There is so much beauty in Morocco that it’s hard to focus on just one city, so I'm going to give you my tips and advice for Marrakech, along with a few weekend trips to other areas of the country. Marrakech was a place I had been dying to visit for years, so I saved up all of my vacation days at work during Christmas 2015 and packed my bags for a 10 day adventure. Highlights of my trip included: riding camels through the Sahara Desert, exploring the souks and hunting for the perfect handwoven rug (which I found and later hauled all the way back to Canada) and experiencing a traditional Moroccan Hammam (which is pretty similar to a Turkish bathhouse).
WHAT TO DO
Get lost in the souks: I spent an entire day wandering in and out of the souks where every stall is alive with color, smells and textures. I was on the hunt for a traditional handwoven rug, which was quite an adventure and definitely puts your bargaining skills to the test. There are so many treasures to discover, you can find everything from hand painted pottery and leather goods to spices, decorative glassware and Aladdin inspired lamps. The best tip I picked up: Learn to say “no”. Sometimes the Moroccan vendors can be annoyingly persuasive and will pester you until they get a sale, so stand your ground and only buy what you want.
Treat yourself to a spa day: I had always wanted to try a traditional hammam, which is basically the Moroccan equivalent to the Turkish bath. Usually the bath houses are public and full of naked locals, so I opted to splurge on a private, luxury treatment at La Sultana. So here’s how it went: you strip down, they give you disposable underwear and a robe and then they wash every inch of your body with soap before you take a nice long steam (but honestly, the room was so hot and they leave you in there forever I was just trying not to pass out!) After that, they scrub you with a black soapy exfoliant, which is actually pretty painful, before they wash it off and lather you up with lotion. Overall I’m really glad I tried it but I think my skin is just too sensitive for round two!
Sneak into Mamounia: This luxury hotel is one of the most Instagrammed places in Marrakech. It’s also a trendy hangout for celebs like David Beckham, Poppy Delevingne and Shay Mitchell. If you want to sneak in to take a look around, you should probably ditch the backpack and dress up a little to pretend like you belong. After you’ve walked around the eight hectare gardens, wander around the interior and catch a glimpse of the beautiful spa and and colorful mosaic tiles around every corner.
Explore Bahia Palace: Also called The Palace of the Bay, this 150 room masterpiece was built at the end of the 19th century as a way to capture the essence of Islamic and Moroccan styles.
Wander around Majorelle Garden: This colorful sanctuary in the heart of the city is a perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle. The twelve-acre botanical garden has been open to the public since 1947 and was bought by French designer Yves Saint-Laurent in 1980.
Visit Ben Youssef: This Madrasa (a Muslim college of higher education, specializing in religious studies) is the largest and most important in Morocco. It was built in 1565 and accommodates up to 900 students. It has a majestic central courtyard with picturesque architecture and beautifully colored tiles in every direction.
Check out Maison de la Photographie: Located in the heart of the medina, this museum opened in April 2009 and houses a stunning photographic collection that extends from 1870 to the 1950s. It also has a beautiful cafe on the rooftop terrace with amazing views of the city.
WHERE TO EAT
Nomad: Grab a seat on the rooftop patio and enjoy a taste of “Modern Moroccan”. With a focus on fresh produce and spices, Nomad offers traditional and international dishes with a local twist. Try the chicken tagine with preserved lemon and green olives served with buttery couscous. This is also a great place to grab a cocktail and watch the spice market vendors trading their goods in the square.
Atay: With three floors of chic-vintage decor, brightly colored rugs and an open air terrace, this is easily one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Try to snag the corner table on the rooftop with the best views below.
The stalls at Jemaa el Fna: One of my favorite parts about traveling is trying all of the traditional dishes. In Morocco this means sheep's-head stew, kofta kebabs, lentil soup and spiced snails. The endless rows of stalls in the main square is the perfect place to step outside your comfort zone and try some local cuisine. Arrive after sunset and bring your appetite.
Cafe Clock: Located just 15 minutes from Jemaa el Fna, this tiny cafe is known for its quirky atmosphere, arts, music and good food. The menu is healthy and unique, serving up dishes like camel burgers and homemade milkshakes.
Bazaar Cafe: This is another perfect spot with a rooftop terrace. Specializing in street food style dishes, Bazaar Cafe combines traditional Arabic and Mediterranean culinary treasures in an elegant, charming and cozy atmosphere. They also make 100% organic homemade ice cream using local raw ingredients, seasonal fruit and Moroccan spices.
WHERE TO STAY
La Sultana: This intimate 5-star hotel is a little hidden gem in Marrakech. Just a ten minute walk to the main square, the service here is impeccable and the architecture in every room is so stunning and unique. The hotel offers spa services, cooking classes, a heated swimming pool and a panoramic terrace with amazing views.
Riad Yasmine: This is another popular place among the Instagram community, which means it’s hard to get a reservation. A true oasis from the busy city center, this riad has a stunning indoor courtyard with a pool, an airy rooftop patio and they serve a daily traditional Moroccan breakfast complete with fresh fruit, juice and pastries.
La Maison Arabe: This authentic boutique hotel opened in 1998 and was the first riad-hotel in Marrakech. It has 26 rooms (most with fireplaces and private terraces), a serene swimming pool and nearly everyone speaks fluent English (which is a rare find in a Moroccan hotel).
Merzouga/Sahara Desert: Riding camels through the endless sand dunes and staying overnight in an authentic Berber camp was one of the highlights of my trip. Merzouga is a small town on the edge of the Sahara Desert and is located about 8.5 hours from Marrakech. There are a ton of local companies that offer a 3 day, 2 night tour, which also include stops in Todra Gorge, Ouarzazat and Ait Ben Haddou (which has been a famous scene in several films and TV shows including Gladiator and Game of Thrones).
Essaouira: Located just 2.5 hours from Marrakech, this tiny, seaside town is easily accessible by public bus or private car. Also called the “Windy City of Africa” due to the strong coastal winds that sweep through the town, Essaouira is a literal breath of fresh air from the busy city. Spend the day getting lost in the narrow alleyways, enjoy fresh seafood and explore the vibrant art scene.