Where you should eat, visit, and stay in Marrakech

March 6, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC
The courtyard of the Oberoi Marrakech, inspired by the design of the historic Medersa Ben Youssef, built in the 14th century and one of Marrakech’s most famous historic monuments.
Rachel King

When you set out on your first day in Marrakech, you might observe that the Moroccan city has a diverse cross-section of tourists. You won’t be able to keep up with the number of different languages being spoken while traipsing through the 700 back alleys of the medina or even the would-be influencers staging personal photo shoots with each other in the Majorelle Garden.

Marrakech is a welcoming city, with a deeply rooted culture of respect and hospitality. Arabic and French are the primary languages spoken in Morocco and displayed on signage. But in tourist-haven Marrakech, English is also widely spoken and understood at the airport and main train station as well as numerous hotels and restaurants. Cabdrivers—stick to official yellow or green cabs with clear licenses—also speak English, but many of them don’t use a meter, so be sure to set a price with your driver before departure. 

The city’s high season is coming up in a few months, roughly from the end of March through June. But February and March are prime times to visit as temperatures hover between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit on average, with clear blue skies after some occasional morning mist. (That said, when the sun does hit its peak temperature in the mid to late afternoon, make sure you have sunscreen and a hat. The sun can be punishing when it wants to be.) 

And better than the weather (especially for those traveling from North America, Europe, and East Asia in winter), airfares and hotel rates are better now than at any other time of year, and you’ll run into far fewer tourists at the major attractions. 

One of Marrakech’s many cool cats.
Rachel King

Where to go

Musée Yves Saint Laurent and the Jardin Majorelle: The first rule of traveling to museums anywhere is universal: Check the open hours and days before you go. The Majorelle Garden is open every day, but the hours vary between the summer and winter months. And while it’s just next door—making it ideal for visiting on the same day—the Yves Saint Laurent Museum is closed on Wednesdays.

A second rule—although not as critical as the first—is more of a recommendation: Book tickets well in advance. Wait times to buy tickets for either (sold in the same booth) can take up to an hour. The garden is simultaneously mesmerizing and overwhelming, packed to the brim with a myriad of flora, fauna, and tall trees that offer merciful shade on hot afternoons.

A tourist posing outside the Musée Berbère within the Majorelle Garden.
Rachel King

Amid it all is the Musée Berbère, a sight to behold as the Art Deco–style, two-story house is impossible to miss with its cobalt blue exterior and flashes of electric yellow and sea-foam green. Also hard to miss are all the Instagrammers trying to get the perfect shot, scattered all around the house in varying poses, sometimes with a photographer and others settling for selfies.  

About 100 meters up the road, fashion lovers will likely brave the crowds and 100 Moroccan dirham (roughly $10) ticket prices for the Yves Saint Laurent Museum. One of two museums dedicated to the Algerian-born French fashion designer (the other being in Paris), the Marrakech location has fewer exhibits than its European counterpart, but it makes up for this with its stunning modern structure as well as a permanent collection of YSL gowns showcasing African fashion.

A view of the souk in the medina of Marrakech, as seen from a rooftop café.
Rachel King

The Medina: There are two cities within Marrakech: the old city and the new. The latter dates back roughly a century, with wider streets and sidewalks, modern design studios, cafés with baristas, and clothing boutiques dedicated to both local designers and top international brands. Then there is the old city, known as the medina of Marrakech, dating back to the 10th century. At first glance, the medina can be daunting—especially the souk inside, with its alleyways winding in every possible direction. The maze-like layout could induce anxiety even in someone who’s not claustrophobic. (Carrying a smartphone with a reliable mapping app and GPS would be a good idea. You should be able to get reliable service, and there is Wi-Fi available in countless cafés as well as surrounding museums and gardens.)

