For all its curious contradictions and frenetic atmosphere, Morocco’s Red City will make you fall instantly and madly in love with its exoticism and a million other charms.
A magical place with a 1,000-year history that’s enveloped in charm, exoticism and surprises, Marrakech stands as one of the greatest cities of the Maghreb. Packed with hectic souks, opulently decorated palaces, magnificent ruins and countless other cultural gems, the bustling Moroccan locale makes for a particularly unique and incredible getaway, whether it be a romantic or an adventure-seeking one.
Marrakech sits right on the tip of the Sahara Desert, where Africa, Europe and the Middle East converge – and just as naturally, where past and present meet. The centuries-old hub is a melting pot of ideas and cultures where commerce thrives, and the energy that results from that is just electrifying.
Having painted that picture, however, it comes with an important disclaimer: Marrakech is not for everyone. It’s a place that’s daunting as it is intoxicating. Stepping into the souks of Marrakech, for instance, is an experience you’ll never forget, as a rich mix of colours, scents and enthusiastic exchanges between merchants and buyers overwhelm the senses – so much so that you must take a moment to catch your breath and think hard about which provocation you’ll give in to.
It’s easy to get lost in the city’s exotic, colour-laden bazaars that offer everything and anything from an entrancing snake dance to handmade argan oil soaps, and from intricate lanterns to never-before-seen-or-smelled spices. Its excesses notwithstanding, they’re all part and parcel of its elusive charm. Marrakech, after all, is about not having a plan at all and surrendering to whatever experience comes your way.
But before we go into those possibilities, it’s worthwhile to know a little more about this extraordinary city. Also known as the “Red City” by virtue of its pinkish-red walls and ramparts (composed of clay and chalk), Marrakech is one of Morocco’s four imperial cities. The other three are Fes, the country’s oldest city; its current capital, Rabat; and the ancient military settlement of Meknes, all of which at some point in history, were named the capital of Morocco.
Many believe that Marrakech’s mystique stems from its discoverers – the Almoravids, a group of religious nomads from the south who emerged to build their capital on the Tensift River in 1062. These sombre, veiled warriors built a walled kasbah and mosque that eventually became the capital of an empire that not only united modern Morocco, but also most of Spain and Algeria. Yusuf ibn Tashfin led Marrakech progressively, making it a cosmopolitan centre of culture and learning with Andalusian-style mosques and palaces. The legacy of the Almoravids, however, remains most palpable in the city’s walls and system of underground irrigation channels that fed the new city and its lush gardens.
The tradition of storytelling in Morocco also runs deep, going back more than 1,000 years as a way of passing on and preserving cultural beliefs, myths and legends. The mysterious succubus Aisha Kandisha and her tale of seduction has captured the region’s imagination for centuries. Northeast of Marrakech, nestled in the expansive Atlas Mountains, lies two famous lakes, Isli and Tislit – and legend has it that their names come from a young boy and girl from opposing tribes who fell madly in love but were forbidden to be together. The couple cried so much that they wept to death, with their tears forming the two lakes.
Powerful tales of love and love lost make Marrakech, arguably Morocco’s most vibrant and fascinating city, an even more appealing place for couples to visit. There’s an abundance of places to visit and things to try in Marrakech, but we’ve shortlisted some items that would be perfect for couples or any traveller who wants to be whisked off on an exotic romance.
VISIT THE SOUKS
Djemaa el Fna (also known as Jemaa el-Fnaa) is the main square in Marrakech, which also stands as the iconic physical and cultural heart of the city. It’s also been referred to as “an inland, tideless sea” that for centuries served as a place where people congregate; here, the great Saharan caravans with their mounds of spices and salt would arrive from Timbuktu.
Today, the ways of trade and commodities may have changed, but the bustle and the rich cultural exchange that occurs… well, not so much. Walking through this famous square often reminds tourists of the scenes painted in Disney’s Aladdin, where snake charmers, dancers and fortune tellers perform amidst endless rows of merchants who offer pretty much anything under the sun.
GET LOST IN ANCIENT ARCHITECTURE
The Medina of Marrakech is an old Islamic capital originating from the 11th century that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, citing its “impressive number of masterpieces of architecture and art” that include the Bahia Palace and of course, the Koutoubia Mosque, with a 77-metre-high minaret that represents a key monument of Islamic architecture.
The medina is enclosed by 16 kilometres of ramparts and gates and owes its original splendour to the Almoravide and Almohad dynasties of the 11th to 13th centuries. Other notable architecture within the walls includes the Saadian tombs and the Ben Youssef Madrasa, and just beyond them one can appreciate the expansive greenery of the palmeira (palm groves), as well as the Menara and Agdal gardens.
