Marrakesh can be dizzying, even for the most grounded among us. Crowds of tourists wind through cramped alleyways, dodging donkey-led carts and rattling motorbikes. Streets are often unmarked, and directions, even the good ones, can seem more like general suggestions. Tip: Get your bearings early and embark on a sightseeing tour. Your B&B host can recommend a knowledgeable guide to lead you through Jemaa el-Fnaa and the medina, the walled old city around which the rest of the city spread. Your guide can prime you on Morocco’s millennia-long history, from its Berber origins to its ascendancy as an early Muslim cultural capital to its tumultuous colonization by the French (before transforming into the tourist-friendly riot for the senses it is now).
Once you’re ready to strike out on your own, the first stop will likely be the souks of the medina, an endless labyrinth of shops and stalls. Prepare to haggle (it’s expected, after all) for the endless wares on offer, from textiles and teapots to pillows and plates. At the spice market, fragrant arrays of dried spices like saffron and cinnamon are heaped high in tins. Piled in shop corners are Berber carpets, the meticulously handmade and heart-stoppingly expensive rugs made with vibrant natural dyes. The largest, most intricate rugs can go for thousands of dollars (still a pittance compared to costs stateside). But if you’re budget-minded, the Bab el Kermis flea market may be more your style, with antique treasures hidden among the old tagines and rusty car parts.
When you’re suitably overwhelmed by the shopkeepers’ cries, find some respite at Marrakesh’s many other sites. The Ben-Youssef Madrasa, a restored 14th-century Islamic school, provides an excellent view into the religious and intellectual history of Marrakesh; its architecture is all soaring arches, carved marble, and geographic tile designs, arranged around a rectangular pool. Further afield, go for a walk among the blooms and blues of Jardin Majorelle. Artist Jacque Majorelle commissioned (and designer Yves St. Lauren rescued) the two-and-a-half-acre garden and its Moorish villa, painted an ultra-saturated midnight blue. Packed with exotic plants, flowers, cacti and palms, the Jardin is an oasis just minutes from the walled old city.
Other cultural stops worth making: the gardens and grounds of the opulent hotel La Mamounia; the well-curated Marrakesh Museum of Photography; and the Palais Bahia, a 19th-century palace of marble and cedar, surrounded by a cypress of jasmine.
There’s only one thing to do on your first morning in Marrakesh, while you’re shaking off jet lag apres-flight (or cramped muscles apres-tour). It’s time to hit the hammam.
A hammam is a bathhouse that locals visit (many of them weekly) to cleanse, relax, meet friends, and swap gossip. Most public hammams are particularly no-frills, and while Westerners are welcome, it’s definitely a DIY experience. Guests are expected to fill their own buckets and even provide their own soaps, and men and women bathe in separate spaces.
Private hammams, however, may offer travelers a little more familiarity. Heritage Spa, located just outside the medina, is well-known for its indulgent spa packages in sumptuous digs. Get steamed and scrubbed down with black soap enriched with argan oil and orange peel, then smothered from head to toe in an herbal mud mask. Experience a massage that leaves your skin soft and smelling of patchouli, then lounge on silk floor pillows, sipping cup after cup of Moroccan mint tea. Two hours of relaxation will cost you just 650 dirhams or about $70 USD.
Other hammams to check out: the dimly lit and romantic Les Bains des Marrakesh with its perfect splash pool; the family-friendly private suites of Isis Spa; and or the splurge-worthy elegance at La Maison Arabe’s on-site spa.
The custom of decorating the skin with intricate henna designs has been practiced since at least the Bronze Age, later continued by countless peoples from the Babylonians to the Sumerians. That practice continues in modern Morocco, where both Muslim holidays and Berber celebrations incorporate henna rituals (and where intrepid travelers can get a henna design of their own).
Buyer beware: Not all henna is created equal. Avoid the throngs of henna artists in Jemaa el-Fnaa, those pushy women who grab your hands and squirt dye all over them before you can say no. While you may find an artist among the masses, the cheap henna used here can be toxic, adulterated with skin-irritating chemicals, and the designs may be rushed.
Instead, check out the Henna Cafe. Part cafe, part gallery, part community center, the Henna Cafe employs local women as designers and leads free language and job-skills classes. Proceeds from the cafe go toward community education. Staffers use only safe organic red henna—truly a good-for-you experience! Grab a bite and more of that Moroccan mint tea while getting a tableside henna design.