But on a weekday, traversing the Medina is manageable—and even breathable—with fewer tourists compared with the weekends in high season. Here you can buy artisan leather goods, traditional clothing, and slippers, Moroccan sweets, handcrafted pottery, and much, much more. Be sure to bring cash. (And on that note, a Visa or Mastercard elsewhere, as almost no one accepts American Express in Marrakech.) Also be prepared to haggle. A wise starting point is to ask for the price—then make your starting offer at least half that. If you can’t get the vendor to lower the price, start to walk away, and you might discover him or her suddenly offering a better deal.  

The main courtyard at Le Jardin Secret.
Rachel King

Le Jardin Secret (The Secret Garden): While it might not actually be a secret garden anymore, Le Jardin Secret, in the medina, certainly feels like more of a secret destination compared with the swarms at the Majorelle Garden. It’s estimated that the estate’s first “palace” was built during the second half of the 16th century by the Saadian sultan of Morocco in a part of the medina that was then home to a small Jewish community.  

The focal points of the Secret Garden are the green spaces, divided between the “exotic garden” (dedicated to plants rare in northern Africa) and the Islamic garden. At the heart of the latter is a marble shell water fountain, intended to inspire serenity and contemplation. Visitors can easily experience both, with plenty of seating in and around the garden, both in sunlight and shade.  There is also a terrace café on the second story of the back tower, providing a rare bird’s-eye view in a city with few structures taller than one or two stories. 

The central courtyard of Dar el Bacha.
Rachel King

Dar el Bacha: If the Secret Garden is the secret alternative to the Majorelle Garden, then Dar el Bacha (also known as Musée des Confluences, or the Museum of Confluences) is the comparable alternative to Musée YSL. Located in the middle of the old medina, Dar el Bacha was once a private palace, built by the Pasha of Marrakech in the 1910s. It’s a picture-perfect example of a riad, and it’s considered an archetype of Moroccan architecture. The majestic building—composed of six main rooms on four sides (including a traditional hammam and a harem) surrounding a rectangular courtyard—was established as a museum open to the public in 2015, with the primary purpose of exhibiting Morocco’s cultural heritage.

The museum hosts seasonal exhibits, but the ornate structure is the real draw for architecture and design lovers as well as photo-bugs looking for a perfect background with few other visitors to compete.

A comté croissant with a side of coffee and cream at Bacha Coffee.
Rachel King

Where to eat

Bacha Coffee: Tucked away in Dar el Bacha is what seems like a textbook example of a “hidden gem” for travelers. That would be the Bacha Coffee Room and Boutique. Even if you’re not a coffee lover, it might take wild horses to drag someone away from the alluring scent wafting out of the boutique, selling dozens upon dozens of African coffees in Hermès-orange square tins.

But you should make time (around an hour) to have a pot of coffee (decaf options available, too) from the extensive coffee list, showcasing single bean and bean blends from around the world (including roughly a dozen from the highly recommended list of African coffees from six countries on the continent). Then treat yourself to one of the sweet or savory stuffed croissants, such as the comté cheese croissant, date and goat cheese, or the almond with orange peel. Walk-ins are welcome, but it’s worth calling in for a reservation if you’re on a tight schedule. Additional amenities: Air conditioning, free Wi-Fi, and the café accepts credit cards. 

Inside the Bacha Coffee dining room.
Rachel King

Sesamo: You can now get some of the world’s best Italian food in Marrakech. That might not be the most obvious choice—and you definitely should be making the most of tasting local delicacies and cuisine first. But as Fortune contributor Sara Lieberman reported last month, chef Massimiliano “Max” Alajmo (of Le Calandre in Rubano, Italy, which has been on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 13 consecutive years now) recently set up shop in Marrakech in the illustrious Royal Mansour hotel.

The Venetian-inspired restaurant replaces Yannick Alléno’s French eatery La Grande Table Française, now serving traditional but elevated Italian dishes, including a 14-course tasting menu, as well as a substantial and specially curated list of Italian wines. (Although if you can, don’t miss out on trying Moroccan wines, most of which are sourced from vineyards in the northwestern part of the country near Fez and Tangier. Expect very dry Chardonnays and rosés, which pair perfectly with Moroccan dishes.)

