I love my job at Coco Bay, but with a business to run, 2 teenage daughters and a needy Labrador my husband often takes the back seat!! We therefore decided that to celebrate 20 years of marriage it was time to escape for a few days and Morocco was calling. A few glasses of wine later on a dark November night we decided to be ‘spontaneous’ and booked 2 flights to Marrakesh (with our Avios!). There was no time for our sensible heads to take charge and February was the other side of Christmas after all. There would be plenty of time to justify our spontaneity!
Booking the flights was the easy bit. As February approached there were however important decisions to make like where to stay, what to do, what to pack. Some of the decisions could wait, but I knew that we needed to make decisions on accommodation as soon as possible. I therefore did some research and felt really daunted by the choice of hotels and Riads in Marrakesh. Where do you start? I was very lucky as I stumbled across an article in The Times that listed the ’20 Coolest Hotels in Marrakesh’. Riad Hikaya instantly jumped out at me and I loved that it was described as ‘reveling in the Moroccan love of rich colours and fabrics’. I was sold as I did not want any minimalist design in Marrakesh! 4 nights booked.
Time to go to Marrakesh
3 months later and our departure week imminent. Unfortunately it had competition as Storm Emma was approaching at an equally fast pace and forecast to bump into the ‘Beast from the East’. Travel disruption was forecast, however we managed to escape England in -6 before the snow and blizzards took hold. Our airplane patiently waited to be de-iced and then battled against Storm Emma as we crossed Europe. Happily it wasn’t long before we were consoled by the blue skies and warmth of Marrakesh.
I will not take you through our pre-planned hour by hour itinerary as to be honest we did not have one. Life had been so busy up until the 11th hour and it was only on the plane to Morocco that I got the guide book out and read about both the history and ‘what to do’ in Marrakesh. I felt a little ashamed as I knew so little about both the city or its culture, but at the same time I always love that feeling of not quite knowing what to expect. We were immediately captivated by the colourful, hospitable and crazy world of Marrakesh.
I would highly recommend a Travel Guide, but here are a few hot tips from my personal experience of Marrakesh on what to pack, where to stay, places to explore, where to eat and how to relax and find a refreshing lunchtime beer on a weekend break to Marrakesh.
I love a few bullet points so will start with:
WHAT TO PACK FOR MARRAKESH
This will very much depend on the time of year you go as it can get very hot in the summer months. Marrakesh is however a Muslim country and I would very much recommend respectfully covering up, as otherwise you may feel a little naked and draw unwanted attention. As we were leaving sub degree temperatures in England, it was hard to imagine feeling warm. However it is also important to remember that in months like February the temperature can jump from 25 degrees to 10 degrees and, even if the sun is shining, the wind can feel cool from the mountains and the nights definitely have a chill. If packing light here are a few ideas of the top 10 things to pack for Marrakesh
For exploring Marrakesh
2/ Light cotton shirts
3/ Pashmina or scarf for layering
5/ Comfortable shoes as the best way to see Marrakesh is by foot (but watch out for the mad mopeds if you want to come home in one piece!)
5/ Lighter trousers for hotter moments
For the more lazy moments
6/ Swimming costume or Bikini for those relaxing moments by the Riad pool or chilling on the rooftop
8/ Havaianas Flipflops (although the Riad provided some beautiful Moroccan slippers!)
9/ Elegant Long Kaftan which can double up for a smarter moment too if venturing out for a more formal supper.
10/ Suncream – don’t be fooled. Even if the sun doesn’t feel hot, it is more than capable of burning our sun starved pasty faces!
WHERE TO STAY IN MARRAKESH
I can only speak from my personal experience, but having explored both the Medina and beyond I would definitely want to stay in the Medina again. There are lots of hotels outside the walls in the New Town, but they looked quite impersonal and I felt you could be anywhere in the world. I imagine they provide more space and may be preferable if travelling with children as they will provide large swimming pools and more facilities. However to experience the true atmosphere and character of Marrakesh I would choose a Riad within the Medina. Obviously your choice will depend on budget (which I find is always a little like an elastic band!) and location.
