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Ever since rock’n’roll’s kaftan-wielding demi-monde descended on the Moroccan city in the 1960s, Marrakech has become a pilgrimage spot for bliss-seekers the world over. Whether meandering through labyrinthine souks, barely changed in centuries, finding sanctuary in shaded riad courtyards or on sun-lit terraces, or escaping the ancient city entirely and dining under desert stars, it’s impossible not to be seduced by Marrakech’s many charms.
You won’t be the first: there was Princess Margaret, who luxuriated poolside at Es Saadi; Winston Churchill, who installed himself at the opulent La Mamounia for weeks on end (a bar in the storied hotel is now named in his honour); Yves Saint Laurent and partner Pierre Bergé, so seduced by the city that they made it their part-time home, purchasing Villa Oasis and the neighbouring Jardin Majorelle after their first trip in 1966. There was Pierre Balmain and Irving Penn, The Rolling Stones and the Gettys – each, in one way or another, travelling to the mythical city pursuit of enlightenment (some with more help from hallucinatory substances than others).
Joining their ranks is easier than ever: arrive via the numerous international flights that land in Menara Airport daily, and head straight for the city centre, which expands outwards from Marrakech’s once-fortified medina. Those pressed for time could do worse than trailing the tourist hordes: Jemaa el Fna, the city’s ancient centre of commerce, remains a sensory experience like no other (expect an abundance of performing snakes, dancers and musicians, long into the evening), ditto for the city’s near-endless open-air souks, which reward those willing to surrender to the twisting passageways generously with traditional handmade ceramics, jewelled glassware, colourful lamps and (probably-not-for-hand-luggage) rugs and carpets.
A more sedate afternoon can be spent in the aforementioned Jardin Majorelle, beloved by Saint Laurent. Though popular, there is still peace to be found in the serene enclave – first built by artist Louis Majorelle and his son Jacques in the 1930s – and its picture-perfect colour palette. (The impressive Musée Yves Saint Laurent is close by, and for those who want the full Saint Laurent-immersion, you can – for a hefty donation – have dinner at Villa Oasis.) Marvel too at some of the city’s many intricately wrought palaces and mosques: Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, a 16th-century Koran school, meticulously restored, will inspire awe (recognise it from 1990s Kate Winslet-movie Hideous Kinky), so too the grand Bahia Palace, with an ornate interior it took hundreds of craftsmen six years to complete. Further afield, visit the ancient village of Imlil, a quieter outpost than the touristy Ourika Valley for which to explore the cloud-topped Atlas Mountains, or alternatively dine in the nearby Agafay Desert (and camp under the stars).
But a day in Marrakech is just as well spent doing very little at all. The city’s most impressive riads – try the serene three-centuries-old Riad Enija, where a lack of televisions or phones encourage total switch-off, or the famed (and photogenic) El Fenn, among an array of others – will see you hard-pressed to leave the sanctuary of their four walls. Impossibly luxurious hotels have long been the city’s mainstay: Churchill-favourite La Mamounia offers unrivalled old-school glamour, or choose the Royal Mansour for opulent escapism with 2500 square metres of world-class spa. (For those who prefer a more rustic approach to self-care, try a traditional hammam, a deep cleanse and exfoliation which finishes in a coating of healing local argan oil – though be prepared for the treatment to be administered with a firm hand.)
Or simply find a spot of momentary peace in one of the city’s many rooftop restaurants or bars, and look down at the busy streets below at a remove. Try the ever-popular Nomad – with Atlas Mountain views and a concise fusion menu – or the perennial Café de Paris, for a mint tea above the noisy bustle of the medina. Alternatively, dine poolside at La Maison Arabe, an elegant boutique hotel and another of Churchill’s haunts.
A tranquil oasis amid the hustle and bustle of the medina, Le Jardin offers a moment of reset before hitting Marrakech’s streets: begin the day with one of their healthful avocado and date juices, or stick around until lunch for pastilla, briouate and kofta.
A full day – or indeed week – could be spent among the medina’s twisted passageways, which play host to perhaps the most famed open-air market in the world, and a sense-invoking experience like no other. Whether the country’s famed leather goods, ceramics, glassware, rugs, carpets, or spices at the fragrant Place des Épices – you’ll find it all here.
Though a new wave of creative energy pulsates through the city – for that, head to Galerie 127 for the best in contemporary African photography, or the sleek Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden – Marrakech’s past remains impossible to avoid. Like the Koutoubia Mosque, nearly a millennium old, which towers over the city (view it up close where its intricacies are revealed), or the ruined El Badi Palace (’palace of the incomparable’) which unfolds dramatically around a vast central pool.
Just off Place des Épices is Nomad, a spot beloved by visitors since it opened in 2014. Spread over four floors – try your best to get a seat on the two levels of terraces, with their Atlas Mountain views – the menu sees local dishes given a contemporary twist, from signature ‘Nomad’ couscous, harissa calamari or roast cauliflower with red chermoula.
Take a cab out to Jardin Majorelle (the busy roads of the city’s new town make the seemingly easy walk a death-defying act) and find calm in Yves Saint Laurent’s famed sanctuary, which remains the city’s finest garden. A short walk down the road is the recently built Musée Yves Saint Laurent, an expansive look at the master designer’s era-defining work.
Call it a night at El Fenn, the boutique hotel spread over a complex of interconnected riads which opened in 2004 and remains one of Marrakech’s best places to stay. But, whether you choose one of the hotel’s art-filled rooms to rest your head or not, the intimate 50-cover restaurant is not to be missed for dinner: making use of organic produce from the nearby Ourika Valley, the country’s national dishes are reinvented with innovative flair.