1. Watch the madness unfold at Djemma el-Fna
Also known as Jemaa el-Fnaa, this famous square is the pivot around which the friendly chaos revolves and the ideal place to kickstart a city break in Marrakech. During the blazing heat of the day, scurry to one of the covered rooftop cafes that surround the square, providing an ideal viewing spot for the madness below. Stall holders loudly proclaim their wares, snake charmers do their thing, tourists look bewildered and the loudspeakers of the nearby Koutoubia Mosque deafen with the call to prayer five times a day. But it’s after dark when the square really comes alive – an army of food stalls invades, and locals and tourists alike descend in the blessed cool of the evening to enjoy local cuisine at rock-bottom prices. Pick a stall, park yourself on a chair and enjoy.
2. Cosy up in a riad
There are hundreds of riads to choose from in Marrakech, and they can provide an oasis of calm and hospitality away from the hectic streets. The name ‘riad’ derives from the Arabic for garden, and these guesthouses tend to be arranged around a picturesque open courtyard that’s usually festooned with plants. They often boast roof terraces too, which are perfect for relaxing in the shade with a good book. The only down side is that riads can be so cosy that it’s hard to lever yourself out of them to go sightseeing. A couple of recommendations are Riad Les Yeux Bleus, which is situated around two central courtyards and has been beautifully restored by the French owners, and Riad Chafia, the local owners of which are very helpful and will be happy to welcome you with a cup of mint tea.
3. Scrub up in a hammam
After pounding the dusty streets all day giving the sights a thorough see, there’s nothing better than a long hot scrub in a hammam (steam room). After soaking in the steam, you’ll be lathered up with ghassoul (black soap made from natural mineral clay) and then scrubbed down thoroughly with a kessa (a sort of rough glove) – the layers of skin will peel off alarmingly, but I guarantee it’s the cleanest you’ll ever feel in your life. For a taste of luxury, try Les Bains de Marrakech or for a – potentially more fun – local option in which you’ll be surrounded by the everyday gossip of the men and women (segregated, of course) who visit the hammam every week. Hammam Dar El Bacha is a popular choice – men go in the morning, women in the afternoon and evening.
4. Wonder at the Palais de la Bahia
Construction of this grand palace began in 1866 at the behest of Grand Vizier Si Moussa, a former slave who rose to become the sultan’s right-hand man. After his death the palace was expanded considerably by his son Bou Ahmed, who also became grand vizier. The rambling, one-storey building is full of constant surprises, as intimate gardens can be found right next to grand colonnaded courtyards, which in turn give way to private apartments laden with astonishingly detailed stuccos. The word ‘bahia’ means ‘beauty’ or ‘brilliance’, and it’s certainly a fitting name.
Opening times: Mon to Sun 8am – 5pm.
Location: 52, Jemaa El Fna.
5. Explore the souks of the Medina
The twisting medieval passageways of the Marrakech souks (markets) within the medina (old town) can be intimidating, but the best approach is to just plunge in. You’ll almost certainly get lost, even with the help of a map, so just follow your feet, enjoy the sights and smells of the market stalls and see where you end up – you’ll pop out on a main street eventually. There’s not really one but five souks to peruse, including the pungent Spice Souk, and the charming Slipper Souk. Local people may offer to guide you to various sights within the souk, but be aware that you’re just as likely to end up at their brother’s carpet shop as the historical Ben Youssef Madrasa. If that does happen, there’s little to do but shrug, laugh and start haggling.
6. Take a turn around Koutoubia Mosque
The 77-metre-tall minaret of this sizable mosque, located right next to Djemma El-Fna, is a handy marker for those at sea in the souk. A closer inspection is warranted, however, if only to appreciate the ornate ceramics and scalloped arches of this impressive 12th-century building. Non-Muslims are not permitted to go inside, but the gardens are open from 8 am to 8 pm and offer the perfect place for an early evening wander.
7. Relax in Jardin Majorelle
If you’re maxed out on mosques and saturated with souks, the Jardin Majorelle is the place to come for something a bit different. This tranquil garden with its calming blue buildings was laid out by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s, and in 1980 it was bought by clothes designer Yves Saint-Laurent and his business partner Pierre Bergé. After Saint-Laurent’s death in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the garden. The shaded fountains offer a soothing escape from the city’s heat, and the small gallery of Majorelle’s paintings is worth a look.
Opening times: (Oct 1 to Apr 30) 8am – 5:30pm, (May 1 to Sept 30) 8am – 6pm.
Location: Rue Yves Saint Laurent.
Price: (Garden) 70Dhs; (Museum) 30Dhs.
8. Make time for tea
Moroccan mint tea is a staple of daily life in Marrakech. People drink it everywhere and at any time of day, and you’ll inevitably be offered it at some point. It’s considered impolite to refuse, so it’s just as well that the hot tea is invariably delicious and surprisingly cooling too. It’s made from a mixture of green tea and fresh mint leaves along with lashings and lashings of sugar – if you’re used to mint tea au naturel then you may find the sweet, pungent taste quite surprising. Dar Belkabir just off the Djemma El-Fna offers a mean cuppa, but you can find a decent mint tea pretty much anywhere.
