Nestled in the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains between the waters of the Atlantic and the sands of the Sahara, Marrakech may not be Morocco’s official capital city, yet it’s unquestionably the country’s finest offering, its ‘Jewel of the South’ and a fabulous destination for a city break with a difference. The third largest city after Casablanca and Rabat (its actual capital) and said to be Morocco’s most African, Marrakech has long enjoyed its status as a main centre of trade for the tribesmen who relentlessly travelled the ancient caravan routes to and from Timbuktu, providing the country’s commercial and cultural pulse for centuries.
So named after the distinctive ochre hues of Marrakech’s historic ramparts which surround the old medina, the Red City is a magical melting pot of sights, sounds and smells, a veritable feast for all the senses as you explore its labyrinthine warren of winding streets that connect the souks. Here you’ll find a wealth of wares, from carpets and kaftans to spices and slippers, stacked high to tempt tourists to test their negotiating strength against the seasoned market vendors.
At the centre of it all is Place Djemma el Fna, a heady, smoke-infused mix of open-air food stalls, dancers, drummers, monkey tamers, snake charmers and tumbling acrobats, all set against the strains of traditional Berber music, car horns, shouted conversations and fevered bartering. Visit during the evening to experience Djemma el Fna at its most vibrant.
Right beside Djemma el Fna, you’ll find the distinctive Koutoubia Mosque, named after the booksellers market that used to be located here. Beautifully lit at night, the mosque’s soaring and elaborately decorated minaret, dating back to the 12th century, is said to be as important to Marrakech as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. You’ll hear the unforgettable sound of the call to prayer five times daily; remember however that non-Muslims are not allowed entry (although you can visit its gardens).
Another Marrakech must-see is La Bahia Palace, an ornate and opulent 19th-century palatial residence once home to Abu Ahmed and his harem of wives and concubines. For further architectural appreciation, try Dar Si Said, a palatial monument to Morocco’s master artisans now home to the Museum of Moroccan Arts, with its collection of craftsmanship through the ages including wood carvings, musical instruments and weapons. Also within the Medina you’ll find the Saadian Tombs, a stunning mausoleum enshrining the bodies of the Saadian rulers constructed of Italian marble, plasterwork and pure gold.
No visit to Marrakech would be complete without time spent at the magnificent Majorelle Gardens, gifted to the city by its former owner, Yves Saint Laurent. Created by the French landscape painter, Jacques Majorelle, the gardens provide an oasis of calm amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, with a kaleidoscopic array of exotic plants and foliage set against the electric blue walls of the villa, now serving as a museum for Saint Laurent’s collection of Moroccan decorative arts and Majorelle’s works of art. Alternatively, the Menara Gardens to the west of the city offer a pleasant mix of orchards and olive groves set around a huge ornamental lake.
If you fancy a change from the cultural offerings of the medina, Marrakech’s newer district, known as Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle, offers western influences aplenty with its branded boutiques and fast food chains. For the ultimate Marrakech short break experience however, we’d recommend keeping your feet firmly planted amidst the Medina’s myriad of treasures.