). Today it survives only as a denuded ruin, but once it was a model of triumphal ostentation. Walls and ceilings were encrusted with gold from Timbuktu, while the inner court had a massive central pool with an island, flanked by four sunken gardens. At the centre of each of the four massive walls were four pavilions, also flanked by arrangements of pools and fountains.
It took some 25 years to complete the palace and barely were the inaugural celebrations over before the ageing ruler passed away. His palace remained intact for less than a century before the Merenid sultan, Moulay Ismail, had it stripped bare and the riches carted north for his new capital at Meknès.
Place des Ferblantiers (no phone). Open 9am-4.45pm daily.
11. Shop in a handicrafts department store
The Ensemble Artisanal is the closest thing to a department store in Marrakech, albeit a department store selling nothing but handicrafts. It’s the ultimate souvenir store, with everything from trad clothing (babouches, jellabas, kaftans) to jewellery, and home furnishings to carpets. Prices are fixed at slightly above what you would pay in the souk, but this at least does away with tiresome haggling.
Avenue Mohammed V (+212 5 24 38 66 74). Open 8.30am-7.30pm daily.
12. Enjoy Moroccan culinary highs
Hipsters and flaneurs make for the imperial green oasis of Le Jardin buried in the Medina for light lunches and drinks under the banana palms (32 Souk El-Jeld, Sidi Abdelaziz, near Souk Cherifia, +212 524 37 82 95. Open 10am-10pm daily).
New Nomad (Place Rahba Kedima, +212 524 38 16 09. Open 9am-10pm daily) rises out of the Rahba Kedima magic market with its outstanding views.
For a culinary journey par excellence clear your schedule for the tasting menu at Gastro MK (14 derb Sebaai, Bab Laksour. +212 524 37 61 73. Open 7.30-10.30pm Mon, Tue, Thu-Sun).
For date milkshakes and the legendary camel burger, head to the new Café Clock (Derb Chtouka, +212 535 63 78 55. Open 10am-10pm daily) in the Kasbah.
For classic traditional Moroccan menus of salads, tagines and pastilla, make room for the feasts at female-run Al Fassia (55 boulevard Zerktouni, +212 524 43 40 60. Open noon-2.30pm, 7.30-11pm Mon, Wed-Sun.) and at Tobsil (22 derb Abdellah Ben Hessaien, Bab Ksour. +212 524 44 40 52. Open 7.30-11pm Mon, Wed- Sun).
For low-key, unfussy and family run, there’s nothing better than the traditional rabbit tagine at Tiznit right on the northeast corner of Place Jemaa El Fna (Souk El-Kassabine no.28, +212 524 42 72 04, +212 668 10 04 92. Open 8am-midnight daily.)
13. Haggle-free zones
Can’t handle the haggling, then head to these barter-free shops that will lure you into shedding a few dirhams. The Souk Cherifia (Sidi Abdelaziz. Open 10am-7.30pm daily; some shops closed Tue) displays the beautiful wares of some of the city’s most exciting designers and artists: beautifully soft suede handbags are sold at Lalla (+212 524 38 36 85); French designer Sylvie Pissard has a range of funky, stylish cushions at Sissimorocco (+212 615 22 65 20); pop artist Hassan Hajjij has a small outlet here too, selling his wheat-sack babouches, couscous-sack totes and a reworked Barbie in a box, Moroccan style.
For men there’s Randall Bachner’s Marrakshi Life (+212 659 79 73 54) with its natty threads – smart shirts and stylish scarves set against a gorgeous backdrop of blue-hued tiles. At fashionable concept store 33 Rue Majorelle (33 rue Yves Saint Laurent, +212 524 31 41 95. Open 9.30am-7pm daily), more than 100 Moroccan and foreign designers are showcased in the emporium while alongside are the Kaowa Café and Chabi Chic, selling collectable kitchenware.
