Tuesday, 27 December 2011

20 great things to do in Marrakech

1. Circle the Koutoubia Mosque

The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech’s most famous symbol – built in a traditional Almohad style and topped with four copper globes – is visible from near and far. It is not really that high (77 metres), but thanks to local topography and a local ordinance that forbids any other building in the Medina to be higher than a palm tree, it towers majestically over its surroundings. Still an active place of worship, non-Muslims may not enter. But it’s possible to get a good view of the exterior by walking around either side.

2. Spend your dihrams at the souks

There are few more pleasurable ways to waste time in Marrakech than wandering around the seemingly endless maze of markets.
The area of the Medina north of the Jemaa El Fna is commercial – at least in its more central areas – with a fibrous network of souks. Beginning on the north edge, the souks comprise alleyway upon alleyway of tiny retail cubicles. The further in you venture the more interesting they become.
The two main routes into their heart are rue Semarine (aka Souk Semarine) and rue Mouassine; the former offers the more full-on blast of bazaar, the latter is a more sedate path leading to choice boutiques.
Every section has its own speciality: carpets and textiles; woollen hats and cooked snails; spices and magic supplies; cotton, clothing, kaftans and blankets – and most importantly raffia bags and baskets, which you'll need to carry all your purchases in.

3. Learn about Islamic scripture and law

The Ben Youssef Medersa, a Quranic school, dedicated to the teaching of Islamic scripture and law, was founded in the 14th century, then enlarged in the 16th. It was given a further polishing up in the 1990s courtesy of the Ministry of Culture.
Entrance is via a long, cool passageway leading to the great courtyard, a serene place centred on a water-filled basin. The surrounding façades are decorated with zelije tiling, stucco and carved cedar, all executed with restraint. At the far side is the domed prayer hall with the richest of decoration, notably around the mihrab, the arched niche that indicates the direction of Mecca.
Back in the entrance vestibule, passageways and two flights of stairs lead to more than 100 tiny windowless students’ chambers, clustered about small internal lightwells. Medieval as it seems, the medersa was still in use until as recently as 1962.
Ben Youssef Medersa, Place Ben Youssef (no phone). Open 9am-6.30pm daily.

4. Don some new threads

Akbar Delights (Souks 45 place Bab Fteuh) is an upmarket French-owned boutique specialising in luxury clothing and textiles from Kashmir, with some items made to their own designs. The tiny space is crammed with embroidered tops and dresses, cotton robes, silk shawls and scarves, plus shimmery, golden shoulder bags. The only made-in-Morocco items are some extraordinary brocaded babouches.
Atelier Moro (Souks 114 place de Mouassine, Mouassine, +212 5 24 39 10 78) contains a cool, eclectic selection of homeware, clothes, accessories and carpets chosen by Viviana Gonzalez of Riad El Fenn. Some of the clothes are designed by Viviana herself, but most of the stock is Moroccan, often the work of nameless artisans that would otherwise be lost in the souks.

5. Descend into Moorish history

Set in its own fenced enclosure and sunk several metres below the current street level, is the Koubba El-Badiyin. It looks unprepossessing but it’s the only surviving structure from the era of the Almoravids, the founders of Marrakech, and as such it represents a wormhole back to the origins of Moorish building history. It dates to the reign of Ali ben Youssef (1107-43) and was probably part of the ablutions complex of the original Ben Youssef Mosque. It’s worth paying the slight admission fee to descend the brickwork steps and view the underside of the dome, which is a kaleidoscopic arrangement of a floral motif within an octagon within an eight-pointed star.
Place Ben Youssef (no phone). Open Apr-Sept 9am-7pm daily. Oct-Mar 9am-6pm daily.

6. Get arts & crafty, Moroccan style

On display in Maison Tiskiwin, a private house owned by veteran Dutch anthropologist Bert Flint, is his fascinating collection of crafts and decorative arts from southern Morocco and the Sahara. The exhibition is designed to show Morocco’s connection to sub-Saharan Africa and is geographically laid out to take you on a virtual journey across the Sahara to Timbuktu. Exhibits include masks from as far afield as Mali and an entire Berber tent made of camel hair.
8 derb El-Bahia, off Riad Zitoun El-Jedid (+212 5 24 38 91 92). Open 9am-12.30pm, 3-6pm daily.

