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Marrakech (and the Atlas Mountains), Morocco: Insider’s Guide

WendyPerrin.com | February 22, 2017
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Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Villa des Orangers. This is not an inexpensive property, but it combines everything you’d want from a Marrakech hotel. It has the lovely architecture and courtyards of a traditional riad, as well as excellent service, wonderful food (as you might expect, since the owners are French and it’s part of the Relais & Chateaux group), and a great location just five minutes from the medina. I especially love the two-story Master Suites. There are only three of them, and if the entire villa is designed like a palace, these suites feel like the royal chamber.

Our company has worked with the owners of Villa des Orangers since they first opened the doors in 1999, and it’s because of this great relationship that our clients get extra special care and love and often upgrades.

Restaurants the locals love
For lunch on a beautiful day when the temperatures are moderate, or dinner when the days are long, the terrace at Nomad is the place to be; you’ll be surrounded by a mix of tourists and young, happening Marrakchis.

For a truly local experience, we can arrange a cooking lesson in a village a short drive from Marrakech, using organic vegetables and herbs from the village’s gardens, or with a local family in the Doukkala quarter of the medina, where you’ll learn a more traditional approach to meal preparation. Undoubtedly the highlight of the latter is taking your dough to bake in the community oven.

Meal worth the splurge
Salt-Marrakech—the restaurant at the Dar Les Cigognes riad—has a visiting chef program, where guest chefs from around the world present their own variations on Moroccan cuisine. It’s well worth going for a meal if a guest chef is cooking.

Try the monkfish tagine at La Maison Arabe’s restaurant, which has roots going back to the 1940s. Marrakech is just two and a half hours from the coast, so the fresh fish served here is a welcome change from the typical Moroccan meat-centered diet.

Must-have dishes
Harira, a hearty soup, traditionally made with lamb, lentils, tomatoes, a mix of spices, and a variety of other ingredients—many families have their own version. I especially like it with dates. You can find harira at any local stall during a Ramadan evening and a reliably excellent one at Le Foundouk during the rest of the year.

Tangia—not to be confused with tagine—is an extremely special dish. It’s a fragrant lamb or beef stew, usually baked in a clay pot for ten hours. Sometimes it’s even cooked in one of the ovens at the public baths. It’s normally served at home. One of the few restaurants that offer it is Chez l’Amine Haj Nguiyer in Gueliz (or New Town).

Best spots for a drink
The Churchill Bar inside La Mamounia hotel is a lovely place to unwind after a full day of touring and to feel the history of this iconic property, which has welcomed guests from Charlie Chaplin to Salma Hayek. And yes, you can enjoy a Cuban cigar there just as Churchill once did.

Cocktails at the rooftop bar of the swank Pearl hotel come with amazing views over the ancient walls into the medina. You can clearly see the Koutoubia minaret and even the smoke rising from the food stalls in Jemaa el-Fna Square.

As for the best people-watching in town, you can never go wrong at Café de France, one of those great old-world Moroccan cafés—scruffy and full of both character and characters. It’s right on Jemaa el-Fna Square, so grab a “front-row” table—one closest to the square—order a fresh-squeezed orange juice or a cold (request it!) Casablanca beer, and take it all in.

What to See and Do

Don’t miss
Essaouira gets a bad rap because there are no great hotels there, but I love it. An old Portuguese trading town on the Atlantic, it’s extremely picturesque, with stone ramparts and garden squares and the feel of a sleepy seaside artists’ colony. There’s a bit of Hollywood history here too—Orson Welles filmed Othello in Essaouira in the early 1950s, while Jimi Hendrix vacationed at one of the beachfront hotels in the 1960s (for just a few days, alas, but you’d never know it by all the Hendrix name-dropping around here). But Essaouira is as low-key as it ever was, and a great place to chill for a few days. You can also just come for the day and a delicious fresh-seafood lunch, as it’s only two-and-a-half to three hours by car from Marrakech. While it is less laid-back in the summertime, it’s one of the cooler spots in Morocco.

