72 Hours in Marrakech
On the edge of the Sahara, the Red City is unlike any other destination in the world, from the winding alleyways of the Medina to the majestic purple peaks of the Atlas mountains. Krystin Arneson takes us on a tour.
Once you arrive in the Red City, check into the 18th-century Riad Kniza, a gem of a place with Moorish architecture, gorgeous central courtyards, and rooms decorated with rich fabrics and local antiquities. Walk to the covered souks at the edge of Jemaa el-Fna Square, the heart of the medina. The vast, intricate covered neighborhood of cubicle-size stalls is dense and crowded, but don’t be afraid to get lost ⎯ one of Marrakech’s greatest joys is following its twists and turns, and you can always get a local to help you figure out the landscape for a small fee. Here, spices and fruit perfume the air, figs and nuts abound for midday snacking, and smooth leather, intricately woven textiles and beautiful hammered metal pieces are ready for you to bring home.
Take a break from time to time to have a cup of mint tea; a good pour of “Moroccan whiskey,” as it’s known in this non-drinking nation, will have lots of bubbles. Then watch the daily lives of locals play out from your seat. If you still have energy after a couple of hours of browsing, head over to the carpet souk (souk de tapis) to see exquisite Berber carpets. A bargaining tip: Begin by cutting the quoted price in half, then move up slowly from there. A short walk away is the lively spice souk (a serious Instagram op) and the Mellah, the historical Jewish quarter of the city.
It’s a 15-minute trek back to Jemaa el-Fna Square, where tables and grills take over around dusk. Over the sound of drums, waiters will try to lure you to a table, and with a multitude of choices, there’s no real strategy. Make a circuit or three and then judge by your nose, as the smell of grilled meat drifts into the air (stall 32, however, is known to be a favorite). Order a safe bet (lemon-chicken tagine is the Morroccan equivalent of Italy’s tourist-friendly Bolognese). If it’s cold out, have a nightcap at one of the cinnamon and ginseng tea stands that line the square in the evenings. And as you dine and sip, watch the dancers and snake charmers perform under the starry North African sky.
After a night behind the walls of the riad, head back to Jemaa el-Fna, which has undergone a scene change: Dozens of carts selling juice take the places of last night’s tables. Hydrate yourself for a day in the sun with a fresh glass of blood orange juice for less than 50 cents (prices vary from stall to stall). Today is for relaxing, so head to Hammam de la Rose, Morocco’s answer to a Turkish bath, which is traditionally segregated by gender (women in the mornings, men in the afternoons, or vice-versa). This newer, Western-style establishment allows both genders to have treatments together. For a true indulgence, go for the Ceremony of the Rose: a complete hammam experience for a fraction of the cost of a spa back home, complete with a steam, body scrub on heated tiles, rose masque, massage and mint tea in rooms lined with linen sofas. You’ll walk out of there in a blissful stupor. Afterward, make your way to the equally blissful La Table du Palais, where the tiled walls and softly trickling fountain are the perfect complements to the standout food (the kofta skewers are a must-try).
Find a Grand Taxi stand, or enjoy the 25-minute stroll, and venture outside the city walls to Majorelle Garden, a 12-acre retreat built by French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and ’30s and later owned by Yves Saint Laurent. The on-site Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech showcases regional textiles from Saint Laurent’s collection and Majorelle’s work; after a tour take a stroll through the eye-catching garden, with its bold cobalt walls, a shade adored by Majorelle. If it gets too hot, the garden’s Café Bousafsaf is the perfect spot to catch some shade. Just west of the Old City, you can sign up for an afternoon cooking class at Amal, which helps struggling Moroccan women get back on their feet by teaching travelers how to whip up tagines as well as other classic dishes. Along with honing your kitchen skills, you’ll learn all about the history and culture of Morocco ⎯ and if you’d rather eat than cook, Amal’s restaurant is fantastic. You can grab a post-class cocktail at one of the nearby restaurants and bars—they’re scarce inside the city walls—before stopping for dessert at Softy Sweet, a modern café that serves tasty natural yogurt topped with fresh fruit, as well as chocolate milkshakes (how could anyone say no to that?).
Rent a horse and carriage in Jemaa el-Fna Square, after your glass of orange juice, of course, for a trip outside the walls. As you pass along the perimeter, you’ll see eye-catching soccer street art, courtesy of local street art gang Ultra Crazy Boys, whose tag is a snarling fan. Nearby is one of the city’s most over-the-top hotels, La Mamounia, which serves a decadent Sunday brunch.
A 10-minute walk will take you to the Koutoubia, Marrakech’s most significant mosque. As with all mosques, non-Muslims can’t go inside, but it’s worth going to see the curved windows, ceramic inlay and decorative arches. If you’ve worked up an appetite, sign up for the Marrakech Food Tour, run by blogger MarocMama, an American woman who lives in Marrakech with her Moroccan husband and two kids, and who takes visitors through the city’s best cafés and restaurants as only a local can do. It’s a good last-day highlight reel to showcase the best of the city’s foods ⎯ and, since you’ve already learned some techniques at Amal, it will yield plenty of inspiration for at-home experimentation. For those looking for more culture, head to the Museum for Photography and Visual Arts, located until next year in the El Badi Palace. A contemporary art scene has taken root in the city, and this museum showcases stellar revolving exhibitions by local artists. Or check out the Maison de la Photographie, which is situated in the home of owner Patrick Manac’h, who hosts an archive of photography that captures Moroccan life during the 19th century.
End the day with a stroll to Zwin Zwin Café, a restaurant southeast of Jemaa el-Fna where you can take in the sunset against the Atlas peaks, cocktail in hand, from the breezy rooftop terrace.
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