What to eat, what to do and where to stay in the old town
In need of a peaceful break? The sound of waves lapping at the sand, a good book and a sun hat? Staying in a riad in the old town of Marrakech might not be for you.
But if like me, you want the hustle of labyrinthine streets, sprawling souks, whizzing mopeds, street cats, terracotta buildings and tiles for days, all with a soundtrack of hollering hawkers, clattering hooves and the call to prayer echoing out from numerous mosques, get that flight booked.
It features a central dipping pool beneath the stars, an incredible roof terrace for sunsets, and even a dressing-up room
It was my first time in Marrakech, and I'd been so busy I had little time to research. So I grabbed a little backpack, jumped on a plane and prepared to go with the flow. That flow, as it turned out, was pretty rapid. Not a rest then, but definitely a break.
Here are my highlights from five days in Marrakech:
Stay in a Riad
There are many all-inclusive luxury resorts with swimming pools and all the usual bells and whistles in Marrakech. They’re pricey, they’re no doubt lovely and they will work well for many people. But for me, the riads are where it’s at. A Riad is a large, traditional-style Moroccan house with an open roof terrace and a hole in the middle kinda like a square Polo mint. I stayed at the beautiful Riad Star a few steps away from the entrance to the network of souks and it couldn’t have been more in the thick of it.
But step through the ornate door and the place is the definition of calm. All glowing white walls in delicate lacy patterns, cool tiled floors and low lights. It features a central dipping pool beneath the stars, an incredible roof terrace for sunsets, and even a dressing-up room if you’re of the view that you haven’t been to Marrakech unless you’ve tried a fez on.
The Riad Star is themed around the life of jazz-age superstar Josephine Baker with each boutique bedroom styled in a different way. Our room had traditional Marrakech touches like a Moorish arch over the bed and a beautiful rainbow-coloured stained glass shutter. According to the website, this room "celebrates tolerance, diversity and Josephine’s adopted family of 12 children from different nations." Other rooms feature ornate plasterwork similar to that in the main communal area, tasselled lamps, brass lamps, gramophones and even working saxophones for if you fancy getting your Lisa Simpson on.
There’s a traditional hammam on the top floor which can be booked by residents and non-residents. It was my first hammam and I loved it. For the uninitiated, yes it’s a bath, so get your kit off for an olive soap lathering, a scrub, a lie down on a surprisingly comfortable warm stone plinth and then a gentle rinse off before a temple-melting rose-scented massage.
There’s also the option to eat a traditional dinner cooked by the incredible riad kitchen team. Our homestyle meal of lamb and prune tagine with briouat pastries, barley and salads was one of the best we had in our whole time in Marrakech. Breakfast too is home-cooked and changes daily but always includes homemade crepes with traditional toppings like sweetened peanut butter, fig jam and honey. If you’ve not got a sweet tooth, you can ask for eggs and local bread, no problem.
The staff on our stay couldn't do enough for us, some of the warmest, most helpful hospitality staff I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. They took the time to chat to us every single day, their English was impeccable and the tips they gave us on arrival were super helpful. This riad truly felt like home.
Eat tangia, tagine and camel
I have a terrible confession to make. I didn’t get to try tangia, the traditional stew of (usually) lamb shanks cooked for several hours in an urn-shaped terracotta pot. Don’t be a divvy like me and make sure to book and order the dish in advance. Many places don’t serve it ad hoc as it takes so long to cook. You can also try tangia from market stalls, as always go for the ones with a queue and get in early as the good ones will always sell out.
Tagine is the more familiar dish to us Brits and you will not be short of options for these, we had it in one form or another most days but each one was different. The name, of course, comes from the conical chimney-lidded cooking pot. We had veggie ones, lamb ones, meatball ones, and one with chicken that was a dead ringer for duck a l’orange.
We tried a range of different places to eat from really low-priced old-school spots to fancy-pants restaurants at Manchester prices. Our favourite spots were the cheap and cheerful Dar a L’Hssira, the fancy Le Jardin, and the absolutely incredible Amal Women’s Centre which is a short walk from the YSL museum and Jardin Marjorelle. The women’s centre is a refuge for women escaping difficult situations. The organisation trains women in kitchen skills to help provide them with viable career options so they can gain independence. The food is incredible at a ridiculously good price. You can read more about Amal Women's Centre here.
If you want to try a kind of meat you can’t get here in the UK, camel is available in various places but we tried a camel burger at the pretty Cafe Clock. Drinks? Be mindful that Morocco is a Muslim country and as such, alcohol is not readily available. Some places do sell it but it’s important to be respectful around the consumption of booze, This is not Marbella, hun.
