In the best possible way, Marrakech in Morocco can be an all-out assault on the senses. Mopeds jostle for space with donkeys in its labyrinthine Medina, multi-hued leather goods hang from every available space in the souk, smells of every sort (both good and bad) fill the air and the five-times-daily call to prayer provides the soundtrack. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and it can be hard to know where to start.
Thankfully, Marrakech happens to be a favourite destination among the folks here at Travelzoo, so we've put together a handy list of must-sees.
Watch the world go by at the Djemaa el Fna
"No one knows how to pronounce it and even fewer how to spell it -- but there's no chance of you missing it. By day it's home to acrobats and musicians, and by night it fills up with food stalls serving a mind-boggling array of local delicacies. My favorite part was sitting at one of the cafes overlooking it with a mint tea (the super-sweet stuff they drink in little glasses), then wandering around as it went dark and filled up, watching snake charmers and people telling stories."
Aysha Flitcroft, associate producer
Haggle for slippers in the souk
"Let's be clear about one thing -- however much you resist, you will come back with a pair of slippers. And there's a pretty good chance you'll come back with a carpet, a leather foot rest and a lamp, too. The thing is, once you're in the souk, surrounded by this assorted temptation, it's very hard not to be swept along in a free-wheeling frenzy of purchasing. And try not to be intimidated by the whole haggling process -- Moroccans are, for the most part, very polite, and if you enter into the spirit of the negotiations it can actually be quite fun. If you need to cut things short, most stallholders will respond to a firm 'no.'"
Christina Bracewell, associate producer
Restaurant recommendation No 1: Le Foundouk
"The very definition of a hidden gem. You could have access to CIA-grade GPS hardware and you still wouldn’t find this restaurant. You can get around that by telling your riad/hotel receptionist where you'd like to go and they'll arrange to have a taxi drop you at the requisite spot, where a member of staff from the restaurant will meet you. You'll then be led by lamp-light through the mazy back streets of the Medina to the door, whereupon you'll enter the kind of place you usually only see in Bond films. The style is typically Moroccan and unashamedly decadent with silk sheets spilling down through the atrium, soft lighting and discreet but attentive service. The food's not half bad either."
Rory Batho, copy editor
Live like a king at La Mamounia
"For those with fewer budget restraints, the palatial Hotel La Mamounia offers respite from the frenetic city center within sumptuously elegant surroundings. Originally built in the 18th century as a wedding gift from the sultan to his son, this historic hotel has welcomed royalty, presidents and prime ministers, movie icons and rock stars. Follow in the footsteps of its illustrious guests with a cocktail in the opulent hotel bar or while reclining in the peaceful gardens -- one of the few spots in the Old Town where alcohol is available, albeit with a London price tag."
Victoria Sandison, associate publisher, Local Deals
Visit the tanneries
"We accidentally ended up here while we were wandering through the Old Town. If you're not too squeamish and can ignore the smell, it's a treat to see the medieval-style curing, drying and dying of hides. We later discovered that tanners have been working here for as long as the city has existed and their methods have changed little in that time. It's like a little window into the past."
Aysha Flitcroft, associate producer
Escape to the Majorelle Garden
"However amazing the Medina is, you'll need to escape the chaos at some point and the Majorelle Garden is the perfect antidote. Once owned by French designer Yves Saint Laurent (his ashes are scattered here), this 12-acre botanical garden in the New Town is an oasis of lily ponds, raised pathways, bamboo groves and bougainvillea. It's about a 25-minute walk from the Djemaa el Fna and definitely worth the trip."
Victoria Murden, associate producer
Take a day trip to the Atlas Mountains
"It would be disappointing to get this close to the mountains and not actually visit them. Fortunately, the foothills of the Atlas are easily reached and well worth a day trip. Most riads will help you organise an excursion (usually with a private driver and hiking guide to take you up to the waterfalls). It could cost you in the region of $130/€100, but most trips incorporate a visit to a Berber village as well. It's a great way to get an alternative view of Morocco. Be warned though -- on the way there we stopped to buy some new batteries for our camera; an hour later we'd bought a carpet. These things tend to happen in Morocco."
Rory Batho, copy editor
Marvel at the mosaics in the Ben Youssef Medersa
"This former Islamic college at the northern end of Medina can be tricky to find but it's well worth the effort -- for the stunning central courtyard if nothing else. Once upon a time this place was the strict preserve of students learning the Quran, but nowadays it's been opened up to the public. The mosaic tiling throughout is spectacular -- if you want to see it at its best, do what we did and go first thing in the morning; we had the place to ourselves."
Raphael Giacardi, producer
Restaurant recommendation No 2: Fantasia
"Less of a restaurant and more of an experience, the Fantasia Dinner and Cultural Show divides opinion; to some it's overly touristy and borderline tacky, to others it's a great opportunity to experience some traditional Moroccan music and an open-air feast. We recommend you just go, watch the belly-dancers, musicians, horseback riders and acrobatics, fill your face and make your mind up for yourselves. That’s what we did."
Felicity Pont, assistant producer