Marrakech: what to see and do. The secret riads, the best food, and the experiences you can’t miss

Why go

This North African country, which practically touches noses with Spain, mixes exotic, Eastern vibes with a French influence to enchanting effect. Nowhere is this clash of cultural influences more keenly felt than in its lively capital Marrakech, where the vibrant labyrinth of the old medina seems a million miles from new Marrakech, with its wide avenues, shiny stores and pretty parks.

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Marrakech is only four hours from the UK, making it popular for city breaks and winter escapes, and offers fantastic shopping, a burgeoning dining scene and a wonderfully immersive cultural experience.

Marrakech the ramparts. Photo Alamy
The snow-capped mountains behind the ramparts of Marrakech. Photo by Alamy

What to do

The UNESCO-listed medina is an absolute must. It’s a mesmerising mix of old and new: scooters weave their way around donkeys, jewel-coloured beads, lanterns and tapestries line the stalls while fake football strips fight for market space among the silver, silks and spices.

Enjoy getting lost as the winding streets unravel before you like a ball of string. Occasionally you’ll step out of an alleyway to discover a bustling square, intricate mosque or traditional medersa (school of religious studies).

Marrakech. Souk.
Explore the maze of the medina

Outside the old town maze, Marrakech opens up into a New Town area built by the French in the 1900s. The vibe here is more western European, and you can go from sipping mint tea in the medina to ordering a cappuccino in New Marrakech in minutes.

Where to stay

Marrakech. Riad el Zohar rooftop
A shady spot and a view over Marrakech from the rooftop of boutique hotel Riad El Zohar

For an authentic Moroccan stay, a riad in the medina is just the ticket. These traditional houses were built around central courtyards and typically have just a handful of rooms, making you feel like a guest in someone’s home.

Most of them are boutique, with chic decor and attention to detail. Riad El Zohar is run by an English husband and wife team who go out of their way to ensure an exceptional stay. With its plunge pool and rooftop terrace, you’re assured respite from the dusty medina.

If you choose to eat in the riad (do!), the guests and owners usually eat together before retiring to the sitting room for after-dinner drinks and story swapping.

Marrakech. Riad el Zohar Talilit Room
Riad El Zohar, a traditional home turned boutique hotel, run by an English couple

Riad Dar Anika is another hidden gem. Step through the heavy wooden door from the street and experience instant tranquillity. The large roof terrace is a highlight, with views across the jumbled rooftops of the medina.

For those looking for a luxury break, the newly opened Mandarin Oriental Marrakech is a five-star oasis a little further out of the hubbub. It offers beautiful villas, spacious suites, a fabulous spa and has views across to the Atlas Mountains.

Where to eat

Eating is a whole new experience in Marrakech. The most ramshackle restaurant can serve up the most delicious tagine and fluffiest couscous, so don’t feel you need to seek out high-end places.

Marrakech. Nightime in Jemaa el-Fnaa Square.
Sit at makeshift tables and tuck into delicious street food at Jemaa el-Fnaa Square, day or night

The famous Jemaa el-Fnaa Square is a safe bet for amazing street food. Follow your nose to the source of the pungent spice aromas, pull up a crate at a makeshift wooden table and dig into a chicken tagine with lemon or beef tagine with prunes.

You can also have orange juice squeezed freshly for you. Take your own cup or water bottle, though, as many stalls reuse the same cups over and over.

In the New Town, fine French bakeries await. Expect to queue for the almond croissants at Patisserie Amandine, but they’ll be worth the wait.

The real revelation in Marrakech is riad cooking. Choose the right riad and your best meals are likely to be enjoyed in-house.

This is because being a ‘house cook’ is an important role in Morocco – and one that is held with great pride. You’ll find a traditional Moroccan chef in the kitchen (usually a woman), who is much appreciated. Don’t miss the breakfast pancakes, which are pummelled on a stone floor before frying.

You will find wine (and other alcohol) available in Marrakech restaurants, but you’ll pay over the odds for it.

Getting around

Marrakech spice market. Morocco National Tourist Board 620
Marrakech spice market

The best way to get around the medina is by foot. Or take a caleche (a small cart pulled by horse or donkey – be sure to agree on a price first), which you can find waiting at the Square de Foucauld. ‘Petit taxis’ are a good way of getting from A to B in a hurry. Give the sightseeing bus a miss as it cannot go into the medina and so it misses many of the best city landmarks.

