Marrakech has cultivated a reputation for being a world-class tourist destination. Maria Boyle puts it to the test
Situated in western Morocco, Marrakech is earning a reputation for being a world-class tourist destination with its cultural and historical heritage, offering visitors a chance to enjoy authentic experiences from the very simple to the most luxurious.
So to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, Marrakech was the ideal choice given neither of us had visited before along with the fact that it is a short flight from the UK (three hours 30 mins) and a speedy 20 minutes transfer in to the city.
Accommodation choices vary from the simple to the luxurious. Given it was a special weekend away, we opted to stay in La Villa des Orangers in the Medina, the old town, given sights are within easy walking distance, the souks are on the doorstep and we could explore pretty much everywhere by foot.
The Villa des Orangers is a riad, a traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard. It was built in the 1930s and owned by one of the city’s most prominent judges who lived in the home until 1998. After his death, it took the city’s finest craft workers nine months to complete the renovation work, fully respecting local traditions, before it opened as a luxury hotel.
After settling in to our room and taking numerous pictures of the hotel, its pools, its courtyard and interiors – it really is picture perfect - we decided to explore and were excited to experience a completely different culture. For first time visitors, it can be a bit daunting so we decided to hire a local guide. The hotel recommended that one of the best in the city was local Hicham Behlidaoui so we opted for a half day guided tours, tailored to suit our needs.
Hicham explained the history of the ancient city of Marrakech and its important buildings found within the high red walls of the Medina. We soon realised what a good call it was to have a guide as we walked further in to the old city - it is very easy to get lost in the narrow alleys and squares of the old town!
Our first stop was the large square at the entry to the medina which is the centre of Marrakech life. Named Djemaa El Fan, it has been declared a ‘Masterpiece of World Heritage’ by UNESCO. It is one of the main cultural spaces in Marrakech and a symbol of the city since it was established back in the eleventh century. It is a vibrant hub of market with sellers galore (freshly squeezed orange juice a must!), snake charmers and even witch dentists offering a tooth pulling service!
As we walked the streets, we got used to sounds and smells of the city and soon became captivated. Another tourist attraction is the Medersa Ben Youssef. This is one of Morocco’s most beautiful buildings and a must visit. A former theological college, completed in 1565, it is located directly opposite the Ali Ben Youssef Mosque, and once homed 900 students given it was the largest centre for Quranic study in the country. Visually arresting, the main internal courtyard features fine zellige tiling, stalactite ceilings, cedar wood detailing and the warrens of rooms where students once slept are clustered around some internal courtyards in typical Islamic architecture style. Simply breathtaking, holiday pictures sorted!
After a busy morning exploring the Medina, Hicham took us to Riad Dar Tim Tam (42 44 Rue Rahba Lakdima, tel 212 24 391446) which was the perfect lunch spot in the Souk, serving Moroccan food but specialising in tagines and Moroccan-style salads, served with refreshing mint tea.
Reinvigorated after a wonderful lunch, we visited Bahia Palace https://bahia-palace.com La Bahia (The Beautiful) is one of Marrakech’s most eye-popping sights, spread over 8000 square metres with floor-to-ceiling extravagance of intricate marquetry, plasterwork and zouak (painted wood). It was built in the late 19th century as the residence of the Grand Vizier Bou Ahmed, who served Sultan Moulay al-Hassan I and was intended to be the greatest palace of its time and I am sure it was given its interiors certainly showcased the opulent lives of those high up in the sultan’s favour at that time.
Itching to go shopping, we asked Hicham for help. Where is good to go? How do we barter? How does it work given there are literally hundreds of shops and stalls. No problem with our super guide and we started our shopping in the heart of the medina.
The markets offer a real variety of items for sale: ceramics, glassware, ornate teapots, rugs, clothes, bags, slippers, food, cosmetics, antiques, you name it, they have it. I quickly realised it would have been advisable to pack a spare bag, visually purchasing all sorts of wonderful pieces of clothes, homeware and accessories.
Hicham explained that only two per cent of the shops have fixed prices so you have to be prepared to haggle. That is what happens and there are no rules. Just go with what you think the item you want is worth.
We wanted to buy spices and Hicham told us about Herboristerie Lamlih, a family run business which is one of the best places to go. He himself buys Moroccan tea here for his mother as a treat. On offer are the freshest spices and teas, medical herbs, fresh soaps and Argan oil. Everything was fixed price so it was a great introduction to shopping. We had lots of fun choosing spices and seeing them being freshly ground in front of us, buying oils, beauty grooming products and potions.