STAY IN A TRADITIONAL RIAD
Experience Marrakech fully by checking into one of the many glorious traditional buildings around the old medina that have been renovated into beautiful accommodations. A good number of them were former palaces or homes of wealthy Marrakshi, so you’re guaranteed to have a uniquely lavish experience. With traditional and intricately decorated tilework, fountains in the middle of lush courtyards, and vibrant and exotic patterns, staying in one of these traditional riads will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
EXPLORE EL BADI PALACE RUINS
While there are many historic sites around Marrakech to choose from, the El Badi Palace ruins just might be the most romantic to explore with your loved one. The palace was built at the end of the 16th century by the Sultan Ahmad al-Mansour to commemorate the victory of the Battle of the Three Kings against the Portuguese.
It’s said that in its glory days, the El Badi was a palace with more than 300 rooms decorated in gold, turquoise and crystal. The building entered a period of decline at the end of the 17th century, when the sultan Ismail Ibn Sharif decided to move the capital of Morocco from Marrakech to Meknes. In the process, it’s believed he stripped the palace completely. Walking through the expanse of its ruins (and observing the size of its patio alone), it’s easy for your imagination to run wild as to how majestic it once stood.
HEAL, RECHARGE AND RESET
While excitement and adventure are almost always on the agenda, coming to Marrakech can also be a rejuvenating experience. Set against the serene landscape of its deserts, take this opportunity to heal your body and mind. We highly recommend the Holistic Immune Support Retreat offered by luxury resort Amanjena of the Aman Group, which includes a three-night programme that combines nutrition, fitness activities and massage to holistically bolster the immune system with purifying, strengthening and revitalising local practices and treatments that use local healing herbs and wellness practices. All this is done at the resort’s Aman Spa, which features marble-clad hammam suites, each with its own dressing area, shower and glassed-in whirlpool opening onto a courtyard with a bubbling fountain.
WANDER THE BEAUTIFUL GARDENS
Apart from its stunning architecture, Marrakech also has gorgeous gardens. The Menara Gardens are among them, and are known for their large shimmering pool and olive trees. Located to the west of the medina near the Atlas Mountains, they were built in the 12th century around a lake, which was used to water the fruit and vegetables planted on the grounds.
Another one worth visiting is the Majorelle Garden, which was purchased by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in 1980, and is famed for its huge collection of plants from various parts of the world – including towering bamboo, diverse cacti and water lilies – as well the famous blue Moorish-style house. Artist Jacques Majorelle fell in love with Morocco’s exotic botany in the 1920s, cultivating the
Majorelle Garden by 1929. The instantly recognisable art deco-style villa, meanwhile, was created by the architect Paul Sinoir in 1931 while the artist worked in his atelier on the bottom floor.
RELIVE GAME OF THRONES IN LUXURY
If you’re a GoT fan and want to experience what it was truly like for Daenerys Targaryen to lead her army in that epic scene shot in Ancient Essaouira, a city three-and-a-half hours outside of Marrakech, you might want to consider taking up the Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech’s Discover Essaouira Package, which includes round-trip limousine service between the hotel and Essaouira, private guided tours of the filming locations, a rooftop terrace seafood lunch and sunset aperitifs in the Argan Wine Valley. After this exhilarating experience, you can retire in one of the Mandarin Oriental’s private villas, which are nestled across 20 hectares of landscaped gardens, with the snow-capped Atlas Mountains providing a stunning backdrop.
ENJOY DUSK FROM THIS PART OF THE WORLD
A glass of perfectly chilled fruit juice or a steaming cup of mint tea in hand as you sit in one of Marrakech’s hidden rooftop bars at sunset is something you must do before leaving this exotic place. These roof terraces are scattered throughout the city and offer a view you’ll always remember.
Here, you can admire the outline of the striking Koutoubia Mosque against the shifting colours of the sky, observe the frenzy at Djemaa el Fna from a distance, or simply gaze out over the rooftops of the old medina. We recommend checking out the rooftop of El Fenn, which has been voted as on one of the best riads in Marrakech, or the Photography Museum’s rooftop bar that offers stunning views of the Atlas Mountains. Do keep in mind, though, that many roof terraces, specifically those in the old medina, don’t serve any alcohol.
SPEND THE NIGHT IN THE DESERT
For the ultimate glamping experience, spend a few nights under the stars and enjoy the incredible dune sunsets before retiring to your luxuriously fitted Berber tent. While there are a few camps just outside of Marrakech to choose from, the Scarabeo Camp is easily among the top ones to consider. Scarabeo makes the desert, with its imposing landscape set against the Atlas Mountain range, part of the uniquely luxurious experience. The experience includes evening bonfires, camel or quad-bike riding, and authentic Moroccan fare. And while it’s less than an hour from Marrakech, the camp could not be more far-removed from the frenzy of the city.
TRY THE TANGIA
As they say, you haven’t quite truly experienced a place until you’ve tried the local cuisine. If there was one signature dish you were to try when in Marrakech, it would have to be the tangia, which is slow-cooked lamb placed in a clay urn with lemon, garlic and saffron, and then cooked in charcoal until tender. Subtly spiced with a sweet or tangy note, Moroccan tangia is a comfort dish that’s meant to be leisurely shared among friends, family or colleagues.