The ancient bamboo-covered souks, endless array of bazaars, lush palm groves, five-star restaurants, snake charmers, fortune tellers, and characters of all size and shape make up modern-day Marrakech. With the snowcapped peaks of the High Atlas serving as a backdrop to this living dream, it often feels as though Marrakech has sprung out from the famous tales of Scheherazade. There is an array of activities to do, sights to see, food to eat, and accommodations to fit nearly every budget and every interest. It comes as no surprise that Marrakech is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world.
Most travelers will find that the medina of Marrakech is much more a place to experience rather than see. Somewhat surprisingly, there are only a few sights and museums to tour. Most of the sights can be visited between breakfast and lunch, leaving plenty of time left over to wander through the souks and bazaars, which is the real pastime in Marrakech. However, if it’s your first experience in a Moroccan medina, then the vast bustling streets of Marrakech can be stressful to navigate and it is easy to become disoriented. Streets are usually unnamed and there are many confusing, often frustrating, dead ends. The lack of pressure in having to see a bunch of sights makes it easier to stop in at a café or dawdle a bit longer over lunch, or perhaps reserve that much-needed massage, all in the name of relaxation, particularly after an adventure in getting lost, which is bound to happen and is part of the experience.
The ville nouvelle offers some of the best restaurants in town as well as some of the best parks in Morocco, not to mention some of the best night clubs in Africa. Though there is not a lot of sightseeing to be had in the ville nouvelle, a trip through the palm groves should be on your itinerary as well as an early morning at the Majorelle Gardens.
There are few really outstanding budget accommodations in Marrakech, but the Hotel Central Palace (59 Sidi Bouloukate, tel. 0524/440 235, 150Dh) is one of them. Located just a five minute walk south of Jemaa el-Fnaa, this remodeled riad features simple, clean rooms with comfortable beds and shared bathrooms. There is no AC or heating in the simple rooms, so nights tend to be hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Pack accordingly. The bathrooms are cleaned every day but can become filthy quickly; some might want to pay the 50Dh extra for the rooms with en-suite bathrooms.
The ladies running the Riad les Secret des Zohria (32 Jnane ben Chegra, tel. 0673/656 552, http://riadlesecretdezoraida.com, 900Dh) deserve some sort of award for running one of the most charming riads in Marrakech. Besides the wonderful, kind service, the taste in Moroccan-styled decor is unmatched in Marrakech. Touches such as fresh flowers in the rooms and the heated swimming pool, one of the very few in the medina, add up to a special stay. If you’re looking to complete your relaxing stay with a nice long bath, consider upgrading to one of the suites for 400Dh or so more.
The owner of the Dar Najat (18 Douar Graoua, Derb Lalla Chacha, tel. 0524/375 085, http://www.dar-najat.com, 900Dh) has channeled the desert heritage of Morocco’s Saharawi tribes throughout this quaint riad. There’s plenty of beige mud brick, plus masks imported from Mali, though bathrooms are more traditional zellij work. This boutique hotel is a bit off the beaten path, in a quieter part of the medina, which ensures a restful night of sleep. The staff are friendly, service prompt and your every need seen to in this wonderfully relaxing little slice of the Sahara.
South of the Jemaa el-Fnaa you’ll find the wonderful Henna Art Café (35 Derb Sqaya, off Rue Riad Zitoun el Kedim, tel. 0666/779 304, www.marrakechhennaartcafe.com, daily 11am-8pm, 100Dh), a veritable haven for vegetarians and vegans. Offerings include copious simple, yet delicious salads and falafel (how is this not more popular around Morocco?). The service is friendly, and the entire café really does its best to show off local artists. Come early or mid-afternoon for the best terrace seating.
For authentic home-cooked Moroccan cuisine, check out La Table Al Badia (135 Derb Ahl Souss, tel. 0524/390 110, www.riadalbadia.com, daily 7:30pm-11pm, 300Dh) in the Riad Al Badia. Samira, the chef, heads to the souk every day to hand pick fresh meat and produce. Succulent lamb that falls off the bone and crispy meat-stuffed pastries are just a couple of the tricks up Samira’s sleeve. During the few cold months, you’ll dine fireside, as the Marrakech nights can get cold. Otherwise, you’ll dine outside on the palatial terrace under the dim lights and the stars. Reservations required the morning of your intended dinner at the very latest. Most dietary needs, such as vegetarian or gluten free, can be accommodated.
La Jacaranda (32 Blvd. Mohamed Zerktouni, tel. 0524/447 215, noon-3pm and 7pm-11:30pm, 120Dh) has a reputation for good French bistro food, and rightly so. The occasional tour group can fill the dining room up pretty easily, though otherwise the ambiance is calm with old French pop music like Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf crooning in the background. Dishes are light, paired with classic sauces such as steak with sauce au poivre and sole with saffron beurre blanc. Service is friendly, and there is usually a nice non-smoking corner to be had.