7. Be grave at the ancient Saadian Tombs

Flanking the south side of the Kasbah Mosque, the site of what is possibly Marrakech’s most visited monument is an ancient walled garden, the use of which far predates the Saadian era. Dotted around the shrubbery are early mosaic graves; the identity of those interred is long lost. Attention instead focuses on the three pavilions built during the reign of Saadian sultan Ahmed El-Mansour.
First on the left is the Prayer Hall, which holds numerous graves, mainly of Alaouite princes from the 18th century. Next to it is the Hall of Twelve Columns, a more ornate affair with three central tombs surrounded by a dozen marble pillars. The tomb in the middle is that of Ahmed El-Mansour, flanked by those of his son and grandson. A third, stand-alone pavilion has ornate Andalucian-style entrance portals.
Rue de Kasbah, Bab Agnaou (no phone). Open 8.30-11.45am, 2.30-5.45pm daily.

8. Explore Morocco through its museums

The Dar Si Said Museum (Riad Zitoun El-Jedid, +212 5 24 38 95 64), former home of the brother of Ba Ahmed, builder of the Bahia, now houses a large collection of crafts and woodwork. Among all the kitchen implements, weapons and musical instruments are beautiful examples of carved cedar, rescued from the city’s lost dwellings.
Inaugurated in 1997, the Musée de Marrakech (Place Ben Youssef, +212 5 24 44 18 93, http://www.museedemarrakech.ma/) is housed in a converted early 20th-century house. The museum exhibits rotate, but the star attraction is the building itself, particularly the tartishly tiled great central court, roofed over and hung with an enormous chandelier that looks like the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The former hammam is lovely and makes a fine exhibition space.

9. Breath in Marrakech's pungent tanneries

To experience Marrakech at its most medieval – and most pungent – visit the tannery district. The tanners have been here since the city was founded and their work remains a pre-industrial process, using hundreds of vats full of foul liquids to cure animal hides. The eventual products can be seen and purchased at the leather shops near the gate, but you may prefer to get the hell out of the quarter and purge yourself in the nearest hammam.

10. Step into a Sultan's palace

Constructed by Sultan Ahmed El-Mansour (1578-1607), the Badii Palace is one of the two principal monuments of the Saadian era (the other is the Saadian Tombs). Today it survives only as a denuded ruin, but once it was a model of triumphal ostentation. Walls and ceilings were encrusted with gold from Timbuktu, while the inner court had a massive central pool with an island, flanked by four sunken gardens. At the centre of each of the four massive walls were four pavilions, also flanked by arrangements of pools and fountains. It took some 25 years to complete the palace and barely were the inaugural celebrations over before the ageing ruler passed away. His palace remained intact for less than a century before the Merenid sultan, Moulay Ismail, had it stripped bare and the riches carted north for his new capital at Meknès.
Place des Ferblantiers (no phone). Open 8.30-11.45am, 2.30-5.45pm daily.

11. Shop in a handicrafts department store

Don’t let the humble entrance fool you – Centre Artisanal is the closest thing to a department store in Marrakech, albeit a department store selling nothing but handicrafts. It’s the ultimate souvenir store, with everything from trad clothing (babouches, jellabas, kaftans) to jewellery, and home furnishings to carpets. Prices are fixed at slightly above what you would pay in the souk, but this at least does away with tiresome haggling.
Kasbah 7 Derb Baissi Kasbah (+212 5 24 38 18 53). Open 8.30am-7pm daily.

12. Eat in fabulous surroundings

There are plenty of picturesque places to eat in Marrakech, but two are stand out. The setting for the Pavillion (North Medina Derb Zaouia, Bab Doukkala) – the courtyard of a splendid old house where tables cluster under the spreading boughs of a massive tree – is superlative, while Narwama (Jemaa El Fna & Koutoubia Mosque 30 rue Koutoubia, +212 5 24 44 08 44, http://www.narwama.com/, open 9am-7pm daily), the city’s first proper Thai restaurant, is housed in the central courtyard of a palatial 19th-century residence. It’s an enormous space that, with its potted palms, pastel hues and global lounge music, feels like a Buddha Bar night in some orientalist conservatory.

13. Get leathered

Chez Said specialises in fashionable leather bags, decorated with coins or beads, or just a simple metal disc on the front. Designs come in both modern and vintage styles. The leather is either au natural or dyed; when the latter, colouring is properly fixed and doesn’t come off on your clothes. Said speaks English, and also sells his bags in bulk to certain well-known stores in the UK.
Souks 155 Souk Chkairia (+212 5 24 39 09 31). Open 9.30am-7.30pm daily.

