Marrakesh: a destination full of authenticity and history
There are destinations that, for some reason and without having been, make you feel that you will feel a connection to them. It’s just a feeling but when reality proves you right and exceeds your expectations …it’s wonderful.
That is exactly what happened to us with Marrakesh. A city that is full of contrasts, that is warm, welcoming, unique, a city that makes us feel incredibly good.
On this occasion, we visited it to write an article about Christian Schallert’s new hotel: Maison Brummell Majorelle, which we highly recommend, along with visiting the city. And although we had heard all sorts, as it’s a really touristy place, the truth is we were pleasantly surprised.
Also, we have to admit that we avoided visiting in summer because we can’t stand the heat or crowds, and this way we were able to enjoy Marrakesh with hardly any tourists and with enviable spring weather.
Among the different places to visit or things to do, we suggest the following:
What to see?
Obviously, a visit to the Medina is a must, as it’s a World Heritage Site and one of the most authentic and interesting places in Marrakesh. It’s true that it is very touristy and tends to be packed with people particularly in summer, but even so, it’s worth the visit. The Medina is vibrant and pure energy. It’s full of narrow streets crammed with shops, through which tons of motorcycles, donkey-drawn carts, locals and tourists move. Total chaos that seems to be leading to disaster but that curiously strikes a balance, like the swirling flight of starlings. The truth is that we all seem to be magically in synch, and nothing happens, because everything just flows.
As we mentioned, we were staying outside the Medina which we loved because we were able to escape the noise and madness that simmers there, and it allowed us to get to know other areas in Marrakesh such as the districts of Gueliz or Sidighanem.
In any case, what we do recommend is that you stroll around the Medina in no hurry, that you wander the streets and enjoy the details, the smells and the nuances of this place without comparison. We didn’t suffer the harassment of the shopkeepers and they were in fact very respectful. We did haggle, because it is part of their culture, but despite being warned of the sellers’ constant insistence, we were able to enjoy both the Medina and other more remote areas really peacefully and without any pressure.
El Badi Palace: It was built at the end of the 16th century by the Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour to commemorate the defeat of the Portuguese at Wadi al-Makhazin (the Battle of the Three Kings). It is currently in ruins but it was renowned for being one of the most majestic buildings in the world ever built. It is considered the great architectural symbol of the Saadian dynasty in Morocco. It’s a very interesting visit, specially because of its inlaid work, its gold finished columns, the black and white marble, the floors tiled with beautiful mosaics… From the flat rooftop there are some unbeatable views of the city.
Jemaa el-Fnaa: Located close to the Koutoubia mosque, Jemaa el Fnaa Square is the true heart of the city of Marrakesh, and the most important place in the Medina. Marrakesh’s public life unfolds there, both day and night. Any time is good to stroll through this square, where there are snake charmers, among other eccentricities and a hundred and one food stalls.
Zoco: It is a labyrinth of dozens of alleys full of stalls and stands where locals and tourists do their shopping: clothes, spices, handcrafted products and typical products from Marrakesh. It’s easy to get lost, although that is part of its charm. And haggling is mandatory.
Le Jardin Secret: This peace haven can go unnoticed as it doesn’t immediately stand out. Maybe in summer it does thanks to the queues waiting to go in. It’s in the middle of the Medina and the interior is beautiful. It was buit in the 15th century, but after almost eighty years of neglect, the space was brought back to life. In fact, it was Tom Stuart-Smith, one of Britain’s most talented landscape designers who undertook the task of designing the gardens in an Arab-Andalusian style, inspired in how the Sultan may have lived during times of rest.
Place des Ferblantiers: This square, the name of which means ‘tin’ in French, is to the south of the Medina,at the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter of the city, next to the Bahia Palace, the El Badi Palace and the Kasbah mosque. It is full of market stalls and a stop here is a must.
The Bahia Palace: It is one of the most important works of architecture in Marrakesh. It was built at the end of the 20th century with the aim of being the most stunning palace of all time. The Grand Courtyard is spectacular.
Dar El Bach Museum: An exhibition space devoted to Islamic art where the exhibits include desks, tablets and different objects related to Islamic knowledge and science; it also includes the universal collection by Patty Cadby Birch, that represents the four continents as well as a space dedicated to temporary exhibitions. It has a very pretty café-restaurant and a specialty coffee shop. We recommend you go because it really is worth it.
