10 Essential Experiences For Your First Trip To Marrakech
The city is exotic, chaotic and utterly enchanting.
Marrakech is exotic, chaotic and utterly enchanting. The picturesque Red City, surrounded by rolling desert, palmeries and snow-capped mountains, has long held allure for foreign travellers where Berber, Arabic and French cultures collide to create a mesmerising metropolis.
Getting lost in the labyrinthine streets is all part of the experience in a city known for its bohemian vibes, powder-pink walls and maze-like medina.
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Spend your Dirhams in the souks
Marrakech’s souks are tangle of alleyways with shops piled high with pottery, fabrics, carpets, leatherwork and antiques. The main artery is Souk Semmarine, but, as you delve deeper into the vibrant bazaar, you’ll uncover craftsmen shilling their wares and colourful displays of artisanal goods.
On your first spin around the souks, you’ll likely walk away with a carpet rolled under your arm and a pair of babouche (butter-soft leather slippers) on your feet, or follow your nose along the spice-scented lanes for exotic finds like saffron, rose water and argan oil.
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Romance in a riad
A riad is a centuries-old Moroccan mansion transformed into a guesthouse, typically with an interior courtyard, and while the palatial hotels in the new part of town might be tempting, nothing beats having the souks right on your doorstep.
Marrakech is the epicentre of Morocco’s hip riad scene, with hundreds of atmospheric and surprisingly affordable lodgings in the heart of the ancient medina. Hidden behind heavy doors, many riads boast private gardens, idyllic pools and sun-soaked rooftop terraces. Although there are plenty of dreamy designer riads, a few hidden gems include Riad Mena, Dar Kawa and Riad Yasmine.
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Sip Moroccan mint tea
Despite being referred to as “Berber Whiskey”, you won’t find a drop of alcohol in Morocco’s sweet, amber mint tea. The traditional beverage, made with fresh spearmint, green tea leaves and lumps of sugar, is the cornerstone of Moroccan hospitality. You’ll be offered a cup everywhere you go — even vendors in the souks might offer you a glass served on a silver tray.
If you’re feeling fancy, make a date of it by booking a lavish high tea at La Mamounia, which includes local pastries and pancakes smothered in thyme honey.
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Embrace the mayhem of Jemaa el Fna
You’ll probably hear the Carnivale-esque Jemaa el Fna before you see it — follow the drumbeats and Gnawa music to the main square. By dusk, over 100 makeshift food stalls selling delicacies from grilled meats to sheep’s head or snails in a saffron broth descend on the historic hotspot.
The best way to take it all in is to order a mint tea at one of the terrace cafes overlooking the open-air theatre below; it’s a true melting pot of magicians, soothsayers, snake charmers, acrobats and performing monkeys. Once you’ve got your bearings, make your way to a vendor to slurp up some snail soup like a local.
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Taste the tagine
If there’s one dish you will see on every single menu in Marrkech, it’s tagine. The aromatic, slow-cooked staple is made with meat, dried fruit and vegetables and takes its name from the distinct earthenware pot it’s served in.
If you want to learn how to make your own, La Maison Arabe runs the best Moroccan cooking classes in town. Nestled above the spice square, Terrasse des Epices serves hearty tagines like chicken with preserved lemon and olives, vegetarian or beef with figs.
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Marvel at Moroccan architecture
Marrakech has a reputation for being picturesque. Beyond the characteristic powdery-pink palette of the medina, there are opulent palaces, mosques and Andalucían gardens. Exceptional Moroccan craftsmanship can be seen in the stucco archways, kaleidoscopic zellige tiles and lavishly painted cedar ceilings.
The iconic Koutoubia Mosque’s minaret soars majestically into the cloudless blue sky, while aesthetes will equally enjoy exploring masterpieces like La Bahia Palace and the ancient Qurʾānic school, Medersa Ben Youssef.
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Take in the historical highlights
Marrakech is one of Morocco’s four imperial cities (the others being Fez, Meknes and Rabat), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Marrakech is home to plenty of historic sites. Its history extends back almost a millennium, beginning as a caravan town along a trade route to the Sahara Desert.
Today, you can find remnants of its past scattered around the old medina. Be sure to explore the Saadian sultans’ El Badi Palace and the Saadian Tombs, pay a visit to the ancient tanneries and get a glimpse into Berber life at the Berber Museum.
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Get caught up in the café culture
One of the best ways to soak up Marrkech’s atmosphere is by hanging out in the fashionable cafés in the medina.
Settle in at the effortlessly chic Nomad, with sweeping views over the spice souks, palm trees, minarets and snow-covered High Atlas Mountains. It’s a boho rooftop hideaway with a Franco-Moroccan menu, salads and fresh juices. For a magical oasis of green-tiled interiors, banana leaves, bamboo and palms, there’s Le Jardin. Café Clock is a laidback cultural hub that serves a famous camel burger and a syrupy-sweet date milkshake, or combine a visit to La Maison de La Photographie with an afternoon relaxing on the gallery’s rooftop.
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Retreat to the gardens
Escape the African heat under the shady palms of Majorelle Garden. Beyond the iconic blue façade are whimsical grounds bursting with bright bougainvillea, bamboo pathways and towering cacti.
A botanical oasis dreamed into existence by French painter Jacques Majorelle, fashionistas flock to the dreamy setting that was once a source of inspiration to the fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent.
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Hang out in a hammam
Every neighbourhood of the old medina has a public hammam (bathhouse), and local men and women make separate visits to the steam bath for a traditional cleansing ritual.
It’s a great way to immerse oneself in an activity that’s deeply rooted in Moroccan life, but the communal spa can be truly mystifying for outsiders. It involves heated rooms, buckets of cold water, a massage and gommage (body scrub) with savon noir (olive oil soap) performed by an attendant.
So, for those wanting a serene spa experience, try a hammam tailored to tourists. Hammam de la Rose is a popular private spa that leaves skin feeling perfectly polished, or, for the ultimate indulgence, visit the pamper palace of the Royal Mansour.
(Lead image: Ben Lieu Song / Flickr. All other images: Edwina Hart)