Marrakech has all of the ingredients for an ultimate weekend getaway – exotic and sensual atmosphere, warm and inviting people, luxurious hotels and fabulous food. While there is plenty to keep you engaged for a week, you can still see the essence of this North African city in a long weekend. Marrakech, which is situated at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, is a large and rather chaotic city but, with the right planning, is also romantic and adventurous. Marrakech can get quite hot during the summer so the best time to visit is between September and May.
For your ultimate weekend getaway, we recommend the luxurious Amanjena, which is part of the Aman Resort group, known for their beautiful spacious grounds and the highest level of service. The Amanjena is a beautiful and peaceful oasis located in the Palmeraie suburb of Marrakech.
As you arrive at Amanjena, you are greeted by the general manager in front of the enormous doors leading into the resort and offered a cup of mint tea, which is the traditional drink offered to guests in Morocco. The moment you pass through the entryway, you immediately feel a sense of calm and serenity.
The resort has 32 separate pavilions and seven 2-bedroom maisons. The nicest of the Amanjena’s one-bedroom accommodations are the Pavilion Piscine suites, which are separate stand-alone villas with a large living area with wood-burning fireplace, Berber carpets, Zellij-tiled floor, soaring mirrors and a private garden with a heated swimming pool. We recommend that you opt for one of these suites for your ultimate weekend getaway.
After settling in to your room, you may want to grab a late lunch or small snack on the veranda by the pool before heading off to explore the heart of Marrakech.
The best way to get the full flavor of Marrakech is to experience Jemaa el-Fna Square, which sits in at the entrance of the Medina (the old walled Islamic capital dating from the 11th Century) and has been the main square of Marrakech for centuries. Jemaa el Fna means “assembly of the dead” and was the plaza where public executions were conducted in the 11th Century.
Today, this triangular square continues as the central gathering point for locals and tourists alike. During the day, the square is filled with stalls selling orange juice, water with traditional leather water bags and copper mugs, delicious dates, nuts and spices and household goods. You can also find individuals offering dental care (not recommended), traditional medicine, fortune-telling, preaching, and henna tattooing. The square is also filled with snake charmers and boys with trained monkeys.
The food being cooked in Jemaa el-Fna Square is considered to be safe to eat. In choosing which stalls to eat at, you should seek out the stalls that are filled with local families rather than tourists (since they will have the best food, though not necessarily the best English language skills).
As dusk arrives, the square is transformed into almost a medieval circus of storytellers, poets, Berber musicians (mazighen), Gnaoua dancers and senthir (hajouj) players. By nightfall, the square is a giant open air restaurant with dozens of food stalls preparing every type of Moroccan food imaginable. At the front of each stall are carefully arranged displays of meat (including full sheep’s heads and stuffed spleens), fish, seafood, snails (a Moroccan specialty), vegetables or whatever food the stall specializes in waiting to be thrown on the charcoal brazier or in the sizzling pans. If you are hungry (and have a hardy stomach), grab a seat at one of the stalls and point to what looks good to you.
Surrounding the square are numerous cafes with terraces overlooking the square where you can watch the unfolding scene from above. After exploring the night market, head over to Café de France for a mint tea on their second floor terrace to take a break from the action and take in the amazing sights and smells of this market.
Café de France // Place Jemaa El Fna // [link]
For tonight’s dinner, we recommend Le Tobsil, which is located deep in the Medina not far from the Jemaa el Fna square. Since it is nearly impossible to find on your own, the restaurant thoughtfully provides escorts that meet you and lead you through a labyrinth of narrow alleyways to the restaurant.
Le Tobsil, which serves among the best traditional Moroccan food in Marrakech, is housed in a spectacular old palace/riad that is owned by Christine Rio and her husband. The atmosphere is incredibly romantic – a plant-filled courtyard with smaller salons and an upper gallery with white linen tablecloths covered with red rose petals and flickering candles. In the cooler months, request a table next to the wood burning fireplace. You almost feel as if you have been transported back in time to a palace banquet one hundred years ago. The five course meal is truly memorable (and filling) with an array of over a dozen salads and appetizers to begin, then a course of pistilla with pigeon, fish or vegetables, then a traditional tagine of roast lamb or fish and finally fruit and pastries for dessert.
Le Tobsil // 22 Derb Abdellah ben Hessaïen, Bab Ksour // [link]
After a busy day of travel and the feast at Le Tobsil, it is nice to return to your hotel for a relaxing evening. At the Amanjena, you can grab a drink in the lounge, where they likely will have local musicians playing Moroccan music, or you can retire to your room. In the cooler months, the hotel can build a fire in your room for a romantic evening in front of a crackling fire (though a word of caution: the dry desert wood used in Morocco is very dense and so burns for a very long time).