Jardin Majorelle: These botanical gardens were designed in 1924 by the artist and French expat, Jacques Majorelle, during the colonial period in which Morocco was governed by France. Initially, the gardens were a source of inspiration for the painter but, in 1947 they were opened to the general public. And since 1980, they are owned by Yves Saint Laurent. They tend to be full of tourists and we could say it is one of the most mainstream stops that needs to be made. The best time for visiting is early in the morning.
Musée Yves Saint Laurent: It is a museum dedicated to the designer Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakesh, as well as to Jacques Majorelle and Moroccan art. The fact is that the French designer felt a deep attraction for this city, to the point that he lived there, sought inspiration in every corner and became involved in the protection of its heritage. The building was designed by the team of architects and designers at Studio KO, who opted for a simple integration of large cubic and curved volumes built from local materials: clay bricks, terracotta, terrazzo, marble and cement.
Galerie 127: This gallery opened its doors in 2006 to exhibit contemporary photography in Morocco. It is in an apartment in the Gueliz district, very close to the Grand Café de la Poste.
Comptoir des Mines Galerie: This 1932 building that was once the home of a mining corporation, now accommodates a contemporary art gallery that is the latest project of Hicham Daoudi, the founder of the Marrakesh Art Fair. It was refurbished but kept the splendour of its original art déco aesthetic, and the truth is it is very beautiful. Its main staircase, the terrazzo floors, the light fittings, the furniture… It is currently used to organise rotating art exhibitions on its three floors, that show renowned and emerging artists from Morocco and the rest of Africa.
Cinemascopes Colisée: The legendary movie theatre designed by the architect Georges Peynet, who also designed Parisian cinemas such as Le Max Linder, Le Vendôme-Opéra and Le Paramount-Elysées, where films and documentaries from all over the world are shown.
Where to eat?
La Famille: It is in the Medina and is a true oasis in which to enjoy vegetarian food under its lemon trees.
Atay Café: Really delicious food and excellent service, as well as incredible views. It’s right in the middle of the Medina.
Rooftop Dardar Restaurant Médina: A restaurant with beautiful views of the Medina and the Atlas Mountains from its rooftop. Good service and Moroccan food with an international touch. Highly recommendable at sunset.
Nomad: A classic in Marrakesh. This “modern Moroccan” restaurant has a menu with recipes that stand out as they revisit traditional and international cuisine, but with a Moroccan touch, and elaborated with local seasonal ingredients. It has incredible views of the vibrant and colourful Spice Market or Place Des Épices.
Café Des Épices: It’s a really beautiful place, located in the building opposite the Nomad, with which it shares the views overlooking the Place Des Épices. We didn’t eat there but we had a drink and loved the atmosphere and the place.
Café Clock: We loved this café-bar-restaurant. Its name relates to the centenarian water clock that takes up the front wall of the Bou Inania Madrasa. Since its creation in 2006, it has become a cultural centre of the old city. It serves simple yet delicious food and has many vegetarian options. They also hold lots of exhibitions and concerts and there is a very interesting eclectic atmosphere.
Thirty5ive Marrakech: Our favourite café next to Atay Café. This one is in Gueliz and we loved both its aesthetic as well as its sweet pastries.
Le Kilim: Also located in Gueliz, this restaurant offers modern cuisine dishes but with a strong connection to the roots of Marrakesh. Its magnificent décor was created by Anne Emmanuelle Favier, it stands out for its red furnishings and its extraordinary lamps in copper and woven straw.
Grand Café de la Poste: This restaurant is an institution in itself in Marrakesh. It’s located in Gueliz and it stands out for its colonial décor and its French cuisine. It was built under the protectorate in the 1920s and was converted into a café and a post office. In 2005, after being closed for many years, it was renovated to return it to its original glamour and brilliance.
Al Fassia: It is managed by a cooperative of women and is considered one of the best restaurants in Marrakesh. Its specialty is shoulder of lamb. Its décor is somewhat kitsch, and the atmosphere is really inviting.
