Marrakech is one of Morocco’s Imperial Cities; the third largest city in the country it is situated at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. The first thing to learn upon arriving in Marrakech is to negotiate: haggle for anything, starting with the taxi ride from the airport into town; the second, is to learn how to cross the road in the old town dodging cars, mopeds and carts; the best way is to follow what the locals do:jump in the middle of the road and everyone will stop to let you get to the other side of the road safely.
Marrakech old town and the modern neighborhood of Gueliz are not too far apart; the distance can be covered on foot, by taxi or in style riding one of the horse-drawn carriages waiting for customers outside the hotels.
In Gueliz there are a number of 5 and 4 star hotels providing all the comforts expected and a choice of restaurants serving both international and Moroccan food; most of them have a swimming pool. Tours of the city, trips to the Atlas Mountains and to other cities in Morocco can be easily organised with help from the hotel concierge.
Many visitors prefer to stay in the old part of the city, the medina, for the exotic atmosphere and a more authentic experience. Protected by walls up to 19 feet high made of orange clay, it is here that a number of traditional Moroccan riads (palaces offering accommodation that includes breakfast and in most cases dinner) can be found. The legendary La Mamounia Hotel is also located in the old city; it is the most luxurious address in town, favoured over the years by Winston Churchill among others, it has been recently restored to offer 21st century comforts in surroundings of a bygone era.
To explore the old town of Marrakech means getting lost in its narrow streets, deeper and deeper into the souk crowded with both tourists and locals, where the aroma of the spices on sale, mixes with the flavours of the food prepared on the stalls that line the streets. Traders keen to show their wares, offering that elusive bargain on anything from carpets to lamps noisily try to attract customers’ attention.
Popular attractions inside the old town are the Koutoubia Mosque with its minaret visible from everywhere in the city, Ben Youssef Madrasa, an Islamic college with a lovely patio where a number of rooms can be visited and Jemaa el-Fnaa: probably the busiest square in Africa.
At any time of day (or night) snake charmers, storytellers, magicians and vendors that sell anything you can think of set up shop there. The curious sight of the water sellers, colourful attired individuals distributing water in brass cups for a few Dirhams, can also be seen in this vast square. All around Jemaa el-Fna there are cafes with terraces overlooking it, where a well deserved break from the crowds and the heat can be taken sipping tea watching the comings and goings below. Sadly one of the establishments on the square, the Argana Cafe, was badly damaged by a terrorist attack in April 2011.
In the evening, stalls are set up selling inexpensive street food cooked to order and eaten on long tables in a convivial atmosphere; meat cooked on skewers is a popular option and for any adventurous food taster, sheep heads and snails are also on offer. People who prefer a more familiar meal should not worry as McDonald’s has also branches in Marrakech!
A number of palaces within the walled city can be visited like Badi Palace and Bahia Palace; the Royal Palace is not opened to the public. Looking up in the old city, it is quite common to see storks on chimneys.
Of architectural interest are also the nineteen gates that give access to the city like Bab Agnou and Bab Aghmat to name but a few.
Outside the old city a place favoured by both visitors and locals are the Menara Gardens. A pavilion and small lake nestled between olive groves and orchards form the centerpiece of this pleasant garden. From here a nice view of the Atlas Mountains in the distance can be enjoyed.
Another garden on the tourist map in Marrakech is the Majorelle Garden, bought and restored by the designer Ives Saint Laurent it includes the Islamic Art Museum housed in a rather colourful blue building.
Other notable buildings outside the Old City walls are the Hotel de Ville, Marrakech City Hall and the Royal Opera House. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, a number of villages on the Atlas Mountains give visitors the opportunity to get an insight of the Berber’s way of life and to have a mint tea with one of the families who live there. For a once in a lifetime experience a stay in one of the mountain retreats found in the area, Kasbah Tamadot and Kasbah du Toubkal is highly recommended. Here guests have a choice to just relax and enjoy the surroundings or for the more active visitors a number of hiking options are available. The preferred method of transport around there are mules that climb the steep trails effortlessly, shipping both people and goods to their intended destination. Being about 4 hours away by plane from Europe, Marrakech is the perfect destination for a long weekend away and an introduction to Morocco. A longer stay in the country will give the opportunity to visit the other Imperial cities, Fes, Meknes and Rabat or enjoy days at the seaside in Agadir or Essaouira.