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Marvellous Marrakech: finding your way around the maze of Morocco’s gem

Famous for its vibrant colour and intoxicating culture, this ancient city has something for all the senses. Here are 15 tips for a perfect break

1. For a hidden oasis… The secret garden

A remarkable newly restored garden, Le Jardin Secret was the site of one of the largest riads in the medina, belonging to the chancellor of Sultan Moulay Abd al-Hafid, the last sultan of Morocco before the French protectorate. By 1934 it had fallen into disrepair. It reopened in 2016 with gardens designed by the British gardening architect Tom Stuart-Smith. Split into an exotic garden and an Islamic garden (laid out according to strict geometrical rules), it’s a place of sublime beauty and peace. Enjoy the view from the elegant rooftop terrace, along with a mint tea and one of their tasty homemade cakes (lejardinsecretmarrakech.com).

2. For cocktail lounging… Café Arabe

There is no better place to linger for a medina aperitif than on the sprawling terrace of Café Arabe, Marrakech’s universally loved rooftop bar. It has everything: chilled rosé, an ambient soundtrack, comfy sofas and plenty of shade. In the heat of the day, simply position yourself under the fine mist of their sprinklers with a frozen margarita in hand and enjoy the view of the medina baking below you (cafearabe.com).

3. For stunning tiles… Dar El Bacha

The Dar El Bacha palace, built in 1910 at the entrance of the medina, is one of the city’s finest examples of riad architecture. After the Second World War the palace doors were closed and for 60 years it was shuttered. In 2017, it came back to life as the Museum of Cultural Confluences, where visitors can explore Morocco’s rich cultural heritage. Once the residence of the Marrakech pasha, Thami El Glaoui, it’s awash with zellige (colourful geometric tilework) and the central courtyard is filled with fountains and orange trees. Dar El Bacha, Rte Sidi Abdelaziz, open daily, except Monday (darbacha.com).

4. For old-school lodgings… La Sultana

Perfectly located near the Royal Palace and overlooking the 16th-century Saadian Tombs, La Sultana is a 28-room sprawling collection of five different riads. This maze-like oasis has treasures at every turn: artworks, antiques, palm trees and exotic plants fill each of the ornate courtyards. There’s an opulent pink-marbled spa with a plunge pool and hammam, while the bedrooms are equally fabulous; some have an internal balcony with idyllic views of the turquoise pool below, framed with palms and pretty white sunbeds. It’s another world, but one you don’t have to stay overnight to savour. Drop in for a day pass to the spa, or drinks and meze on their rooftop terrace with wraparound views of the royal quarter and the kasbah. Double rooms from £307; cocktails at Odette Rooftop Bar & Mezzé, £14 (lasultanahotels.com).

5. For a taste of Morocco’s past… Maison de la Photographie

Spread over three floors of a 17th-century Saadian townhouse, museum Maison de la Photographie holds an archive of thousands of original photographs taken in Morocco between 1879 and 1960 (maisondelaphotographie.ma).

6. For museum chic… Musée Yves St Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent visited Marrakech in 1966 and the Red City was undoubtedly a primary influence on his designs for the next 40 years. The Musée Yves St Laurent has a permanent display of couture collections on show, including his iconic Le Smoking tuxedo, the Mondrian dress and safari jacket. Alongside is work of up-and-coming Moroccan artists and designers. However, it’s the building that’s the real star here. Designed by Studio KO, it’s a gorgeous low-level curvaceous monument to St Laurent in varying hues of rose pink – one that would have undoubtedly inspired the designer himself (museeyslmarrakech.com).

7. For stunning interiors… El Fenn hotel

The magic starts as you step from the dusty street through a giant wooden door into El Fenn, a stunning hotel in the heart of Marrakech. Cats snooze on velvet chairs near the reception, and in winter a fire blazes. Each room is individually designed, some have stained glass, others have rolltop baths beside the fireplace. Breakfast on the roof terrace is not to be rushed: feast on Moroccan crumpets with honey, creamy eggs, shakshuka and pastries as you gaze over the city to the Koutoubia mosque. By day, laze next to one of the pools on a day bed or striped lounger. The rooftop bar and restaurant is a chilled place to hang out (and is open to non-residents). In the tiled downstairs patio, you can get mint tea and cake. Around every corner is an artwork to gaze at, and a luxurious nook or hammock to curl up in. After all that exertion, you may like to relax at night, sipping cocktails by candlelight to a cool music beat. The hotel also has a destination boutique offering high-end wares from some of Morocco’s finest makers and artists. A double room at El Fenn, including breakfast and afternoon tea, costs from £300 per night (el-fenn.com).

