Carnet de voyage: Marrakech essentials – STAY/EAT
One year is not enough to thoroughly know a city, but is better than a 3-day trip, especially when the destination is exotic Marrakech, where the simplest of things as taking a taxi, or crossing a street can become a nightmare. So, with exactly a year past since we moved from the Red City, I thought it would be nice to share with you those tips on the people, places, and food that stole our hearts.
Today we´ll take off with those hotels, riads, and restaurants that made the cut.
Marrakech’s heart is the medina, the old walled city where streets become as narrow as possible and even then most experienced traveler loses his/her way. La medina, and its grandiose square Djemma El Fna, are pretty representative of the whole city, even though la Nouvelle Ville, also known as Gueliz, or La Palmeraie (a newer luxurious complex of villas and hotels), were built with more of an architectural order in mind, they stay quite difficult to navigate for foreigners. The language barrier if you don’t speak Darija, the local Arab dialect; or French (to a certain extent) can be overwhelming, so my first advice when you arrive to this wonderful city is to be very patient and to trust your instincts. After all, there’s nothing a good cup of mint tea can’t heal.
If luxe is your thing, then you can have a holiday in a real palace such as La Mamounia, Royal Mansour (both property of his Majesty, King Mohamed VI) or Selman. I highly recommend La Mamounia for a mix of refinement, elegance, and pedigree. With some luck, you can end up having a dip in their gorgeous Murano tile swimming pool next to Bruce Willis, Poppy Delevigne or Gad Elmaleh.
Another great alternative is to stay in the Medina where you will find hundreds of exquisite riads (traditional Moroccan houses which are built around a central patio). Some are more worthy than others, do your own homework and research online, TripAdvisor is a good start. Go for a riad that has: relatively easy accessibility within the medina, contact the owners, which are usually also the managing team and ask for their credentials (there are many people with zero knowledge/experience in hospitality), and yes, of course, choose one with amazing design. I really like Vanessa Branson’s (sister of sir Richard Branson) boutique-hotel riad El Fenn, not only its uber stylish modern-beldi decor and architecture worth the stay, but the hotel-riad has a prime location, and they organize some of the most sought after soirées in the city.
In La Palmeraie area, which is further (about 20 mins by car from downtown), I found and loved Le jardin d’Ines hotel which has that wonderful mix of sophisticated french style manners with the kind and very natural marrakchia touch. Owned by renowned french chef Christophe Leroy (aka the creator of La Soirée Blanche in St. Tropez), this hotel has the advantage of offering delicious and substantial Sunday Brunches that includes access to non-hotel guests to their swimming pool, something that most of riads will be missing, and something of a necessity to refresh yourself during Summer.
Marrakech is one of those places where if you want to experience authentic and local cuisine, you have to get an invitation from a Moroccan Mama, if that doesn’t happen here are your best bets:
Street food: I know this is the wild road and if you don’t pay attention you can clearly turn your holiday into a nightmare (hello gastroenteritis), so if you have a delicate stomach, this may not be for you. For those adventurers: freshly pressed orange juice at Djemma El Fna square (just tell them not to add sugar to your juice: jus d’orange sans sucre s’il vous plait), Harira soup, you will find this fulfilling soup especially during Ramadan, when locals will break their fast by eating three dates, a glass of water, freshly pressed juices or panaches, and harira soup amongst others, if you don’t visit Marrakech during Ramadan don’t panic since you will always find a small eatery, café or restaurant offering this cheap treat. Also super worthy: Sardines keftas sandwhiches (the bomb!), and Marrakech`s unique specialty: Tanjia. A great alternative to discover these delicacies is to hire a food tour such as Marrakech Food Tours ran by Amanda and Youssef, from MarocMama. Read my own experience while touring with them in this post.
Moroccan ftour (breakfast) is a tradition, a way of living, something you don’t want to miss. Surely, you will have a fancy-ish breaky at your palace or riad, but having a local one, which will cost you nothing (around 10 dirhams) is a fun thing to do. To do so, locate those small juice shops with funky hand-written lettery and naif-esque fruits designs on their windows and walls, usually those places provide Moroccan breakies the whole day. Ask for: Eggs with spicy tomato sauce (and a dash of cumin), Eggs with khlii (eggs with preserved meat), Msemem (Moroccan crepes) served with amlou, an addictive spread made of edible argan oil, almonds and honey also know as the Moroccan nutella, avocado shake (either with milk or OJ, and honey or dates is super delicious), and sweet raib (yogurt). Finish your petit dej with a nousnous coffee or mint tea. More than a breakfast this is a lunch! In Gueliz, you can also order this breaky (a bit expensier than the juice stalls but still on the budget side) at the numerous cafés in Mohammed VI main avenue, especially Café Les Negociants. However, the winner of my heart was a small juice shop just a few minutes from M VI street, called Chez Othmane, but there are other good ones also in Mellah area.