14. Appreciate modern art

Marrakech is bereft of theatres and music venues, and the few cinemas aren’t going to be showing much you’ll understand, but there’s a growing commercial gallery scene.
Housed in a gorgeous townhouse is the Medina’s premier exhibition space, Dar Cherifa (Souks 8 Derb Charfa Lakbir, Mouassine, +212 5 24 42 64 63). Parts of the building date back to the 16th century and it has been lovingly restored by owner Abdelatif ben Abdellah. Regular exhibitions lean towards resident foreign artists, but there have also been shows by Moroccan artists Hassan Hajjaj and Milaudi Nouiga.
When Galerie 127 (Guéliz 127 avenue Mohammed V, 2nd floor, +212 5 24 43 26 67, galerie127mohammedV@hotmail.fr) opened in 2006 it became the first photo gallery in the Maghreb and only the third in Africa. It got off to a good start with an opening show by Tony Catany. The king bought 30 of the photographs.
Galerie Rê (Guéliz Résidence Al-Andalus III, angle rue de la Mosquée and Ibn Touert No.3, +212 5 24 43 22 58) is a serious and lavishly designed contemporary gallery for changing exhibitions by mostly ‘Moroccan and Mediterranean’ artists. Upstairs is a selection from established Moroccan artists such as Abdelkarim Ouazzani, Tibari Kantour and Mohammed Lagzouli.
The Light Gallery (Kasbah 2 derb Chtouka, light.marrakech@gmail.com) kicked off in 2007 with photographs of neon and fluorescent lights by Gilles Coulon, then moved on to drawings by Swiss painter Mathias Schauwecker. It’s a big, bright, modern space where they also sell a few clothes, books, and have some small photos for sale from the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton and Martin Parr.
The Matisse Art Gallery (Guéliz 61 rue Yougoslavie, No.43 passage Ghandouri, +212 5 24 44 83 26, matisseartgallery@gmail.com) is a decent space devoted to solo shows by young Moroccan artists such as calligraphy painters Nouredine Chater and Nouredine Daifellah, and figurative painter Driss Jebrane. More established names are also exhibited, such as Farid Belkahia and Hassan El-Glaoui (the late son of the former ‘Lord of the Atlas’ was devoted to painting horses).

15. Have a belly (dance) full

Marrakchi socialites will tell you that Comptoir is sooo over, but on the right night it’s still the best party in town. From the outside it’s a well-behaved little villa on a quiet residential street, but inside the place buzzes with dressed-up diners on the ground floor, while upstairs is a sizeable lounge filled each weekend night to within a whisper of health and safety violations. The crowd is a mix of good-looking locals, sharper expats and wide-eyed tourists delighted to have stumbled on the Marrakech they’d always heard about. Drinks are pricey but the nightly belly-dancers are hilarious.
Hivernage Avenue Echouhada (+212 5 24 43 77 02, http://www.comptoirdarna.com/). Open 7pm-1am daily. Admission free.

16. Find your Moroccan groove

Pacha (Zone hôtelière de l’Agdal Boulevard Mohammed VI, +212 5 24 38 84 00, http://www.pachamarrakech.com/) is an enormous complex which, apart from the club itself, also includes two restaurants – Jana and Crystal – as well as a chill-out lounge and swimming pool. The dancefloor and bars can accommodate up to 3,000 smiley souls, and guest DJs are flown in most weekends. The names include many of those you’ll find elsewhere on the international Pacha circuit. The club is some 7km south of town, so getting there and back can be pricey.
Almost too big for its own good, Palais Jad Mahal (Hivernage 10 rue Haroun Errachid, http://www.jad-mahal.com/), just outside Bab Jdid, has a nice restaurant and bar with (usually) a boring live band playing vintage rock covers on the ground floor, and a voluminous club down below (separate entrance along the street, admission 100dh) that today houses a nightly ‘oriental cabaret’ frequented mostly by Moroccans.
Thêatro (Hivernage Hotel Es Saadi, avenue El-Qadissia, +212 5 24 44 88 11, http://www.theatromarrakech.com/Theatro/install2/) is where you’ll find the hippest, best-informed locals. The venue was once a theatre; now, the stalls are filled with sofas, while the balcony is tiered with throw cushions. A series of semi-private, gauze-veiled crash crèches fill the stage, while the former orchestra pit houses a long curved bar, well stocked with chilled champagne and Red Bull. The sound system is thunderous, and psychedelic cinema projections entertain the eye – it’s just a pity no one thought to leave space for a dancefloor. Look out for nights by Sound of Marrakech, as well as occasional international names. Open daily from 11.30pm.