We were lucky enough to discover Riad Hikaya within the southern Kasbah area, a great choice for travellers interested in markets, old town exploring and culture. The area is not too touristy, but equally enjoys the hustle bustle of Moroccan life and I loved hearing the sounds of Marrakesh, the mopeds and the horses trotting down the road. When we arrived at Riad Hikaya, we were welcomed with open arms and the Riad was just beautiful and surpassed all expectations. No detail had been forgotten and what was also special is that it almost felt quite homely and personal, while at the same time respecting our privacy and space. The Riad has been restored with such love it is impossible not to be impressed not only by the exquisite design, but also by the stories it tells. There is also a small pool, a spa/wellness centre and a lovely roof terrace where we enjoyed a very happy peaceful day away from the frenetic pace of Marrakesh, finished by one of our favourite meals under the Moroccan stars. The breakfasts were amazing too!
TOP SITES TO EXPLORE IN MARRAKESH
We were lucky enough to have a complimentary guide for our first morning organized by the Riad Hikaya. He not only was incredibly interesting about the culture and history, but he also helped us navigate and acclimatize to the narrow busy streets of Marrakesh.
I am not going to give you a rundown of all there is to do in Marrakesh – that is what a Guide Book is for and we barely scratched the surface of Marrakesh. However I thought it was useful to list my top highlights for sightseeing in Marrakesh.
I don’t think I have ever experienced anything quite like the Souks which could not be more different from the shopping malls in the UK. We didn’t have our shopping heads on, but I don’t think you can go to Marrakesh without exploring the labyrinth of alleyways and enjoying all the sights, smells and sounds of this centuries old market. We had been a little apprehensive that we would be hassled by the vendors, but new laws dictate that the vendors now must be more reserved in their selling tactics and respectfully adhere to ‘no thank you’. This obviously makes the experience much more enjoyable and easier to browse. However be warned, if you want to buy be prepared to haggle! Also be aware that many of the Moroccan traditional hand-made crafts are mass produced in China, so best if you know what you are doing!
NB – there are also covered markets that have price tags if you do not enjoy bartering.
Originally created by Jacques Majorelle in the 1930’s and later restored by Yves Saint Laurant and Pierre Berge who fell in love with it in the 1980’s. The colour palette used by Majorelle to design his botanical garden is spectacular.
Top Tip – go early as it gets very busy! I would also highly recommend a combined ticket that includes the Yves Saint Laurent Museum if you like fashion.
This walled garden of tombs was originally a burial ground for descendants of Prophet Mohammed and later the Saadian dynasty. The Tombs were forgotten for many years until rediscovered in 1917 when a French General had the area surveyed from the air and cut a new entrance to the site. Neglect prior to this new discovery has meant that the site has ironically been very well preserved.
It was quite busy when we were there so we decided not to join the queue for the main chambers. We found it just as fascinating to see the smaller rooms (without the wait) and the amazing mosaics which define each grave.
Top Tip – again best to go early!
The Bahia Palace
Built by Si Moussa in the 19thCentury this is perhaps one of the best-preserved historical sites in Marrakech. The palace is set over two acres in the middle of the Marrakech Medina and features 150 rooms, including a harem section located just off the sun-filled Court of Honour. It is hard to imagine somebody has so many wives and concubines! The palace is now empty and some parts more tastefully restored than others, but I found our visit to the palace very interesting
I have to confess that we did not actually visit the square as the it rained on the evening that we had planned to explore there. I have however included it on my list as it is considered one of the top sights. Originally a place of public execution, the square’s name means ‘assembly of the dead’. Today the Djemaa draws the crowds for more pleasant pastimes such as storytelling, astrology, snake charming and acrobatics. We were told by a local that it is one of the few places he would brave the street food as so fresh. However you will need to take good care of your handbag too!
Madrassa Ben Youssef
It was originally the largest Islamic study centre in North Africa, the 14th-century Ali ben Youssef Quranic school is masterpiece of Hispano-Moresque architecture. Above the entrance, an inscription reads, ‘You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded,’ and the jewel-like courtyard that awaits certainly lives up to the promise. Unfortunately this was closed during our visit for restoration, but again I thought I would include on my list as apparently it is staggering inside with every surface covered in cedar, carvings and mosaics.
