I don’t know about you but January has me craving some much needed D. Vitamin D…get your mind out of the gutter. If you are planning an escape to the sun and want something more than your typical bucket and spade beach holiday, then look no further than Marrakech.
If Marrakech isn’t already on your travel bucket list, add it. Immediately! It is hectic hot and dusty but oh so exotic and completely instagrammable! It’s a bustling, magical city filled with souks, spices and snake charmers and it will cast a spell on you. With a long history of attracting musicians, artists and designers, Marrakech has established itself as a chic destination for well-heeled travellers looking for something more.
With a climate that is warm all year round and good exchange rates between the Euro and Dirham, it is an attractive and affordable destination. We flew direct to Marrakech from Dublin with Ryanair (flight time of about 3 hrs 45 mins). After a short taxi ride from the airport, we were plunged into the madness of the old medina. Nothing can really prepare you for Marrakech; it is an assault on your senses and can feel like a slap into the face initially. Be wary of taxis as they are notorious for ripping off tourists!
What to Pack
Layering will be your best friend on a trip to Marrakech! Pack lightweight layers and definitely bring some scarfs. It is hot and sweaty during the day in the medina and can be absolutely freezing at night. You will walk ALOT (often on dusty uneven roads) so bring stylish flats, sandals and trainers rather than heels. It is also important to be respectful of the culture of the country so super revealing clothing is not advisable.
Where to Stay
Marrakech is a city of two halves – the ancient walled medina and new town or Ville Nouvelle as it is called locally. Both are very different – the medina is maze-like, full of palaces and souks and is a real insight into traditional life while the new town is where you will find newer, slick hotels, bars and trendy shops. We stayed in a riad in the medina (riads are upmarket guesthouses in refurbished old mansions) which has us right in the middle of the action. We were only steps away from the souks and a couple of minutes walk from the main square, Jemaa el Fna.
There are literally hundreds of riads to choose from and having so much choice can be overwhelming. We stayed in Riad Elytis (www.riadeyltis.com) a traditional riad with authentic Moroccan decor, a beautiful roof terrace and super hospitable staff (they even offered to wash our clothes after a trip into the desert!).
My Top Picks
There are so many things to see and do in Marrakech that an action packed few days is guaranteed. The below are some of my personal highlights.
1. Jemaa el Fna – Marrakech’s main square is a chaotic mix of food stalls, snake charmers, story-tellers and henna tattooists. If a performer puts a monkey or a snake on your shoulder and says “Take a picture” just politely decline. They will make you pay a hefty fee for the pleasure and have been known to chase tourists until they pay up! The square is full of food stalls, some are better quality than others and it can be overwhelming but is all part of the experience. Be sure to watch the sunset over the square from the rooftop of the Cafe du Balcon. It’s an excellent photo op!
2. Souks – Put your game face on and prepare to haggle as you head to the extensive souks in Marrakech where you can buy everything from spices to leather. Let yourself get lost in the narrow, winding streets and be prepared to dodge a few donkeys and lots of scooters aong the way. The locals can be pushy when trying to make a sale but are super friendly…one man even offered my husband 5 camels for me haha! Fellow shopaholics will love the souks – the thrill of getting a bargain becomes addictive. Be warned though it is hard work and as a tourist the prices initially quoted are crazy. Haggle, haggle, haggle!!!
3. The Majorelle Gardens – After falling in love with Marrakech, Yves Saint Laurent bought the gardens in the 80’s to save it from property developers. It is an oasis of calm away from the madness of the medina and has become one of the most iconic attractions in the city. With tropical plants, a lily pond and bright blue walls you won’t find a more instagram worthy place in Marrakech!
4. Bahia Palace – The name Bahia means brilliance; accurate description of this beautiful palace. Everywhere you look there are beautiful tiles, intricate carved wood, ornate stained glass windows and hand painted ceilings.
5. Mint tea at Hotel La Mamounia – La Mamounia is one of the top hotels in Marrakech and it is well worth visiting to take in the amazing interiors and gardens over a mint tea (or a cocktail!). Be prepared for major interior goals! If you plan on visiting, you do need to dress up as they have a strict dress code – no shorts, jeans or trainers! A bit notiony but so worth it.
6. Pool day at Sofitel Marrakech Palais Imperial – Many riads will have a small plunge pool and a roof terrace, but don’t really lend themselves to sunbathing. Head to the five star Sofitel Marrakech in the new town for the day where they have a Sunday brunch and pool package which includes a poolside lounge bed and brunch buffet. A well needed break from medina madness and a different side to the city.
7. Camel Trek and Overnight at a Berber Camp in the Sahara – Set off into the African sun on a two day, one night trip through the high Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara desert where you camp overnight in a traditional Berber camp. After a seriously long drive, you will reach the desert where you camel trek through the sand dunes at sunset to your camp for the night. You are given your own yurt for the night, a traditional Berber dinner and entertainment. We stayed up late into the night drinking with the other people in our group and rapping Nelly songs to the sounds of traditional Berber instruments… all in the middle of the Sahara. It was an unforgettable experience and one I would recommend to anyone visiting Marrakech!
8. Henna tattoos – Having a henna tattoo done in synonymous with a visit to Marrakech. There are women all over Marrakech who try to convince you to have a henna tattoo done. Some use henna that can be poisonous so you need to be careful where you have it done. I had mine done in the Henna Cafe; within minutes I had an intricate design on my foot (channelling my inner 18 year old gap year student). The Henna Cafe is a registered cultural foundation in Morocco and also serves delish vegetarian food.
Eating and Drinking
There are literally hundreds of places to eat in Marrakech and the choice can cause serious indecision and subsequent hangry outbursts! We had some amazing meals (alot of meat) and found a couple of restaurants that we returned to a few times.
1. La Terrace des Epices – Right above the souks, this restaurant has a beautifully decorated and atmospheric terrace. Great local dishes like tangia are a must.
2. Le Marrakchi – This restaurant overlooks the Jemaa el Fnaa so you can soak up all that has to offer over a traditional Moroccan dinner. There are also belly dancing performances each night.
3. Cafe Arabe – A good place to go for just a cocktail or dinner in the old town. It has a nice roof terrace and good tunes playing. The food is less traditional than other places with things like pasta on the menu.
4. Dar Essalam – A 17th century palace, this is a dinner location on a grand scale. With good food and traditional entertainment, this is an easy on the eye and fun if not a smidge gimmicky place to have dinner.
Alcohol is not widely available in the medina so you won’t be having any crazy, Magaluf style nights but a lot of restaurants serve alcohol and there are a couple of good bars. For a wider selection of bars and nightclubs you can go to the less traditional new town.
I had an absolute ball in Marrakech and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different. The people, the culture and the food are all amazing. From trying to find our way back to our riad in the maze of the medina to hearing the call to prayer ring out from the Koutoubia, it is a fantastic experience that will stay with your forever.
And sure look, if it was good enough for YSL then it has my vote!