14. Appreciate modern art
The Marrakech Biennale has been the catalyst for the Red City’s growing art scene. Housed in an exquisite townhouse is the Medina’s premier exhibition space, Dar Cherifa (8 Derb Charfa Lakbir, Mouassine, +212 524 42 64 63). Open 10am-7pm daily). Parts of the building date back to the 16th century and it has been lovingly restored by owner Abdelatif ben Abdellah. Regular exhibitions lean towards resident foreign artists, but there have also been shows by Moroccan artists Hassan Hajjaj and Milaudi Nouiga. Hajjaj has his own space filled with his Moroccan pop art at Riad Yima (Riad Yima, 52 derb Aarjane, +212 667 23 09 95. Open 9am-6pm daily).
When Galerie 127 (127 avenue Mohammed V, Guéliz, +212 524 43 26 67. Open 3-7pm Tue-Sat or by appointment) opened in 2006 it became the first photo gallery in the Maghreb and only the third in Africa. It got off to a good start with an opening show by Tony Catany. The king bought 30 of the photographs.
David Bloch Gallery (8 bis rue des Vieux Marrakchis, Guéliz, +212 524 45 75 95. Open 3.30-7.30pm Mon; 10.30am-1.30pm, 3.30-7.30pm Tue-Sat) pushes the envelope the most. Set in a contemporary industrial-style space, the focus is on Morocco, North African and Middle Eastern street artists. Large picture windows, steel struts painted charcoal, and white-washed brick provide the frame for bold works that fuse neon, neo-calligraphy and geometrics by collectible artists like Larbi Cherkaoui, Mohamed Boustane and Yassine ‘Yaze’ Mekhnache.
Galerie Rê (Résidence Al Andalous III, corner rue de la Mosquée & rue Ibn Toumert 3, +212 524 43 22 58. Open 10am-1pm, 3-8pm Mon-Sat) is a serious and lavishly designed contemporary gallery for changing exhibitions by mostly ‘Moroccan and Mediterranean’ artists.
15. Have a belly (dance) full
Marrakchi socialites will tell you that Comptoir is sooo over, but on the right night it’s still the best party in town. From the outside it’s a well-behaved little villa on a quiet residential street, but inside the place buzzes with dressed-up diners on the ground floor, while upstairs is a sizeable lounge filled each weekend night to within a whisper of a health and safety crisis. The crowd is a mix of good-looking locals, sharper expats and wide-eyed tourists delighted to have stumbled on the Marrakech they’d always heard about. Drinks are pricey but the nightly belly-dancers are hilarious.
Avenue Echouhada, Hivernage +212 524 43 77 02. Open 4pm-1am Mon-Thur, Sun; noon-1am Fri, Sat.
16. Find some downtime
Souk weary? Head out of the Medina for some downtime to lie by a pool, eat a leisurely lunch, or take in a massage or two. Le Bled (Douar Coucou, Oasis Hassan II, Taseltanet, +212 524 38 59 39. Open 10am-10pm daily) amid the olive and citrus groves provides a farmhouse ambience. You can lunch anywhere in the quiet gardens and swim all day.
In La Palmeraie, the lush manicured gardens of Jnane Tamsna (Jnane Tamsna Douar Abiad, +212 661 24 27 17) are the perfect retreat from the mayhem of the Medina. Owners Meryanne Loum-Martin and her ethnobotanist husband, Gary are keen art lovers, and there are rotating art exhibitions and and an onsite shop; afternoon tea is also available if you can steal yourself away from the pool.
In indulgent mood? Treat yourself to a day or weekend Spa Pass at La Mamounia (Avenue Bab Jedid, +212 524 38 86 00), which gives access to the spa (not including treatments) and the alfresco garden swimming pool. It’s a great way to be pampered in luxurious surrounds without committing to the cost of an overnight stay.
