At the beginning of January, when I would usually be heading back into an office to start the year, we escaped for eight days to Morocco, banishing the winter blues with stays in vibrant Marrakech and the more chilled-out seaside town of Essaouira. I’ll be sharing my tips for the latter shortly, but here I’ve put together a cultural travel guide to Marrakech, taking in contemporary galleries and cultural institutions, grand old palaces and ruined residences, cool cafes and rooftop restaurants. Everything you need for a relatively calm, few days in the city, taking in the sites but avoiding the crowds here and there with quiet corners and hidden gems.
We initially decided we wanted to go to Morocco because we were in need of some vitamin D but didn’t want to jet around the world to find it. No time difference or jet lag was also a plus. Marrakech offered a varied itinerary with a slightly slower pace to other city breaks we’ve done before. We could dip our heads into the souks then escape back to our riad and chill with a book, we could get our cultural fix at a gallery or museum, then rest a while at a cafe.
There was so many inspiring, colourful sights to see, from tiled courtyards to handmade rugs hanging in the souks. (So many rugs, I wish I had bought an empty suitcase!) Here I’ve divided my tips up into things to do and places to eat and drink. While some might have been drawn to the vivid shades of the spectrum, I was taken by the faded ochre hue of the city, from the ramshackle rooftops to the crumbling plaster walls. Sometimes you need to get away out of the ordinary to come back inspired with new ideas and perspectives. We thought this would be a trip for our stomachs, with fragrant food and spices, but Marrakech turned out to be a feast for the eyes.
Scroll down for my tips, and download and print off the guide below:
Things to do
The souks in the heart of the Medina are a rabbit warren of cool, shady alleyways, ramshackle kiosks and stall-holders selling their wares. It’s easy to get lost but that’s all part of the fun! We did find that after a day or two we would keep going round in circles and see the same places, so you do soon find your bearings. Haggle to your heart’s content for a Berber rug, pick up a straw basket or two, then stop off for a mint tea to cool down at one of the many cafes.
Musée Yves Saint Laurent
This was one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Marrakech – to visit the newly opened museum dedicated to legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. Designed by French architecture firm Studio KO, the Musée Yves Saint Laurent sits a stone’s throw from the verdant greenery of Jardin Majorelle (bought by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in 1980), making them the perfect duo for a cultural day out.
Wrapped in lace-like veil of bricks that recalls the weft and warp of fabric, the museum is entered through a circular courtyard. Inside, there’s a permanent exhibition space, which plunges you into black darkness to highlight and cast light on a series of haute couture garments. There’s also a temporary exhibition space, an auditorium, book shop and a stylish, sun-soaked terrace cafe called Le Studio that’s well worth a stop.
museeyslmarrakech.com. Rue Yves St Laurent, Marrakech 40000, Closed Wednesdays
Next door to Musée Yves Saint Laurent is this tranquil haven of greenery and bold colour. The gardens and the rich, cobalt blue artist’s studio were created over a period of 40 years by French painter Jacques Majorelle as a real passion project. Wander around the grounds and admire hundreds of plants varieties and rare cacti brought over and cultivated by Majorelle from across the world, before taking another pit stop in the charming cafe to cool down. It’s a soothing respite from the hubbub of the Medina and the buzz of traffic nearby.
jardinmajorelle.com. Rue Yves St Laurent, Marrakech 40000, open daily 8am-5.30pm
Maison de la Photographie
This was one of my favourite stops on the trip – a little gem in the heart of the Medina to while away a morning or an afternoon. Housed in an old riad, it displays a selection of original, mainly black and white, photographs of Marrakech from the 1870s to the 1950s. It provides a fascinating insight into daily life in the Medina, and the play of light and shadow, captured by anonymous travellers and famous photographers alike. Don’t forget to go up to the terrace for a pot of mint tea and a great view.
maisondelaphotographie.ma. Rue Ahl Fes, Medina, Marrakech, 46 Rue Bin Lafnadek, Marrakesh 400030, open daily 9.30am-7pm
Le Jardin Secret
This was another hidden beauty, which you would never have guessed was there from outside its walls in the Medina – a real oasis of peace. Dating back to the Saadian Dynasty, more than 400 years ago, Le Jardin Secret is a grand, palatial complex that has recently been restored to its former glory. And it’s been so beautifully done.
