In 1939, George Orwell wrote of travellers flocking to Marrakech in search of “camels, castles, palm trees, Foreign Legionnaires, brass trays and bandits”. Ever since, this Moroccan medina town has been enticing visitors with its teeming souks, pink-hued palaces and elegant riads. These days there are more boutique hotels than bandits, but whether you’re ducking under rolls of dripping bright yarn in the dyers’ quarter, tasting lamb that’s been roasted underground in a clay pot or sleeping under the stars amid the Saharan sands, the appeal of Marrakech is eternally captivating.
SEE & DO
SHOP & AWE
The organised chaos of the Djemma el-Fnaa is the focal point of the Old Town. This ancient square truly comes to life after dark, when it attracts snake charmers, belly dancers and dentists with rusty pliers. All human – and animal – life is here, including pickpockets, so leave valuables back at your riad. Venture north and you’ll find yourself in the souks – labyrinthine alleyways selling anything and everything, from Berber carpets to iguana skins (because who doesn’t need one of those at home?) Be prepared to haggle before you part with your dirhams, it’s part of the fun. The further north you go, the ubiquitous latticed lamps and leather slippers gradually become boutiques and galleries. For stylish souvenirs seek out Majorelle 33 a concept store selling pared-down raffia baskets and Moroccan cookware.
A WALK IN THE PARK
If the heat of the medina gets too much, make like the locals and relax under the olive trees of the 12th-century Agdal Gardens. Known as the Islamic Versailles, this vast 40-acre orchard has a huge swimming pool – now filled with giant carp – where a sultan is said to have drowned. For more green and pleasant lands, the French painter Jacques Majorelle began planting the Jardin Majorelle in 1924, and his psychedelic plants and water-lily pond were later tended by Yves San Laurent. Majorelle’s signature cobalt blue studio is now a Berber art museum and wandering around the garden’s intricate tilework and furry cacti is a sedate way to spend the morning.
You don’t have to travel far from Marrakech to reach the dunes of the Sahara and riding a camel across, well, nothing but sand and more sand, is the perfect way to live out those Laurence of Arabia fantasies. Even on a daytrip you can reach the smaller dunes, but if you have time, spend two or more nights in the desert, visiting Berber villages along the way, and watching the sand change from orange to pink as the sun sets. There are more desert trekking companies in the city than you can throw a leather slipper at, but Marrakech Tours is a reliable outfit whose 3-day trip to the Merzouga Dunes comes highly recommended.
STAY & RELAX
Stoop through a tiny wooden door, down a dusty backstreet just off the medina, and you find yourself among marble fountains and lemon trees in the courtyards of El Fenn. Every afternoon, this 19th-century riad-turned-hotel serves up lemon cake and mint tea for guests, while resident tortoises wander around the hammocks in hope of a nibble. Yoga mats, watercolour sets and pine-scented log fires in the rooms are a heavenly touch.
In the upmarket suburb of the ‘Palmeraie’ – an oasis of several hundred thousand palm trees – is the chic Guesthouse Jnane Tamsna. Owned by designer Meryanne Loum-Martin and her ethno-botanist husband Gary, the house party vibe attracts artists, writers and in-the-know A-listers like Donna Karan and Brad Pitt. Rooms are decorated in a Moorish style with quirky details, and lush gardens feature chest-high lavender and rosemary, tennis courts, swimming pools and a hammam.
Nestled in the foothills of the Atlas mountains, 10 miles south of the city, is The Jardin d’Issil – 15 luxury tents pitched around a large pool, with a central house serving breakfast, dinner and sundowners on the rooftop bar. You might technically be camping but forget visions of roughing it – each tent has its own queen-sized bed, en-suite bathroom, electricity, air-con and Bluetooth speakers. Day trips into the mountains, by horse or 4×4, can be arranged by staff.
EAT & DRINK
Whether it’s the scent of a sizzling goat skewer on a street corner or the towering piles of dates and spices in the souk, so many memorable Marrakech moments involve food. The Djemma El Fnaa is the place to head for an al fresco dining experience like no other. The adventurous can seek out steamed snails and sheeps’ intestines, or for a safer bet, stand 14 does the best calamari and aubergine paste. Opt for the stalls where locals are lining up, or Tasting Marrakech.
In the heart of the kasbah, the trendiest spot for a mint lemonade or a frothy date milkshake is Café Clock, Marrakech. This cultural hub serves up concerts, Arabic storytelling (with English translations) and Moroccan cooking lessons, alongside their signature dish – the camel burger.
Fine dining restaurant Al Fassia Aguedal takes traditional fare up a notch, and interestingly the owners, chefs and staff are all women. Don’t leave without sampling the sticky lamb tagine with sweet prunes and almonds, or the local delicacy – pastilla of pigeon (pigeon pie).
Sipping a sweet mint tea on a rooftop bar at dusk, while the muezzins ring out across the medina, is an essential Marrakech experience. Kosybar offers the bonus sight of storks nesting in the ramparts. Alcohol licences can be limited in the old quarter, but at Churchill’s favourite hotel, La Mamounia, it’s always cocktail hour. Order the Mamoune Lady – gin, lemon and orange-flower water – and watch the world go by.