Once one of Morocco’s four imperial cities, Marrakesh is brimming with sensory experiences. The city’s medina is crafted from a variety of cultures; these influences can still be seen on its physical landscape and felt in its modern charm.
Approaching the city’s walled heart, the medina, the wide streets narrow and the traffic slows. Transport is limited inside the medina, meaning an eclectic range of alternative vehicles, and animals, inhabit its small winding streets. Bikes, mopeds, carts… and even mules, whizz through the maze of souks, by-passing the locals and tourists as they attempt to navigate their way through. Locals are on hand to help with anyone seeming a little out of place in the city. Be aware, however, that they will expect a tip, and often a substantial one, for doing so.
The medina is an assault on almost every sense. From the aromas of the street food to the noises which rattle around every corner; the voices that descend on you from all angles and the colours, patterns and textures that drape across every wall and scatter across the ground. The medina is a beautiful type of chaos.
The souks of the medina are perhaps its best-known feature, filled with non-stop haggling and chatting from dusk till the last shadow of life disappears from the streets in the evening. The medina erupts at Jemaa el-Fnaa, the area’s main square. Home to souks, evening entertainment, restaurants and stalls, the square is packed with the must-try flavours of the city including tajines, various grilled meats and vegetables and endless arrays of couscous.
In this densely packed quarter of the city some of the most common things to barter for include spices, argan, leather-wear and artisanal products. As a key ingredient in many Moroccan dishes, you’ll find ras el hanout at many of the spice-selling souks. This spice is a delicious blend of over a dozen spices, commonly featuring cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, coriander seed, peppercorn, sweet and hot paprika and turmeric.
Another key flavour of the city is that of Moroccan tea: an incredibly sweet tea brewed with fresh mint. This authentic taste of Morocco is made in teapots packed with loose black tea leaves, sugar (with the option to add more to your own cup), boiled with water and heaps of fresh mint leaves. The roots of the traditional Moroccan tea are widely debated within the country but its importance to the culture is not. It is almost impossible to go anywhere without being offered a cup of this sweet amber liquid.
If the endless maze of the medina is a little overwhelming then there are a few green spaces and gardens that juxtapose its buzz. Le Jardin Secret (121 Rue Mouassine) is the medina’s own botanical garden which started its life as a 19th-century palace complex. Its origin is reflected by the ornate, traditional Islamic gardens that create a calm, refreshing atmosphere. The fee of 60 dirhams allows entrance to the gardens, which are also home to a small shop and cafe, all enclosed by walls that completely block out the surrounding activity of the medina.
Get Out of the City
Marrakesh, and in particular the Medina, is a chaotic hive of activity that invades every sense. For those looking to take a breather from all the action, there are a number of excellent day trip locations nearby. The beach town of Essaouira is a tranquil day excursion away, popular with surfers. The towering Atlas Mountains, populated by small Berber towns, are an incredible contrast to the hot city centre. Spanning Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, the Atlas Mountains are popular with hikers and Mount Toubkal, situated south of Marrakesh, is the highest of the range.
Riads are one of the most popular choices for accommodation in Marrakesh. The wide variety of these traditional guesthouses means they are incredibly economical and appeal to travellers on all budgets. Riads are similar in style to townhouses, divided into a small number of bedrooms with a courtyard in the centre and shared areas for dining and relaxing.
Less then a few minutes from Bab Agnaou, a ‘gate’ that acts as the mouth of the medina and a convenient meeting point for many tours, Dar Attajmil (23 Rue el Ksour) is found down one of the small turns in the medina. The staff are thoughtful and eager to help, with friendly hostess Francesca giving guests tips for their time in Marrakesh. A highlight of the stay here is the endless supply of deliciously sweet mint tea, which the staff are quick to offer at any time. The four-bedroom riad includes a hamman (included in the price) and a rooftop area on which to relax and eat breakfast, or enjoy an evening meal prepared by the riad’s chef.
In the winding streets of the medina, classic hotels are rare to find. For tourists with a bigger budget then L’Oriental Medina Riad & Spa (5 Derb Lgssaba) gives guests that bit of luxury without having to leave the medina. With air-conditioned rooms, an outdoor swimming pool, rooftop and garden, the riad is an oasis in the heart of the chaos of the medina.
Toward the Kasbah district at the bottom of the medina, Riad Miral (El Jedid Darb Toubib 24/25) is just a short walk from the popular Bahia Palace. The six spacious rooms cater to families and groups of three, as well as having classic double rooms. Recently renovated, this riad is complete with modern amenities: satellite tv, wifi and air conditioning. Located in one of the quieter areas of the Medina, it provides a relaxing retreat from the hustle and bustle of the souks.
