Marrakesh knows how to put on a show. Its heady sights and sounds dazzle, frazzle and enchant, as they have done for almost a millennia. Bustle takes on a whole new meaning, particularly in the Marrakesh medina.
Whether you want to spice up your pantry with North African flavors or buy a carpet to add Moroccan-wow to your house, Marrakesh is one of the best shopping destinations in the world. Got your map ready? Well, it's probably of little use to you here. Think of the medina's souqs as a shopping mall, dotted with shops, accommodations, museums and historic sites, but laid out according to a labyrinthine medieval-era plan.
Here are the best things to do on your visit to Marrakesh.
Djemaa El Fna
If all the world's a stage, then Djemaa El Fna is the grand finale. Every night, once the smoke from the restaurant grills begins to plume into the air, the plaza thrums and shimmies to its own unique soundtrack. Gnaoua troupes beat their drums in competition with reedy snake charmer flutes, Amazigh musicians battle to be heard, and food stall touts and henna ladies yell over the top. It's a colorful mashup of the bewitching chorus of Djemaa El Fna.
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Master the Marrakesh medina maze
Becoming a master of the looping derbs (alleyways) of the Marrakesh medina takes a lifetime to learn. But there's no harm in trying. Strike out from Djemaa El Fna and plunge yourself into the medina melee to navigate donkey carts and bicycles amid the crowds on the cobblestones. When the main souqs get too claustrophobic, dive into the alley offshoots and follow the high walls, washed in pink tones, past grand dilapidated gates and brass-knocker decorated doors, through low tunnels and stuccoed archways to wherever they may lead.
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Maison de la Photographie
The private collections on display at Maison de la Photographie showcase a vision of Morocco now consigned to history. It's the baby of Parisian Patrick Menac’h and Marrakshi Hamid Mergani, who compounded their passions for vintage Moroccan photography by opening this gallery. Tattooed Atlas Mountain women, aristocratic Arabs from Fez, round-eyed servants and djellaba-clad wanderers all gaze out from the walls. Most fascinating of all are the scenes capturing Marrakesh landmarks, like the 1920s shot of Djemaa El Fna as an Amazigh market, a subtle, sepia-tinted doorway into the past.
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Take a time out from monuments and medina dust in Jardin Majorelle, brought to life by French painter Jacques Majorelle and later nurtured under the patronage of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. Walk beneath the lush canopy along candy-colored pathways that thread through bamboo groves and cacti gardens. While fashionistas strike a pose in front of the electric-blue art deco studio where Majorelle once painted, inside you'll find the phenomenal Musée Berbère. Here, the wide-arcing culture of Morocco's Amazigh people is represented in dazzling displays of jewelry and artifacts.
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Taste Moroccan delicacies
Moroccan cuisine has tantalized the taste buds of global foodies for decades, and Marrakesh has the most diverse dining scene in the country. The hearty, savory-sweet flavors of real Marrakshi food can be found in both diffa (feast) blowouts in palace restaurants and in alleyway stalls where caramelized tajines bubble on gas stoves. Learn with local dadas (chefs) on a cooking course, stroll the souqs with bags of fat green olives and honey-soaked Moroccan pastries, or reserve a table at a rooftop restaurant to see where the Moroccan food scene is heading.
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Inside Bahia Palace, a prime piece of medina real estate, Marrakshi artisans really went to town in a furious frenzy of zellige (colorful geometric mosaic tilework), carved plasterwork and zouak (painted wood) detailing. Crane your neck to soak up the statement ceilings, swirling with intricate and delicately colored motifs and designs, in the palace salons where pashas (high-ranking officials) once posed. Leave the bustle and throb of the medina behind to hide out amid lush, shaded inner courtyards and stroll through the extravagantly marbled grand court.
Modesty obviously didn't feature much in Sultan Ahmed Al Mansour's vocabulary. In the Chamber of 12 Pillars in the Saadian Tombs, Al Mansour created the ritziest final resting place in town, where the dead were watched over by loads of marble and gild-edged stucco. Sealed off from the world by a jealous Sultan Moulay Ismail who preferred to keep prior ruling empires out of sight and mind, the monumental tombs of Al Mansour and his entourage only reclaimed its fame and glory on rediscovery in 1917.
Le Jardin Secret
Move over Majorelle: Yves Saint Laurent's cacti groves in Gueliz have competition in Le Jardin Secret, a lovely Islamic garden slap-bang in the middle of the medina. Its foundations are more than 400 years old, but rather than restoring the riad's interiors, the owners have focused on reviving the garden and original medieval khettara (underground irrigation system) that feeds it. Using CGI and modeling, exhibits expertly explain the importance of water and greenery in Islamic culture. Beneath its ramparts, pavilions and seating areas are separated by water channels and fig and pomegranate trees.
Musée Yves Saint Laurent
From his first visit in the 1960s, French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent was captivated by Morocco. Jardin Majorelle became his second home, and when his partner Pierre Berge died in 2017, the suitably daring Musée Yves Saint Laurent opened next door as a shrine to YSL's life and work. It's also a homage to the country that fed his imagination. The building is a contemporary terracotta behemoth that draws inspiration from traditional riad architecture and Islamic colors, and inside lies a tech-enhanced biographical permanent exhibition of the designer's sketches, fashions and accessories.
Hammams are the quintessential Moroccan experience. After a day of dusty sightseeing exploits, a good scrubbing leaves you squeaky clean, fresh and invigorated to take on the medina again. At its simplest, a hammam is a steam bath where you wash yourself down, sweat out the dirt of the day and then scrub. They're great for local interaction, and some, like Hammam Mouassine, offer tourist-friendly services, but the do-it-yourself public hammam experience might be a tad intimidating for newcomers. Luckily, the city’s flourishing private hammam scene provides a refined and relaxing experience.
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This article was originally published in March 2020. It was updated June 2021.
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