Plus61: A Nordic design restaurant located in the Gueliz district where they serve excellent Moroccan food but with a contemporary feel. Great atmosphere and service.
Sahbi Sahbi: Our favourite restaurant in Marrakesh, a tribute to friendship and to Moroccan women- it is in fact captained solely by women-. Its name means “soulmates” in Darija and its cuisine revolves around traditional Moroccan cooking. It is exceptional and everything is delicious. Additionally, the space itself is beautiful, created by Studio KO. The kitchen is open-plan and you can watch how they prepare the dishes as you wait, specially if you request to dine at the bar (highly recommendable). Their tagines and couscous are a dream.
The Fenn Hotel, Restaurant and Rooftop Bar: We didn’t eat there but we did enjoy their lovely rooftop terrace with views. It’s worth wandering through their shop, on the entrance floor, although it doesn’t suit everyone’s pocket.
Le Jardin Marrakech: When you enter through an unassuming door, you walk into a lush garden with tables and lights. An ideal spot for lunch, dinner or a drink and even to watch classic films occasionally shown in the open air. The design of the space takes us back to the 1960s and 1970s of Marrakesh, and the truth is they have managed to combine Moroccan and European elegance really well, something that is reflected in the options on their menu. Norya Ayron’s pop-up shop can also be found here.
Interesting shops and other spots
Morocco is full of shops where you can buy handmade objects and beautiful pieces. These are our favourites:
Les Nomades de Marrakech: This space is incredible as of course are the carpets they sell.
Soufiane Zarib: Moroccan carpets are also sold here, handwoven by the artisans from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco with natural wool and coloured with natural dyes.
Some Slowconcept: A shop specialised in lovely furniture and objects that are handmade by local artisans.
Moro Marrakech: Our favourite shop. This concept store has different areas where they sell clothes, designer pieces, jewels, accessories, as well as perfumes, candles and lotions by their own brand, The Moroccans. They also have a coffee-bar and sell healthy products such as honey and olive oil, among others.
Marrakshi Life: They create fashion collections based on the typical elements of the traditional Moroccan wardrobe that are elaborated by an internal team of Moroccan artisans. They use ancient techniques to create authentic clothes with an urban cutting-edge slant. It is in the district of Sidighanem, that is quite far away from the Medina and the heart of Marrakesh, but it is worth visiting for a special shop.
LRNCE Studio: This lifestyle brand based in Marrakesh focuses on interior décor and textile and ceramic accessories. Everything is carefully crafted by hand and we are mad about it! The truth is we are huge fans of everything that Laurence Leenaert does. And his studio is incredible. It’s in a building that has an industrial aesthetic that takes us straight back to the Poblenou district in Barcelona.
If what you are looking for is a hammam in which to relax and have a treatment or a massage, these are some that we recommend: Hammam de la Rose and Les Bains Du Lotus. And if you want to practise yoga in a beautiful spot outside the Medina, Bloom House is a great option.
Some words of advice:
– Always pay taxis in cash (in their local currency) and agree on the price upfront (you’ll have to haggle). Some won’t leave you at the exact destination you requested, but close by. That’s why it’s good to travel with Googlemaps to hand to be able to control this.
– Book ahead at the places you want to eat. It isn’t a problem off-season, but Marrakesh welcomes a great deal of tourists almost every month, and it’s preferable to secure your reservation, because the best restaurants tend to be full.
– We didn’t eat at the street food stands because we have a delicate stomach and we didn’t want any surprises but if you’re up for it, at the Jemaa el-Fna square there are many stands to choose from.
– Regarding access to museums, palaces or any other monument, again it is preferable to buy your ticket online. You’ll avoid queues and will be better able to manage your time.
– Carry suntan lotion with you at all times because although it doesn’t seem like it sometimes… the sun is always up to mischief.
– And if, like us, you are cat lovers, you will be astounded here because there are so many… Some are scraggy but you will see that many locals and traders feed them or take care of them.
Of course, if you have more days, it’s worth visiting the desert and other very beautiful cities. Morocco is full of charm and is one of those strongholds that is well connected to Spain and other European cities and that allows you to connect with a destination that has soul, where you can still see and feel the authenticity and the peculiarity of the place.
(*) Photos: Ely Sánchez & Cecilia Camacho.