Things to do in Marrakech, Morocco: An Instagram travel guide to the colourful imperial city
Marrakech was everything that I hoped for, and more. A former imperial city of the Berber Empire, Marrakech offers the walled labyrinth of the Medina — a medieval town with its colourful souks, hidden gardens and mesmerising palaces — played out against the economic throb of modern Gueliz; the new neighbourhood with its equally as charming long boulevards and avenues peppered with hip cafes, emerging local designers, and grand five-star resorts. It's a city that effortlessly fuses the old with the new, but all painted in dusty hues of red ochre.
In short, like the famed Moroccon tajine dish, it is an exotic melting pot of irresistable flavours: A gamey heart of ancient mosques and mosaics (lamb) seasoned with the sweetness of its indulgent spa rituals (prunes) and finished with the gritty crunch, and often cut-throat, marketplace antics (almonds). And, aesthetically, just as Instagrammable. (Hello! If it didn't happen on social media, it didn't really happen.)
Having just returned from a four day jaunt in Marrakech, let me share my favourite restaurants, shops, hotels, markets, local brands, and more in this Moroccan capital. The following are my personal recommendations — tried, tested, and Instagrammed — to inform and inspire you to visit this "Red City" the next time you're in Africa. But it's not just the best places to take a photo. (Guys, c'mon, I'm not that shollow.) To help with your decision-making process (that is, answer the question: "Can I be bothered to leave my riad pool to brave the heat?"), I have provided an 'IRL-worthy' rating alongside an 'Instagram-worthy' rating for each recommendation. I know, brilliant.
WHAT TO DO IN THE MEDINA (OLD TOWN)
The first place to hit up has to be the Medina with its bustling souks, meandering alleyways, and Africa's busiest open-air market, Jemaa El-Fnaa (see image at the top). It's a circus, and you should have your guard up for pesky pick-pockets, but as long as you have your wits about you, you should be fine. Be alert, not alarmed. And for crying out loud, take off your gold Rollie and Cartier jewellery. As it is, you're going to be ripped off left, right and centre, so don't go looking like you just flew in on a private jet. As a general bargaining rule (as recommended by the locals), offer 20% to the initial seller price and settle at about 50%. And remember: If they agree too easily or quickly, you're doing it wrong.
Instagram-worthy rating: 7/10 (not a fan of the busy 'gram)
IRL-worthy rating: 10/10 (must visit, must shop, must bargain)
Once you've bought your rose water sprays and leather babouche slip-ons (all carried in your new hand-woven basket, of course) be sure to check out Le Jardin Secret for a Game of Thrones-esque manicured garden complete with stunning cacti, curtained patio, and a sweeping grass courtyard that will blow, your, mind. A real hidden oasis in the Medina that's best visited in the morning when the mercury is still relatively low and, importantly, before the crowds pack in after lunch.
Instagram-worthy rating: 8/10 (but you have to love green)
IRL-worthy rating: 9/10 (welcome escape from the chaotic souks)
Within the bordered old town are a handful of palaces that are worth the half-day excursion. My favourites include Palais Bahia (built in the 19th century by the Grand Vizier of Marrakech, Si Ahmed ben Musa, for his harem of wives and concubines) for it's courtyard after courtyard of the finest Moroccan mosaic and stucco handiwork, as well as the ruins of the El Badi Palace (built in 1578 by Saadian sultan Ahmad al-Mansur) with its underground tunnel of connecting rooms, and towering red sandstone walls (now the nesting place for many black-and-white storks which the Berbers believe to be transformed humans, and thus, holy animals). Pro-tip: Take the steps up to the terrace for a closer look at the storks and panoramic views of the Medina.
Instagram-worthy rating: 9/10 (those symmetrical courtyards)
IRL-worthy rating: 9/10 (a glimpse into Marrakech's former glory)
Finally, before leaving the old town, be sure to check out Ben Youssef Madrasa (a former Koranic school that used to house as many as 900 students) and the adjacent Marrakech Museum for a history lesson of this exotic city. They are both located in the north of the Medina and can be checked off the list within an hour tops; depending on how long it takes for you to take that money shot. Pro-tip: Be sure to head to the second floor of the Ben Youssef Madrasa to explore the classrooms that overlook the central courtyard.