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When to go

Spring and autumn offer the best sightseeing weather: warm, dry and sunny. Avoid the searing heat of the summer months, unless you’re planning on doing very little besides cooling off in the hotel pool!

Don’t miss

The Jemaa el-Fnaa square is the centre of medina activity, with vendors touting their goods, musicians strumming on ouds and a mini zoo of animals roaming around with their ‘trainers’. Enjoy a mint tea or orange juice while you take it all in.

The Koutoubia mosque is the city’s most famous landmark, sitting just across from the hectic square in its own peaceful garden oasis. Be aware that only Muslims are allowed to enter mosques in Morocco.

Marrakech. Bahia Palace
See intricate detailing, gilded ceilings, opulent adornment and the concubines’ quarters at the Bahia Palace

The intricate detail of Bahia Palace is a treat for the eye, and contrasts dramatically with the desolate ruins of the El Badi Palace.

The Jardin Majorelle, designed by Yves Saint Laurent, is a colourful slice of paradise in the New Town, with pretty plants, water features and an exhibition of the designer’s work.

Feeling weary? Step into a traditional hammam for an invigorating scrub-down. Hammam de la Rose is a good one in the medina.

Marrakech. High Atlas Mountains
Stunning scenery and Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains

The High Atlas mountains sit just a couple of hours drive from Marrakech. Brave the winding roads and you’ll be rewarded with stunning scenery and Berber villages where time seems to stand still. Stunning hotels make the most of the surroundings and are perfect for the spa-and-stay crowd.

Three things we like

  1. The authenticity of the old town. It’s hard to believe that this magical world is just four hours from the UK.
  2. The food is a real treat, and you don’t have to blow the budget to get an incredible meal in Marrakech. Fresh, spicy and simple are the culinary buzzwords.
  3. Everywhere you look you’ll see orange trees overflowing with plump fruit, ripe for the picking by the many street vendors. Try it – it’ll be the best orange juice of your life.

Something we don’t like

Some of the street vendors and beggars can be too insistent, and visiting the souks can feel like running a gauntlet, making you fearful of actually stopping and looking at anything you might not wish to buy.

Marrakech. Snake charmers
Beware the snake charmers!

High50 insider tips

  • Haggle hard for anything you do buy. You should expect to pay less than half of the original price given by the vendor.
  • Beware the ‘henna ladies’ on the Jemaa el-Fnaa square. If you stand still next to them, they will draw on you, whether you like it or not – and expect payment.
  • If you’re not keen on snakes, prepare yourself before stepping on to the central square as ‘snake charmers’ are ever present. And if you stop to look at the cute monkey, expect to find one sitting on your shoulder for an expensive photo opportunity.
  • Choose a hotel with a pool for welcome relief from sightseeing in the heat.
  • If you have a spare couple of days, the Sahara is within striking distance of Marrakech. It takes around eight hours to get to Zagora, the nearest dessert town. Join a camel trek or 4×4 tour, then stargaze at the clearest sky you’ve ever seen.

Need to know

  • The currency in Morocco is the Dirham. This is a closed currency, which means you can’t change your money until you arrive there. You should get roughly 13dh to the pound. You also can’t take this currency out of the country, so don’t change more than you’re going to spend.
  • Tap water is safe for locals but visitors should stick to bottles.
  • Keep your wits about you. There are various scams operating in the city, which include a ‘guide’ helpfully leading you to a friend’s shop.
  • Tipping is generally expected. If someone offers to carry your bags for you in the street or show you to your riad, they will be expecting you to cross their palm.
  • As Morocco is a Muslim country, it’s important to dress respectfully. Ladies in particular should consider their outfits. Long maxi dresses and thin cardigans are great for keeping cool yet covered.
  • If you’re a female taking a taxi or a tour in car, your driver will be more comfortable if you sit in the back.
  • Public displays of affection between couples will be frowned upon.
  • Power sockets are standard European with two round pins, so don’t forget your travel adaptor.

 

Six bottles of wine with every booking
High50 customers will receive a free half case of wine, simply email [email protected] with your name, the name of the tour operator you booked with and your booking reference number to claim your wine. For terms and conditions for High50’s wine offer, click here. While stocks last.