Where to stay, eat and shop in Marrakech.
Nothing prepares you for your first experience of Marrakech. As soon as you step out of the airport you are hit by the heat, the sights, the colours, the smells – and the characters. The roads into the city are a carefully choreographed traffic nightmare of cars, buses, bicycles and donkeys. The world inside the walls of the Medina seems impossibly vibrant – and impossible to navigate. But that is all part of the city’s charm. Once tasted, you always long to go back – to pick up another lamp, try another tagine, learn how exactly they brew that deliciously sweet mint tea…
With over 300 days of sun every year it the perfect winter escape. Stay in or near to the Medina to get the most out of your trip – the modern city can be good for wide walkways and clearly-labelled shops but it lacks the completely unique character that lies within the old walls.
Where to Stay
Riad Noire d’Ivorie: In the north Media an unassuming wooden door gives little clue to the treasure that lies inside. Set around a large-ish central pool is a stunning selection of sitting rooms and bedrooms all impeccably decorated with Moroccan and African antiques and objets. Our favourite is Elephant with a romantic beaten silver alloy bath for two and a four-poster carved cedar bed. This is the place to get tips for home ware shopping.
Riad Farnatchi: Modern Moroccan chic is the name of the game at this nine-suite boutique. Modern art adorns the walls and sleek black marble bathrooms come complete with Philippe Starck fittings and under-floor heating. Hit the hamman for a serious scrub, lounge by the pool or on the roof terrace or tuck into manager Lyn’s delicious cuisine. Suite nine has a private courtyard for mid-afternoon snoozing.
Riad Madani: A favourite of Vogue and Mario Testino, this is one seriously stylish spot decorated with original art works that vary from Warhol to traditional Berber. The palace was once the home of a Grand Vizier and amongst the modern comforts there is genuine history: ancient mosaics and tapestries, antiques and roman sculpture. There is a large pool in the lush gardens and a beautiful vaulted dining room where the chef serves up authentic Berber feasts.
La Mamounia: Marrakech’s original grande dame has been brought back to her former glory with a refurb from design darling Jacques Garcia. The Mamounia was a favourite of Churchill (who called it ‘the most beautiful place in the world’) and the sense of elegance and exceptional service remains, polished up with touches such as flat screen TVs, free wifi and a good gym and hammam, Eight hectares of gardens are planted with 700-year-old olive trees, fruit trees and flowers. In their midst is a wonderful palm-fringed pool – perfect for cooling off after the stress of the souks.
For something a little larger, you need to head out of the Medina to the leafy Palmeraie district where the new Mandarin Oriental and the very rock-star-cool Murano Resort are situated and where Taj Marrakech is scheduled to open this November.
Where to Eat
Dja El Fna: The Medina’ main square comes to life at night with food stands. Although eating at one is a bit of a lottery, it is also an experience. If you don’t want to risk it, be sure to take a walk around the square, past the storytellers chanting in Arabic, the snake charmers and the musicians – there is nothing else quite like it.
Cafe Arabe: The perfect pitstop while shopping in the Medina. Sit under the shade of the orange trees in the pretty courtyard and tuck into excellent Italian food as well as a good selection of Moroccan classics. 184 rue Mouassine.
Terrasse des Epices: Another souk stop. Take in the Marrakech rooftops from the breezy, shaded terrace of this excellent restaurant. An all-day Franco-Moroccan menu features highlights such as traditional salads and tagines, enjoyed by a young expat crowd. 15 Souk Cherifia, Sidi Abdelaziz.
Le Comptoir: Worth the trip out of the Medina to this lounge/bar/restaurant for French, Moroccan and Asian meals accompanied by fire and belly dancing. Avenue Echouhada, Hivernage.
Le Francais: The Michelin-starred restaurant of the legendary Mamounia is just as glam as its parent hotel, serving French classics with a twist. Avenue Bab Jdid.
Le Fondouk: Marrakech isn’t all about tourist-pleasing traditional dishes. Le Fondouk serves modern interpretations of classics alongside European and Italian inspirations. 55 Souk Hal Fassi, Kat Bennahïd.
Where to Shop
There is no point giving street addresses for stalls in the souks as the names often aren’t clear and the best way to experience this other-worldly place is simply to head in, take a deep breath and get a bit lost. You’ll soon find yourself recognising landmarks – an arch here, a hidden door there, that man who tried to sell you a tea pot… There’s a lot of tat, but there are also a lot of gems (Mustapha Blaoui at 142-144 Bab Doukkala is easy to find and sells great furniture and antiques; Kulchi is a fab Moroccan-inspired fashion boutique near the Bab El Ksour gate at 1 Rue Ksour, off Rue Sidi El Yamani). Stock up on pretty homewares for a fraction of the price you would pay at home and if you find a seller you trust, ask him to recommend others. Haggling is expected so decide what you want to pay and be prepared to walk away.
Tip: Don’t accept directions from strangers. It’s not dangerous, but they (even – especially – children) will expect payment. And they might just lead you a merry way around some of their relatives/friends shops first.