If you’ve planned it right, you come upon the city of Marrakech just as dusk is falling. As you approach the impressive ramparts that welcome you into the medina, or old city, you’re overwhelmed with a sense of magic and, yes, exoticism unique to this North African metropolis.
Settled in 1062, Marrakech is an intoxicating spot rich in history—one that’s been entrancing European jet-setters and celebrities since French occupation began in 1912. Today, the city is moving into a new phase as a tourist hotspot: While the medina maintains its charms, outside the walls the new city is becoming evermore Western, as the recent additions of a Louis Vuitton boutique and a McDonald’s prove.
This isn’t an easy place to negotiate, especially if you don’t speak French or Arabic. Yes, you will be awed by the history and aura of drama—but you may also be frustrated by the confusing maze of unidentified alleyways and side streets, the congestion and pollution created by the introduction of motor vehicles in the medina, and the unrelenting young locals determined to serve as your paid guide. (Be prepared to take the scenic—or not-so-scenic—route if you employ them.)
Despite these challenges, Marrakech still delights: It’s where donkey carts compete with mopeds along narrow thousand-year-old streets, and where locals meet up every day in Djemma Square for commercial and social pursuits.
As the call to prayer rings out, take a moment, take a breath, and give thanks for this captivating city.
1. Djemaa El-Fna Square
Djemma Square is the Times Square of Marrakech, overwhelming with its whirl of noise and activity. Here you can sample local foods like stewed lamb, steamed snails and even pigeon. Oddly enough, orange-juice vendors line the square, and it’s where I had one of the best glasses of fresh-squeezed OJ I’ve ever tasted.
As night falls, Djemma is overtaken by drummers, snake charmers, male belly dancers and other buskers. It’s loud and chaotic, so order some tea at one of the square’s cafes and watch the performances begin from a more calm perch.
2. The Souks
The souks are maze-like Berber markets and a trueshopper’s paradise—assuming you can tolerate the constant haggling and being called into booth after booth by overzealous vendors. It’s easy to get lost, but that’s part of the fun (and you’ll find your way out eventually).
Bargain for everything from scarves to leather goods, antiques to carpets, and more—and assume the starting price is up to four times what the merchant will eventually accept. (I learned that the hard way when I criminally overpaid for several hand-dyed scarves, lovely though they were.)
3. Luxury Riad Living
Off the chaotic streets, within unassuming buildings and unmarked door, lie secret respites of tranquility. Discovering some of Marrakech’s riads (small hotels) is akin to opening a dusty old shoebox and finding a diamond tiara inside. Step into one of these three magnificent riads and you’ll discover beauty, indulgence and luxury hidden within the maddening hubbub.
Owned by Vanessa Branson (sister of Virgin mogul Richard Branson), Riad El Fenn is just a few minutes walk from the Koutoubia mosque—and a stylish base for your stay in Marrakech. The gorgeous property is comprised of 21 suites, three swimming pools, a hamman (Turkish bath), restaurant, rooftop terrace, and sumptuous courtyards and common areas for reading, relaxing or socializing.. With a rich color palettes, mix of patterns, and lush fabrics, Riad El Fenn’s style could be described as “Kelly Wearstler Goes to Casablanca.” And it’s a smashing success: I was lucky enough to stay in one of the poolside suites with both indoor and outdoor lounge areas, a massive bedroom with a claw-foot tub, private hamman and fireplace. It was nothing short of pure heaven.
And since this is a larger riad, there was just enough of a social scene to keep things interesting. In short, a magical stay.
For a more personal experience, it’s hard to beat Riad Farnatchi. James, the English owner of this stunning accommodation, is a class act: He and his dutiful staff cheerfully arrange for tour guides, cars, dinner reservations, and every kind of services imaginable. Decorated in upscale Moroccan style, grand suites offer private balconies and bathrooms of enormous proportions. Breakfast is a decadent affair of traditional breads, yogurts, and the most delicious jams you’ve ever tasted. In the afternoon, tea and canapes are brought to your balcony, which overlooks the courtyard and pool.