With so much to see today, you may want to get an early start on the day. The best way to start the day is with a leisurely breakfast in your suite. After you wake up, arrange for your breakfast, either traditional Moroccan or Western, to be delivered to your courtyard by your private pool where you can enjoy it while watching the sun rise over the horizon.
In order to get a feel for a city, it often makes sense to book a private half-day tour on the first day with a knowledgeable local guide to get a sense of the city’s history, culture and orientation. The hotel can arrange for a hand-picked guide that is fluent in English and is very likely to have a degree in history, art or architecture.
Unquestionably, the most interesting part of Marrakech is the Medina, which is filled with buildings dating back centuries and narrow alleyways lined with shops selling everything imaginable. The open-air markets (souks) feel like they haven’t changed much in the last hundred years. Some of the highlights include a visit to a Moukef (or gathering of labourers), the Foundouks (the original lodging and trading houses for merchants), traditional bakeries where residents to this day still bring their dough to be baked and Medersa Ben Youssef, which was the largest theological college in Morocco dating back to the 16th century. You should also visit the Musee de Marrakech, which exhibits rare art and crafts. Finally, you should walk along the main artery of the Medina, passing through the leather, metalwork and woodcraft markets; through the busy mint and olive markets until you reach the Jemaa El Fna Square.
Rather than rely on your guide for shopping advice (who may have an arrangement with the shopkeeper), for unbiased advice, get the shopping recommendations from the hotel’s concierge before you leave the hotel.
After a full morning of walking, you are likely to be a bit tired and hungry. One of the best restaurants in the Medina is Terrace des Epices, which is on the top floor of a riad and has a terrace filled with open-sided banquettes and good music that overlooks the Medina. The menu is Franco-Moroccan and the food is excellent. Specialties include grilled fish and meat and, of course, tagines.
Terrace des Epices // 15 Souk Cherifia, Sidi Abdelaziz // [link]
Now that you have eaten and have a vague sense of the orientation of the Medina from your morning walking tour, you should use the afternoon to explore the Medina on your own. The serendipitous approach to wandering through the narrow alleyways without a plan or guide is sure to result in unexpected pleasures and experiences. Stop and talk with shopkeepers. Buys some dates or almonds. Peek into bakeries. The experience is like nothing else.
By mid-afternoon, you are likely to be ready to take a break from the sensory assault of Marrakech and retreat to the oasis of your hotel. No visit to Morocco would be complete without experiencing a traditional hamman. There are a number of hammans in Marrakech that your hotel can recommend or, if you want a private and very luxurious experience, you can book a hamman experience at the Amanjena.
A Hamman is a very important part of Moroccan life and culture. For Moroccans, it is both a cleansing ritual and an opportunity to socialize with friends. The rituals vary but generally involve sitting in a warm steam room for 5 – 10 minutes and then your skin is cleaned with a natural black soap made from olives. Next, an attendant exfoliates your skin with a very rough exfoliating glove to remove the dead layer of skin (by the end, you may think that a few layers of living skin has been removed as well). After the exfoliation, you are covered with a thick clay (rhassoul clay) that is absorbed into the skin and deeply cleans your pores. The rhassoul clay comes from the Atlas Mountains and is known for its absorption properties. After about 15 minutes, the clay is washed off with buckets of warm (and, often, alternating cold) water. For a completely decedent afternoon of pampering, arrange for a massage following your hamman experience.
For tonight’s dinner, we recommend El Fassia Aguedal, one of the best restaurants serving traditional Morrocan food. In a country where most chefs and serving staff are male, El Fassia Aguedal (as well as its sister restaurant) is unusual for being run by an all-woman cooperative of chefs and waitresses. The setting is very luxurious, with tile floors and linen covered tables. Some of their stand-out dishes include slow-roasted shoulder of lamb, which almost falls off the bone.
You will likely wake up early today in eager anticipation of a once-in-a-lifetime experience – a helicopter trip to a luxury camp in the Sahara Desert located hundreds of miles from civilization. You can arrange the night before for a light breakfast to be delivered to your suite while you are getting ready for your adventurous day. After finishing your breakfast, you hear the helicopter circling overhead as it prepares to land at the resort for your trip to the desert.
After meeting the professional pilot and getting settled in to the helicopter, the helicopter takes off from the resort and skims the outskirts of Marrakech as it heads towards the High Atlas mountains.
The helicopter ascends over the High Atlas mountains for the one-hour flight to Kasbah Telouet, which is an ancient palace that was the seat of the El Glaoui family's (a Berber Pasha also known as the Lord of the Atlas) power during 19th and the 20th century.
