The clamor of medieval streets, the scent of vibrant spices and exotic fruits, lingering smoke and the call to prayer rising above the Medina…Marrakech is nothing if not atmospheric.
Morocco’s leading tourist destination is exotic and mysterious, with a thousand-year history and a cast of characters that includes princesses and sultans, fortune hunters, slave traders, magicians, and colonialists. It’s an intrepid traveler’s dream: part Arabian, part North African, part southern European, boasting a truly eclectic blend of architecture, ethnicity, culture, and food.
Moroccan cuisine is rooted in the rustic food of the indigenous Berbers, layered on with trading influences from across Arabia and the Mediterranean, and polished up with techniques brought in by French colonialists. Its most well-known dishes are hearty, family fare – tagines, couscous, rich stews, delicate filo pies – with a typical ingredient list including red meats, seafood, dried fruits, and southern vegetables such as olives, bell peppers, artichokes, and potatoes.
Running through every dish is a liberal spray of herbs – parsley, coriander, mint, oregano, sage – and a vibrant, colorful palette of spices – saffron, mint, cinnamon, cumin, paprika, fennel, nutmeg. Spices are intrinsic to Moroccan cuisine, and life in general; spend any time in the souks of Marrakech and you’ll grow accustomed to the sights and smells of spice traders, with their hessian sacks or upturned barrels filled with a rainbow of exotic ingredients.
The foodie treats often begin before you even step out of your accommodation. Your stay in Marrakech should be in a riad – highly atmospheric, gorgeously decorated traditional courtyard properties, set in the heart of the Medina. These tardis-like properties are usually unassuming from the outside – just a small, barely-marked entrance from a typically busy Medina alley – but open up into a series of open-air courtyards, brightly tiled halls and mezzanines, and airy roof terraces. Riad kitchens are staffed by dadas: hardworking, often unheralded female chefs who turn out their take on Moroccan classics. The best riad dadas – such as those in our favorite riads El Fenn and La Sultana – attract locals and non-guests, so booking ahead is always worthwhile.
Eating out is something of an oddity for most Moroccans, with most meals taken at home. Marrakech, with its thriving tourist scene, is an exception however with an excellent array of eateries catering to both budget-conscious street food hounds to fine dining sophisticates – and everything in between.
Your best place to start is at central square Djemaa el Fna, the pulsating heart of the Medina. Especially lively in the evening, the square is a popular hub for entertainment as well as dining. Marvel at musicians, monkey handlers, and snake charmers while strolling a wide range of food stalls featuring aubergine and potato fritters, fried fish, cured Merguez sausages, gently spiced harira soup, and more exotic delights – steamed sheep’s head anyone?! Hygiene standards in the square can be…questionable…so we recommend passing through to soak up the atmosphere before moving on to one of the many excellent cafes or restaurants which line the square and surrounding streets.
Cafe culture – as you’d expect with Marrakech’s heady mix of Arabian and European influences – is deeply entrenched in daily life. Moroccan cafes are all-day affairs, serving up breakfast, lunch, dinner, light snacks, teas, coffees, juices, and – very occasionally in this Islamic city – alcohol. Frequented by businessmen, students, friends, lovers, retirees, and tourists alike, these are vital spaces to soak up Marrakechi culture, whether you’re breaking the heat with a refreshing mint tea, or tucking into a full spread of tagine and mezze.
Our favorites include the Cafe des Epices, aptly set in Marrakech’s ‘spice square’, which spills over three stories with a rooftop terrace looking towards the Atlas mountains; Cafe du Livre – part cafe, part bookstore with over 2,000 titles to browse through, plus an alcohol license; and the epic, unmissable Grand Cafe de la Poste with a vintage saloon featuring club chairs, tiled floor, ceiling fans, and an upscale menu of French-Moroccan favorites.
Finally, for those looking to top off their visit with the very best high-end dining experience, Marrakech certainly does not disappoint. The city’s best restaurants are usually small, intimate venues so booking in advance is recommended. Al Fassia – run entirely by women – takes Moroccan staples such as bstilla pigeon pie or mechoui leg of lamb and refine to the highest standards. Le Jardin is an oasis of greenery, a chic hideaway that makes a great spot for a refreshing lunch, serving up fusion cuisine and great mojitos. Le Maison Arabe, housed in the famed luxury hotel of the same name, has possibly the city’s dreamiest atmosphere, and down the years has played host to Hemingway, Churchill, and Jackie Kennedy.
Our tours of Morocco all pass through Marrakech, and our passionate consultants will delight in discussing the many culinary experiences and food-focused hotels on offer throughout the country.
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This article was first published in issue four of the Unforgettable Travel Magazine.