Others dishes you cannot miss are Couscous, especially on a Friday which is the holy day, the day when the whole family gets together for a heavy lunch around an enormous steamy Couscous platter that has been slowly cooked the whole morning by the ladies running the house. A Couscous is a not only a nurturing (and inexpensive) dish but a family ritual, All travel guide books will tell you Al Fassia is the place to go, but we were never surprised by the food but by the rude service and expensive prices, we prefer Amal Association (mandatory couscous on Fridays, also mandatory reservation) or Hassan Hajjaj´s Riad Yima boutique (and salon de thé), the iconoclast artist sometimes offers Couscous Friday at his funky space… per request only.
For trendier Moroccan cuisine try Nomad, where this sometimes heavy cuisine gets respectfully reinterpreted in a lighter way, sometimes with vegetarian or gluten free alternatives. Also, their terrace is the place to be to enjoy the beauty of the last prayer of the day while the sun is setting over the medina. Another favorite is Le Jardin (by the same owners of Nomad) which has a more trad approach to Moroccan food while still serving other international dishes, as a plus: the aesthetic of the restaurant, which is an old riad that was completely in ruins, obviously their garden scores big.
Although you may not visit Marrakech having french food in mind, this is actually a good place to eat good Frenchie food. When we lived there we would indulge in a once a week bistro-like atmosphere. For the best seafood platters go to Chez Mado. For casual lunch or dinner at a very affordable price Le Studio is the place to eat and to be seen, prices are very affordable and Chef Didier Beckaert will never let us disappointed. If looking for a quieter or romantic ambiance then head to L’hivernage quartier (the chicest neighborhood in Kech) and go to Villa Canaille where his owner, a true passionate of cooking with no professional training, runs a team of talented cooks, dishes are based on traditional french cuisine brasserie style (Le Studio has a more modern approach). Of course, a visit to Le grand café de la Poste is a must, either for lunch, a coffee at their terrace, or aperitif time, this place is an architectural and historical jewel, food is less exciting but still good, and who cares, this is the kind of place you go for the sensorial-cultural experience (once or twice a month, LGCDP organizes great talks around literature and arts).
Marrakchias are very keen to their kaowa (coffee) no matter what time of the day. At the medina try Le Café des épices for light salads, smoothies, café aux épices, tea (also great breakfast) and great casual conversation with cool like minded travelers. Kaowa café just across the street from Majorelle garden is a good alternative for healthier choices like salads, fresh juices and smoothies. In the kasbah area, one of the oldest areas of the Medina, you will find Café Clock a lovely café slash cultural center that offers Moroccan and international dishes, their staff is completely fluent in English, Arab and French and super friendly! Rumor has it they have a killer camel burger (no, I never tried it), on Thursday nights they hold Hikayat sessions, which is the traditional Moroccan storytelling, a tradition as old as Djema square, sessions are held in Arab and English.
If you want something sweeter go for a slice of cake at Dar Cherifa, one of the oldest riads in the city and a literary and arts center. For Moroccan pastries, you can try La pâtisserie des princes (in the street of the same name), a very old and traditional bakery that sell and serves all kinds of Moroccan sweets. Another option a bit pricier but the favorite of Marrakchias (and myself) is Al Jawda, in Rue de la Liberté (Gueliz), they make the best chbakias cookies in the world, also, their pigeon b’stilla is a treat. For a casual yet relaxed tea and Moroccan cookies Amal Association also serves a great diversity of traditional pastries (and their b’stilla is also wonderful). Tip: If you are traveling during Ramadan buy your cookies at the earliest time (check their Ramadan opening schedules or ask your Concierge to do it for you) since these pastries are a vital part of their religious celebration, and they are sold out very easily.
Et voilá, my selection of those restaurants that worth the detour, I might have skipped one or two (well, more than that) but I consider this is a good first approach for a first time traveling experience in Marrakech. If you have questions or need more specific recommendations (vegetarian, vegan, burger joints, Italian, Sushi…) let me know it in the comments section and if possible I will write a second post just about niche cuisines.