Marrakech Beyond the Madness
Marrakech is a city that enthrals, partly because you never quite know what to expect. On one corner there is a maâlem (master craftsman) tapping away at a brass lantern; on another, there’s a snake charmer—trying to charm you right out of your last dirham. Traffic swirls, people rush, the raspy call to prayer drifts from mosques, the beats of Gnawa musicians whip crowds into a frenzy. It’s fascinating, sure, but after a few days you might find yourself craving time out.
While Marrakech is a tad quieter during the autumn and winter months, it is possible to sidestep the crowds or just find a little peace even in high season (February to May). Read on for seven off-the-beaten-path sights and experiences. And for more info on the city, check out our Ultimate Guide to Marrakech.
Peace & Private Medina Views in Le Jardin Secret
When the souks get too claustrophobic, go one street over to Marrakech’s ‘secret garden’. Until recently this riad and its gardens, with 400-year-old Saadian dynasty origins, were home to prominent politicians and off-bounds. Now you can visit Le Jardin Secret for a rare dose of peace in the medina. The riad is an astonishing showpiece of Moroccan and Arab-Andalusian craftsmanship, with zellij (mosaic tiling), hand-carved stucco and inlaid cedarwood.
On a hot day, the greenery and running water in the traditional Islamic garden is almost thirst quenching. Raised walkways take you alongside streams and past olive and citrus trees. Chill in the shade, order a fresh-fruit smoothie from the café, or climb the tower (as high as some minarets) for phenomenal views over the medina to the Atlas Mountains beyond.
Interested in spending a night or two in a luxury riad? Try one from this list of our favorites.
Hunt for Treasure in Upscale Sidi Ghanem
If shopping is your thing, but you’re tired of the haggling spiel and row after row of Aladdin-like slippers in the souks, hop in a taxi for a short ride out of town to Sidi Ghanem. This design district is where serious Marrakech shoppers and riad owners with a keen eye for what’s en vogue hang out.
The wide, easy-to-navigate streets are lined with the workshops and showrooms of contemporary artists and designers, most of which readily accept credit cards. You’ll find everything here from hand-knotted Berber rugs made from high-quality wool to upscale Moroccan-made lighting, eye-catching ceramics, linens and fashion. It’s worth bearing in mind that most places close Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday.
Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL)
If contemporary art is your bag, you won’t want to miss the most recent addition to Marrakech’s art scene: the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL). A 10-minute hop south of town, this museum is the brainchild of Moroccan art collectors Alami Lazraq and his son Othman Lazraq, whose aim is to showcase African art from all angles. With its eclectic permanent collection and rotating exhibitions devoted not just to paintings and photography but also installations, the museum is helping to put the city on the map as a thriving art hub.
Visit the Fashion-Forward VIP Jardin Majorelle
Hands-down Marrakech’s most stylish garden, Jardin Majorelle was once the private oasis of fashion designers Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. But the garden in the Gueliz neighborhood actually owes its look to French landscape artist Jacques Majorelle, who gave the Art Deco villa its signature shade of electric blue in the 1920s. He created a garden suffused with light and color, full of fountains, water lily ponds, rare foliage, pots in juicy orange and lemon colors, and paths lined with palm trees, cacti, and rustling bamboo. While you’re here, check out the Berber Museum, crammed with indigenous artifacts from jewelry to leather, woodwork and High Atlas carpets.
Just steps away is the recently opened Yves Saint Laurent Museum, with a lace-like façade that alludes to the weft and warp of fabric. The museum presents the French fashion designer’s haute couture clothing, accessories, and drawings, and has a bookshop and terrace café worth checking out, too.
Aim to arrive early (before 9 am) to beat the crowds and have the gardens to yourself. Or do one better with a VIP visit for a behind-the-scenes look at Yves Saint Laurent’s life.
Tour a Revamped Colonial Farm, Perfumerie, and Art Gallery
On the fringes of Marrakech, the wonderfully tranquil Musée de la Palmeraie is an easily doable half-day trip and a great escape from the nonstop din of the medina. Hop in a petit taxi for a short ride out of town to these landscaped gardens on an old colonial farm dating to the 1940s. They are the haven of botanist Abderrazak Benchaâbane, who worked together with Yves Saint Laurent in restoring the Jardin Majorelle to its former glory. There are three gardens to explore: a dry cacti garden, a water garden lined with palms, and an Andalusian garden brimming with fruit trees. Best of all, it’s rarely busy.
The grounds are also home to a perfumery and a small but excellent contemporary art gallery, spotlighting international and Moroccan paintings, sculptures, photography, calligraphy, and installations.
Take a Day Trip
No time to visit the Sahara? Well, you can still have a full-on desert experience in the Agafay, less than 20 miles southwest of Marrakech. It might be close to the city, but it feels wild and wonderfully remote in this rocky, barren expanse of pale ochre sand. It’s a great escape for dune-gazing, camel riding (especially at sunset), and clear views of the High Atlas mountains. Dinner in one of the Berber tented camps as the stars start to twinkle is quite something.
Cutting into the High Atlas, the Ourika Valley is a refreshing escape from Marrakech’s heat in summer, with cooler air, bigger skies, and uplifting mountain views. In spring, the valley bursts into almond and cherry blossom. Dusky pink, mud-built Berber villages are pasted to the slopes above the river that runs through the valley.
At the Jardin Bio-Aromatique d'Ourika, go for a stroll in the fragrant aromatic and medicinal herb gardens, followed by herbal tea and perhaps a foot massage. Other worthwhile stops include the Monday Berber market in Tnine Ourika, and the waterfalls in Setti Fatma. A guide is advisable for the latter as the paths can be rocky and slippery in places.
For more day and multi-day trips from Marrakech, check out this roundup of our favorites.