‘Marrakesh is the fourth largest city in the Kingdom of Morocco and is located in the North of the country in the shade of the beautiful Atlas Mountains…’
Les and I recently hopped a flight to Morocco to celebrate my 40th birthday. We had a fabulous time exploring Marrakesh and indulging in everything it had to offer. This is your guide to spending three days exploring and relaxing in the Red City…
Explore the Maze of The Medina
The Medina is a tightly packed, walled city in the heart of Marrakesh. It’s a literal maze of streets and alleys, full of colourful Riads and hotels. A large proportion of the city’s rooms are located here as it’s central to the main sights. The Medina is a great place to start getting your bearings but, be warned: it can be pretty challenging to navigate. It’s even harder to find your accommodation for the first time, when you arrive sweaty and tired from the airport. (Note: you can arrange direct transfers from the airport to your hotel, which can take a bit of the stress away until you know where you are).
The area is mainly made up of souks and shopping stands. They offer fabrics, clothing, pottery, food, and everything in between. You could happily spend hours wandering around, looking at the goods and haggling over prices. It’s a tightly packed, but exceptionally pretty location. The Medina is alive at all times of the day and night and is always buzzing with locals and tourists alike.
Pastries and Tea
Marrakesh offers a quite massive range of pastries and cakes in its various patisseries and bakeries. For the first few days, I genuinely thought my husband would spontaneously combust every time he walked past one. Our local host warned us about ‘fake pastries’ but, not really knowing the difference between the fake ones and the real ones, they were all amazing to us. Circles and squares of wafer thin pastry, flavoured with pistachio, almond and other tasty things were piled high on plates and placed temptingly in bakery windows.
Most of the bakeries also do a wicked variety of French treats, including some pretty colourful macarons. Many also have small seating areas where you can enjoy them inside. Alternatively, grab a box and fill up with goodies – most will charge you by weight.
Djemaa el-Fna at Night
Located deep in the heart of the Medina is the city’s central plaza It’s an absolute riot of activity, regardless of the time of day. During daylight hours, you can shop ’til you drop in the square’s many souks, choosing from textiles, metal work, leather, colourful spice towers, and a whole range of other goods to spend your money on. It’s a beautiful place to wander at any time, but it’s difficult to beat the view of the Atlas Mountains as seen from a seat at one of the surrounding restaurants when the sun begins to set.
In the evening, the square transforms into a circus of entertainment, food and drinks, and it’s the best place in the city for people watching. The food here is superb and you can enjoy traditional kebabs, falafel and soups, as well as Western fare. There are often prayers going outside the Mosque in the square in the evening, so do be mindful of this. Also: watch out for the snake charmers and their, well, snakes…
Enjoy a Traditional Moroccan breakfast
You’re likely to be woken by an early morning call to prayer and it’s a fascinating way to welcome the day. Enjoying a traditional Moroccan breakfast in your hotel, or at a local Cafe can set you up nicely for exploring more of the city. This often consists of different types of bread and jams, dates and other fruits, in addition to Moroccan tea. Argan Oil is one of the stars of breakfast as it’s used as a dip for freshly baked bread. Being from the UK, I only knew about its ability to make my hair shiny… Breakfast is also the best time to practice pouring your mint tea from a dizzying height in order to maximise the taste.
Visit Ben Yousef Medrasa
Once you’ve filled your boots with breakfast, head off to the The Ben Yousef Medersa in the Medina. This 14th Century Islamic study centre and is one of the city’s largest and most historic buildings. The colour from the mosaic tiles alone is dazzling and this is one of few Islamic places of worship that is open to Non-Muslims. Please make sure you dress appropriately and cover up when visiting or you will not be permitted entry.*
Browse La Maison de la Photographie
A little further out of the Medina’s packed centre is the House of Photography. The museum was set up by two local residents who were collecting vintage photos of Marrakesh. Spanning between 1870 and 1950, it shows both the people and buildings of the city and provides a timeline of its history. The collections are spread over several floors and the museum also has a roof top Cafe with wonderful views. Once you’ve studied the exhibits, pop upstairs to enjoy a coffee and free Wi-Fi.