From there, you fly towards Ksar Ait Benhaddou, which is a ‘fortified city’ or old Ksar, along the former camel caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech. Built in the 11th century, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a number of movies have used the majestic site for filming, including ‘The Gladiator’, and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. The flight continues eastwards over the date-palm oasis of the Draa Valley where you see magnificent palm trees, impressive Kasbahs and Ksours and sporadic settlements that tend to appear out of nowhere.
The mountains and plains give way to a vast and seemingly unending desert as you near the rustic colored sand dunes of Erg Chegaga, which is over two hours away from any civilization
After some authentic Sahraoui mint tea, you take a camel trek across the golden sand dunes.
At the point when you begin to wonder how the caravans were able to go for weeks on camels as they crossed the desert (you may be ready to call your chiropractor at this point), the guide leads your camel back to the camp where a delicious authentic lunch from the south of Morocco is set out for you.
After lunch, you can take a nap in a hammock or simply take in the tranquility and stillness of the desert.
If you are feeling more energetic, you can try your hand at sand surfing, which entails taking a snowboard to the top of the highest sand dune and surfing down. After spending the afternoon at the desert camp, it is time to board the helicopter for your flight back to Marrakech. If you want to spend more time in this magnificent place, you can also arrange to stay overnight at the camp and enjoy an amazing dinner banquet and experience the extraordinary sunset and sunrise from the top of high dunes.
Chegaga Luxury Desert Camp // [link]
As an alternative to the Sahara trip, the Amanjena can arrange a full-day visit to the Atlas Mountains, where you visit an authentic Berber village. In the village, you have an opportunity to explore the market and wander through the paths surrounding the mud-walled houses and share traditional mint tea with a Berber family.
For a truly special Moroccan dinner, we recommend Le Grande Table Morocaine, which is located at the ultra-deluxe Royal Mansour hotel and is supervised by French Michelin starred chef Yannick Alléno. Not surprising since the hotel was built by the King of Morocco, no expense was spared in creating a stunning dining space with acres of marble and soaring ceilings.
The circular tables are well spaced out and the service is impeccable. Start the evening with a flute of French champagne and choose a tasting menu to really explore the depth of the kitchen’s talents. Their wine selection is excellent and they have some fabulous Moroccan wines that pair beautifully with the traditional Moroccan dishes. You may recognize the traditional dishes from the prior days – mezze, pastillas, tagines – but the preparation is more refined and sophisticated.
You start with a selection of delicious Moroccan breads so delicious that you could make a whole meal of them. From there, you are served a series of amuse bouche, followed by a table full of small salad treats. Next, make sure you get their Pastilla, either pigeon or seafood, which is the lightest and flakiest version that you will ever find. It may spoil you forever. For the main course, not to be missed is their steamed turbot and their seven vegetable couscous. For dessert, their orange pearl with dates, mint and cinnamon, where the pearls burst in your mouth with intense orange flavor, is an absolute must.
Returning to your hotel, you can enjoy a fire in your room and reflect on the exotic and fascinating experiences of your ultimate weekend getaway in Marrakech.
The ultimate weekend getaway should be stress-free and relaxing. All international flights arrive at Marrakesh Menara Airport (RAK), which, like Marrakech itself, can be rather chaotic and crowded. However, with pre-planning, getting through the airport can be easy and relaxed. Prior to your arrival, arrange with your hotel for VIP transit services and for a hotel car to take you from the airport to your hotel. Upon exiting the plane, you are met by a representative who personally transports you to their VIP lounge. While enjoying a welcoming cup of mint tea in the lounge, a representative takes care of passport control, customs and picking up any luggage. Once passport control and customs is taken care of, you are whisked through customs to meet the representative from your hotel waiting just outside of the customs area. You then are quickly escorted to a waiting luxury sedan, where the driver offers you a cold towel, and skillfully navigate Marrakech’s chaotic traffic to your hotel. The whole process of getting though the airport can take as little as 30 minutes and be comfortable and stress-free.
The roads of Marrakech are a filled with a jumble of cars, busses, motorcycles carrying as many as four people, bicycles, pedestrians and various free-roaming animals. During your stay in Marrakesh, you can get around using taxis, which are plentiful and relatively cheap. However, if the driver claims that his meter is broken, make sure that you agree upon a price in advance to avoid an unexpected surprise at the end. Instead, to make the most of your ultimate weekend getaway, you can arrange for a hotel sedan to take you around Marrakech or drop you off in the center of the city and pick you up later in the day.