Instagram-worthy rating: 9/10 (mosaic courtyards are TDF)
IRL-worthy rating: 9/10 (more so for the Madrasa than Museum)
WHAT TO DO IN GUELIZ (NEW NEIGHBOURHOOD)
They say you can't visit Marrakech without visiting Majorelle Garden — the botanical garden and cobalt-blue residence (Villa Bou Saf Saf) finished by French painter Jacques Majorelle after forty years in 1962; and subsequently, purchased by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé in 1980. Fun fact: Yves Saint Laurent renamed Villa Bou Saf Saf to Villa Oasis and lived there with Bergé for a period of time, citing the garden as a constant source of inspiration for his designs. When Yves Saint Laurent passed away in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the rose garden of the Villa Oasis, which is now marked by a Roman column as a memorial to the fashion designer. But to be honest, Le Jardin Secret (mentioned above) is a better bet: Gorgeous and peaceful without the clamouring tourists.
Instagram-worthy rating: 7/10 (tourists keep blocking your shot)
IRL-worthy rating: 7/10 (feels too commercialised)
My favourite discovery — you'll find that everything in Marrakech, from its food to its fashion, is a constant discovery — has to be local label, Marrakshi Life. Founded by New York fashion photographer Randall Bachner (who decided to stay in Marrakech after falling in love with the city during his visit four years ago), Marrakshi Life creates modern men's and women's ready-to-wear pieces from unique fabrics all hand-loomed in Marrakesh. In fact, when you visit Bachner's white-washed studios, you'll also meet the craftsmen behind the looms; meticulously weaving each weft and warp to create stunning robes, kaftans and romper suits. You'll find it hard to leave without nabbing a few pieces (guilty!).
Instagram-worthy rating: 8/10 (capture the looming process)
IRL-worthy rating: 10/10 (great pieces for our humid climate)
Looking for contemporary designer accessories? Then pay Lalla Boutique a visit. A multi-brand store stocking local Moroccan designers (including caps from Marrakshi Life) I recommend the bright terry toweling tote bags (perfect for the pool) and hand-embroidered carpet bags and clutches (for an exotic exclamation mark to any outfit) by designer Laetitia Trouillet. There are also handmade jewellery and tees, including some candy-coloured 'Marrakech' tourist tops that are too good to resist.
Instagram-worthy rating: 7/10 (products better for flatlays)
IRL-worthy rating: 8/10 (remember to buy gifts for friends)
WHERE TO EAT IN THE MEDINA (OLD TOWN)
Straight off the bat, you have to make a reservation for dinner at Dar Zellij. Located in the north-eastern corner of the Medina, this 17th century riad (yes, 17th century) takes some good navigation to locate, but once you walk into the courtyard and smell the blossoms from the orange trees, not to mention taste their uber authentic tajines, you'll understand why this restaurant is consistently voted as one of the best in Marrakech. To avoid getting lost in the maze-like alleyways (especially at night), book a tuk tuk with your hotel or restaurant to and from Dar Zellij.
Instagram-worthy rating: 8/10 (servers wear white jilbabs)
IRL-worthy rating: 9/10 (even has live music)
For a tasty and affordable lunch option, head on over to Le Jardin (which is quite close to Le Jardin Secret; so consider doing both on the same day) which serves modern Moroccan fare in the tranquil surrounds of its open-air garden courtyard paved with green tiles. There is a retail store above the restaurant selling flowing kaftans in kinetic prints, but personally, the best thing about Le Jardin are the two pet turtles boldly roaming around (and inbetween the feet of diners) within the garden. Watch your step.
Instagram-worthy rating: 7/10 (it's more about the food)
IRL-worthy rating: 8/10 (good grub at reasonable prices)
If you're looking for a rooftop dining experience, two yuppy options (read: frequented by tourists) are Terrasse des Éspices and NOMAD; both of which are owned by the same proprietor, and both are located in the heart of the Medina. Although they both serve Moroccan cuisine, the former is more traditional (offering tajine dishes in the actual clay pots) whilst the latter has a younger vibe (plating dishes with a contemporary flair). In my opinion, Terrasse des Éspices has better food, but NOMAD has a better view (especially during sunset). Pro-tip: Try the flourless cardamom ginger orange cake for dessert at NOMAD. Worth every calorie.
