OK, I know that Morocco may not be on the top of everyone’s bucket list. In my case, I had several friends fly over for my birthday celebration in Paris, and then three of us decided we wanted to go somewhere more exotic. Since I had already been to several places in North Africa and the Middle East, but not Morocco, I quickly honed in on Marrakech, the country’s most popular destination for good reason: It has luxurious places to stay, excellent food, a friendly population, good nightlife options, and a number of noteworthy cultural sites. (It also has good connections from Paris, about three hours away.)
Morocco is best to see from late April through June or in September and October. The summer months see the most tourists, the highest prices, and the hottest temperatures, and the winter months can be a bit too cold.
Coming from Paris via Barcelona to Marrakech, one is initially assaulted by the commotion of the place. Indeed, Marrakech, at least around the Medina or old city, is chaotic, dusty, and noisy. It’s critical to pick a place to stay that is calming and relaxing either in the Medina or outside. On our first day in town, we did a half-day tour of the Medina so as to see the main sites: This included the Koutoubia Mosque, the royal palace, a centuries-old madrassa (Ben Youssef), the majestic Majorelle Garden (Yves St. Laurent resided here), and the souk (market) of the old town.
In the souk, shopkeepers can be aggressive in approaching tourists, so put forward a firm “non” (French is second only to Arabic here) unless you want to buy. Any lingering or prolonged eyeballing of products will likely lead to someone grabbing you to come inside for a cup of tea. (Speaking of tea and other foods in town, note that you take some risk of getting sick. I have had some bad experiences in the region and so I always urge other travelers to eat only in places you know have clean preparation.)
It’s nearly impossible to leave the souk without becoming at least a bit curious about spices and the famous Argan oil. The exotic spices make good gifts and I wanted to try out the Argan oil myself. This oil, in its various forms, seems to be used for everything: on food, for body enrichment, for headaches, and even for arthritis. I did feel that the salesman might be a bit of a charlatan, but I also thought, Why not give it a try? My friend bought up some spices and I bought the Argan oil. General rule when negotiating with shopkeepers: Start with an offer that is 50 percent less than their price. Walk away (even if you want it) and they will eventually give you their best price.
The souk can indeed assault the senses in more ways than one, and the narrow streets can seem dangerous with so many motorbikes whizzing by. Just keep walking and don’t freeze up – bikers are used to motoring around moving pedestrians.
Don’t miss Djemaa el Fna, the carnival-like central square and largest outdoor market in the region. Most streets in the Medina eventually lead here. Watch where you’re walking as you dodge monkey handlers, snake charmers, horse-drawn carriages, motor bikes, camels, and more.
After some time wandering through the Medina, you will want to stop and relax. Go for a drink at one of the square’s terrace bars or restaurants during sunset. A top pick for authentic Moroccan food is Dar Yacout, which boasts exquisite décor in a riad (traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden or courtyard) setting. Though the patrons are mostly tourists, the food and atmosphere are both excellent.
I also enjoyed eating beside a lovely pool at Dar Moha, but Dar Yacout has a more impressive interior setting. For lunch or dinner, try Al Fassia Gueliz in the new city. This wonderful restaurant is run by women, a fact that makes it stand out even without the added bonus of having excellent food.
Don’t ignore Gueliz, the newer part of town and a good place for bar-hopping. The Sky Bar is a nice roof top terrace for sunset drinks at the Renaissance Hotel, where one can gaze across the maze of Marrakech and the plains beyond. Also, close to the Medina and next to the Sofitel hotel is the So Club, which becomes popular later at night (lots of tourists and well-to-do locals go out here).
In regards to hammams, I don’t recommend many of the local ones in the Medina (many are dirty, unlike the traditional hammams of Turkey). I tried the Hammam Zianni once: basic, cheap, but ultimately rather uncomfortable. One of the few very clean ones in the Medina is the Five Elements. Among the hammams or spas that I do strongly suggest are the spa at the Maison L’Arabe and La Mamounia. It’s very important to reserve in advance, especially on weekends. The most famous of all is La Mamounia. It’s worth splurging on an entire afternoon here (and indeed one must buy a day pass), in addition to taking advantage of the spa services. The gardens are stunning and so relaxing.