Marrakech is an urban maze ideally seen in short bursts — a dash into Jemaa el-Fna to dice with the street food stalls; a walk to the elegantly landscaped Jardin Majorelle, which used to be owned by Yves Saint Laurent; a hop south west to admire the 12th-century Moorish majesty of the Koutoubia Mosque; a saunter through Medina alleys to inspect the excellent Maison de la Photographie — before you return to the respite of your selected hideaway.
Happily, Marrakech’s unfocused layout means it’s awash with such oases — riads lost down lanes that appear to be dead ends, concealing their charms behind featureless front doors. Alternatively, you can slumber in the palatial properties beyond the old walls, particularly south of the centre. The effect is the same: a higgledy-piggledy zone of heat and noise that also knows how to be cool and silent.
For small packages: Dar Attajmil (£)
Big isn’t necessarily better — as proved by this tiny riad at the very heart of the matter, immediately north of Jemaa el-Fna. Riad Dar Attajmil comprises just four en suite rooms within a single Medina townhouse — a sufficiently intimate affair that can be hired for a group booking (when it will sleep up to 10 people, at a pinch). It amplifies its homely atmosphere by inviting guests to help prepare meals via cooking classes, during which they venture out into the souks of the adjacent Bab Doukkala district on a search for ingredients — before returning to the kitchen for expert tuition with the riad chef.
Rooms: Doubles from €90 (£75), B&B.
For on-high relaxation: El Fenn (££)
Many Marrakech riads boast a roof terrace — for a bird’s-eye view of the call-and-response below and a chance to doze on a shaded lounger. This 28-room oasis elevates these activities to an art form; its upper deck has a pool, cushions and awnings for afternoons of indolence, before the restaurant and cocktail bar kick in. El Fenn, which also has sculptures and photos lining its corridors, achieves a perfection at dusk when the Koutoubia Mosque’s call to prayer sweeps across it.
Rooms: Doubles from €200 (£167), B&B.
For tee parties: Royal Palm Marrakech (££)
Ten miles south west of the centre, the Royal Palm pushes itself as a six-star enclave of rare luxury. It supports this claim with 134 suites and villas stuffed with giant bathrooms and walk-in wardrobes, but plays its ace with its golf course: 185 acres and 18 holes of fulsome fairways, manicured greens, shimmering water hazards and fluffy sand traps, with the Atlas Mountains as a magnificent backdrop. It all adds up to a significant challenge — but rounds both bad and good can be dissected afterwards at the 19th hole, the Al Ain Restaurant, where Moroccan dishes are served.
Rooms: Doubles from €249 (£208), B&B.
For the perfect escape: Riad Farnatchi (££)
It’s always good to have a refuge in a city of sound and sweat. This riad is surely that. Indeed, its door — anonymous on the narrow Medina passage of Derb el Farnatchi — is almost invisible. But step inside and you find a tranquil labour of love — a family business that’s grown to encompass several buildings under owner James Wix. Two courtyards, serenaded by fountains and the sway of citrus trees, are flanked by a mere 10 suites, filled with antique furniture and a near tangible sense of calm. The basement, meanwhile, has a tiny hamman, where you can be exfoliated from D400 (£30).
Rooms: Suites from D3100 (£233), B&B, with transfers.
For alternative location: La Sultana (££)
For the thrill of the souks minus the sleeve-tug hassle, head to the Kasbah district, south of the Medina. Here, the city still swirls around cluttered shops and merchants shouts, but the locals go about their business oblivious to visitors. Part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World portfolio, La Sultana slots into this as a warren of five riads and 28 rooms, snoozing under palm trees and vaulted ceilings. It also sits alongside the El Mansour Mosque, an ornately tiled, 12th-century gem.
Rooms: Doubles from D3499 (£270), room only.
For classic glamour: La Mamounia (£££)
Marrakech often resembles a city trapped in the past, but the gilded institution that is La Mamounia puts aside the Arabian Nights ambience for a more specific take on yesteryear, the Roaring Twenties. It was in this decade (in 1923) that this grand dame, on the western fringes of the Medina, was founded. It clings to it most noticeably with Bar Churchill, which salutes the hotel’s most iconic former guest with deep-buttoned red-leather armchairs, wood panels and murmuring pianos. Those staying in 2016 can complete the tribute by ordering a Sir Winston Churchill cocktail — a giddy union of Tanqueray gin and Champagne costing D320 (£24).
Rooms: Doubles from D4179 (£315), room only.
For romance: Mandarin Oriental Marrakech (£££)
Close enough to the Medina (three miles south east), but enough of a step away that the roar of the crowd fades, the Mandarin Oriental is perfect for couples. Its 63 suites and villas are their own self-contained worlds, each with a pool for mornings of lazy splashing. Those who venture outside, though, will find much to love in a spa of cavernous scale — and in main restaurant Mes’Lalla, where chef Meryem Cherkaoui whips up a menu of modern Moroccan cuisine.
Rooms: Suites from €650 (£544), B&B.
For bargain hunters: Riad Tizwa (£)
Marrakech has no shortage of high-end accommodation. But expense can definitely be spared at Riad Tizwa, northwest of the Medina, close to Bab Doukkala. It offers six rooms (five en suite) across three floors. A British-owned spin-off from a similar property in Fez, it provides all the necessary elements of a weekend in the city — a roof terrace overlooking the chaos; mountainous breakfasts of pastries and yoghurt — without charging a premium for them.
Rooms: Doubles from £60, B&B.
For water babies: Selman Marrakech (££)
Huddled six miles south west of the centre, this relative newcomer (it opened in 2012) underscores its five-star credentials with a fabulously expansive hammam, Persian carpets underfoot (and on the walls), a library and a trio of restaurants (Moroccan, Mediterranean and fusion). But its (literal) centrepiece is a vast, palm-flanked pool that all 60 rooms and suites gaze down onto, tempting guests out to wallow in its magnificence.
Rooms: Doubles from D4000 (£301), room only.
For wow-factor: Royal Mansour
Centrally located a short stroll from the Medina, yet clear of the hubbub, the Royal Mansour displays typical five-star flair — 53 exquisite rooms and suites, and three restaurants under the tutelage of Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alléno. But best of all are its looks. Opened in 2010, it seems centuries older; a stately pile fit for a sultan, with gleaming marble. Its reception courtyard alone is a spectacle — a fountain sparkling within.
Rooms: ‘Riads’ from D10,099 (£761), B&B.
Published in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)