The last few years have seen Marrakesh well and truly established as Morocco’s capital of chic, attracting the rich and famous from Europe and beyond. Yet the city has always had a mystique about it. It’s a place of immense beauty, sitting beneath the dramatic peaks of the High Atlas mountains – its narrow alleys beg discovery while its thoroughfares bustle with excitement and vitality.
Arguably the last outpost of the Mediterranean before the Sahara, Marrakesh is still steeped in nomadic and West African influences. Nowhere is this fact more evident than in the Jemaa el Fna, the main square at the heart of the old town. Here you’ll find a constant reminder that Marrakesh was once the entrepôt for goods (gold, ivory and slaves) brought by caravan across the desert.
If you’re planning a trip to Marrakesh, here’s how to spend a couple of days in this thrilling city.
1. Jemaa el Fna
Start out from Marrakesh’s main square, just as it gets going in the morning. By day, most of the square is just a big open space, in which a handful of snake charmers bewitch their cobras with flutes, medicine men display cures and nostrums and tooth-pullers, wielding fearsome pliers, offer to pluck the pain from out of the heads of toothache sufferers, trays of extracted molars attesting to their skill.
Make for the souk area north of the Jemaa, where Marrakesh’s vibrant markets are concentrated. Busy and crowded, Souk Smarine, the souks’ main thoroughfare, is covered along its whole course by an iron trellis with slats across it that restricts the sun to shafts of light dappling everything beneath, especially in the early afternoon.
3. Place de la Kissaria
Buy a 60dh combined ticket at the Marrakesh Museum and don’t forget to check out the Almoravid Koubba. Situated well below the current ground level, the Almoravid Koubba (correctly called the Koubba Ba’adyin) doesn’t look like much, but this small, two-storey structure is the only building in Morocco to survive intact from the eleventh-century Almoravid dynasty, whose style lies at the root of all Moroccan architecture.
4. Ben Youssef Medersa
The most impressive medieval Koranic school in Morocco, with zellij tilework, intricate stucco and finely carved cedarwood. Notable in the prayer hall, as in the courtyard’s cedar carving, is a predominance of pinecone and palm motifs, especially around the horseshoe-arched mihrab. The inscriptions are quotations from the Koran, the most common being its opening invocation: “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful”.
Le Foundouk is housed in an old caravanserai, and is now a stylish restaurant (closed on Mondays). The menu has both Moroccan and international sections, the first containing tajines, briouats and brochettes, the second more adventurous dishes such as a monkfish tajine, Thai-style chicken, or duck in sour sauce with pineapple chutney.
6. The tanneries
Head east to the stinky tanneries, checking them out at ground level and then from a roof terrace. If you want to take a closer look at the tanning process, come back in the morning, when the cooperatives are at work.
7. Zaouia of Sidi Bel Abbes
Go past Chrob ou Chouf fountain to the zaouia (tomb) of Sidi Bel Abbes, the most important of Marrakesh’s “seven saints”. The huge mosque that now houses his tomb, with a green-tiled roof and surrounding outbuildings, dates largely from an early eighteenth-century reconstruction.
8. The Majorelle Garden
Leave the Medina for the Ville Nouvelle’s most important sight – a wonderful twelve-acre ornamental garden with cacti and lily ponds, created in the 1920s and 1930s by French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886–1962), and subsequently owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
1. Bab Agnaou
Begin at Marrakesh’s most magnificent city gate, featuring concentric arches and fine carving. This was one of the two original entrances to the Kasbah, but the magnificent blue granite gateway that stands here today was built in 1885. It also has a patisserie just inside.
2. The Saadian Tombs
The tombs of the Saadians – the dynasty that ruled Morocco from 1554 to 1669 – escaped plundering by the rapacious Sultan Moulay Ismail, of the subsequent Alaouite dynasty, probably because he feared bad luck if he desecrated them. Instead, he blocked all access bar an obscure entrance from the Kasbah Mosque. Arrive early to avoid the crowds (the enclosure opens at 9am) so you can appreciate the exquisite tombs at their best.
3. Place des Ferblantiers
Head to Place des Ferblantiers to watch the metalworkers beating out decorative lanterns by hand.
4. El Badi Palace
Take some time to explore this extensive and extremely impressive ruin, with its sunken gardens and pavilions. You can pay another 10dh (at the main entrance) to see the original minbar (pulpit) from the Koutoubia Mosque, once one of the most celebrated works of art in the Muslim world, commissioned from Córdoba, the Andalucían capital, in 1137.
Pause at the Café el Badia, where you can opt for a cheap set menu and get right up close to the storks nesting on the walls of the palace. It serves a range of hot and cold (non-alcoholic) drinks, and set menus (80–120dh, including one vegetarian) featuring soup, salad, couscous, and Moroccan sweetmeats for afters.
6. Bahia Palace
This nineteenth-century grand vizier’s palace contains some of the city’s finest painted ceilings. South of the great courtyard is the large riad, the heart of Si Moussa’s palace, fragrant with fruit trees and melodious with birdsong, approaching the very ideal of beauty in Arabic domestic architecture.
7. Dar Si Said
Stop off at this nineteenth-century mansion, now a museum, to admire the woodwork and costumes.
8. Jemaa el Fna
The Jemaa el Fna should now be warming up for the evening, with snake charmers giving way to storytellers and musicians. As dusk falls, the square becomes a huge open-air dining area packed with stalls lit by gas lanterns, and the air is filled with wonderful smells and plumes of cooking smoke spiralling up into the night.
Have supper at the food stalls on the Jemaa. As well as couscous and pastilla, there are spicy merguez sausages, salads, fried fish and – for the more adventurous – sheep’s heads complete with eyes. Afterwards, head to the Café Arabe – a sophisticated bar and restaurant in the heart of the Medina – for a drink.