The old adage that there is never enough time is so true, especially when exploring Morocco. First inhabited some 400,000 years ago, Morocco’s later Berber culture was influenced over the centuries during Muslim, Roman, French and Spanish occupation. On a long weekend in autumn, my husband and I went to Marrakech (or Marrakesh), the fourth-largest city in Morocco, and took day trips to the mountains and coast. We completed most but not all of our wish list, so stay a few extra days to take advantage of all that Marrakech and the surrounding areas have to offer.
Book at a riad
Old-style Moroccan homes have interior tiled courtyards and balconies that let in cool evening breezes. Choose a family-run riad in Marrakech’s medina (the fortified old town) to easily access the meandering alleyways brimming with shops and eateries. When your hands are full of shopping bags and you’re tired of haggling, retreat to your sanctuary for a glass of hot mint tea. We listened to the chirping birds while sipping spiced coffee each morning in the courtyard of the lovely, affordable Riad Mabrouk & Spa, a remarkably quiet riad in the midst of the constant medina bustle.
Peruse the Marrakech Souks
Marrakech is home to the largest Berber marketplace in Morocco, including more than a dozen souks (markets), many in the medina. The maze of stands and shops sell geometric Berber carpets, wooden and stone statement necklaces, lamps with colorful glass panes, spices and jarred vegetables, kitschy souvenirs, silver tea sets and leather wares.
Once inside, you’ll make a wrong turn and round the same corner half a dozen times before you realize it. You’ll pay too much for that hand-painted ceramic platter and sneeze after sniffing pungent spices. Snake charmers may shoulder up to you to give you a closer look at their reptile companions.
Though initially overwhelming, we started ignoring pushy vendors and became more confident hagglers, even walking away to land the deals we wanted. We left the souk with memories of Marrakech, newfound confidence and the need for a bigger suitcase.
Savor Marrakech’s diverse cuisine
The dining options in Marrakech range from kiosks selling grilled meat skewers and humble grab ’n go stops to co-op cafés, romantic riad restaurants and trendy gastro pubs. There are hundreds of places to choose from that prepare traditional Moroccan specialties such as tagines, slow-cooked stews made in conical clay pots. We tried several restaurants, each a unique experience.
Metal lanterns, votives and underwater pool lights illuminate the poolside tables at the five-star La Sultana hotel. Order one Moroccan and one French tasting menu to share so that you can sample three-bite portions of 30 different appetizers, entrées and desserts.
Gastro MK is the high-class bistro at the Maison MK boutique hotel. Consistently rated as Marrakech’s number one restaurant on TripAdvisor, Gastro MK is always fully booked, so you should reserve well in advance. When I reserved our table, I asked for a romantic spot because we were celebrating our wedding anniversary. Gastro MK delivered, giving us a private room with a corner couch so we could cozy up. My favorite part of the impeccable five-course fusion meal was the decadent sweet tagine of hot apple, crumble, salted caramel and ice cream.
Our most traditional and budget-friendly dinner in Marrakech was at Riad La Badia. The menu changes daily, based on what the local female chef, Samira, finds fresh at the market. Expect tagines, roasted vegetable dishes and house-made pastries. You’ll even get to compliment the chef in person!
Go to the Atlas Mountains
Appreciate the vast beauty of the 9,000-square-mile mountain range that extends 1,500 miles across northern Africa. Visit remote Berber villages, where goods are still brought in on donkeys. Stop by a co-op to watch women extract oil from argan seeds by hand to be sold in expensive cosmetic products.
Guided by Nour, the owner of Moroccan Guides, we toured the exclusive Kasbah Tamadot, one of Sir Richard Branson’s resorts — if only I had the funds to stay there the next time I’m in Morocco. We took a leisurely hike to a village to drink tea in a local family’s home, and had a late lunch of salads and tagines on the terrace of Imlil Lodge; the view of the mountains was incredible.
Essaouira is a fishing port 110 miles west of Marrakech with 18th century ramparts jutting over the Atlantic Ocean. Shopping and dining here tends to be less expensive than in Marrakech, and the restaurants serve the day’s catch, purchased from fishermen who have returned from their morning outing. If you’re into windsurfing, you must ride the waves of Essaouira.
During our short outing, I purchased a stunning enameled necklace from a Bijouterie Mâalem Ali 1908, a local trade school, where young apprentices learned silver-working skills. I also wandered from one fishing boat to the next looking at all sorts of fish I’d never seen and taking photos of stray cats searching for scraps.
There is so much more to see and do in Morocco. Get a full-body exfoliating scrub at a hammam, a traditional Moroccan spa — your skin will thank you for it. Journey to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Kasbah Aït Benhaddou; it’s a long 8-hour round trip from Marrakech to this ancient earthen-brick settlement, but I am still sad I missed it. Leave behind the city for the Sahara to experience a sunrise over the dunes, a cloudless star-filled sky and the serenity of Morocco.