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Marrakech is an intoxicating city known for its souks, spices, snake charmers and hidden palaces, though these days it’s prized as much for its trendy art galleries, hip hotels and elegant hammams. Offering a tantalising taste of Africa within easy reach of Europe, it certainly lives up to the hype, and not only thanks to its fabled ancient medina.
It is to the medina, however, that most visitors will gravitate. The ageless city of blushing pink stone has waylaid desert caravans since the 11th century, with travellers succumbing to the charms of its bluesy Gnaoua music, calls to prayer and elaborate feasts. Its dark, narrow alleyways are full of artisan workshops, shrines and sprawling markets, and riads. These traditional courtyard guesthouses range from palatial oases to smaller, more intimate affairs.
Once you’ve had your fill of getting lost (not to mention the relentless street sellers and reckless mopeds), head to the open space of Jemaa el Fna. Thronging with locals each evening, the legendary central square hosts dozens of stalls serving up sheep’s head soup from vast cauldrons, as well as grilled aubergines, ubiquitous mint tea and spicy cakes. Meanwhile, a mix of musicians, fortune-tellers, dancing cobras, storytellers and acrobats keep the crowds entertained until late. Towering over the scene is the stately minaret of Koutoubia Mosque, built in 12th century.
Beyond old Marrakech, a modern, 21st-century city is fast developing, particularly in the pulsating district known as Guéliz, and the wider Ville Nouvelle. Indeed, the city that lured hedonists and idealists in the 20th century now attracts fashionistas and trendy couples in search of luxury spas, chic bars and clubs. A flourishing arts and music scene is also firmly stamping Marrakech on the cultural map.
It’s this contrast that makes today’s Marrakech so interesting. With its maze of lanes and entrancing past, the medina will always have its appeal. But as you sip cocktails on a rooftop terrace watching the sun smoulder behind distant peaks, remember Marrakech’s legacy. This is the gateway to the immortal Atlas Mountains, and the vast Sahara beyond.