You haven’t really been to Marrakesh until you get lost in the souqs, spent the night amid the storytellers of the Djemaa el-Fna and sipped mint tea while debating the merits of the Berber rug that you are thinking of purchasing. Tear yourself away from the souqs and the shopping and you’ll find some fascinating historical sites like the long-hidden tombs of the Saadian sultans, Yves St Laurent’s artful Jardin Majorelle and the decorative jewel that is the Ali ben Youssef Medersa.
5 Top Sights to Visit
Roll-up, roll-up for the greatest show on earth, which hits the Unesco-designated Djemaa el-Fna at a frenetic daily pace. Originally a place of public execution – the square’s name means ‘assembly of the dead’ – these days the Djemaa draws the crowds for more pleasant pastimes such as storytelling, astrology, snake charming, acrobatics and toe-tapping Gnaoua troupes.
Chefs set up shop at sunset, when clouds of smoke arise from searing, lantern-lit grills at one of the biggest communal barbecues in the world. Take a deep breath and dive in between locals at the trestle tables for succulent kebabs and skewered sheep’s heart.
Nowhere is Marrakesh’s medieval-modern vibe more evident than in this centuries-old shopping mall. In Mouassine, young designers are trailblazing contemporary clothes shops in historic souks. At Souk Cherifa, a market within a market, you can pick up Berber-style beanies, personalized straw hats and printed purses that wouldn’t look out of place in a Paris club.
But don’t stop there: dive in to Souq Sebbaghine (Dyers’ Market) where skeins of freshly dyed saffron wool hang to dry against Saharan blue skies; or Souq Lebbadine where crowds thicken around woodwork and leather stalls. Souq Smata (Slipper Market) and Souq Semmarine (Leather Market) are at the heart of the action. Go with the flow, enjoy the banter and never be too proud to bow out gracefully.
Ali ben Youssef Medersa
Once the largest Islamic study center (Souq el-Fassi, near Place ben Youssef; entry around €10) in North Africa, the 14th-century Ali ben Youssef Quranic school is masterpiece of Hispano-Moresque architecture. Above the entrance, an inscription reads, ‘You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded,’ and the jewel-like courtyard that awaits certainly lives up to the promise.
Around a glassy, reflecting pool, the arcaded cloister is covered in five-color, high-lustre zellij (mosaic tiles) topped by the most intricate honeycomb stucco work and a carved lintel of ancient Atlas cedar. At the far end, is a hall containing the highly ornate mihrab (prayer niche), indicating the direction of Mecca.
Keeping your skin looking good this close to the Sahara requires some serious maintenance work. But worry not, help is at hand in the form of Marrakesh’s extensive network of hammams (public bathhouses). In the steam-filled interior of the bathhouse, a tebbaya (bath attendant) will take you in hand, coating you with savon noir (black soap made with olives) before scrubbing off layer upon layer of dead skin followed by a soothing mud mask.
Some guesthouses have in-house hammams; otherwise, book an appointment from our selection of hammams in the activities section. Most Hammam and gommage are around €55; massages start from €55 per hour.
Originally the home of acclaimed landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, this Ville Nouvelle villa with its cobalt-blue exterior and delightful garden full of rare desert flora is one of Morocco’s most visited sites. Majorelle used his painters eye everywhere: fuchsia bougainvillea explode from lemon yellow planters, deep green palms slouches against pink pisé walls and burnished orange goldfish flash through glassy-green reflecting pools.
Subsequent owners Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé, saved the gardens from dereliction in the 1960s. On Yves’ death in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the rose garden. Now you can visit the inspiring garden, as well as the exceptional Berber Museum (open daily, 8am-5.30pm, until 6pm in summer; garden €6, museum €2.50) housed in the villa.
Beldi Country Club
Overstimulated by the dust and noise of the medina, families and foodies would do well to retreat to the Beldi Country Club (adult/child €31/20 lunch and pool loungers), located 6 km south of the city center. Here, the pungent smell of donkeys and spice stalls is replaced by the fragrant scent of over 15,000 roses planted by Dominique Leymarie amid his eco-chic paradise, which encompasses two pools, a spa, hammam, tennis court and an endless round of children’s games and activities.
When Marrakesh is sweating it out in sweltering 40C temperatures, the High Atlas valley of Ouirgane, 60km southwest, keeps its cool beneath olive groves rustled by mountain breezes. Sneak away here for peaceful hikes through unspoiled villages and lazy lunches poolside at romantic country retreats like L’Oliveraie de Marighe (double rooms with breakfast €75), Chez Momo (double rooms with breakfast €60) and Domaine Malika (double rooms with breakfast €165;).
Directly southwest of Marrakesh, down the Route d’Amizmiz, you’ll find the moon-like expanse of the Agafay Desert. In spring, the arid expanse is covered with wheat and wild flowers, but in summer and autumn the sun bakes it dry. Weekending Marrakshi’s like to skip off-grid here and enjoy canoeing on the Lalla Takerkoust reservoir. Turf-free golf, horse riding, mountain biking and organic lunches are on offer at La Pause , where you can also stay the night in Berber tents or mud-brick bungalows (double rooms with half-board from €140).
Tags:Ali ben Youssef Medersa, Hammam, Jardin Majorelle, Marrakesh, Souks