Snake charmers coax swaying cobras from reed baskets, red and blue dressed water carriers pose for tourists and an array of local delicacies sizzle on open grills in Jemaa el-Fnaa square. Marrakech, ever enticing, makes for a colourful and exotic holiday.
So how do you get the best out of the city and where can you go for authentic experiences?
Where to shop
For anyone visiting Marrakech for the first time, the old town’s colourful, heaving medina is a must, even if it is geared towards tourism. Many of the souks sell similar wares (silver tea-trays and tea glasses, filigree metal lanterns and tajine pots are everywhere), but if you’re prepared to haggle, it’s fun. Remember, your opening bid should be half what you are prepared to pay.
One souk shop with a difference is Akbar Delights, which also has a sister shop, Moor, in the modern suburb of Gueliz. Both sell exquisite linens, lanterns, kaftans and babouches (pointed slip-on shoes).
Some shoppers prefer the calm order of western-style shops, where prices are fixed, if a little higher. The shoe shop Atika at 34 rue de la Liberte has a cult following, with affordable ballerina flats and loafers in a range of gorgeous colours.
Then have a reviving mint tea on the roof terrace of Le Grand Balcon du Café Glacier on UNESCO-designated Jemaa el-Fnaa square while watching life below in all its variety, from food stalls to fire-eaters.
Rooftop retreats in Marrakech
When you need to escape the bustle, visit the exquisite Jardin Majorelle, a tranquil retreat of shady lanes, exotic palms and cool pools in the heart of the Ochre City.
Atmospheric Le Foundouk at the northern edge of the souk has a lovely rooftop garden which is a great spot for lunch.
For evening dining try fabulous Le Tobsil, a traditional Moroccan restaurant in a former palace in the medina. A set meal for two is around £86 with wine. For atmosphere and spectacle, try Le Comptoir Darna, Marrakech’s best-known nightspot, for dinner and a belly-dancing show. Dinner for two is about £50 without wine.
Where to stay: boutique and five-star
Try boutique riad hotel El Fenn, hidden behind a gnarled old doorway in the medina. El Fenn is a vibrant but peaceful oasis, owned by Vanessa Branson, decorated in rich ochres and mauves. There are cool courtyard gardens, swimming pools and resident tortoises. From the roof terrace you can see the soaring minaret tower of Koutoubia mosque. Little is more atmospheric than the call to prayer. Double rooms range from £150-450 a night depending on the season. Book through El Fenn.
Or for five-star treatment in a traditional riad setting there’s the sumptuous Royal Mansour. A one-bedroom riad starts from approximately £685 a night.
Villa des Orangers is another luxury option and a truly remarkable riad located a few minutes walk from the main square and the famous Marrakech souks. It is one of the few hotels in central Marrakech with a full sized swimming pool that is well exposed to the sun for good swimming and sunbathing throughout the day. The room rate includes breakfast and a light lunch.
Alternatively, Dar Sana villa sleeps just four people and offers privacy, charm and a stunning tented roof terrace. Hakima, the housekeeper, works at the riad throughout the day. She will prepare breakfast everyday and for an extra charge can also provide lunch or dinner when required. Dar Sana is located close to the Bab Doukkala mosque and is ten minutes from the other sights of Marrakech, while some of the cities best restaurants are just minutes away.
Sahara and the Atlas mountains
Most of the hotels in Marrakech organise excursions, such as two- or three-day trips into the Sahara including a night in a desert camp. Trips are bespoke with prices on request.
Alternatively, take a trip to the Atlas Mountains, around an hour from the city. Go hill-trekking with a local guide then flop by the pool in hotel Kasbah Tamadot, owned by Richard Branson. During high season (until 15 November) rates start from £392 per double room per night.
When the colour and chaos of Marrakech gets too much, consider staying in the tranquil countryside. Hotel Capaldi is half an hour’s drive away from the city, across a rolling plain dotted with Berber villages, olive farms and cypress trees, and boasts magnificent views of the Atlas mountains. The roomy suites overlook lush palm-shaded gardens, which contain two pools. Rooms start from £121 low season and £135 during peak months.
Idyllic Lake Lalla Takerkoust is a beautiful 40-minute hike from the hotel. You can swim, take out a pedalo or simply enjoy lunch in one of the many small restaurants by the shore.
Hotel Capaldi can also organise a range of excursions, such as camel trekking and horse riding for about £65 (1000dhs) for two people. A two-hour dune buggy excursion to the foothills of the Atlas mountains, through Berber villages and the Agafay Desert, is about £108 (1,650 Dhs) per buggy for two people.
Also nearby is the Beldi Country Club, a family friendly hotel designed like a Moroccan village (beldi means traditional). There is a spa, pools, tennis courts and restaurants set amid olive groves and gardens.
Activities include pottery making, Moroccan cookery classes and golf. The hotel has a partnership at neighbouring Golf Royal Marrakech and Assoufid Golf clubs. Price per room from £137 (€185), including breakfast.
To tailor your trip and organise everything from hot air balloon rides to booking the best hammam in the city, try Lawrence of Morocco. An expert in multi-centre trips (and having lived in Marrakech for 12 years), the owner, Max Lawrence, and his team offer great recommendations and secret knowledge.