If you're a first-time visitor to Marrakech, this guide shows you where to eat and drink, and gives you tips to have a hassle-free time
As dusk fell and our taxi stopped at the gates of the medina, we found ourselves in a dusty pink alleyway, robed figures with faces of cracked leather leading weary, cart-pulling, donkeys behind them.
Never mind the Jemaa El Fna, there’s something to stare at down every alleyway. Men running up awnings for restaurants on ancient sewing machines; stalls selling freshly squeezed orange juice; unimaginable animal parts hanging outside butcher’s shops; kids playing football with scrunched up newspaper and everywhere it’s sell, sell, sell.
Our feelings on Marrakech were a mixture of excitement and apprehension and below are some ideas and tips for a first visit to Marrakech.
When your feet are aching and you’ve had one too many close calls with a scooter or donkey, I’d recommend you stop by the places below.
Where to have lunch
Café Arabe (184 Rue Mouassine, medina; www.cafearabe.com)
A bar and restaurant on three floors, a courtyard filled with tables and painted that vibrant Yves St Laurent blue with a lantern hung rooftop terrace, furnished with low tables and trendy, circular cream sofas. When the imam starts his call to prayer the music gets turned down low. The tagine made with spicy merguez sausages was excellent and cost around 120 dirhams.
Kosybar (Near the Bahia Palace and tombs. 47 Place des Ferblantiers, Kzadria)
Another hip bar and restaurant with rooftop terrace overlooking Place de la Fourt. After a glass of wine and a beer, rather than trying the menu here, which included sushi, we decided to eat in the square and tried:
Restaurant Place Ferbiantiers (diagonally opposite Kosybar)
No alcohol, but we’d had that in Kosybar, so were content with our bottled water and tagine. This time lamb with vegetables around it, presented wig-wam style, in a comforting and satisfying thick sauce, like a spicy Irish stew.
“Mangez-mangez,” the boy who’d been trying to sell Kleenex tissues pointed at our left-overs. We nodded and also gave him our water and flat bread, which he wolfed down sitting in the shade of a nearby tree. The waiter wrote the total on our paper-covered, plastic table – 95 dirhams total for two tagines and a bottle of water.
Piano Bar Les Jardins de la Koutoubia (26 Rue de la Koutoubia; www.lesjardinsdelakoutoubia.com)
Piano Bar Les Jardins de la Koutoubia is a hotel, with piano bar and restaurants. Walking across the thick burgundy carpet, the air sandal-wood scented and the atmosphere French colonial, it felt like a different world from the streets. The indoor piano bar, where the pianist is frequently asked for a rendition of ‘Play It Again Sam’, serves well-mixed and presented drinks – gin and tonic (90 dirhams) and gin fizz (70 dirhams). We lunched, overlooking the Eden like gardens and pool on a fragrant, lemon chicken tagine.
Where to have dinner
Villa Flore (4 Derb Azzouz, the Moussenine area; www.villa-flore.com)
Cyril, the owner of Riad L’Orangeraie (see more below), recommended and booked this restaurant for us. The restaurant felt very classy in its decor, food presentation and service. The menu was in French and we wondered what our ‘Samossas’ would be like. But, as hoped, they were a spicy prawn stuffed version of the samosas we know and love. Beef in green peppercorn sauce tasted lovely - although the sauce was surprising. Not the peppercorns but the sauce was a vivid, grass green colour. It tasted good though. Vegetables with the main meal were beautifully prepared and presented. Our main course around 150 dirhams each.
Le Marrakchi (52 Rue des banques, Jemaa El Fna)
Le Marrakchi had a great atmosphere with a real buzz; we arrived just as the belly dancers were finishing their act. Couples sat at small round tables and more tables were pushed together for big parties of French diners. Lighting was dim, candles on each table, huge candelabra on the floor and a hanging lantern, a Moroccan version of a disco ball, spattering the walls with sparkling diamonds. The restaurant was overlooking Jemaa El Fna, although some of the windows were too small to take advantage of the view, we chose from the a la carte menu and were glad we did as kebabs came with lots of rice and vegetables and we’d have been hard pushed to find room for a starter.
Where to stay
Riad L'Orangeraie (61 Rue Sidi el-Yamani) is a romantic, atmosopheric riad located in the medina just five minutes' walk from Jemaa El-Fna. We stayed in a good-sized room called Safran, beautifully decorated, with a massive bed and walk in shower. In the courtyard, wrought-iron tables and chairs overlooked the pool; here we'd eat breakfast of just cooked pancakes with jams and homemade yoghurt. The middle floor had a traditionally decorated lounge area where we ate on our first evening in front of a log fire at a petal covered table. Best of all was the terrace - great views of Marrakech and beyond the Atlas Mountains, with sun-loungers, towels and even straw hats provided. The staff were very helpful and obliging and you could ask for a beer, glass of wine, teas, coffees and snacks at any time.
Our three nights in March cost 390 euros on a bed and breakfast basis.
My top tips
If your hotel/riad offers you the chance to pre-book a taxi from the airport, take it. Agreeing a price can be a hassle and it's likely you'll only have big notes that the taxi driver will find 'impossible' to change.
Make sure you’ve got some change to tip the man carting your luggage which taxis can't get to in the medina. You probably won’t have any dirhams but euros are ok.
If you picture yourself having a glass of wine on the terrace of your rooftop riad, when booking make sure it sells alcohol, as not all do.
You have to haggle for taxi journeys, so get an idea from your hotel/riad, what a fair price is. Bear in mind you may have to pay more for the journey back if it’s a tourist destination such as the Jardin Majorelle.
If the riad you're staying in offers meals, have one. Riad L'Orangeraie served us earthenware bowls of warm aubergines coated with tomatoes and cumin; courgettes, butter fried and lemony; French beans, sweetcorn and tomatoes in a light mayonnaise dressing followed by chicken tagine with light as air cous-cous.
Walking around, it is best to wear cropped trousers rather than shorts and T-shirts and to cover shoulders. This is probably not essential if you are part of a couple, but is respectful to local customs.
If you have trouble getting back to sleep and are close to a mosque, take a pair of ear-plugs, for the imam’s call from the mosque around 4.00 am. We were next to a small mosque with a big wail.
In Morocco, French is the second language after Arabic. It’s worth taking a French dictionary for menus although most people’s English is good.
Not all riads/restaurants take credit cards and the cashpoint may limit how much money you can access so plan for this.