Marrakech is a shopper’s paradise. Being surrounded by objects that are made by hand and not machine changes the way one looks at an object. Meeting the craftsmen and artisans fabricating these items was one of the highlights of our trip. Centuries of expertise and tradition are passed from generation to generation. The tile, baskets, metalwork, leather, embroidery, rug making, brass, pottery, and textiles show the hand of each individual that created them. Using simple tools and noble materials, the works that these craftsman create are extraordinary.
SOUKS literally means “what a mess” and a what a fun mess it is! The maze of tight alleyways sells every possible handcrafted item one can imagine. Having a guide is essential to ensure you are getting the best price and quality. Every hotel has a list of trusted guides to suggest. The main route is a sun dappled alley selling various wares. As one travels deeper into the souks, they are loosely organized according to what is sold…babouches, rugs, jewelry, metalwork, wool, spices, black magic, leather, ceramics, and clothing. Haggling is a part of the culture. Be prepared to spend a long time discussing prices.
KHALID ART GALLERY is an institution in Marrakech. Located on Dar el Basha in a traditional Riad, the Art Gallery (perhaps more accurately defined as a shop) is bursting with some of the most sought after Moroccan art, antiques, and exquisite artisanal products that Marrakech has to offer. It is easy to see why it has become so popular with the international jet set.
MAISON DU CAFTAN The ultimate place to purchase or design the perfect caftan, Moroccan jacket or djellaba. Order early in the week and have your custom clothes delivered to your doorstep in a matter of days.
MUSTAPHA BLAOUI is where all the riad interior designers knock elbows, picking through M. Blaoui’s collection of Moroccan ceramics, lanterns, rugs, and dowry chests…otherwise known as the “Cave of Mustapha.”
In addition to shopping the souks, we explored other areas of Marrakech at the recommendation of several designer friends. The Gueliz, or the “New City,” showcases the modern side of the city outside of the medina. Art galleries, restaurants, and boutiques line wide landscaped boulevards of this neighborhood.
LALLA is the brainchild of the uber cool and glamorous Laetitita Trouillet. The French stylist made her way to Marrakech from London’s Portobello Market in search of the fabulous finds in the famed souks. After cornering the market in shopping expertise and sourcing for the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, Gwyneth Paltrow and numerous fashion editors, she turned her talents to designing and producing chic and trendy bags using local materials and craftsmen.
AKBAR DELIGHTS Perhaps the most upmarket boutique in Marrakech, Akbar Delights is pristine in its choice of imported luxury fabrics from Kasmir and India and locally made garments, footwear and accessories. It is another surprise find for most people, but the glittering array of scarves, babouche, jewelry and assorted other clothing and accessories will not disappoint.
33 RUE MARJORELLE Founded in 2010, this thoroughly modern trio of spaces—a boutique specializing in housewares and clothing, a snack bar, and a salon offering furniture, art, and a place to repose—is dedicated to the union of contemporary design and Morocco’s famed craftsmanship. Though the shop represents over 60 designers, mostly from Morocco, co-owner Yehia Abdelnour is quick to turn the focus to the local maâlems, or master craftsmen, who make the majority of what’s on view. Asked what inspired the shop’s tight edit of furniture, linens, apparel, and objets, he cites Morocco’s “abundance of skilled artisans, the vibrant and bold colors, the rich hues, the geometric ornaments, and the handcrafted textures.” And at the risk of sounding unduly brash, he asserts, “There’s no other shop quite like this in Marrakech. In all Morocco.”
BOUTIQUE MAJORELLE The on-site boutique offers a wide range of unique clothing and products, designed exclusively for the Jardin Majorelle, and which reflect ancestral Moroccan savoir-faire. They are inspired by the flora and colors of the garden, the richness of its Berber museum collections, and the work of Yves Saint Laurent that affirmed his profound passion for Morocco.The boutique features a silk and cotton clothing line, produced at the Jardin Majorelle’s own workshop, embroidered leather cushions and leather goods, artisanal soaps, and a panoply of traditional handmade preserves…Silver jewelry, silk scarves, and hand-woven textiles are presented alongside an exclusive collection of jewelry designed by Loulou de la Falaise, Yves Saint Laurent’s former studio director responsible for accessories.
ARTC One of our favorite afternoons was spent at the atelier of ArtC upon the recommendation of Laetitia Trouillet. A ballet dancer turned fashion designer, Artsi Ifrach creates one of kind wearable works of art. “I create all my pieces with a total freedom from the state of mind I have at the moment. Being respectful of the past and the culture to bring something warmer. Vintage fabrics can match past and present. Colours and prints are my landscapes. Napoleon said, ‘There is a fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime.’ I search this line every time in every piece. I am thinking what we would like to have, that we do not have yet. The strongest part we all have is our individuality. That is what I am doing with one-of-a-kind pieces, as we all are.”