Wander through the Islamic garden, designed to celebrate the precious resource of water, and follow its channels, find a quiet bench and stop a while, then climb up the tower to get a view over the Medina to the Atlas Mountains. The gentle sounds of babbling water puts you instantly into a state of calm and you’ll be hard pressed not to want to spend all day there.
lejardinsecretmarrakech.com. 121 Rue Mouassine, Marrakesh 40000, open daily 9.30am-5.30pm
El Badi Palace
Throughout the Medina we would often come across these vast architectural sites, like Le Jardin Secret, that were hidden away and barely visible from the narrow alleyways surrounding them. El Badi Palace was one of the most awe inspiring – a huge ruined complex inspired by the Alhambra and dating back to the 16th century. Today all that’s left is the form of the old gardens, planted with orange trees, and bordered by pot-marked walls and the remnants of an old prison. The light when we visited was magical.
palais-el-badi.com. Ksibat Nhass, Marrakesh 40000, open daily 9am-5pm
Just next to El Badi Palace is Bahia Palace, a 19th century complex of courtyards and gardens that has been remarkably preserved. The palace comprises a series of rooms and outdoor spaces that just seem to go on and on, delighting with every turn. The level of detailing in the carving and paintwork was astonishing, and there was plenty of beautiful mosaics to stop and admire. Certainly one visit not to be missed.
palais-bahia.com. Avenue Imam El Ghazali, Marrakech 40000, open daily 9am-5pm
Places to eat and drink
There’s a couple of restaurants and cafes that everyone frequents when they go to Marrakech, in fact three of them are owned by the same company – they hit the mark because they’re all beautifully designed, fusing Moroccan tradition with contemporary taste. One of my favourites was Le Jardin – a super chilled green oasis in the Medina conceived by Kamal Laftimi and designed by interior architect Anne Favier. Spread across a beautifully renovated 16th Century building, you’ll find comfy, quiet corners and sunny terraces to take a drink or stop for lunch or dinner. Don’t forget to try out its sister restaurant Nomad too but be sure to book ahead, it gets busy.
lejardinmarrakech.com. 32 Souk Jeld Sidi Abdelaziz, Marrakesh 40000, open daily 11am-11pm.
This is such a sweet little place, one where every detail is carefully thought out, with fresh flowers everywhere. Stepping through an inconspicuous door from the Medina, it was like stepping into a pretty Pinterest image. We arrived on a rather rain lunchtime, but otherwise the terrace is perfect for an al fresco lunch. Sheltered from the rain, we set at a communal wooden table and sampled butternut squash ravioli and cous cous ‘reimagined’ from their refreshing, healthy vegetarian menu. The vibrant, zesty dishes, served from a beautiful open-air kitchen, made a welcome change from rich, heavy tagines elsewhere. There’s also a small shop selling recipes from the kitchen and cute little knick-knacks, which were different to everything else we had seen in the souks.
La Famille, 34 Derb Jdid, Marrakech 40040, closed on Mondays.
La Terrasse des Epices
Spread across a terrace and also designed, like Le Jardin, by Anne Favier, this uber-cool restaurant is a lovely place to enjoy a Moroccan dinner under the fairy lights and Marrakech sky. One of the only places we found in the Medina that serves alcohol.
terrassedesepices.com. Sidi Abdel Aziz، 15 souk cherifia، Marrakesh 40000, open daily 11am-12am
Cafe des Epices
Not to be confused with La Terrasse des Epices, above, although we did see one couple make that mistake when they were meant to be meeting friends at the opposite one to the one they were at! Looking over a bustling market square, this is more of a cafe offering, perfect for a coffee, light bite and spot of people watching.
cafedesepices.net. 75 Derb Rahba Lakdima, Marrakesh Medina 40000, open daily 9am-11pm
And last but not least, the best of them all, laid-back boutique hotel El Fenn. Opened in 2004 by Vanessa Branson (Richard Branson’s sister) and Howell James, the 28-room hotel is spread across a restored riad, taking in tree-filled courtyards and cosy nooks. The eclectic, bohemian interiors combine retro furniture sourced from local flea markets with one-off bespoke pieces.
While it was out of our price range to stay, the rooftop terrace is well worth a visit for a drink and a view over the Medina to the Atlas Mountains as the sun sets. Relax and recline on one of their day beds or enjoy a cocktail in the bar looking over the pool. Serious cool points.
el-fenn.com. Derb Moulay Abdullah Ben Hezzian, 2, Marrakesh 40000
And that’s it – four nights in magical Marrakech, taking in all the cultural highlights and foodie hot-spots in the Medina. I hope you find it useful if you’re planning a trip there yourself – for us it was the perfect city for a winter escape. There was sunshine, blue skies, unique finds around every corner and a healthy balance between bustle and calm, and all just a 3-4 hour flight away. But I would love to know, have you been? Would you add anything to this list?
all images Cate St Hill