20 Reasons to Visit Marrakesh
For most travelers, Marrakesh conjures images of riding horseback through the Ourika Valley, passing emerald hills and lonely villages high in the Atlas Mountains. But while there’s plenty to see beyond your well-appointed riad, most guides would admit that part of the fun is discovering a culture much like our own. Sure, there are obvious differences — Americans aren’t as big on afternoon tea, for example — but the desire to nosh on great food with great company, preferably under the stars, is a universal one we can all get behind.
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Visiting Marrakesh also provides travelers a rare opportunity to see an ancient city embrace modernity. Here it isn’t uncommon to find 16th-century palaces adorned with Pop Art or sweaty nightclubs pumping out old Moroccan ballads. After hours of haggling in the medina or hobnobbing with the creative community, you’ll realize this mix of old and new is just what you needed — and more dynamic than you expected.
Here are 20 exciting reasons, with insight from experts, to visit Marrakesh.
The Secret Gardens
Le Jardin Secret, a gem of a palace rebuilt in the 19th century, really embodies the mystical beauty of Morocco, says Cherri Briggs, owner and president of Explore Inc. Its small linked gardens are completely enclosed, allowing guests a much-needed reprieve from the bustling medina. Sip tea from the cafe on the second-floor terrace while you take in the panoramic views of the historic city.
Villa Oasis & Jardin Majorelle
Fashionable travelers should visit Villa Oasis, the private residence of Yves Saint Laurent and his longtime partner Pierre Bergé, says Briggs. Formerly owned by French painter Jacques Majorelle, the bold-colored garden was lovingly restored by the couple, who later added a museum dedicated to the rich culture of the Berber people of North Africa.
Tucked in the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, about a 40-minute drive south of Marrakesh, is Viennese artist André Heller’s ANIMA, says Briggs, a garden that will change the way you think of gardens. Views of the mountains are breathtaking, as are the African sculptures and Heller’s lush botanical staging.
Yves Saint Laurent Museum
Bergé personally tapped Paris-based Studio KO to design this imposing 43,000-square-foot museum devoted to the work of Yves Saint Laurent, says Briggs. With its dazzling brickwork and terrazzo facade, the low-slung museum echoes Laurent’s aesthetic — utterly timeless yet still of the moment. Be sure to stop in the theater lobby to admire YSL’s movie- and stage-inspired sketches, drawings and photographs of costumes.
Another reason to visit Marrakesh in winter? “The weather always seems to be beautiful,” says Malaka Hilton, a travel consultant with Admiral Travel. Though November is considered the wettest month with heavy rain, Moroccan winters are generally mild, making visits a cinch for most travelers.
For those with the means, Sir Richard Branson's amazing eco-resort in the Atlas Mountains, about 45 minutes south of Marrakesh, is a must, says Hilton. The luxurious compound feels like an oasis, with its airy lounge, stylish roof terrace, spa, tennis courts and gym. Left your sneakers at home? The helpful staff can provide you a pair.
For traditional Moroccan fare, this stately restaurant in the modern Gueliz district is not to be missed, says Briggs. Run by the Chab family for 25 years, Al Fassia, which translates to “the woman from Fez,” is one of the few spaces where guests can order à la carte; it’s also open for lunch and accepts reservations.
Just behind Hotel Marrakesh in Gueliz is Katsura, which is renowned for serving up some of the best Thai food around, says Briggs. If you can put up with occasionally slow service, you’ll be richly rewarded with the city’s freshest salmon and a heaping plate of scrumptious pad thai.
We know, you didn’t come all the way to Marrakesh to eat Italian. But sometimes you just want something different. And when you do, says Briggs, this candlelit Art Deco-style restaurant run by two brothers in the center of Gueliz will be your best bet.
Fans of traditional Moroccan cuisine will love this romantic restaurant near the medina with a rooftop patio and rose petals strewn across the tables, says Briggs. The generous portions may require you to eat slower than usual, but who wants to rush through a shin of beef?
La Maison Arabe
This sumptuous 26-room boutique hotel, about a 15-minute walk from the Jemaa el-Fnaa medina, puts hospitality first, says Briggs. In the morning, they serve up continental breakfast in the room or at the buffet and offer amenities like air conditioning, heating, a balcony and fireplace. Be sure to check their low-season rates for a deal.
Bo & Zin
The young and the fabulous flock to this buzzy French nightspot, on the Route de L’Ourika, says Briggs. The elegant pergola offers just the right balance of indoors and outdoors, while the romantically lit garden, with bamboos and palms, encourages guests to enjoy the night air.
Comptoir Darna Marrakesh
From the darkly dramatic decor to the Flamenco fusion dancers, everything at Comptoir, in the trendy Hivernage neighborhood, demands your attention, says Briggs. Catch a ballet performance every night at 10 p.m. or come earlier to see the Comptoir Orchestra play famous Moroccan ballads on the stairs. Every Friday and Saturday night after midnight, the place explodes into a pulsating nightclub.
Located in Gueliz, this sibling of the medina’s Porte d’Or specializes in Moroccan and Asian antiques, says Briggs. Ideal for those who prefer to browse before splurging, the front store notably carries wood but has jewelry, lamps, manuscripts and more to discover.
Galerie Le Pacha
You won’t find much online about Haj Abderrazak’s prestigious gallery in the city center, but it’s worth looking up how to get there, says Briggs, especially if you’re in the market for a new rug. Abderrazak collects thousands, which he displays alongside jumbles of old beaded jewelry, ceramic jars and oversized lanterns.
Palais de la Ménara
From traditional handmade carpets to contemporary art and glass jewelry, this shop offers a real taste of the souk experience, says Briggs. You’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer number of objects store owner Hicham managed to fit on his property, but just focus on looking out for an enamel tea set instead.
What’s a trip to Morocco without an outdoor adventure? Briggs advises booking an excursion with this popular tour operator, whose informative guides are known for their passion as much as their knowledge of “the real Morocco.” Book an excursion to the Ourika Valley for jaw-dropping views of the Atlas Mountains.
Run by self-taught photographer and activist Laila Hida, this cultural foundation in the old medina hosts shows and events citywide. Check their schedule for an opening or, better yet, make an appointment to get an inside look at what’s happening in the contemporary arts scene.
El Badi Palace
History buffs will be smitten with this ancient royal palace, which bears a slight resemblance to the intricate brick facade of the new Yves Saint Laurent museum. We recommend strolling the grounds at night when they’re lit by candles.
Chrob ou Chouf Fountain
Public water fountains are a dime a dozen in the medina, but the Chob ou Chouf (“Drink and Look”) is something more special. Yes, people still use it, but the artistry from its former life is evident, thanks to its wooden crown carved from cedar wood. Built during the reign of Sauudian sultan Ahmed el Mansour, the enchanted fountain was recognized as as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.