At its prettiest in springtime, the gorgeous Ourika Valley, with its red rocks, green hills, and rushing river. It’s an easy day-trip from Marrakech, and you can stop at Setti Fatma village and hike to the waterfalls from there, or have a tagine lunch at one of the riverside restaurants. This area is becoming more and more popular with locals, but it’s still rare to find any non-Moroccans.

In Marrakech, Galerie 127 is a fantastic photo gallery. It could easily be in New York or Paris and exhibits some very cutting-edge work (especially by Moroccan standards) by mostly local photographers.

The ancient Jewish heritage sites. The Mellah, the medieval Jewish quarter of Marrakech’s medina, still has a few working synagogues well concealed on tiny alleyways and an old cemetery (those in Fez are even more beautiful). And in the High Atlas, the tomb of a tzaddik (a Jewish holy man) has been a pilgrimage site for Moroccan Jews for centuries.

Don’t bother
The fantasias, or equestrian dinner shows, advertise “an authentic Moroccan meal” and “traditional Moroccan folklore.” Don’t believe it. They’re kitschy and touristy and serve mediocre food.

Cheap thrills
The Berber markets in the High Atlas, which travel from village to village. They’re large, chaotic, messy, and a huge amount of fun, packed with merchants selling everything from animals to vegetables to plastic bins—all the stuff of everyday living, as well as makeshift stalls for barbers, even dentists.

The main square, Jemaa el-Fna, is on UNESCO’s list of “masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity” in honor of the many cultural traditions represented in such a small place. Among the most enchanting is the ancient Berber art of storytelling, and you’ll see the best performers on Jemaa el-Fna, enrapturing audiences with wild tales, sometimes slapstick comedies, sometimes melodramas. They won’t be speaking English, of course, but even if you can’t follow the story line, it’s worth it just to watch these incredible artists at work. And all it will cost you is a small tip—10 dirham ($1) max.

Take a stroll in the Gueliz—the new town—in the early evening to get a feel for how Marrakchis spend their after-work time in cafés and shopping for the latest European fashions.

Bragging rights
Design your own caftan. We’ll arrange for you to meet one of the city’s top fashion designers, who will accompany you to the souk to pick out your fabric, discuss with you the various options—the type of embroidery, beadwork, cut, and style (chic, traditional, formal)—and fit you for a one-of-a-kind garment. A few days later, your handmade caftan will be delivered to your hotel room or shipped to your home. Men can have shirts made as well (always a conversation starter at your next evening out back home).

Downtime
Many stores in the medina close around noon on Friday; some are shuttered all day. The stores in the newer sections of the city (Gueliz, Hivernage, the Industrial Quarter) are closed on Sunday and sometimes on Saturday afternoon, which makes weekend days ideal for hitting one of the hammams. I don’t think anything is more relaxing than being scrubbed and washed and massaged with Moroccan olive soaps and argan, then dozing off with warm mint tea at your side. My favorite hammam in Marrakech is at the beautiful spa at La Maison Arabe. The hotel also has one of the better restaurants in town, so you’ll want to make time for a late lunch after your treatment. The hammam and spa at over-the-top Royal Mansour are worth a splurge as well.

Instagram moment
A sunset shot taken from one of the rooftop cafés close to the Koutoubia minaret, just above the Jemaa el-Fna, shooting toward the minaret. Or for that matter, a shot of the square itself, full of snake charmers, people with monkeys, acrobats, tooth pullers, and barbers.

Medina Walls, Marrakech, Morocco

Medina Walls, Marrakech, Morocco. Photo by iStockPhoto.