LA GALERIE DES TANNEURS A fashionista’s dream! La Galerie des Tanneurs selects the finest materials to make wallets, coats, handbags, shoes, luggage, trousers or skirts all soft to the touch. The curious can even venture into the adjoining leather workshop where in the rules of art, items are entirely hand-made. Nearly eighty artisans working in workshops in the city to offer the best of their skills in record time. Each item is likely to be made, customized, within 48 hours in the leather and the color of one’s choice.
POPHAM DESIGNS Caitlin and Samuel Dowe-Sandes, the American founders, work with Moroccan mellums, or tile artisans, who produce the tiles in an energy-efficient hydraulic press. Cement tiles are part of the heritage and cultural/artistic identity of Morocco. They bring a modern design sensibility to the tradition of Moroccan cement tiles. Shortly after arriving in Marrakech, the couple bought a 250-year-old home in the medina, or ancient walled city, and set to renovating it. Drawn to the geometric black-and-white cement tiles of the home’s courtyard, they soon found themselves sketching their own designs. With these tile designs, they found a balance between their own modern aesthetic and the home’s traditional architecture. An appreciation for the flexibility and practicality of cement tiles as well as the medium’s design possibilities led the Dowe-Sandes to found Popham Design.The designs take their aesthetic cue from life in Morocco and the things that inspire them – the curve of an arch, a delicate carved wooden ceiling, the branch of an almond tree, the shadow cast by the wheel of a donkey cart. The patterns are designed to be flexible so that the same tiles can be arranged in numerous layouts.
MICHELE BACONNIER Designer Michèle Baconnier is known for her re-designs of that quintessential Moroccan slipper, the babouche. Her store also sells women’s and children’s clothing, jewelry, household accessories, such as gorgeous blankets and throws. A passionate traveller and a creative designer, she combines both passions to produce an abundance of colorful, delightful designs.
RIAD ELISA An oasis of tranquility and serenity in the heart of the Medina of Marrakesh. The elegantly predominant white with touches of color creates a charming yet chic style which subtly embraces relaxation. Meet up at the Riad Elisa Marrakesh main Patio before enjoying a delicious dinner at Max Restaurant, on your way to indulge at Elisa Spa, coming back from sipping a refreshing cocktail at the Roof Top terrace or simply sit down at the Salon and enjoy reading a book surrounded by traditionally hand embroidered silk textiles which together with the soft rumor of the fountain and the sumptuous scent of the local flowers transport you to the authentic Morocco. Decorated by the prestigious Interior Designer Tomás Alía, this hidden gem is one of Marrakesh best kept secrets. A bucolic retreat for those who are looking for a unique and luxurious Morocco.
EL FENN With 28 individually styled rooms and suites, tree-filled courtyards, a 7000 square foot roof terrace and a family of resident tortoises, El Fenn is the perfect retreat from which to enjoy Africa’s most exotic city. In 2002 Vanessa Branson and Howell James were looking for a holiday home and walked into the almost ruined courtyard of one of Marrakech’s formerly great private homes. Nearing dusk and with the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer echoing in the air, they instantly fell in love with the atmospheric house. At the time, only a handful of Marrakech’s riads had been converted to small hotels and Vanessa and Howell knew they wanted to create a home from home retreat that combined great food and service with the spirit of the building’s past and a contemporary decorative twist. During a two-year renovation, local craftsman used traditional techniques to breathe new life into the building. Polished lime plastering was used in a rainbow of colours to create walls, baths and bed frames, original tiling was renovated and carved cedar ceilings restored. Retro furniture sourced from local flea markets was combined with one-off bespoke pieces to create a unique interior.
MANDARIN ORIENTAL MARRAKECH Interior designers Patrick Giles and Dorothee Boissier mix Arabic, Berber and Andalusian styles often in bold contrasts of black and white to create some of the most glamorous interiors in Marrakech. The resort itself is situated on 50 acres of landscaped gardens with views of the Atlas Mountains and proximity to the golf courses. The spa offers treatments derived from various disciplines, Berber, Thai and Chinese Traditional Medicine included. You can steam in the hammam, be wrapped in rose petals or massaged with Morocco’s own Argan oil.