17. Grab a cocktail on a roof terrace

A café by day and restaurant by night, Kechmara also functions well as a lively and convivial bar. There’s a long bar counter to the right as you enter with a tap for bière pression, back shelves lined with spirits and bar stools for perching. The menu lists long drinks and cocktails, which are also served on a spacious roof terrace.
Guéliz 3 rue de la Liberté (+212 5 24 42 25 32). Open 7am-midnight Mon-Sat. Admission free.

18. And relax... at a hammam

House in a big old house near the Royal Palace, Dar Karma (Kasbah 51 derb El-Mennabha, +212 5 24 38 58 78, http://www.dar-karma.com/) was once the home of Mohammed V’s French translator. An elegant maison d’hôte since 2003, it retains something of a homely air, despite such mod cons as a small swimming pool and a water-mist cooling system on the roof terrace. The hammam is very grand indeed.
One of the longer established guesthouses in the Palmeraie, Les Deux Tours (Palmeraie Douar Abiad, +212 5 24 32 95 27, http://www.les-deuxtours.com/) is the sublime work of premier Marrakchi architect Charles Boccara. Guests share the most attractive of outdoor pools, keyhole shaped and fringed by perfectly maintained lawns, as well as a stunning subterranean hammam.
Les Jardins de la Medina (Kasbah 21 derb Chtouka, +212 5 24 38 18 51, http://www.lesjardinsdelamedina.com/), the former royal residence has been a luxurious 36-room hotel since 2001. A big international restaurant, a splendid hammam, a decent gym and a beauty salon round off the services.

19. Join the party

Four key events for the diary: January sees the Marrakech Marathon (http://www.marathon-marrakech.com/); February, the Dakka Marrakchia Festival (www.morocco.com/blog/dakka-marrakchia-festival-a-musical-celebration), an annual festival of traditional Marrakechi music; July the National Festival of Popular Arts (http://www.marrakechfestival.com/), a five-day celebration of Morocco’s arts; and December the Marrakech International Film Festival (http://en.festivalmarrakech.info/).

20. Sleep in Moorish luxury

The creation of designer Meryanne Loum-Martin and her ethnobotanist husband Dr Gary Martin, Jnane Tamsna (Palmeraie Douar Abiad, +212 5 24 32 84 84, http://www.jnane.com/) is a ‘Moorish hacienda’ with seven opulent suites and 17 gorgeous rooms, set in five buildings scattered around some beautiful gardens, each with its own pool. The architecture is vernacular chic, coloured in the palest tones of primrose, peppermint and clay and enhanced by Loum-Martin’s own inspired furniture. Surrounding fruit orchards, herb and vegetable gardens provide organic produce for the kitchen.
Char-Bagh (Palmeraie, +212 5 24 32 92 44, http://www.ksarcharbagh.com/) takes the Moroccan fantasy trip to extremes. A charming French couple have re-created an Alhambran palace court on a kasbah-sized scale. A moated gatehouse with six-metre-high beaten metal doors fronts an arcaded central court with pool. The extensive grounds contain herb and flower gardens, an orchard, an open-air spa and the deepest of swimming pools. Indoor amenities include a cigar salon, a house sommelier, and a chef trained under Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon.
Set in a hectare of lush gardens filled with roses and hibiscus, bougainvillea and palm trees, Dar Zemora (Palmeraie 72 rue El-Aandalib, Ennakhil, +212 5 24 32 82 00, http://www.darzemora.com/) is Marrakech’s answer to the English country-house hotel – perhaps it achieves this status because it’s owned by an English couple, who have remodelled this former private abode beyond all recognition.

Time Out guidebooks

Morocco: perfect places to stay, eat & explore

Time Out Morocco selects 20 of the most idyllic destinations and takes you straight to the loveliest hotels, best restaurants and most compelling sights in each. It includes hip tourist hub Marrakech and other major cities, along with bijou small towns, spectacular beaches, dramatic desert landscapes and breathtaking mountain trails. This inspirational guide is perfect for your next Moroccan break, whether a long weeknd or a fortnight's stay.

Marrakech Shortlist

The Marrakech Shortlist guide selects the very best of Marrakech's sightseeing, restaurants, shopping, nightlife and entertainment, with Time Out's local expertise.