Instagram-worthy rating: 7/10 (Terrasse des Éspices); 9/10 (NOMAD)
IRL-worthy rating: 8/10 (Terrasse des Éspices and NOMAD)
WHERE TO EAT IN GUELIZ (NEW NEIGHBOURHOOD)
Of all the Moroccan restaurants that I tried in Marrakech, the winner for best cuisine was definitely Al Fassia Restaurant. There's nothing really appealing about the decor — in fact, it was a bit old hat and cliché with red velvet pillows — but when it came to the food, it was refined and full of exquisite flavour (try the meatball tajine with egg for a tasty protein hit). However, if you want something with a bit of soul and spirit, then book a table at Grand Café de la Poste just off the main drag in Gueliz. The crowd is definitely more established here, but with the ferns, checkerboard tiles, standing red lamps, and tables illuminated with candles, it's terribly colonial chic in that Golden Age cinema kind of way. And critically, the food is very decent, serving up French cuisine with Mediterranean accents.
Instagram-worthy rating: 5/10 (Al Fassia); 9/10 (Grand Café de la Poste)
IRL-worthy rating: 9/10 (Al Fassia and Grand Café de la Poste)
If you're wondering where the PYTs (Pretty Young Things) head to in the Gueliz, then look no further then Kechmara. An industrial sheet metal exterior opens up to a sun-filled cafe on the ground floor that transitions into a cosy rooftop space on the second for dinner and drinks; so whether you're in the mood for brunch or a bubbly, be sure to pay this eatery a visit. Bonus: Literally a hundred metres from Lalla Boutique.
Instagram-worthy rating: 9/10 (I'm a sucker for concrete walls and art)
IRL-worthy rating: 9/10 (Great vibe, great tucker, great service)
WHERE TO STAY IN MARRAKECH
The first thing you have to consider when booking accommodation in Marrakech is this: Do you want to have a local riad experience or do you want to check into a five-star resort? Sure, there are options in between, but those are really your two main stays. For me, hands down, I knew I wanted to try the Moroccan riad lifestyle. So, after much online research and recommendations from friends, I booked two nights at Dar Seven — a gorgeous riad in the north-eastern corner of the Medina (just 50 metres from restaurant Dar Zellij) — and, comforting to know, also comes with the Mr and Mrs Smith (that is, the world's leading luxury boutique hotel curator) tick of approval.
Full disclosure: Finding the riad is tough, but thoughtfully, the hotel arranged for staff to pick us up at the taxi drop-off point (the winding streets are too small for cars to pass through) and carry our luggage to Dar Seven. Once the metal doors to the riad swing open, you are greeted with a jaw-dropping light-saturated courtyard. In one corner, a palm tree towers over a couch and coffee table where a freshly brewed pot of mint tea, local treats, and white roses await. And then, the rooms. I recommend either the White Room (with its sophisticated blush tones and high four-poster bed kitted out in white linen) or the Loggia Suite (masculine black-and-white decor with its own private balcony overlooking the courtyard) which are both located on the second floor. Best thing about Dar Seven? The cool breeze drifting through open windows at night (no mosquitos!) after a hot summer's day.
Instagram-worthy rating: 9/10 (Makes you want to own your own riad for reals)
IRL-worthy rating: 9/10 (Fantastic service, super close to the Medina souks, but weak wifi)
What if you want the riad experience plus the five-star bells and whistles? Then save up your pretty pennies and stay at the impossibly decadent Royal Mansour located in the Gueliz. Why impossibly decadent? Consider this: It took 1,000 craftsmen working day-and-night for three years to complete the hotel; cedar wood throughout the estate is hand-painted with natural pigments so the colours don't bleed; every room and common area is decorated with countless hand-placed mosaic tiles; there is silver inlay in the wooden tables; blue and gold marble was imported from Italy to furnish the restaurants; chandeliers are handmade from Baccarat crystals; and walls are routinely padded and adorned with silk brocade.
But the real icing on the cake? All riads (mine had three floors with a private plunge pool and two sun chairs on the rooftop) have secret service doors on each level, allowing staff to privately and discreetly enter the rooms. It's all rather posh and Downtown Abbey-like, which sounds all fine and dandy, until you return one night after dinner only to be surprised (actually, I almost had a heart attack) by housekeeping quietly turning down your room. Recommendation to Royal Mansour: If housekeeping enters your riad and you're out, they should place a swing tag on the main door to alert guests. And what about the famous Royal Mansour Spa — routinely touted by locals and foreigners alike as the best in the world? I tried the 90-minute hammam with argan oil massage treatment. Verdict: Good, but overrated and overpriced.
Instagram-worthy rating: 10/10 (Royal Mansour and Royal Mansour Spa)
IRL-worthy rating: 9/10 (Royal Mansour); 7/10 (Royal Mansour Spa)
Check back every Monday for another @MusingMutley column from Norman Tan, Editor-in-Chief of Buro 24/7 Singapore. Read more columns from @MusingMutley.