For those travelling on a budget, Boho 27 Hostel (27 Derb Cherkaoui Douar Graoua) is also located close to the Bahia Palace. The bright, cosy dormitories sleep between six and ten people and are decorated with traditional tiles to bring the atmosphere of the medina inside. The property has a shared kitchen, bar, lounge and terrace where guests can enjoy a continental or buffet breakfast.
Restaurants & Cafés
The views across the medina from Café Des Épices (75 Derb Rahba Lakdima) are a great welcome to the sprawling souks. The three-story venue is found in one of the medina’s smaller squares and serves food from breakfast through to dinner and, of course, refreshments of mint tea at any hour!
The quiet, shaded terrace of Kui Zin (12 Rue Amsefah) makes it a contender for the best rooftop retreat in the medina. The all-day restaurant hosts live music and entertainment creating its friendly and relaxed atmosphere. As with many restaurants in Morocco, don’t expect any alcohol, instead, they offer Moroccan refreshments of mint tea or freshly squeezed juices.
A celebration of both Italian and Moroccan flavours, Pepe Nero (17 Derb Cherkaoui) offers two menus, one for each culture. The interior and courtyard areas are elegant and classically Moroccan, and though you might not come to Marrakesh seeking Italian food both menus are equally delicious. This restaurant is on many locals’ and visitors’ lists of places to eat, so booking is recommended.
For local dishes made on a higher budget than the casual experiences you might expect to find in the medina try Le Foundouk (55 Souk Hal Fassi Kaat Ben Nahid). The restaurant’s terrace has views across the medina and wider city of Marrakesh, making it a highlight for many visitors. Here you can enjoy a high quality of drinks, dinner and service.
Cafe Arabe (184 Rue Mouassine) invites guests to relax above the souks on its rooftop bar and restaurant. Both the terrace and downstairs areas are filled with traditional Moroccan interior decorations, attracting a mix of tourists as well as those from the local creative scenes. The restaurant offers a Moroccan-Italian style dinner menu and a variety of alcoholic drinks, which are hard to find elsewhere.
Diving through a discreet door not far from the botanical Le Jardin Secret, le Jardin (32 Souk El jeld Sidi Abdelaziz) hosts guests in a lush, green-tiled garden/courtyard. The menu offers both traditional Moroccan dishes, if you’ve not already had your fair share of tajine then have it here, as well as European flavours. This gem hidden in the labyrinth of the souks is very popular, so guests are advised to book in advance.
Not far from the busy main square of Jemaa el-Fnaa, Henna Art Cafe (35 Derb Sqaya) is hidden only for those wanting to find it. As you might expect from the name, diners can also get a local henna design whilst waiting for their food. The artists use all-natural henna and are supervised by a certified henna artist. The quality of the dishes available matches that of the designs, attracting those looking for food and culture in equal measures.
For vegans and veggies, Marrakesh almost always has an option on the menu. If you’re looking for a lot of variety then head to Earth Cafe (4 Derb el Messfloui), one of the city’s only exclusively vegan cafes. The cafe is nestled in a narrow street just off the Jemaa el-Fnaa, and ingredients are sourced from the owner’s farm outside of the city.
An art hub of North Africa, Marrakesh has a vibrant mix of creativity that has grown from its heritage and is fused with modernity. Whilst many of the more trendy art galleries are found in the city’s French Quarter, the Medina is home to enough variety of galleries to ensure those staying in the area don’t need to go far to experience Morocco’s talent.
For a glimpse at the emerging faces of the city’s art scene then head to Le 18 (18, Derb el Ferrane). Housed in a riad, this creative space supports artists through creative residencies and allows visitors to view the various expressions of art through presentations and exhibitions.
One of the better-known creative spots is Maison de la Photographie (46 Rue Bin Lafnadek). With a permanent collection as well as visiting and one-off exhibitions, this photo gallery takes visitors on a visual journey through Morocco’s past through to contemporary culture. With a terrace offering panoramic views stretching from the souks to the Atlas mountains, this gallery is truly an immersion in Morocco and its people.
Visit the La Qoubba Galerie d’Art (91 Souk Talaa) if you plan on taking a little bit of Marrakesh home with you. Landscapes, portraits, abstract pieces and, on occasion, sculptural works fill the gallery’s two floors, all responding to themes of life in Morocco and its culture.