WHERE TO EAT IN MARRAKECH
Marrakesh is full of wonderful places to eat, but it can be daunting! We were very lucky as the manager of our Riad Hikaya was so helpful in recommending places to eat so we took his advice and will share with you.
This was one of my favourite meals – housed within a magnificent riad with orange trees, fountains and ceramic courtyards, PeppeNero is a beautiful setting. As the name suggests it serves a mix of Italian and Moroccan food with 2 menus. We sampled both and the food was delicious. I would highly recommend as both the atmosphere and service also lived up to the food. Great wine list too!
Set in a beautiful 17thcentury riad this traditional Moroccan restaurant has a great atmosphere and friendly service. We started our evening with cocktails on an amazing roof terrace followed by Tagine in the stunning courtyard. The restaurant is quite pricey and I am not sure if we just were unlucky but we found the food a little disappointing, but would definitely recommend for the ambience and setting! Be warned there are belly dancers too!!
Top Tip – Dar Zellig is nearly impossible to find. We were met from our taxi by an escort from the restaurant who guided us there.
This Italian restaurant was recommended by the owner of the Riad as one of his favourites. We felt a little bad abandoning the Moroccan theme, but any feeling of remorse was soon forgotten as we jumped into a taxi and headed towards the New Town and had a lovely evening at the Catanzara. It is a lively restaurant with a very Italian family atmosphere and the food was great and well priced. It does not give you the authentic Moroccan setting, but if you want a break from the couscous and a less pricey meal with an Italian buzz, I would definitely recommend.
WHERE TO FIND A REFRESHING LUNCHTIME BEER IN MARRAKESH
This may sound easy, but interestingly this is the thing that surprised me the most about Marrakesh and it almost made me respect their culture more. The Moroccans are very hospitable, tolerant and want to accommodate, but they do not want it flaunted. You therefore cannot just walk into anywhere and ask for a cold beer as many places do not have a license to serve alcohol. Some of the more international restaurants/hotels/riads will serve alcohol, but you will be asked to sit somewhere descreet away from the road and it is always worth checking first. To get you started here are a couple of places we found when thirsty!
While exploring Marrakesh we found this bar in the corner of the Place des Feblantiers. They were lighting the fire as we arrived as it had been quite cold and wet that day. The downstairs bar is elegant and cosy, but apparently there is a great roof terrace where you can look over the square and observe the stalk nests too. It is also a restaurant and serves a diverse menu of both traditional Moroccan and Asian food too
Grand Café de la Poste
While walking from the Jardin Marjorelle through the Geuliz (New Town), we found this imposing restaurant at the corner of the main shopping area. Cold beer was calling as it was a glorious hot day, so we ventured inside. It almost had a colonial feel about it and you can either sit outside and watch the world go by or head inside. We had done a lot of walking so we decided to have lunch there too. The food was very mediocre and would not recommend, but it definitely had a pleasant atmosphere and worth a visit if craving a cold beer in a nice setting and you are in the area.
After a busy morning at the Souks we found a table on the roof terrace of Café Arabe looking over the Medina. We enjoyed a cold beer and a delicious Morrocan Meze. Sadly it was our last day so had to head off to the airport but we could definitely imagine that Café Arabe is somewhere you could spend many hours. It would also be lovely in the evening for sundowners and a meal. Aparently great cocktails too!
We had a very special few days in Marrakesh and timed it perfectly as when we returned to the UK, it was almost like the Beast from the East had never happened. However it definitely felt like somebody had turned the lights out and the world had turned monochrome after the wonderful colours of Marrakesh. I would definitely love to return to Morocco. We felt very safe (apart from when crossing the roads!). We also found the Moroccans very hospitable and friendly. As Riad Hikaya says ‘The welcome of this country is in its smile‘. I think they are right and the ‘smile’ has stayed with me.
I hope this review is helpful and please let us know if you have any places or sites that you would recommend in Marrakesh, we would love to hear from you.