by Holly Rubenstein
Lively souks swirling with spices; mesmerizing snake charmers and belly dancers; towering minarets and ornate architecture — Marrakech is a whirlwind of color, noise and excitement in the deserts of North Africa.
Morocco’s cultural melting pot, the city is influenced by a unique fusion of European, African and Arabic cultures. These days, the ancient city (which is a Unesco World Heritage Site) is embracing modernity too, with a new wave of young creatives driving the art, hotel and food scenes.
But it’s not all hustle and bustle; there’s an abundance of green space in the city’s tropical gardens, palm groves and golf courses, framed by the majestic Atlas Mountains and azure blue skies.
Where to Eat
Hailed as one of the most exciting new openings in the city, Le Trou Au Mur is a sophisticated spot that serves Moroccan favorites alongside more unusual, traditional cuisine.
Tride, for example, is a delicious chicken dish encased in shredded pancakes that is historically given to women after childbirth. The wine list offers a selection of excellent Moroccan wines.
You’ll need to book ahead to get a table at Nomad; this buzzing hot spot is housed in a former carpet store in the medina. Grab a seat on one of two roof terraces with views of the Atlas Mountains, and tuck into lightly spiced fish balls in tomato, red pepper and chickpea sauce, or the Agadir calamari with braised fennel.
El Fenn is an Instagram-famous riad in the heart of the medina that attracts a boho-chic crowd. Known for its photogenic emerald-green tiles and stunning red walls, its roof terrace restaurant overlooks the Koutubia Mosque, and serves modern Moroccan cuisine.
On the menu is roasted duck breast with caramelized spices and ras el hanout vegetables, and beef tenderloin with coriander couscous.
Medinas, Museums & Mountains
Soar Over the City
A sunrise hot air balloon ride over Marrakech and the foothills of the Atlas Mountains is a bucket-list experience. As you float over the red sandstone of the mountains and desert, it becomes clear why Marrakech is nicknamed the Red City. Upon landing, enjoy a traditional Berber breakfast and a warming glass of mint tea.
Explore the Jardin Majorelle
Cool off in the vibrant botanical garden that fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent purchased in the 1980s. It’s a city oasis packed with greenery, lofty bamboos, exotic cacti and soothing pools, offset by photogenic fountains, pots and urns painted in bold cobalt blue and buttercup yellow. Its central Art Deco villa is home to museums dedicated to both Islamic art and Berber culture.
Get Lost in the Souks
A visit to Marrakech isn’t complete without an afternoon spent wandering through the labyrinth of souks within the medina. Vendors sell everything from colorful spices and embroidered rugs to leather goods and silver trinkets, and your experience will be accompanied by their cries as they compete for your business — don’t forget to haggle. The souks lead to the medina’s famed Jemaa el-Fnaa Square, a charming snapshot of Marrakech life.
Visit the Yves Saint Laurent Museum
“Marrakech introduced me to color,” Yves Saint Laurent famously said. Now, an exhibition of some of his most iconic looks, many of which were inspired by Moroccan culture, are on display at the newly opened museum dedicated to his work and life. The museum’s restaurant, Le Studio, is a great spot for lunch.
Experience A Hammam
A hammam is an ancient cleansing and purification ritual dating back to 600 AD. It involves a hot steam bath, followed by a vigorous exfoliating scrub and body mask. It’s an important part of Moroccan culture and everyday life. While public hammams are often communal, a more private and luxurious experience can be found at spas and hotels across the city.
Winston Churchill once described Marrakech as “the loveliest place on earth,” and he always stayed at La Mamounia — The Churchill Suite is named in his honor. Within its 17 acres of lush, private gardens are three luxurious 7,535-sq-ft riads, offering a private and peaceful experience. Doors open onto a patio, terrace and pool, around which three bedrooms and bathrooms are arranged. Interiors are classically adorned with exquisite traditional tile work, sculpted wood and rich fabrics. A rooftop terrace overlooks the pretty grounds. It’s hard to believe that the hubbub of the souks is a mere five-minute walk away, as it is so serene. A personal butler is available to guests around the clock.
From $9,800 per night.
One of the newest additions to the hotel scene in Marrakech, The Penthouse at the Mandarin Oriental is an eight-bedroom suite spread over an entire floor of the hotel. It offers unparalleled views of the property’s landscaped gardens (scented by more than 100,000 roses) and the snowcapped peaks of the Atlas Mountains beyond. There’s a zen flow throughout the 12,249-sq-ft suite’s various interior and exterior spaces, befitting of the Mandarin Oriental group — from heated plunge pools to dining areas and terraces outside to the interiors that blend traditional Moroccan touches with Oriental dark-wood furnishings. Bathrooms include integrated hammams. The 10-acre luxury resort is a 20-minute drive from the souks and main square.
From $10,815 per night.
Book the Royal Mansour’s Riad d’Honneur (Grand Riad) for the ultimate luxury. This palatial four-bedroom property, which includes the 24-hour assistance of its own staff, is almost 20,000 sq ft in size and packed with elaborate plasterwork and tiling, carved cedar wood, sumptuous fabrics and decadent designs. Its spellbinding two-tier roof terrace offers panoramic views of the medina and Atlas Mountains, as well as a plunge pool, lounge and dining area. Downstairs includes a library, cinema, gym, hammam, spa treatment room and bar. Outside in the riad’s private garden is a palm-lined swimming pool. The hotel is situated within the medina walls, and it’s a just a 10-minute walk to the main square and souks. Guests are greeted by a chauffeur-driven Bentley at the airport.
From $45,500 per night.
Get out of town
Just an hour’s drive from Marrakech, you’ll find the Atlas Mountains. Head towards the village of Asni, past the romantic Lalla Takerkoust lake and into the mountains. The journey itself is a spectacle and an insight into local life. Stop for a night at clifftop Kasbah Tamadot, a former governor’s mansion-turned-luxury resort, owned by Sir Richard Branson. A night in a luxurious Berber tent, complete with private hot tub, unlimited minibar and expansive views of the snowy Atlas peaks provides an overwhelming sense of calm and a renewed connection to nature.
Photo credits: Shutterstock.com, George Apostolidis, Alan Keohane
This story originally appeared in the Spring issue of Elite Traveler.