Far from the medina crowd: the best day trips from Marrakech

Places

Far from the medina crowd: the best day trips from Marrakech

There’s more to Marrakchi souks and the Medina’s melee – discover the city’s fringe fantasias with these, the best places to visit near Marrakech.

Kate Weir

BY Kate Weir1 February 2021

You’ve got your babouches and Berber shag piles from the market, you’ve been dazzled by the lumbering palms and sizzling colours of Jardin Majorelle and you’ve sipped mint tea among the rose bushes in La Mamounia’s garden – so, what next? Adventure awaits outside the city, whether you want to scale the Atlas Mountains’ tallest peaks or make some tracks in desert dunes, so venture out for the best day trips from Marrakech.

Where to? A day trip to the Palmeraie for off-road adventures.

What’s there? While, technically, the Palmeraie is a part of Marrakech, this is where the Red City takes a greener turn, and its sandy stretches and slender trees make it feel remarkably different. Here, wayward scooters, over-enthused salespeople and vying-for-attention scents melt away into languid poolside cocktails, sand-dusted walks and cathartic nought-to-sixty joy rides. The hundreds of thousands of palms planted during the 11th-century Almoravid dynasty are the perfect cover for luxe villas and lavish hotels – like oases within an oasis – while patches of true wilderness let those with a need for speed zip around on quad bikes or buggies, or for something more traditional, canter about on horseback, or lollop along on a camel. Alternatively, retro sidecar tours work best for those who don’t want to drive a dromedary. You can get a feel for an authentic Moroccan kitchen at Jnane Tamsna, whose famed chef will guide you through the kitchen garden to collect ingredients for tagines and more, or stop by Les Deux Tours to use their spice-scented spa and refresh in the hammam.

Where to eat and drink Le Blokk is a svelte spot for sushi, well-stuffed briouates and more unique choices (shrimp and salmon mille-feuille or foie gras cannelloni with gingerbread). It takes the axiom ‘dinner and a show’ very seriously, and puts on the razzle-dazzle with a routine that moves from tap to flamenco. For something more laidback, Nikki Beach – the Palmeraie outpost of the to-be-seen-in club – does poolside lunching with aplomb. Here, charismatic staff whisk over cocktails and fresh seafood until after-dark when things get livelier – don your designer swimwear and accessorise accordingly.

Pack an overnight bag for Of all the luxury hotels in the Palmeraie, Palais Ronsard might be the most extravagant, with its many columns and works of art. But, the benefit of staying in a 54sq m park is that hideaways have that much more room to roll out the red carpet.

Where to? A day trip to Essaouira for high-flying fun and blustery beaches.

Travel time Just under three hours by car – we’d recommend hiring one of the relatively cheap private drivers and enjoying the dramatic desert views along the way.

What’s there? Hold onto your hats – no, really, if you are wearing one – because Essaouira’s alizee (trade wind), gusting in from the Atlantic, may blow you away in a more literal sense. It doesn’t make for ideal sunbathing conditions, but it does lure in sea-bound need-for-speedsters with their surf and windsurfing boards. It’s why, of all the Marrakech excursions, Essaouira is one of the most popular. Or let the wind guide you with a thrilling kitesurfing session. In stark contrast to zipping over waves and riding barrels, the city’s ancient souk moves at a more meditative pace, that of the mesmeric tap-tapping of boat builders’ adzes as they assemble the immensely Instagrammable blue fishing boats that litter the port. Shades of blue enhance the white medina walls too, and unlike Marrakech’s rabbit-hole maze of stalls, the market feels more organised for purchasing in peace. Be sure to amble by the pungent fish market too to pause for a plate of freshly grilled, charmoula-scrubbed seabass or whatever else the traders have dredged up from the deep that day. And scope out the art scene at the vibrant Galerie d’art Damgaard, Espace Othello and the Institut Français.

With its reputation for attracting some of the 20th century’s more rebellious counter-cultural libertines and back-in-time feel, Essaouira understandably accrued a few legends. Jimi Hendrix was said to be inspired to write Castles in the Sand about ruined fort Bordj El Berod (he didn’t, but the forlorn structure makes for an atmospheric visit), Cat Stevens discovered Islam here and the likes of Frank Zappa and the Rolling Stones visited to nail down the local beat – now outsiders and modern-day hippies gather for the Gnaoua World Music Festival. And more recently, the Skala du Port fort starred as a backdrop in Game of Thrones.

Where to eat and drink Caravane Café offers rum punch, fragrant pastillas and fire jugglers in a den crammed with antiques and Silvestro is a fine Italian restaurant with delightfully kitsch decor. For a more elegant date-night spot, La Table by Madada is a former carob warehouse turned low-lit, style-setting eatery where steaks are flambéed at your table, the fish hasn’t travelled very far at all and the spider-crab gratin is, well, simply superb.