We then headed to the souks and to see local artisans and craftsmen at work such as the tanneries making leather goods, blacksmiths creating lights and furniture, wood carvers making backgammon boards and jewellery boxes and so on. It was fascinating and brilliant to see. The tour concluded in a market where we were able to haggle and buy jewellery, hand carved barbeque skewers and of course a few bags with Hicham helping us get the best price. It was the perfect day and a wonderful introduction to the magical city.
Retreating to the hotel was much needed and we were desperate to enjoy some pool time. The hotel has three beautiful pools – a rooftop one with views of the Atlas mountains, a smaller pool off the garden and another which is surrounded by olive trees and is one of the prettiest in Morocco. Its resident tortoise, Ryan, was a star attraction and greeted guests each afternoon.
We decided to enjoy dinner at the hotel al fresco. White cloth dinner tables surrounded the floodlit pool and, as night fell, it becomes even more beautiful with twinkling lights and the night sky and stars above. The hotel restaurant offers East to West cuisine and every dish was a taste sensation. Think subtle flavours with the right notes of spice and sweetness matched by a carefully curated wine list.
For our second day, we ventured in to the Agafay desert which is located at the foot of the Atlas mountain range. Trips vary from half day early mornings, afternoons wrapping in a sunset or a more indulgent overnight stay. Our guide Hicham and the hotel staff helped us organise a day trip to Inara camp https://www.inaracamp.com. Only 45-minutes from the hotel by car, we arrived and soaked in the amazing views of the desert and were just in time for a traditional Moroccan lunch of salads and meats and fruit at the camp’s Le Soukoune restaurant which overlooked the pool and boasted breathtaking views of the desert and mountains.
It was a hot day – the desert’s climate is close to the Sahara’s – so post lunch, we cooled down by the pool in to the late afternoon. Just ahead of sunset, we enjoyed a guided quad biking experience which was thrilling, crossing the desert’s soft rocky terrain. For those who prefer something a little slower, Inara also offers camel or horse rides, mountain biking and trekking.
After such a fabulous experience, we headed to El Fenn https://el-fenn.com, a great spot to enjoy some fabulous music while indulging in one of their delicious cocktails followed by a delicious dinner on its 1300 square mêtre rooftop terrace. Under the guidance of executive chef Bob Touatou, El Fenn’s menu is based on local ingredients from local farms and markets, seasonal plant-based food – with meat and fish available too, all combined with herbs, exotic spices and fragrant aromatics.For our last day, we headed to Jardin Marjorelle https://www.jardinmajorelle.com/en/ which offer a wonderful opportunity to escape the heat of the city. These lush tropical gardens are the creation of French painter Jacques Majorelle who started planting them in 1922 with exotic botanical specimens from the far corners of the world. The gardens are exceptional, beautifully designed and full of eclectic plants such as cacti and palms as well as ornate ponds and were fabulous to stroll around. They are also home to Jacques Majorelle artist studio, Art Deco in its design and painted in vibrant blue (the colour now known as Majorelle blue), and this is now home to the Berber museum which is also worth a visit. Next door to the gardens is the entrance to the Yves Saint Laurent Museum https://www.museeyslmarrakech.com/en/ dedicated to the life and legacy of the designer as well as temporary exhibitions – also worth a visit.
Real local food can be hard to find as most Moroccans do not go out for Moroccan food as it is never as good as what they cook at home! So on our last night we asked the locals where they would choose. Al Fassia https://alfassia.com came up time and time again as the place to go. Located in the heart of Gueliz, to the west of the old town, it is owned by two sisters who run it as an all-female restaurant. It serves the most impressive selection of Moroccan salads, the most delicious chicken pastille and a wide variety of tangines.
We celebrated our wedding anniversary in style and felt we had only just started to discover the city. There is a saying that you do not visit Marrakech, you experience it. This is so true. Whatever type of break you want – be it relaxed or adrenalin-fuelled - Marrakech can easily deliver it in the most vibrant and colourful of ways. We will be back.
From June 12th to September 4th : £285 per night for a deluxe double room including: airport transfers, breakfast, lunch, soft drinks, laundry. From September 5th, nightly rate will be £410.