When the sun goes down over North Africa, the terracotta walls of ancient Marrakech turn a rich, red hue. At this time of night you can point your camera in any direction and you’re guaranteed a great shot.
Little wonder, then, that this photogenic city has been the inspiration for so much art, literature and music. Yet its appeal goes way beyond simple aesthetics; this vibrant metropolis is a melting pot of European, African and Arabic influences, which visitors can taste in the food, observe in the architecture and hear in the call to prayer, as it echoes evocatively down narrow, winding streets.
I first came to Marrakech only last year and have been lured back twice since. There is nowhere more exotic, more stimulating or culturally disparate within four hours of London, than mad Marrakech. In some ways the city feels like it belongs to another epoch, with its dusty souks, donkey carts and snake charmers, who ply their trade in Jemaa el Fna square. Yet Marrakech is a modern, forward-thinking metropolis with a burgeoning collection of world-class museums and galleries.
“Marrakech has always been a city that people have gone to for artistic inspiration, but it hasn’t been an incubator for homegrown talent,” says Vanessa Branson, founder of the Marrakech Biennale arts festival. “However, I think that’s changing now — there are some really interesting things happening in the city.”
Since she started Marrakech Biennale in 2004, Vanessa — Richard Branson’s sister — has witnessed a raft of galleries and museums opening in the city. There are more planned too, such as MMP+, which will be Africa’s largest photography museum when it opens in 2016.
“Wherever artists go, other interesting things evolve around them — you tend to find compelling cooks coming in and the quality of the architecture improves,” she says. “It sort of raises the game on everything and I can feel that’s beginning to happen in Marrakech.”
Yet the city’s enduring mass appeal lies largely in the things that don’t change; the bustling night market at Jemaa el Fna, the decorative riads and tangy tagines; the cheeky hawkers in shady souks and, of course, the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, which provide an exquisite backdrop to this most enchanting of cities.
What to see
MMP+: When the Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts opens in 2016 it’ll be Africa’s largest photography museum. Until then, visitors can get a taste of what’s to come at the temporary MMP+ gallery in Palais El Badi, with exhibitions and information about the new museum. mmpva.org
Ali Ben Youssef Medersa: A triumph of Islamic architecture, this former college is one of Morocco’s most spectacular buildings. Embellished with intricate stuccos, ornamental tiling and wood carvings, you don’t have to be an architecture buff to be blown away by this place.
Saadian Tombs: This stunning mausoleum complex is home to what remains of 60 members of the Saadi dynasty, which ruled Morocco between 1554 and 1659. The tombs were rediscovered during a ground survey in 1917 and have since been returned to their former splendour.
Maison de la Photographie: This terrific little museum opened in 2009 and exhibits more than 8,000 original prints and postcards chronicling the lives of Moroccan communities between 1870 and 1950. The views from the rooftop cafe are pretty special too. maisondelaphotographie.ma
Musée de Marrakech: Housed in a beautifully restored riad in the centre of Marrakech, this gorgeous museum is home to ever-changing exhibitions, exploring everything from contemporary and historical art to ethnographic objects from across North Africa. museedemarrakech.ma
Jardin Majorelle: A verdant oasis on the outskirts of Marrakech, Jardin Majorelle was the brainchild of French painter Jacques Majorelle, who took up residency in Marrakech in the 1920s. Surrounded by high earthen walls, the botanical garden is home to exotic flora, soothing water features and the brilliant Berber Museum, which gives a fascinating insight into Berber culture. jardinmajorelle.com
Jemaa El Fna square: It’s hard to believe Marrakech’s bustling centrepiece — with its snake charmers, traditional storytellers and intoxicating night market — is just a four-hour flight from London. It feels so much further away. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by Jemaa El Fna, but travellers who embrace the craziness of it — by eating at the pop-up market, engaging (cautiously) with the snake charmers and haggling with hawkers — come away with the best anecdotes.
Like a Local
Forgive the cartographer: The narrow, winding streets of Marrakech are often depicted on maps as straight roads, which can be confusing for visitors. As a general rule, you’re heading straight on (no matter how windy the street) unless you actually turn off the road in question.
