“From the curious street food in Jemaa el-Fna Square to the rub-me lamps in the souks, Marrakech is a city full of distractions.”
Marrakech is known as the ‘Red City’ thanks to the blush-coloured walls that surround it. Constructed in the 12th century, the bricks are made from tabia, which is a mixture of red mud and water from the Hazou plains. But anyone who’s been to the city will know its nickname doesn’t do it justice. Red is just one colour in Marrakech’s kaleidoscope.
You’ll get the best feel for this in the city’s souks. Bright spices are piled up in pyramids, freshly-died carpets hang from the sides of stalls, and silver lamps glint with the promise of a genie inside. It’s a similar story in Jemaa el-Fna, Africa’s biggest square. Ten times busier than Piccadilly Circus at rush hour, the market place is alive with snake charmers, story tellers and potion sellers.
Away from the bustling Medina area, Marrakech wears a coat of green. The region around the city is carpeted with gardens, and they’re no ordinary public parks. The Menara gardens were built by royalty in the 12th century and the Jardin Majorelle was owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, until his death in 2008.
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Souks, snake-charmers and spices collide in the hypnotic city of Marrakech – but what you won’t find are beaches. Instead, relaxation revolves around the hotels. Most of them come with smart pool scenes where you can escape the bustle of city life. If you find you’re hankering for sand between your toes, though, the best place to head is Agadir. The journey takes three to four hours, but the prize is worth the effort – the beach here is one of the biggest and best you’ll clap eyes on. Golden sands unravel for an incredible two kilometres. While it’s made for sunbathing, there’s plenty more to merit your attention. Take your pick of watersports like jet-skiing and windsurfing.
- Marrakech has the full spectrum of places to eat. Lunch could be at the hissing grills of Jemaa el-Fna, followed up with dinner at a 5 star hotel. Starting with the square, vendors offer up everything from grilled sausages to the less appealing sheeps’ brains. But if that doesn’t have you tucking your napkin into your collar, try some of the restaurants that frame Jemaa el-Fna. For food with a view, it’s got to be one of the rooftop terraces like Restaurant Argana and Café de France. Get there at dusk and enjoy a meal beneath the famous sunset that helped earn Marrakech its Red City moniker. Away from the square, the main avenue here is known as Mohammed V. It links the medina with Gueliz, the new town, and all along it you’ll find loads of great places to eat. On the one hand, it’s all cute little bistros and Parisian-style pavement cafés. On the other, simple snack bars and street stalls selling really tasty food for a few pence. If you want the full Moroccan deal, try one of the more traditional eateries. Here, food’s served at low round tables and dishes are usually shared in the soft glow of candlelight. Topping the menu? First off you’ve got tagines – scrummy stews packed with meat, chicken or fish and vegetables. Kebabs are popular, too, and then there’s the famous ‘pastilla’, pigeon, egg and almonds sandwiched between layers of filo pastry. Meanwhile, light, fluffy couscous seems to come with everything. Don’t forget to try the national drink while you’re here, too - mint tea. A surprisingly refreshing tipple, it’s made up of green tea, fresh mint and indecent amounts of sugar. More often than not it’s poured at a height from swan-necked silver teapots and served in dinky little glasses. And it’s more than just a thirst-quencher. Locals reckon it brings good luck and is a blessing for good health so think twice before you switch your order to coffee…
- Le Yacout, Medina This palatial restaurant is the stuff of legend. Take cocktails on the rooftop terrace. Enjoy a feast in the candlelit courtyard. Then retire to the cushion-strewn salon.
- Le Comptoir, Hivernage This A-list hangout brings you a Bedouin restaurant and one seriously cool lounge bar, with a side-serving of belly dancers and hubbly bubbly pipes.
- Dar Moha, Medina Old Morocco gets a contemporary twist at this 19th-century riad whose walled garden is a diner’s dream.
- Le Jacaranda, Gueliz When you’ve overdosed on tagines and pastillas, try this French restaurant and set your sights on a table on the flower-swept terrace.
- Al-Faissa, Gueliz Good authentic food prepared by an all-female team. You’ve never tasted couscous like it.
- The city’s night-time centrepiece is, yep, you guessed it, Jemaa el-Fna. Most people come here at sunset to see it stir like a great beast waking from a slumber. As you’d expect, this open-air entertainment hub’s bordered by bars and restaurants so you won’t have any trouble finding a spot from which to watch the proceedings. All night long you’ll be tripping over cafés, food stalls and street entertainers, all spinning off of the central square. Keep an eye out for the riads that are tucked away in the rabbit’s warren of lanes. A lot of them have got great little restaurants and cosy candlelit bars. Outside the thick mudbrick walls of the medina, the new town – Gueliz - is the place to head if you’re up for a big night on the tiles. There's a long line of places to eat, drink and party. For something a bit different though, check out a fantasia. These big, folkloric parties are held in the open air or in torch-lit tents and come complete with musicians, dancers, fireworks and nail-biting displays by fearless Arab horsemen. Fantasia’s aside, hotels play a big part in the city’s entertainment scene. Piano bars, cabaret and some pretty cool clubs are all on the bill when you’re not dodging sorcerers and snake-charmers in the medina.
- Café de France, Medina Grab a ringside seat up on the terrace and watch the city’s famous square crank into life. An early-evening must.
- Abyssin, Palais Rhous You’ll feel every inch the VIP at this cocktail bar that finds a home in the gorgeous palace gardens.
- The Mamounia Casino, Medina Don flapper dresses and tuxedoes and chance your luck at this world-famous Deco hotel. Sir Winston Churchill loved the place – and so will you.
- Le Paradise, Gueliz Strike a pose on the city’s sexiest dancefloor after topping up your alcohol levels at the first-floor bar, Le Before.
- Pacha Marrakech, Gueliz Marrakech’s answer to the Ibiza’s iconic superclub, this place has two restaurants, a club, pool and bar, not to mention famous DJs manning the Technics.
When you’ve collected your jaw off the floor at Jemaa el-Fna, turn your attention to the souks. Now, you can forget jumbo malls, designer names and over-sized shopping bags. This place brings you a spree that’s a little more rough around the edges. Picture row after row of stalls squeezed into labyrinthine lanes. Keen shoppers crossing paths with cart-pulling mules. Wares that range from hot-pink slippers to hand-beaten brass. The atmosphere’s electric. The air’s thick with spice. And the soundtrack revolves around clucking chickens, blacksmiths’ hammers and the occasional hum of a moped. Ok so it’s mayhem – but it’s a magnificent kind of mayhem. And believe it or not, there is actually a degree of order to the place. In fact, it’s a bit like an early department store with different sections for different products. Souk Chouari’s all about baskets and wood carvings. Souk des Bijoutiers is the place to go for a one-off piece of jewellery. For copperware, you want Souk des Forgerons and to see the blacksmiths hard at work, head for Souk Haddadine. And that’s just the beginning. There are souks devoted to leather, perfume, slippers, wool….the list goes on. For local life at its most colourful, don’t miss the daily auctions. La Criee Berbere is where slaves were auctioned until 1912. Nowadays carpets are sold here to the highest bidder. In Souk el-Batna, meanwhile, hundreds of the city’s leatherworkers haggle for skins and Rahba Kedima is where wizened magicians and healers stock up on supplies. And remember, whichever must-have you set your heart on, halve the ticket price and start your negotiations from there.