PEACOCK PAVILIONS Peacock Pavilions is a handmade, artisanal boutique hotel in an olive grove on the outskirts of Marrakech. Part of the M.Montague offerings, Peacock Pavilions was designed and built by Americanauthor, blogger and designer, Maryam Montague, and her American husband, Chris Redecke. The hotel, like the rest of M.Montague brand, supports Project Soar, a non-profit organization established the couple to empower local Moroccan girls through art and sports, as well as health and English language education. Maryam, her husband, and two children continue to live at Peacock Pavilions where they share their own slice of a Marrakesh oasis with resident peacocks Maurice, Persephone and Gigi, five cats, one mischievous yellow lab, and any guests lucky enough to be stopping through.
ROYAL MANSOUR MARRAKECH The hotel was born out of a vision to create a spectacular masterpiece exceeding the demands of today’s discerning traveler, while reflecting the true essence of Moroccan tradition. The magnificent main reception building with its fabulous lobby, the bar, the different lounges, the beautiful library, as well as the three renowned restaurants, entice guests in. Inspired by North Africa, Spain as well as Portugal’s traditional Moorish architecture, the Royal Mansour Marrakech hotel design showcases symmetry entwined with classical forms. As for the interior, it is a pure celebration of the diversity and virtuosity of master craftsmen from the Kingdom, with lace embedded plaster, carved ceilings, floors and walls, where Tadelakt and Zelliges take turns in the spotlight. The spa offers guests a spiritual journey, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of the city and daily stresses as they enter into a world of tranquillity and peace. The outdoor hot air gives way to a comfortable coolness within this vast wellness area. The purity of white, punctuated by the colourful floral bouquets and the serenity of the surroundings, are only interrupted by the melodious birdsongs and the soothing sounds of the water fountains. At the heart of this enchanting universe is an impressive fairy-tale white wrought iron atrium, evoking an elaborate birds’ cage.
LA MAMOUNIA Our grand finale to our trip included a brief stay at La Mamounia. Not only has this legendary hotel hosted everyone from royalty to rock stars, it was also renovated by favorite designer Jacques Garcia in 2009. Designed in 1922 by architects Prost and Marchisio, La Mamounia combined the Moroccan architectural tradition with Art Deco design and decoration. The hotel originally had 100 rooms, but was expanded in 1946, 1950 and 1953, and now includes nearly 200 rooms. Inspired by centuries of history, Garcia created a mythical setting evocative of a Moroccan palace. In lieu of the original Art Deco style, the designer used oriental influeneces, zelliges, mosaics, woodwork, wrought iron, stained glass and marble. Click here to read more about this iconic hotel.
Known as the jewel of Morocco, Marrakech has been the epicenter of culture and trade for over one thousand years. The pink walls, meandering alleys, and doors leading to palaces, courtyards and magnificent riads, are a feast for the eyes. The convergence of the most exotic cultures in the world, European, Arabian and African, is revealed in everything from the art and architecture to the cuisine and culture. The entire city shifts in color from pale pink in the morning light to a deep rose in the late afternoon sun. We could not have picked a more ideal destination to leave behind the hustle of everyday life and escape into this bohemian fantasy world.
To seek out the best interiors and design elements, we made sure to see every iconic hotel, restaurant, and rooftop that Marrakech had to offer. We planned our itinerary to have days of intense sightseeing and shopping offset with days with a (very slightly) more relaxed pace. Our grand finale took us to La Mamounia where we only left the grounds once to see the famed Jemma El Fna on our last night.
EL FENN is the perfect retreat from which to enjoy Africa’s most exotic city. Combining grandeur and historic architecture with hideaway nooks, terraces and gardens, the hotel is just five minutes from the world-famous Jemaa El Fna square and bustling maze of streets that make up the souk.In 2002 Vanessa Branson and Howell James were looking for a holiday home and walked into the almost ruined courtyard of one of Marrakech’s formerly great private homes. Nearing dusk and with the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer echoing in the air, they instantly fell in love with the atmospheric house. They soon realized that their holiday home was going to become so much more. On the rooftop, you can enjoy a breakfast of breads, pastries, fruit and eggs complete with sunshine and a view of the Atlas Mountains. By noon, the day’s set Moroccan lunch menu changes according to what’s in season or you can pick a dish from our light menu that runs until 6pm. On warmer evenings, dinner is served under the stars.
LE JARDIN is located through a small door opening to a large courtyard enclosed in a 17th-century mansion. Interior designer Anne Favier reinvented this very beautiful house in the Sidi Abdelaziz quarter. They found it in ruin, and renovated it in tones of green, adding lots of plants, trees and water features, into a small oasis…A cool 1960s décor imagined in harmony with all the Moroccan crafts, creates a very contemporary feel.