Chill out for the afternoon at a Hammam
Morocco is famous for the quality and beauty of its traditional Hammams (spas). The city has a huge range to choose from and prices range from reasonable to extremely expensive. Amanjena, outside the centre, is perhaps the most exclusive, but there’s no need to break the bank in order to relax like a local in Marrakesh. Traditional neighbourhood hammams can immerse you in the culture and having you feeling brand new just as quickly as the top end ones. Entry is generally pretty cheap and prices will rise, depending if you’re looking for a body scrub or massage. The experience will obviously vary due to your location, but why not keep it real and head to somewhere used by locals and not just aimed at tourists?
Located on the outskirts of the city centre, Saadien Tombs prove beyond any doubt that we’re definitely NOT all the same when we die. Consisting of around 60 tombs in the main buildings, with more than 100 more in the garden, these mausoleums and fancy-ass resting places are quite an incredible nod to wealth and the importance of still looking good when you’ve popped your clogs.
The Saadien Sultan, Ahmet Al Mansour, had marble imported from Italy for his tomb. As you do. The tiling in place around the tombs is nothing short of jaw-dropping. If that wasn’t enough, he made sure everyone knew just how wealthy and important he was by having pure gold lining his decorative plasterwork. Ladies and gentlemen…prepare to be dazzled.
Constructed in the early 19th Century, Bahia is a Moorish Palace in the centre of Marrakesh. ‘The word ‘bahia’ translates to ‘brilliance’ in Arabic. And brilliant it is. There’s somewhere in the region of 150 rooms and endless open courtyards and gardens to enjoy on a walk round. Like many things in Morocco, attention to detail is paramount at Bahia. It has incredible multi coloured tiles, stained glass windows, marble fountains, a steady stream of excited, yet amazed visitors. The Palace was designed to be the best in the world and has been meticulously maintained. The colour, Marjorelle Blue – which is quintessentially Moroccan – can be seen in every aspect of the design.
You cannot, and I can’t state this firmly enough, CAN. NOT. visit Marrakesh without indulging in a tagine. Or ten. Seriously, it’s like going to Germany and refusing to drink beer. It’s wrong, people. Tagines are everywhere in Marrakesh; from teeny local cafes to hotel restaurants, and they’re a little piece of slow-cooked Heaven. Just ask my husband, who still talks about his favourite lamb dish now, with a far-away look in his eyes… Anyway, you certainly won’t be short of places to try out tangines. Aside from the fall-apart meat (sorry, vegetarians!), the buttery veggies and the couscous are to DIE for. My single complaint about tagines? Not big enough.
Afternoon Stroll at Marjorelle Garden
We actually stumbled upon this by accident as we were exploring the city. I’m so glad we did because it was so peaceful; like a little oasis in the middle of a very crowded Medina. Frenchman, Jacques Marjorelle designed the entire botanical garden, which is set over 2 acres of land. MG features a house, various rooms and galleries for exploring, a restaurant and a wonderful roof terrace overlooking the courtyard. Despite taking 40 years to complete, it’s one of the most popular attractions in Marrakesh. It makes for a lovely late afternoon walk where you can smell the lavender and avoid the crowds. In addition, it also has some pretty cute little turtle residents.
Walk the outskirts of Koutoubia Mosque
With its five daily calls to prayer from the minaret, Koutoubia towers above the Medina and main square. The mosque is the largest place of worship in Marrakesh. Its minaret’s highest point stands at around 70 metres tall. Local regulations preclude any building exceeding the height of the mosque, ensuring it’s the tallest building in the city. Koutoubia is set on a spacious plaza on a pretty busy main road and is a very popular meeting place.
While the mosque does not permit non-Muslim visitors to the interior, you can explore outside. It’s well worth a walk around the square to see the beautiful rose-gold structure. The mosque’s minaret can be seen from every rooftop in the city. Koutoubia is particularly beautiful when lit up at night. Many of the restaurants on Jemaa El-Fna have an elevated view of the structure.
What are your favourite sights in Marrakesh?
- Ben Yousef is currently closed for refurb, but will be open in 2019.