17. Grab a cocktail on a roof terrace
A café by day and restaurant by night, Kechmara also functions well as a lively and convivial bar. There’s a long bar counter to the right as you enter with a tap for bière pression, back shelves lined with spirits and bar stools for perching. The menu lists long drinks and cocktails, which are also served on a spacious roof terrace.
Kechmara 3 rue de la Liberté, Guéliz. +212 524 42 25 32. Open 9am-1am Mon-Sat.
18. And relax… at a hammam
Seriously indulgent hammams and spas include those at La Mamounia and Selman Hotels. For those counting the coins, head to Les Bains de Marrakech (2 derb Sedra, Bab Agnaou, Kasbah, +212 524 38 14 28) where the luxurious ambience belies the price of the hammams and massages.
For total authenticity and a thorough scrubdown, head to Hammam El-Bacha (20 rue Fatima Zohra, Dar El-Bacha (no phone).
New spa on the block is Hammam de la Rose (130 rue Dar El-Bacha, +212 524 44 47 69) gaining kudos among customers with its friendly and professional outlook, affordable prices and effective spa products.
19. Join the party
Four key events for the diary: January sees the Marrakech Marathon; in alternate years in February and March, the Marrakech Biennale comes to town; July the National Festival of Popular Arts (www.marrakechfestival.com), a five-day celebration of Morocco’s arts; and December the Marrakech International Film Festival.
20. Sleep in Morrocan luxury
Riad El Fenn has received plenty of media attention, partly because it’s co-owned by Vanessa Branson (sister of Richard) and partly because it’s such a fine place to stay. Several historic houses have been joined together to create 24 spacious, luscious jewel- coloured bedrooms that are happily lost in a warren of staircases and courtyards.
The clutter-free rooms are dominated by an Egyptian cotton-swathed bed, standalone baths in some, camel leather-tiled floors and proper-sized desks. The midnight blue courtyard room displays an intriguing scattered collage of Christmas-tree roots that look like small mammal skulls. Despite the grandeur of the architecture and some serious modern art on the walls, the mood is relaxed, with plenty of private spaces, three pools and a glorious rooftop terrace. ‘Fenn’ is the local slang for ‘cool’, and staying here gives you a real sense of tapping into the hip heart of the Red City.
Riad El Fenn 2 derb Moulay Abdallah Ben Hezzian, Bab El-Ksour, Medina. +212 524 44 12 10.
The creation of designer Meryanne Loum-Martin and her ethnobotanist husband Dr Gary Martin, Jnane Tamsna (Palmeraie Douar Abiad, +212 524 32 94 823) is a ‘Moorish hacienda’ with opulent suites and 24 gorgeous rooms, set in five buildings scattered around some beautiful gardens, each with its own pool. The architecture is vernacular chic, coloured in the palest tones of primrose, peppermint and clay and enhanced by Loum-Martin’s own inspired furniture. Surrounding fruit orchards, herb and vegetable gardens provide organic produce for the kitchen.
Peacock Pavilions is a striking, stylish retreat, located just 20 minutes from downtown Marrakech, set in an olive grove, and scented by flourishing rose gardens. Maryam Montague, a writer and human rights specialist, and her husband Chris, an architect, host guests in two large pavilions (which Chris built) set either side of an inviting, sparkling turquoise pool.
Peacock Pavilions is decorated with Maryam’s eclectic global treasures: Moroccan carpets, skulls sporting goggles, wooden fertility sculptures, Swan chairs fashioned from petrol cans, Frank Gehry’s cardboard wiggle chairs, and primary-coloured vintage Malian bread baskets. The atmosphere is very relaxed: sip a cocktail (we love the gin, jasmine syrup and mint) by the pool before dining on doughy olive bread, tender lamb tagine and poached pear while listening to Maryam’s tales of Moroccan magic, legends and myths. The alfresco cinema with its deckchairs is an indulgent perk (and is accompanied by lashings of hot chocolate in winter).
Peacock Pavilions Route de Ourzazate, km18, +212 664 41 46 53.