The mystical allure of Marrakesh has been attracting visitors for centuries, and today its time-honoured attractions have been complemented by designer boutiques, pampering spas, and fusion restaurants.
Once a dusty stop on the hippy trail and a bohemian hangout for artists and rock stars, today the Red City is a red-hot destination, an enticing mix of North African culture and tradition alongside modern style and sophistication.
5 essential things to do in Marrakesh
Every destination has its big-hitters and Marrakesh isn’t short of fascinating attractions. Here are five things you shouldn’t miss on your trip:
1. Lose yourself in the medina
A sensory overload of sights, sounds and smells, the medieval medina is a maze of narrow streets, where Africa’s most famous square, the Jemaa el Fna, holds a nightly circus of musicians, snake charmers and storytellers that never fails to entertain.
2. Shop-till-you-drop in the souks
The labyrinthine passageways of the souks are devoted to everything from fragrant spices to leather bags, slippers to carpets; with artisans weaving, hammering or carving out their various wares.
3. Marvel at the Ben Youssef Medersa
Mosques may not be open to non-Muslims but one of the city’s most historic religious sites is: the Ben Youssef Medersa, a 14th-century centre of Islamic study, resplendent in ornate stucco and dazzling zellij tiles.
4. Stroll around the Jardin Majorelle
Created by French artist Jaques Majorelle in 1925, the garden and its cobalt-blue house were later bought by French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. Go early to enjoy the small Berber museum, exotic flora, lily ponds and shady pathways of this mini oasis, minus the crowds.
5. Step back in time at the Maison de la Photographie
Head to this cool riad gallery displaying a fascinating collection of vintage Moroccan photography, before a mint tea in the courtyard café, drinking in the views over the medina.
5 alternative Marrakesh highlights
If you want to escape the crowds or try something a little different, head to some of these lesser-visited attractions:
1. Eat on the streets
Enjoy a private foodie tour of the Jemaa el Fna with Tasting Marrakech, visiting the most popular food stalls and sampling the local specialties, from snail soup to spicy merguez sausage.
2. Gallery hop in Gueliz
Check out the work of a new generation of Moroccan artists at contemporary galleries such as David Block, Galerie Noir Sur Blanc, Galerie Rê and the recently opened Musée MACMA.
3. Cook up a storm
Go shopping at the food market before learning how to rustle up traditional tagines and salads at a hands-on cooking class at Café Clock, housed in an old school in the heart of the Kasbah.
4. Shop in Sidi Ghanem
A short taxi ride from the centre, the city’s design district is filled with factory showrooms and workshops where you’ll find original brand homeware, from large pieces of furniture to scented candles, clothes, accessories and more. Unlike the medina, its grid system means that it’s easy to navigate and prices are fixed.
5. Unwind at a hammam
Don’t miss being steamed, soaped, scrubbed and massaged with rose, jasmine or orange blossom oils into a state of utter relaxation – there’s everything from a traditional no-frills public hammam, to a luxury spa experience.
Where to stay in Marrakesh
1. For Moorish opulence: One of the city’s most iconic hotels – and a favourite of Winston Churchill – La Mamounia, sits on the medina’s edge among luxuriant gardens, with four restaurants, four bars, pools and a spa.
2. For a luxe hideaway: Just 20 minutes’ drive southeast of the city, The Mandarin Oriental’s 54 opulent villas, lake-like pools and a stunning spa are all nestled amid 50 acres of beautiful gardens and offer unbeatable views over the Atlas Mountains.
3. For romance: Three ancient riads, exquisitely restored to showcase the work of Morocco’s famed artisans, is the setting of La Sultana’s 28 individually decorated, antique-filled rooms and suites, that are sure to evoke an Arabian Nights-style fantasy.
On a budget:
1. For oriental charm: The lovely hotel that is Riad Miski has comfortable rooms beautifully decorated in oriental style. Set in a quiet area less than 10 minutes’ walk from the Jemaa el Fna, it’s perfect for seeing the sights.
2. For a top location: With six spacious rooms set around a flower-filled courtyard, the Riad Tizwa offers leisurely breakfasts on its roof terrace and is conveniently located just a short walk from the souks and the sights.
3. For serious character: The 16th-century Riad Matham has been renovated and turned into a pared down but stylish six-room bolthole. The house is complete with roof terrace, plunge pool and a small hammam.
Where to eat in Marrakesh
1. For modern Moroccan in the medina: Nomad serves up classic dishes with a contemporary twist, alongside creative cocktails on the roof terrace, which has views over the medina’s jumble of tiled rooftops backed by the Atlas Mountains. Alternatively, head to Le Jardin, with its lush secret garden, international-meets-Moroccan menu and pop-up design store.
2. For traditional dishes: Al Fassia’s all-female team serves up delicious mezze, tagines and slow-roasted meats in an opulent, Moorish-hued dining room in Gueliz. While lunch at Amal Women’s Training Centre and Moroccan Restaurant will give you a feel-good factor as well as a delicious meal; your money will go to supporting numerous programmes for women in need.
3. For vegetarians: The medina’s Earth Café serves vegan and vegetarian dishes, with most of the ingredients grown on the owner’s farm just outside the city. Opposite the Jardin Majorelle in Gueliz, Kaowa is a vegetarian-friendly café and store that serves healthy salads, wraps, smoothies and juices, as well as tempting cakes and pastries.
1. Haggling can be fun: Remember to bargain hard, it’s expected, but only start haggling if you’re serious about buying.
2. Get lost & it could cost: If you need directions, ask a shopkeeper or a policeman, if you let someone show you the way, you may get sidetracked and there’ll almost always be a fee.
3. Dress appropriately: It’s best to keep shoulders and knees covered to avoid unwanted attention.
Marrakesh day trips
If you want to get out of the city and discover more of Morocco, try one of these great day trips from Marrakesh:
1. The High Atlas
Imlil sits in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains where you can have lunch on the roof terrace of the Kasbah du Toubkal, or take a hike through spectacular scenery in the shadow of Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak, and visit Berber villages where the way of life has barely changed for centuries.
2. Desert safaris
If you’re short on time, the Agafay Desert is the closest desert to Marrakesh. In just an hour, you can swap the hustle and bustle of the medina for a barren landscape of sculpted sand dunes that you can explore by camel or quad-bike. Or camp overnight, Bedouin style, and sleep under a blanket of stars.
3. Ourika Valley
Escape the city hubbub and head 30 miles south to the fertile Ourika Valley for some adrenaline-fuelled activity; there’s everything from white-water rafting, tubing and kayaking, to canyoning and mountain biking.
When to go to Marrakesh
The summer months in Marrakesh (June–August) can be unbearably hot, often topping 40°C. Plan your trip for the spring or autumn if you don’t want to melt.
How to get there
Marrakesh’s Menara airport has numerous connections from major carriers around the world. It’s a 15-minute drive to the medina; if you take a taxi, agree a price before you set off. Bus 19 runs every 30 minutes between the airport and the medina.