8. For the best coffee in town… Bacha

Housed in a courtyard in the Dar El Bacha palace (see above), café Bacha Coffee oozes prewar glamour. Waiters in white jackets and fezzes glide around the monochrome chequered floor distributing dozens of varieties of 100% Arabica coffee. Don’t leave without buying one of the trademark tins of coffee as a souvenir (bachacoffee.com).

9. For glamour… three great boutiques

Topolina, at 134 Dar el Bacha (@topolinashop) is a great place for embroidered slippers, funky bags, kaftans and hats in beautiful colours. For statement dresses and coats, check out Hanout Boutique (hanoutboutique.com) from Moroccan designer Meriem Nour. For chic interiors, head to Chabi Chic, a young Moroccan brand of tableware, home decor and other household items established in Marrakech by Vanessa Di Mino and Nadia Noël (chabi-chic.com).

10. For a glorious sunset… Dar Dar

The rooftop bar at Dar Dar restaurant has one of the loveliest sunset views across the city. Serving classic Moroccan food and great cocktails, it also features a nightly DJ offering relaxed gnawa grooves (rooftopdardar.com).

11. For fusion food… Le Trou au Mur

Set in a small riad in the oldest part of the medina, restaurant Le Trou au Mur is a little off the beaten track. Concealed behind an ancient-looking door in the wall that you could easily walk past, it’s all the more dazzling when you do find it. This bijou gem with jazzy floor tiles and a striking monochrome interior has the feel of a best-kept secret. Created by James Wix, owner of Le Farnatchi boutique hotel opposite, its delicious eclectic menu mixes Moroccan and European styles, such as pumpkin ravioli in a cream sauce, couscous and tempura vegetables with a fiery chilli sauce. Standout desserts include hibiscus ice-cream and chocolate fondant. The lime daiquiris are highly recommended. Three-course meal from £35 per head (letrouaumur.com).

12. For authentic crafts… two workshops worth a visit

Mustapha Ben Aziz weaves elegant scarves on his loom in an array of ice-cream colours –lilacs, pinks, blues and naturals – using wools, silks and cottons (6 Souk Ahl Fes). For carpets, there’s no better place than Soufiane Zarib on rue Riad Laarous. A third-generation family firm, they pride themselves in offering luxurious, authentic rugs from the Atlas region (soufiane-zarib.com).

13. For a cultural lowdown… Café Clock

Founded in Fez by Mike Richardson, a former maître d’hôtel at the Ivy, Café Clock is a cultural hub that quickly became a winning formula, and one which he’s expanded here, in an old school in the kasbah, with equal success. Come for a breakfast of Berber eggs, avocado toast and pancake stacks, but stay for so much more. Richardson wants to introduce visitors to Moroccan life through music and art with activities from yoga to storytelling, calligraphy to playing the Oud. Or hook up with a local Marrakshi who will teach you everything you need to know about the local culture (cafeclock.com).

14. For a home from home… Riad Spice

Riad Spice is a bijoux 10-room 16th-century riad lovingly restored by English couple Mike and Lucie Wood. Twenty years ago they visited the city and never really left. Now they are rooted in the community, especially through their involvement in traditional Moroccan storytelling – Lucie also runs her World Storytelling vegan café nearby, an atmospheric venue where you can enjoy this traditional oral heritage. Riad Spice is similarly sympathetic to Moroccan tradition. Ancient carved doors and arches open up into bright white interiors with intricate wood detailing. The focal point in the central courtyard is a pretty turquoise dipping pool framed with teal velvet furniture. Upstairs is a rambling roof terrace. Double rooms from £128 per night including a delicious breakfast of flatbreads and goat’s cheese, pancakes and strawberries (riadspice.comworldstorytellingcafe.com).

15. For a hassle-free trip… hire a guide

Booking a guide is the calmest way to get familiar with the old city. Try Said Nejdi (saidnejdi741@hotmail.fr) for a fascinating morning tour. Charming and knowledgable, he’ll take you to places you’d never find on our own, from hidden palaces to the bustling metalwork area. Most hotels can recommend a trusted guide.

Source: The Guardian