Trust your instincts: Mischievous locals will often approach tourists with claims they are ‘going the wrong way’ or that key attractions are closed. If this happens to you while you’re walking around Marrakech then ignore their scaremongering — it’s usually a ploy to lead you into a shop.
KIS Boutique & Terrace Cafe: This charming boutique sells garments produced by some of Morocco’s most promising young designers, plus more traditional items such as leather bags and jewellery. You can also find local literature and music here. kismarrakech.com
Mustapha Blaoui: Hidden behind an unmarked door, this secretive shop is stacked with traditional Moroccan furnishings; think lanterns, rugs and furniture. The prices are reasonable so don’t haggle too hard. 142-144 Bab Doukkala.
The souks: Once you’ve plucked up the courage to engage in some serious bartering, hit the city’s famous souks. They’re scattered all over Marrakech and sell largely the same items — leather goods, lanterns and ceramics.
Where to eat
£ No. 14: Every night, Jemaa el Fna is transformed into a bustling food court, where pop-up restaurants sell cheap local dishes of varying quality. No. 14 is best for fresh fish and homemade dips, although elbow room is at a premium.
££ Café Clock: This popular new cafe serves excellent European-Moroccan dishes such as camel burgers and tapas. A hub for travellers and locals alike, the ‘cross cultural cafe’ also has a bill of live music, storytelling and cookery classes. cafeclock.com
£££ Le Foundouk: This place serves classy Moroccan staples like couscous, tagine, pastilla and has a strong French influence. The rooftop terrace is one of the city’s most romantic settings. foundouk.com
Palais Jad Mahal: One of the most exclusive venues in Marrakech, Palais Jad Mahal offers live music every night in its laidback lounge bar. Meanwhile, the neighbouring nightclub attracts international DJs and hedonistic night owls. jad-mahal.com
Le Salama: Every hour is happy hour at Le Salama’s sultry sky bar — or so it seems. As well as deals on drinks, this dimly lit watering hole has belly dancing and Moroccan music. The views are great, too. lesalama.com
Lotus Club: A fashionable place to be seen in Marrakech, the lounge bar at the Lotus Club is a salubrious spot to sip cocktails, listen to live music and graze on delicious finger food. lotusclubmarrakech.com
Where to stay
£ Hotel Sindi Sud: Guests get more than they pay for at this little riad, located in the heart of Marrakech. The decor is charming and the rooms are comfortable, albeit a tad small. T: 00 212 52444 3337.
££ Dar Fakir: Offering affordable luxury in the heart of Marrakech, Dar Fakir has seven sumptuous rooms, charming staff and a verdant rooftop with excellent views of the Atlas Mountains. darfakir.co.uk
£££ La Mamounia: The most luxurious hotel in Marrakech, Winston Churchill insisted upon staying here when he visited the city. Its enduring appeal lies in the lavish rooms, excellent restaurants and beautifully tended gardens. mamounia.com
British Airways flies daily between Gatwick and Marrakech; Ryanair flies four times a week between Luton and Marrakech; and EasyJet flies daily between Gatwick and Marrakech, plus twice weekly between Stansted and Marrakech.
Average flight time: 4h.
Pack some good walking shoes because there’s only one way to get around Marrakech — and that’s on foot. Most streets are too narrow for cars, but taxis can be used if travelling to destinations away from the city centre. Request that cab drivers use the meter or, at the very least, agree on a price before you set off.
When to go
The heat can be intolerable in summer, with temperatures around 40C, so the best time to visit is spring and autumn when they drop to around 25C. Air fares and room rates spike significantly during the school holidays so try visiting during term time.
Need to know
Currency: Moroccan dirham (Dh). £1 = Dh13.8.
International dial code: 00 212.
Time difference: GMT.
Pocket Rough Guide to Marrakech. RRP: £5.49.
How to do it
Exodus offers an eight-day tour of Morocco, taking in Marrakech, the High Atlas Mountains and Essaouira from £799 per person, including flights, food, accommodation and guides.
Click here to visit the website and book this great travel deal or call, quoting the correct promo code. T: 020 7644 1738. Promo code: THPMorocco
Published in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)