Marrakech had long been on our travel wish list before a recent flying visit. The combination of sights, sounds and smells, colourful souks and spice markets, flavoursome food, ornate palaces and mosques all jostling together in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains makes it hard to beat for an out of the ordinary city break.
But where to start in such a jam-packed, exotic destination? We did our research and asked for tips and recommendations from the El Camino community, cramming as much into our short visit as possible. We wandered the surprisingly deserted streets of the old town at dawn, devoured delicious flatbread and vegetable tagine and refrained from filling our limited luggage with all the gorgeous rugs for sale. Here’s our edit of the top places to visit and mustn’t-miss experiences.
Soak up the atmosphere in Jemaa el Fna Square
Marrakech is a crazy cacophony of people, sounds and scents. We recommend diving right into the old town medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The maze of streets is teeming with stalls of people hawking their wares, carts, motorbikes and donkeys. There’s nowhere better to soak all this up than the iconic Jemaa el Fna Square. Here you can enjoy freshly squeezed orange juice, marvel at music and street theatre and wander amongst the multitude of yummy food vendors. Visit at sunset to see it all come to life.
Pick up some spices in the old Jewish quarter
The range of spices for sale in Marrakech is something else. We stumbled into the old Jewish quarter or Mellah and found ourselves in spice heaven. If you come away with just one, then it should be ’35 spice’. Also known as Ras el Hanout, the blend includes ginger, turmeric, sweet paprika and cumin and features heavily in Moroccan cooking.
Drink fresh pomegranate juice
One of the highlights of the trip were the stalls selling incredible freshly squeezed juice. For colour and flavour, our favourite was pomegranate. If you’re visiting Marrakech between November and March, then be sure to look out for this readily available treat. Mint tea is another Marrakech staple, surprisingly strong and refreshing and best taken like the locals with plenty of sugar.
Take in the view from a rooftop café
It’s easy to get lost in the Marrakech medina. The best way to get your bearings and take a breather is to take time out at one of the many rooftop cafes. Atay Café would be high on our list for its atmospheric terrace and views out towards the Atlas Mountains. Come for sunset and to hear the muezzin call to prayer from the Koutoubia Mosque.
Retreat to Le Jardin Marjorelle
Possibly one of the most photographed places in Marrakech, Le Jardin Marjorelle is a luxuriant oasis of colour with a striking blue, art deco studio at its heart. French painter Jacques Marjorelle spent forty years creating this botanical sanctuary, collecting exotic plant specimens from all over the world. It was then saved by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent who bought the gardens in the ‘80s. Our top tip for enjoying this tranquil retreat at its best is to get there as soon as it opens (8am or 9am during the month of Ramadan).
Pay homage to Yves Saint Laurent
The recently opened Musée Yves Saint Laurent is right next door and it’s worth buying a combined ticket. As well as showcasing his haute couture clothing, the museum is home to personal artefacts and a series of the love posters he created for his friends and clients every year from 1970 until 2007.
Be inspired by the Saadian Tombs
The final resting place for the Saadi dynasty, the tombs were sealed off following the fall of the dynasty and were only rediscovered in 1917. The lavish mausoleums with their Italian marble, intricate plasterwork and colourful tiles can be seen in all their former glory. This is another site where we recommend arriving early to beat the queues. Further interiors inspiration can be enjoyed at the Bahia Palace. It’s worth paying a visit for the ceiling tiles alone!
Discover the Photography Museum
Small, understated but very cute, the Photography Museum or Maison de la Photographie is a private foundation set up to showcase the exceptional diversity of Morocco through the eyes of those who've visited. There is also a lovely café on the roof terrace, the perfect spot for relaxing with a mint tea.
Stay in a riad
The word riad means garden, describing the traditional merchant houses that open inward to a courtyard. These offer a great way of staying right in the heart of the action and meeting other travellers and locals too. Each one is different but one thing they tend to have in common is the shady courtyard and dipping pool, a welcome respite on the hottest days.
Escape to the mountains
Much as we loved Marrakech, we couldn’t wait to get out into the mountain range that had been teasing us from a distance since our arrival in Morocco. Hiking Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa, had been a big part of what drew us here in the first place. It didn’t disappoint. Trekking for 27 hours (up and back) and catching sunrise from what felt like the top of the world added yet another dimension to our amazing adventure.