9. Marrakech Museum
Peer at ancient Islamic coins, bright patterned ceramics and jewelled weaponry fit for the Sultans of old, in this treasure house of Moroccan artefacts. Add to this the stunner of a building – a former ministerial palace – resplendent with tiled floors, chandeliers and stained glass, and this is definitely worth a stop on your tour of Marrakech sights.
Opening times: Daily 9am – 6.30pm.
Location: Place Ben Youssef, Marrakech Medina.
10. Dar Si Said Museum
Further your cultural education with a look at this museum of Moroccan handicrafts. Housed in another gorgeous nineteenth century palace, there are Berber trinkets, Moorish ceilings and Tuareg leatherwork to admire here. Look out for the wedding-reception chamber and elegant courtyards, originally built for the brother of Grand Vizier Bou Ahmed, Si Said.
Opening times: Wed to Mon, 9am – 4.45pm.
Location: Derb Si Said.
Price: Adults Dhs10, Children Dhs3.
11. Madrassa Ben Youssef
A former religious school dating back to the fourteenth century, the building’s exterior belies the startling green and terracotta mosaics, domed prayer hall and intricate stucco-work. You can still see the hundreds of tiny dormitory ‘cells’ for the students. Local guides can bring the surroundings to life for a few dirhams. The Almoravid sultan Ben Youssef also lent his name to the oldest mosque in Marrakech, nearby, although you’ll have to admire it from the outside if you’re non-Muslim.
Opening times: Sun to Sat 8am – 5pm.
Location: Kaat Benahid.
12. Peek at the Saadian Tombs
Built by Sultan al-Ghalib Abdullah in 1557, this mausoleum is the final resting place of the sixteenth and seventeenth century Saadian dynasty, walled up and kept hidden by subsequent rulers and only rediscovered in 1917. Works of art in marble and mosaic, you might need to come early to miss the crowds queuing up to see the magnificent main tomb, dedicated to Lalla Mas’ouda, mother of Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour ed-Dahbi.
Opening times: Daily 9am – 4.45pm.
Location: Rue de la Kasbah, accessed through the Kasbah Mosque.
Price: Adults Dhs10, Children Dhs3.
13. Take a trip into the desert
From one day camel rides to four day epic treks to Fez, it’s worth exploring your surroundings even if you’re only on a short break in Marrakech. Er Chigaga Dunes in the Sahara desert are a popular choice, but most tours will include extra touches like a stay in an authentic Berber tent and home-cooked food around the campfire. Check out Top Desert for well-organised packages.
14. Feast at Al Fassia
Beloved by Moroccans as much as visitors, Al Faissa is where to go for upmarket, but authentic local cuisine. With two locations (Al Fassia Aguedal is in a boutique hotel south of central Marrakech), it also has the fairly unusual set-up of being run almost entirely by women. Though their pigeon bstilla (pigeon pie) and roasted shoulder of lamb dishes are of the highest quality, dinner for two will only set you back around £40.
Opening times: Lunch and dinner every day except Tuesdays.
Location: (Al Faissa Gueliz, Marrakech city centre) 55, Boulevard Zerktouni.
Price: Mains from 130Dhs (around £10).
15. Visit Essaouira
Marrakech is fun but extremely hectic, so a day trip to the coastal town of Essaouira (pronounced ‘essa-weera’) can make for a welcome change of pace. This fortified walls of this fishing town are ideal for strolling along, and the market is measurably less frantic than that of Marrakech. The beach is also great for wandering, but better for windsurfing – the town is subject to strong winds that blow pretty much non-stop all year round. If you do go, make sure to stop by Gelateria Dolce Freddo on the main square for probably the best ice cream in Morocco. Supratours buses run between Marrakech and Essaouira – see their website for times.
How to get to Marrakech
Ryanair, easyJet and BA all fly direct to Marrakech from London. If you’re flying from regional UK airports like Birmingham or Manchester, you can change at European airports like Amsterdam or Lisbon. Marrakech Menara Airport is less than 20 minutes’ (8km) drive from the centre of Marrakech.
Find the cheapest deals on flights to Marrakech with Skyscanner:
Where to stay in Marrakech
If you don’t want to splash out some £800 on a stay at the Royal Mansour Marrakech, a certain level of comfort is still attainable IN Marrakech. For a more reasonable £127 Villa Makassar comes well-equipped with a library, a hot tub and rooftop terrace and is handy for the Medina and big Marrakech attractions like the Royal Palace.
For bargain rates, try Kaktus Hostel, south-west of the centre. Laid out around a courtyard like a basic riad, it has a good eco-conscious approach and creative atmosphere.
*Published March 2017. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.
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