I absolutely love Morocco. Outside of Paris, Marrakech is my favorite city. I had the privilege of attending a design conference there last year with the Leaders of Design Council. Since this was my first trip to Morocco, I planned to stay and explore for an extra week, joined by my wife. I was in Marrakech for the majority of my ten-day visit, except for a brief excursion into the Ourika Valley in the foothills of the high Atlas Mountains, which is home to numerous Berber villages. Its rugged and beautiful geography is strikingly similar to Boulder, Colorado though the architecture makes clear this is not what most of us know as the Rocky Mountains. I was glad I made the day-trip. It served as a calming respite from the high-energy and relative chaos of the Marrakech Medina where I spent the rest of my time.
I feel like I could spend months in Marrakech and still be left wanting more. It’s an amazingly complex and culturally dense city with more mystery and discoveries then you could likely realize in a lifetime.
There is no shortage of wonderful places to stay – each with its own unique character and charm and spanning a continuum of casual privacy to luxury beyond compare. At the Royal Mansour, one can spend anywhere from 1.800 to 36.000 EUR per night! Despite my intention to do so, I didn’t visit the property, but I’m told by friends that it’s unlike any place on earth and worth the time. We stayed in the Medina, the old city, at a place called Palais Dar Donab. It’s a hotel that served as auxiliary royal accommodations until about 20 years ago. It was about 250 EUR per night, which is on the more modest side in Marrakech for something comfortable to westerners. Considering its charm and privacy, it was perfect for us. It’s also located directly across the narrow street from one of the best art galleries in Marrakech, Khalid Art Gallery, and provided great access to many of the stops on my wishlist.
Had it not already been booked, I would have stayed at the Peacock Pavilions. The owner is a lovely woman named Maryam Montague who has lived in Marrakech for eight years. Among other things, she’s a talented interior designer and an American expat who has traveled the globe working as a diplomat for international NGOs. Maryam was a keynote speaker at the conference and is the author of a book called Marrakech by Design – highly recommended! Maryam and her architect husband built the compound outside of the Medina, and it’s amazing. Additionally, with a booking there, you have access to Maryam and her wealth of knowledge and guidance through this wild land.
I highly recommend hiring a guide, as Marrakech and the country in general can border on sensory overload, and it’s really easy to get lost and or taken advantage of if not careful. Our guides (we had a few) were all great, very reasonably priced (about 20 EUR per half day and sometimes free, which I’ll explain later). In addition to getting you to where you want to go safely and quickly and making recommendations, they’re also great at keeping unwanted solicitors at bay…without a guide they will swarm you everywhere!
Based on my observations, outside of the influence of Islam, the culture is based primarily on commerce. It’s a society of clans and as such, nepotism is everywhere. Locals, including guides, are quick to make recommendations. Though often good, their recommendations usually involve a brother or cousin or someone who will offer a kickback on purchases to the person making the recommendation. My primary guide Abdul wouldn’t take money from me because he said he made plenty of commission from the purchases I made while I was there. I was refreshingly surprised by his candor when I asked about how he got paid. I like the idea of hiring more than one guide so that you can access more than one circle of influence. All four of the guides we hired were outstanding.
Some of my favorite experiences in Marrakech include the following:
- Traversing the souks, the markets inside the Medina.
- Strolling the Djemaa el Fna, the old square inside the Medina. This is magical at night with entertainers, snake charmers, magicians, acrobats, musicians, etc. There are hundreds of open-air food stands with family style picnic tables and divinely aromatic smells coming from all directions. I’m told by Maryam that the food is safe and delicious, but my wife would not let us eat there for fear we’d get sick ;-‐(
- Traditional Hammam, an Islamic cleansing spa experience, is not to be missed! This is not a western spa experience; you’ve got to be a little tougher for this one.
- So many unbelievable restaurants. The guidebooks and sites are usually right, but some of the highlights for me include:
- Dinner at the La Mamounia hotel. Have drinks in the gardens behind the hotel too.
- Riad Monceau – wonderful dinner. I ate there twice!
- Dar Moha – had two amazing lunches here. It’s also walking distance from the Khalid Art Gallery.
- Le Foundouk – dinner on the rooftop was a treat.
- Dar Yacout – owned and renovated by the late world famous interior designer Bill Willis and is the most beautiful restaurant we dined in. I’m told the food is great too, but since this was our last night in Marrakech, and I’d already gained 10 lbs, I literally couldn’t eat another bite. I watched each of the ten courses come and go without eating anything!!! But the music and ambience were still magical.
- The Majorelle Gardens – owned by the estate of Yves Saint Laurent, this small, intimate and beautiful garden is home to an amazing Berber museum.
- Riding camels in the Palmery – touristy yes, but we had to do it.
- Shopping – Ninety percent of what is available is tourist crap. The souks are full of “Moroccan” trinkets – many actually made in China. Given my love of great finds and tenacity as a shopper, I was able to get the advice I needed that led me to what I was looking for. I came home with great rugs, beautiful early to mid-century European art, and amazing jewelry and objects of antiquity at great prices. Conning tourists is one of the staples of Moroccan commerce, so be aware.
- Historical architectural tour including the Ben Youssef Madrasa Koranic School. The 11th century architecture is something to behold.