MAISON MK is a foodie focused spa hotel…and full of personality. A retired fashion photographer transformed a 600-year-old riad in the Marrakech medina into Maison mk hotel, a design den that blends traditional Moroccan motifs with modern minimalist touches. The teardrop-shaped plunge pool, vibrantly coloured fabrics and silk artwork all showcase an eye for detail at this comfortable contemporary retreat.
DAR YACOUT Every visitor to Marrakech has to try Dar Yacout, a medina institution. Follow winding alleyways to the restaurants courtyard, strewn with petals. Designed in the early 1990’s by American expat architect Bill Willis, this fantasy palace—shiny tadelakt (polished plaster) walls, scalloped columns, and striped turrets—has influenced Moroccan interiors ever since. A landmark of Marrakech, it was amongst the first created twenty years ago in the medina by Mohamed Zkhiri, who presides over the destiny of this sumptuous venue. The decor is enchanting with its private rooms and breath-taking panoramic view from the terrace overlooking the medina and the Koutoubia mosque of Marrakesh. Highly traditional Moroccan gastronomic cuisine with a menu incorporating an amazing succession of flavours, and service that lives up to anyone’s standards.
BELDI COUNTRY CLUB Like many Marrakech residents, Jean Dominique Leymarie makes his home in the medina. But he was intrigued by the idea of creating a retreat from the dust and noise, so he bought some land just outside town, planted 15,000 rosebushes, put in a pool and a spa, and invited the public to spend a day in the country. It proved a hit, and in 2009 he added a luxury boutique hotel to the mix. Designed in the traditional – or beldi – style that is the heart and soul of Morocco, the 28 rooms were built of earth, plaster, wood and iron, and furnished entirely from local markets. They form part of a living, breathing Moroccan village with craft workshops, a bakery and souks selling Safi pottery, hand-embroidered linens and Berber carpets. All around are 15 hectares of magnificent grounds, filled with palms, olive and fruit trees, tall grasses, herbs and a sea of roses. It’s a 10-minute hop by taxi to the medina, and staff can arrange lakeside picnics at their kasbah in the Atlas Mountains, whose snow-capped peaks shimmer in the distance. Return each evening to find dozens of lanterns glowing along serpentine paths to the 3 restaurants, bar and cosy salons, creating a sublimely magical and private setting.
LE COMPTOIR is a legend in Marrakech, but not necessarily for the food. The Franco-Moroccan dishes are served with some panache and rarely fail, but the atmosphere and the spectacle are much more memorable. It’s a mix of restaurant, lounge and boutique, in a large Art Deco villa. Head straight to the upstairs bar for a pre-dinner drink and you’ll understand what the fuss is about and why this place has a reputation. Downstairs, the large, plush-red dining room is more stageset than restaurant. The menu is a mix of French, Moroccan and Asian influences. Minds tend to wander from the food to the floor around 9.30pm, when lithe belly dancers descend the big staircase to cavort around – and, if you are lucky, on – the tables. The place carries on buzzing, upstairs and down, till late in the night.
BO ZIN This hip restaurant and lounge is set in an exotic garden where luxurious fountains and summer lounges were designed for your well-being, an invitation to dream, a mixture of Zen spirit and elegance. Live music and performances add to the unique experience.
LING LING /MANDARIN ORIENTAL Ling Ling draws inspiration from the izakaya concept made popular in the East, where food accompanies the drinks and not the other way around. With drinking, dining and dancing at the forefront, Ling Ling bends the Hakkasan DNA to create a restaurant and bar experience that reflects and complements the environment. Created by Executive Head Chef Tong Chee Hwee, the menu features reinvented presentations of the Cantonese cuisine synonymous with Hakkasan, perfect for sharing between friends. The cocktails are at the heart of the experience, with an intriguing drinks and wine list curated by the award-winning team in London. Designed by Parisian duo Gilles & Bossier and located in the West wing of the lobby, Ling Ling has a spacious outdoor terrace overlooking the gardens, lounge and bar.
KOUTOUBIA MOSQUE Five times a day, the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from atop the Koutoubia Mosque minaret. Excavations confirm a longstanding Marrakshi legend: the original mosque built by Almoravid architects wasn’t properly aligned with Mecca, so the pious Almohads levelled it to build a realigned one. When the present mosque was finished in the 12th century, 100 booksellers were clustered around its base – hence the name, from kutubiyyin, or booksellers.