The secret to shopping in Marrakech
The medina is a vast treasure trove, with an endless assortment of wonderful things to take home. Even after countless trips, I still wind up buying something every time I visit, adding yet another souvenir to my tiny New York apartment. But as much fun as it is to shop in the medina, it can also be a giant hassle for newbies. Bargaining is part of the Moroccan culture, and the shopkeepers in the medina are pros at the game. My advice is to bargain hard and try to have fun with it. The second it stops being fun and you’re feeling overwhelmed or hassled by the shopkeeper, walk out of the store. If you’d rather avoid the dance of negotiation altogether, head to one of the fixed-price stores in Gueliz (the New Town) or in the medina (we can supply our clients with a list).

If you plan to ship any of your purchases, use your credit card. Even though the merchants will charge you an extra 4 percent, the credit-card company will usually protect you if the merchandise is damaged en route. We have interior decorators travel with us all the time; they fill up crates and have them shipped home.

Perfect souvenir
It’s a tough call considering how many beautiful things there are to buy in Marrakech, but some of my all-time favorite gifts are embroidered table or bed linens at Al Kawtar/Alnour. Not only are they exquisitely made, but the shop is a licensed NGO that provides meaningful livelihoods for disabled women.

Best Times to Go

Spring (late February to mid-May) and fall (mid-September to mid-November) are gorgeous. Colorful wildflowers begin to appear in mid-February (especially farther north, on the road to Fez), while between December and March you can usually see snow on the Atlas Mountains just above the palm groves of Marrakech.

Worst Times to Go

Summer is very hot in Marrakech (but cooler in the nearby Atlas Mountains). Winter can be hard to predict: cold and rainy, or warm and sunny. Easter week and the week between Christmas and New Year’s fill up early and are often more expensive. It is generally a good idea to avoid Ramadan (dates vary from year to year), when the locals may be fasting (and not at their friendliest!) and shops tend to be open fewer hours than us

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Getting lost in the medina. Well, you really can’t avoid it, and it’s all part of the adventure. I have been there about 50 times, and I still occasionally get turned around. The quickest way to find your way out is to ask an older shopkeeper to point you toward Jemaa el-Fna (or “the square” or “la place”), the heart of the medina and a central meeting place in Marrakech. If you ask one of the young people hanging out in the medina, he’ll probably hit you up for money for his trouble or steer you to his “uncle’s carpet shop.” And don’t wander around after dark unless you know exactly where you’re going (or you’re with someone who does).

Insider Tips

When visiting the Majorelle Gardens, restored under the patronage of the late Yves St. Laurent, take some time to stroll along Rue Yves Saint Laurent. Several trendsetting shops have opened there recently; stop in at Kaowa for a light lunch and a fresh date smoothie.

Listen for the call to prayer as you make your way around the city. Watch how this marks the passing of the day and sets the rhythm of the city. It’s not always easy to hear it over the din of Marrakech’s buzzing mopeds and noisy souks, but it provides a subtle soundtrack to the da

Hidden Gems

If you don’t have time to travel two days to the Sahara, you can get a taste of desert hospitality with a camel trek to a romantic dinner that I can arrange in a Berber-style tent in the Desert d’Agafay, just 40 minutes from the walls of Marrakech’s medina.

Check out the Musée Boucharouite, a small museum dedicated to the folk style of handmade rugs of rural Morocco. Learn how stories are literally woven into the carpe

Scam Alert

Avoid taxis. If you do need one, settle on the price before you go anywhere or insist on using the meter, though the driver might tell you it’s broken. Never go an inch without a fixed price. And have a bunch of 10-dirham notes on hand. Try to pay with a 100-dirham note and—wouldn’t you know it—the driver will invariably tell you he doesn’t have change.

Tipping Tip

Tipping has a symbolic role as well. Tipping someone well will endear them to you. Carry lots of small change—1 to 10 dirhams—for bellmen, bathroom attendants, and the storytellers at the Jemaa el-Fna (see “Cheap thrill,” at left).

Airport intel

Lines and wait times are inconsistent, so it is hard to predict how early to get to the airport. We always book a VIP service that meets the clients and helps them through Immigration and Customs. It is a nice way to start or end a trip.

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