We happily stayed sober until our last night, with so many fresh fruit juices and pots of classic mint and other herbal teas, as well as hot sand coffee in the market, we didn’t miss it. But Le Foundouk, five minute's walk from Riad Star was our chosen spot for a glass of wine and a cocktail as we said goodbye to Marrakech before flying home the next day. It’s a stunning space hidden behind an unassuming exterior. We didn’t eat dinner there but did treat ourselves to a beautiful mille-feuille dessert with orange flower-scented creme Anglaise, a pudding-based riff on another Morrocan classic, pastilla, which you can (and should) get everywhere. Definitely worth putting on your list.
Virtually every bar and restaurant in Marrakech has a roof terrace which is a dream for a sunny lunch or a sunset dinner. Be sure to book at the fancier ones if you want to ensure a spot on the roof but if you are prepared to hang around a short while, spaces come up pretty fast at the more mainstream places.
What to do in Marrakech: from souks to mountains
Two or three days in Marrakech is more than enough if all you want to do is eat a tagine, enjoy a hammam and barter for a nice lamp or some pointy slippers to take home for your dad. We weren’t in the market for anything as we were travelling with minimum hand luggage, but the souks are still well worth wandering through to soak up the fun. Everything you can imagine is on sale, from street food and candy-coloured baklawa to leather handbags and fine silk clothing. Even if you're not a shopper, you have to get lost in the chaos of the souks at least once. Staying in a riad means you can do that every morning and/or evening - we were never not at least slightly lost.
But if you want a longer visit, there is plenty to do outside of the old town. We crammed in a day at the YSL museum and Marjorelle gardens, a rainy day exploring photography and music museums and watching a traditional band play in the evening, and a trip to the Atlas Mountains amongst other things.
You absolutely must go to the mountains as long as you can manage a bit of a hike. There are many options for day trips and the riads can generally book them for you or you can go with trusty old bookings sites. Either way, you’re probably going to get a similar experience. A trip to an argan oil co-op on the way, a camel ride on the roadside, and a heart rate raising mountain hike. Your driver will take you up to a Berber village where a tour guide will meet you and take you on a guided hike to a waterfall and up a bit of a mountain, you will generally be given options for difficulty and altitude but these types of trips aren’t exactly mountaineering. We went pretty high up and the views and fresh air were a tonic. Our guide and driver were both funny, knowledgeable and charming and we ate some delicious food on a picturesque rooftop with postcard views on all sides. Magic.
Gardens, mosques and museums
The YSL museum and garden are worth a visit if you are either into fashion or horticulture but we found it extremely touristy with long queues for what sometimes felt like just a series of selfie opportunities. The gardens themselves are gorgeous, and worth it for the cacti alone, but we loved the beautiful and educational Berber museum chronicling some of Africa's original peoples. The Yves Saint Laurent museum is huge fun and inspiration if you're into fashion or art. As mentioned previously, if you go here you must go to the Amal Women’s Centre for lunch. If you like gardens, there is also the gorgeous Secret Garden which is accessed from the souks and couldn’t be more of a stark contrast to them. We spent a rainy afternoon there and it was as beautiful as it I’m sure it must be in bright sunshine.
We stuck to the arts from the range of old town museums. The photography and music museums are great and both in buildings pretty enough to be worth a visit alone. The music museum hosts regular concerts and we loved the one we attended. There are plenty of palaces as well as religious and historical museums too if you're not into artsy stuff.
There’s also the beautiful Koutoubia mosque which is considered to be an architectural masterpiece and one of the five great mosques. Now a UNESCO heritage site, the mosque was built in 1071 by the Almoravids.
A stop at the Henna Cafe is a lovely way to end an afternoon. The skilled artists here use only natural henna and you can choose from a tattoo flash book of hundreds of designs. The place is peaceful with great staff and gave me warm and fuzzy Rishikesh flashbacks.
The term “experience” is bandied around a lot in travel writing to the point of cliche. But a visit to the old town of Marrakech truly is one. For timid travellers, it may be overwhelming, but if you want to be in the thick of a working market and all the sights, sounds, smells and surprises that come with it, there are few places only a 3-4 hour plane ride away that can offer that kind of experience.
Kelly stayed at the Riad Star. Rooms cost from £112 per night on a bed and breakfast basis, based on two people sharing. For more information and to book, visit www.marrakech-riad.co.uk
Return flights from Manchester for November are on Skyscanner for as cheap as £65 at time of writing.
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