On James’ recommendation, I booked an on-site massage with the inimitably talented Ahmed. It was one of the most relaxing and transporting I’ve ever had, and the memory of it still lingers. My only issue was Farnatchi’s location—north of the souks—but it’s still central to the museum and other sites. If you seek a pampered escape, stay here.
Steps from Café Arab, where you can enjoy wonderfully fresh Italian and Moroccan meals, Dar Mo’da is a tranquil-yet-chic enclave that feels far from the chaotic souk that’s actually just down the street. Bathed in creams and whites, the stylish guesthouse was created by Elena Masera, a former Italian television executive who fell in love with Marrakech and decided to put her considerable talents towards this new venture.
An intimate riad that looks ready for a cover spread in Elle Decor, Dar Mo’da’s four air-conditioned suites offer private balconies. But Elena herself, a longtime resident with lots of tips on all the locals and hotspots, could be the best amenity of all.
4. Hot-Air Balloon Ride
Marrakech By Air will lift you 3,000 feet in the air for breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape and Atlas Mountains. Our pilot, the fun-loving guy Hamid, took great pleasure in delivering a few well-practiced jokes as we floated across the sky. In fact, the entire Marrakech By Air team was professional and friendly. Prepare to wake up early, though, as pick-up time is about 6am. You’ll finish the day with a camel ride (which I could have done without) and some amazing photos for that Facebook feed. Not to be missed.
The hammam is rooted in centuries of Moroccan tradition and culture, and no trip here would be complete without a visit. Essentially a steam bath that offers treatments like exfoliation, aromatherapy and massage. Many of the riads offer have hammams on-site, or you can visit one of the local spas, which are bigger but still reasonably priced. For budget-busting pampering, The Spa at La Mamounia combines elements of a traditional hamman with more modern European spas—perfect for after a long day of bargaining in the souks.
6. High Atlas Mountains
To the west and south are the dramatic High Atlas Mountains, dominated by sharp peaks, deep valleys and high plateaus—and home to many remote Berber villages. I took a fantastic day trip with Abraham of Your Moroccan Tours. A literal breath of fresh air, the excursion made for a welcome escape from the madness of Marrakech. Here you’ll see magnificent vistas, and have the chance to sip tea in the simple abode of a Berber family. Your Moroccan Tours can customize an itinerary based on your interests—hike the hills, visit the famed Ouzoud Waterfalls, or even stay overnight in the desert.
7. Café Culture
If you’re still trying to make that paleo diet work, stay away from Morocco. There will be bread—a lot of it. And it will be so good you won’t be able to resist. Once you give in, there are many great cafes to indulge your carbo cravings at, but for taste of old French colonialism feel, try Grand Cafe de la Poste. The covered terrace is a great place to while away the afternoon sipping a cocktail among locals and expats alike. And with it’s potted palms, ceiling fans and checkered marble floors, you’ve stepped into Rick’s Cafe.
8. Jardin MajorelleDesigned in the 1920s by artist Jacques Majorelle, the Jardin Majorelle is a welcome retreat nestled among cacti, palms, trees and other flora collected from five continents. After years of neglect, the garden was lovingly restored in 1980 by designer Yves Saint Laurent (whose ashes are scattered here) and his partner, Pierre Bergé.
Majorelle’s fame as an artist died with him, but the unique shade of blue found extensively in the garden and surrounding buildings, is named after him.
Wandering around the city, it seems as if there are gays everywhere, both tourists and natives. Certainly some of the local boys just look like they are ready for some trouble. I’m told some of them will indeed have sex with you—and then steal your wallet. Also be warned, homosexual acts are still illegal in Morocco. There are no gay bars per se, but wherever there is a nightlife scene, there is gay scene.
Check out the recently opened DjellaBar, owned by Buddha Bar impresario Claude Challe, and join the chic crowds sipping cocktails amid by portraits of fez-wearing icons & celebrities. On Saturday nights, Marrakech’s elite head to So in the Sofitel, or the Lotus Club. At So (right) we watched live musicians play along with the DJ as an American X Factor reject sang a Moroccan remix of Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.”
You can’t get this kind of entertainment everywhere, kids—just indulge in the unapologetic corniness of it all along with the high-energy patrons, smoke fumes and booming bass.
Photos: Garrett Wagner (except where noted)