MEDERSA BEN YOUSSEF “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded” reads the inscription over the entryway to the Ali ben Youssef Medersa, and after almost six centuries, the blessing still works its charms on visitors. Founded in the 14th century under the Merenids, this Quranic learning centre was once the largest in North Africa, and remains among the most splendid. Sight lines are lifted in the entry with carved Atlas cedar cupolas and wooden-lattice screen balconies. The medersa’s courtyard is a mind-boggling profusion of Hispano-Moresque ornament: five-colour zellij (mosaic) walls; stucco archways; cedar windows with weather-worn carved vines; and a curved mihrab (eastern-facing niche) of prized, milky-white Italian Carrara marble.
LE JARDIN MARJORELLE These famous gardens were started by the painter Jacques Marjorelle in 1937, opened to the public in 1947, and eventually purchased by Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Berge in 1980. Click here to read about these legendary gardens.
JEMAA EL FNA The medina’s central square means “Assembly of the Dead” since the plaza was the site of public executions around AD 1050. The daily performances include snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, acrobats, musicians, tooth pullers, herbalists and fortune tellers. At dusk, it becomes the country’s largest street fair with over 100 chefs arrive with grills in tow to set up their food stalls. UNESCO declared the square a ‘Masterpiece of World Heritage’ in 2001.
Stay tuned for PART 2 featuring where to SHOP, STAY and SPA in Marrakech coming soon!
Each year I try to take a creative pilgrimage to keep my design juices flowing. Next month I am beyond excited to embark on the adventure of a lifetime with my design pals to Marrakech. The intrepid travelers include Julia Buckingham of Buckingham Interiors, Holly Phillips of the English Room, Tami Ramsay and Krista Nye Nicholas of Cloth and Kind. I can think of no better shoppers and bons vivants with whom I love to travel.
Marrekech has intrigued me as long as I can remember…the mystery of the riads, the labyrinth of the souks, the pattern on pattern everywhere, and the exuberant colors have always fascinated me. I have fallen down the rabbit hole trying to learn as much as I can before our trip. Indulge me as I share my research on everything from rugs to tiles to design history in my upcoming posts.
The grand finale to our trip will be a brief stay at La Mamounia. Not only has this legendary hotel hosted everyone from royalty to rock stars, it was also renovated by favorite designer Jacques Garcia in 2009. Designed in 1922 by architects Prost and Marchisio, La Mamounia combined the Moroccan architectural tradition with Art Deco design and decoration. The hotel originally had 100 rooms, but was expanded in 1946, 1950 and 1953, and now includes nearly 200 rooms. Inspired by centuries of history, Garcia created a mythical setting evocative of a Moroccan palace. In lieu of the original Art Deco style, the designer used oriental influeneces, zelliges, mosaics, woodwork, wrought iron, stained glass and marble.
La Mamounia takes its name from the surrounding gardens called the “Arset El Mamoun” which are over 200 years old. The Park once belonged to the Prince Moulay Mamoun, the fourth son of Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah, who reigned in the 18th century. It was customary for the Sultan to offer his sons, as a wedding gift, a house and garden located outside the Kasbah. For his marriage present, Moulay Mamoun received the park, which has since always carried his name. It is said that the prince used to hold extraordinary garden parties here amongst the palms, bougainvilleas, amaranths, agaves and ancient olive trees.
La Mamounia’s most renowned guest was Winston Churchill. He described his stay at the hotel,”This is a wonderful place, and the hotel one of the best I have ever used. I have an excellent bedroom and bathroom, with a large balcony twelve feet deep, looking out on a truly remarkable panorama over the tops of orange trees and olives, and the houses and ramparts of the native Marrakech, and like a great wall to the westward the snowclad range of the Atlas mountains—some of them are nearly fourteen thousand feet high. The light at dawn and sunset upon the snows, even at sixty miles distance, is as good as any snowscape I have ever seen. It is five hours to the ridge of the Atlas and they say you then look down over an immense area, first a great tropical valley, then another range of mountains, and beyond all the Sahara desert.”
Churchill was so inspired by the views that he often painted while in Marrakech. He would wander from balcony to balcony, following the sun on its route in order to render the color of his painting as real as possible. He always stayed at La Mamounia because he thoughts the views from the roof were incomparably “paintaceous.”
The plethora of gastronomic options at La Mamounia is endless…Every bar, lounge and restaurant has a different theme, yet are all cohesive due to the talented touched of Jacques Garcia. From Le Marocain tucked into a riad in the middle of the park to the elegant Bar Italien with saffron banquettes and ornate decorative surfaces, I am sure our squad will be up for the challenge to try every unique experience.
Finally, no trip to the oasis of La Mamounia would be complete without a visit to the spa. Recognized by its large red glass lanterns, the spa is comprised of a series of treatments rooms and 2 hammams that include rooms for steaming, stone massage, and showers.
Exactly one month from today, you can find me right here!
Images via La Mamounia.