First-timers in one of the Maghreb’s iconic cities will often feel like there’s something happening all around. Marrakech buzzes with a feverish zeal no matter the hour. By day, the vibrancy of its souks keeps shoppers busy. After sundown, musicians, acrobats, performers and snake charmers bring the alleys of the city to life in never-before-seen ways. In the past, Marrakech was an important stop along trade routes, providing caravans traversing the Sahara with a spot to refuel before embarking on their journey ahead. Today, this rich heritage is celebrated in its pink-walled medina and souks, where cultural customs from the Middle East, Europe and North Africa mingle and merge, making it impossible to tell the past from the present.
Since the city was founded by the Almoravids in the 11th century, Marrakech has maintained its strategic position at the crossroads of the east and west, earning the city the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Several impressive monuments, some dating back to 1070, continue to dominate the cityscape as a nod to life in ancient Morocco. Visitors today can experience the local vibe simply by walking around the streets and alleys, in much the same way as the Berber people did centuries ago. Clearly, there couldn’t be a better way to begin your first day. After a hearty Moroccan breakfast, head to the Saadian Tombs for a lesson in 16th-century Moroccan history. This site was commissioned in the mid-1500s by Sultan Ahmad Al Mansour, who spared no expense in adorning the mausoleum with Italian marble, gilded honeycomb muqarnas and ornate carvings. The structure now houses 150 tombs of Saadi sultans, including Al Mansour himself; well preserved it’s sure to impress. The Sultan’s Badi Palace lies adjacent to the tombs. Once a magnificent royal abode, it is now a monumental ruin. It requires some creativity to imagine its former splendour, but its vast courtyard and the impressive views over the city and the Atlas Mountains from its ramparts make it a must-visit. From here, a quick hop takes you to the Bahia Palace. An excellent example of 19th-century Moroccan architecture, it was built for the slave-turned-vizier Ba Ahmed. Allow yourself plenty of time to take in the grandeur across more than 150 rooms, gardens, water fountains and patios. All that exploring is sure to work up an appetite, so after a hearty lunch, take to the streets again to admire the tallest building in the city – La Koutoubia – which is also the largest mosque in Marrakech. Past the mosque, slip into Le Jardin Secret, a lush paradise shaded with fruit trees. Take time to admire the elaborate irrigation system that runs through the gardens, which was once part of an ancient network that carried water from mountainside wells to the city. After sunset, you’ll find yourself drawn to Djemaa El Fna, the heart of the medina, where smoke rises high above the square from restaurants firing up their barbecues. It is here that you can experience the city’s beating heart as you join locals out on their evening tradition to wrap up their day with a hearty meal as musicians, acrobats and storytellers share their talents.
After a dose of history on day one, start your second day by exploring modern Marrakech with a visit to Jardin Majorelle. Created by the French Orientalist painter, Jacques Majorelle, it was later acquired by the iconic designer, Yves Saint Laurent, who made it his residence. Get an early start to avoid the crowds and explore its lush gardens and the structure itself, painted an intense shade of blue, inspired by Moroccan tiles. A two-minute walk from Jardin Majorelle lies Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech, filled with Saint Laurent’s personal collection of haute couture clothing and accessories. After such inspiration, it only makes sense to go shopping. Stepping into Morocco’s souks can be overwhelming, but it should take you a few minutes to master the maze of alleys filled with stalls selling all manner of trinkets. From ceramic plates to jewellery, spices and carpets, you’re sure to find plenty of souvenirs to take home. There couldn’t be a better fit than a traditional Moroccan hammam to draw two days of eventful exploration to an end. Whether you’re after a luxury spa experience or a quick pick-me-up, the hammam ritual is one of the many aspects of Moroccan culture that hasn’t been lost in time. Authentic encounters such as these only go to prove that you do not simply travel to Marrakech, you truly experience it and fully embrace it.