A Moroccan salad at Hotel Dar Rhizlane.
Rachel King

Riads: A riad is a type of traditional Moroccan house (or even a former palace) with an interior garden or courtyard. And there are hundreds of them in Marrakech, with most located in the old medina. You could even opt to stay overnight, as many riads also operate as small hotels. A riad’s design not only encourages privacy and inward reflection—it also keeps the air cool as the windows of each room face into the courtyard.

Most riads (and the true beauty and even amenities like a hammam) are hidden from view, and you can only spot them from the tiny streets based on the sign outside the door. But you don’t need to stay overnight in a riad to experience one, as many take reservations for lunch and dinner. You’ll need to do your research to find one right for your interests and appetites. But you could not ask for a more authentic or enriching culinary experience while on a trip to any of Morocco’s major cities.

Hotel Dar Rhizlane
Rachel King

Where to stay

Hotel Dar Rhizlane: If you are financially able to do so, Marrakech is not a city where you should skimp on lodging—especially for women traveling alone. The city itself is quite safe, but the quality (and security) among hotels varies greatly.

Located within walking distance of both the old and new cities of Marrakech, Hotel Dar Rhizlane offers a bit of calm and quiet in the midst of the bustle of the city center, made possible by lush gardens with white bougainvillea creepers and large trees surrounding the palatial property. Reflecting a Moorish-Islamic style of architecture with a touch of Yemeni and Egyptian influences, each suite and villa is individually designed with its own palette of colors, also offering a private patio or terrace, in the same vein as a Moroccan palace. Rates start at $175 per night for a double room.

Guests can also take a dip in the semi-Olympic-size swimming pool, read a book on a deck chair or in one of the other enclosed gardens on the property, take a meal (or a cooking class) at one of the restaurants and cocktail bars within the grounds, or visit the Turkish bath and saunas for wellness treatments. There are a few modern touches as well, including free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs with satellite cable, and iPhone docking stations in each suite.

No detail is overlooked at the Hotel Dar Rhizlane.
Rachel King

The Oberoi: One truly doesn’t understand the phrase “oasis in the desert”—until you stumble upon one. It took nearly a decade to build this oasis: a five-star hotel, the latest opening from the global luxury resort brand. Facing the Atlas Mountains, the heart of the estate is the Grand Canal, inspired by the long waterway of the Alhambra in Spain. And even when you first walk into the main lobby of the Oberoi Marrakech, previous visitors to the Alhambra might experience a bout of déjà vu when staring up at the intricately carved cedarwood ceiling. It’s hard to believe that the main building isn’t actually a former palace hundreds of years old, but entirely new to this century. That’s partially because building the hotel—owned 50% by Oberoi and 50% by a prominent local family—involved more than 600 skilled artisans working on the wooden and marble carvings outlining walls, ceilings, and archways throughout the main building.  

The grand staircase at the Oberoi Marrakech.
Rachel King

There are 84 keys at the Oberoi Marrakech, starting with six deluxe suites (as well as the Royal suite) in the main building. (Rates start at $600 per night.) Surrounding the perimeter are 78 villas, most of which are one-bedroom villas featuring heated private pools and terraces. At the end of the Grand Canal, there is a single two-bedroom villa, also designated as a Royal villa. But there is a grand pool as well, open to all guests, surrounded by poolside deck chairs, lawn umbrellas, four canopy beds, and one of the hotel’s three restaurants, Azur—also the only one that serves lunch. Upstairs, guests can take breakfast or dinner at Tamimt, which boasts three menus: Moroccan, Indian, and international.

Guests will want to enjoy at least one dinner at Siniman, the hotel’s dedicated Moroccan restaurant, where guests are invited to wash their hands tableside with rosewater before the meal begins. Then they can dine on traditional fare such as tagines, couscous, and Moroccan salad (which is nothing like the leafy green bowls you’d probably imagine). After dinner, guests can get a cocktail at Vue, a cozy library bar with live piano music and a roaring fireplace as well as a terrace (equipped with heat lamps for cool nights in the desert).

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