The souks and sunsets and minarets are just one kind of feast; the spices of Moroccan cuisine are another. Amid all the other city smells, rising above the tanned leather and motorbike grease and incense, it’s the food that grabs you, tickling olfactory glands from all directions.
The good news: Most B&Bs include a full breakfast, typically plates of fresh citrus fruits, breads, pastries, and thick Moroccan yogurt. (Oh, and mint tea. Did we mention there’d be mint tea?) So while that’s one meal down, you’ll still have at least two to plan. Lucky you.
For lunch, head to the city’s many cafes and hole-in-the-wall food stands, depending on your dining style. One go-to mid-medina meal is roasted lamb served with pita, sprinkled with cumin and salt, and eaten while standing amid the meat smoke and bike exhaust of Mechoui Alley. Crepes are another popular snack, dished up in combinations both savory and sweet at cafes like the aptly named La Creperie. Or stop for a bite at the always-packed Café des Epices. Located in a clay-red building that overlooks the spice market, this three-story cafe offers light lunches, fresh juices, and free Wi-Fi (if you need to make a Facebook-posting pit stop). Another cafe favorite: Kechmara, a hideaway for hipsters and French expats in the trendy district of Gueliz, far from the medina’s crowds.
Onto dinner. Go way upmarket at one of Marrakesh’s many fine-dining restaurants, like the top-rated Nomad (think modern translations of Moroccan classics like tagine and pastilla) or Gastro MK (canapes and five-course tasting menus in an exclusive boutique hotel). Le Comptoir is a spectacle of bellydancing and Moroccan-Asian fusion that—heads up, introverts—becomes a nightclub after dinner.
If that sounds all a bit much, head back to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the city square that transforms, Cinderella-like, into a sprawling market at night. Numbered food stalls, each specializing in a handful of dishes, spring up to serve locals and tourists. Dodge the souvenir vendors and touts and head into the fray. Create a progressive dinner for a few dirhams per stall. Start with snails plucked from their shells, afloat in peppery broth. No matter the weather, slurp harira, a filling and vegetarian-friendly lentil soup. Stall 32 is renowned for its spicy, snappy red merguez, the little sausages still sizzling as they hit your plate, while stall 14 draws crowds of hungry diners for its whole fried fish.
End the night at one of the terraced cafes that line the square; while a bit touristy for a full meal, they’re perfect for an ice cream plus a panoramic view of tourists and locals, sellers and snake charmers below.
Despite the city’s slate of luxury hotels, a riad (or traditional Moroccan guesthouse) is simply the best way to stay in Marrakesh. Most riads are multi-storied, arranged around a private courtyard of manicured gardens, marble floors, and tilework (and some greenery to shade guests from the hot sun). Moroccan hospitality is genuine and abundant; riad guests are typically treated more like adored house-guests than transient visitors. Expect snacks and sweets served all day and frequent inquiries after your preferences, your health, your day, and would you like more mint tea? It’s a warm, welcoming experience well-suited to B&B lovers.
Riad Le Clos des Arts in the medina’s very heart boasts the endless attention to detail of hosts Giorgina and Massimo. Also boast-worthy: the rooftop plunge pool and its surrounding terrace, where guests catch Morocco’s pink sunsets.
Once the home of a wealthy merchant, Dar Les Cigognes is now a chic stay that guests have called “sublime,” “idyllic,” “perfect,” and “paradise.” The riad lives up to the hype with a gorgeous organic hammam that’s available only for guests.
Riad Karmela is a traditional collection of airy suites spread among several neighboring houses. Each room is unique, this one done up in mint green, that one in fuschia, connected by terraces and balconies and a countless array of communal spaces.
Riad Dar Tayib is a downright affordable but no less luxurious option, with rooms from just 50 euro (about $60 USD per night). For charming owners Latifa and Vincent, no request is too much, whether it’s an airport pick-up or an elaborate daytrip. Previous guests laud Latifa’s mouthwatering tagines and breakfasts.
Finally, if you want the privacy and exclusivity of a country home, there’s Dar Layyina. On the road to Ouarzazate, just a few miles from Marrakesh, is this compound of classical architecture, swimming pools, and olive trees. The ultra-modern striped walls and calming neutrals will have you mentally redesigning your home within seconds of arrival.—by Dara Continenza