Pack an overnight bag for sun-dappled comfort and richly-hued rooms at Le Jardin des Douars or antique glamour at Heure Bleue.

Where to? Hiking, biking and hidden waterfalls are just a part of what makes a day trip to the Atlas Mountains special.

Travel time This varies depending on where you’re heading to in this rocky range, but the average journey is around three hours.

What’s there? These russet-, saffron- and sage-hued peaks are recurring characters in backdrops of the best restaurants and hotels in Marrakech, but they truly divulge their timeless charms when you’re immersed in them. These are the realm of the Berbers and their flocks, and on the way from Marrakech to the Atlas, you’ll pass bijou villages where beautifying argan-oil lotions and local handicrafts (rainbow-coloured tagines, hand-woven carpets, tin lanterns) are produced. Mountain-dwellers are renowned for their hospitality, so you may get invited for a decorative glass of sweet tea if you’re lucky; travelling along the winding Tizi ‘n’ Test pass you’ll find farm and homesteads alike, and you’ll skim past the Tinmal Mosque, one of very few in Morocco that allows non-Muslims in. Teeny mud-brick village Asni is the entry point for mountain hikes from Marrakech, but if you want to tackle Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in Morocco, head to Imlil where you can hire a muleteer (and their mule) and a familiar guide to help you to the summit.

Kasbah Tamadot, Atlas Mountains, Morocco

More of a scenery-admirer? Hire someone with a four-wheel drive to take you up instead. Morocco may be best known for its balminess, but from December to March, snowfall in ski resort Oukaïmeden means you can enjoy pistes in the peaks and just-right weather at sea level. If you want scenes to make those back at home jealous, well, take your pick: the otherworldly Kik Plateau, Setti Fatmas waterfalls and riverine Ourika Valley are two famed beauties. Don’t miss a waft through the naturally perfumed Jardin Bio Aromatique de l’Ourika. And if you just want to kick back with a glass of cool vin grise and take in the view, then Richard Branson’s low-key yet luxe Kasbah Tamadot has a jawdropping panorama from its terrace. Plus a sweet farm where you can pet its furry critters.

Where to eat and drink Bar an invite to a Berber home (which, if it occurs, will be the highlight of a day trip from Marrakech), there’s little choice for dinner beyond your hotel. However, if you climb to the Setti Fatma falls you can reward yourself with a fuss-free Moroccan lunch sitting on weighted chairs sunk into the trickling shallows of the river below.

Pack an overnight bag for Kasbah du Toubkal, an on-high castle with sumptuous interiors that lets you take a breather in style before completing your Toubkal hike.

Where to? A day trip to Ouarzazate for movie magic and crumbling kasbahs.

Travel time Around four hours along the occasionally hair-raising but largely breathtaking Tizi n’Tichka mountain pass.

What’s there? You may recognise Ouarzazate from Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes. After all, they were all filmed at Atlas Film Studios, where you can still tour the – somewhat in disrepair – sets: the Coliseum, a prop jet from Jewel of the Nile, faux-Egyptian tombs from The Mummy remake. Ouarzazate’s exotic good looks have helped it to pass for various worldly locales, but it’s also a spectacular setting in its own right, with sweeping sandy gorges and soaring mountains – all the better for a dashing motorbike desert excursion or brisk hike. Try to catch sunrise at another Game of Thrones setting, Ait Ben Haddou, when the once mighty hilltop ksar shines its brightest. It’s just one of many once noble and intact strongholds in this region dubbed the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, which isn’t much of an exaggeration. For as-they-were mudbrick castles and a little souk-raiding, skew east from the main pass to reach ancient caravan stop Skoura. Life pretty much goes on here as it has for centuries, with donkeys pulling carts of produce, residents pulling water from wells and afternoons idled away with glasses of tea. Another little stitch back in time – albeit a lusher one – is the Fint Oasis, a palm-dotted off-road village where tourists rarely tread. This day trip from Marrakech may be slower paced and somewhat surreal – seeing colossi and such in the wilderness feels quite trippy – but you’ll feel a world away from the city.

Where to eat and drink Ouarzazate may be largely desert – you’ll pass it on your way to the Sahara, but it’s not devoid of fine cuisine. Say, the romantically lantern-lit Le Kasbah des Sables where the delicious marriage of French and Moroccan cookery comes to the fore, and meals are followed by drinks as you recline on plump cushions. The veiled terrace of Les Jardins Aroma is equally amorous in feel with delicate gilding, ogee arches and a profusion of plants. And, if you’ve wondered what camel steak tastes like, then head to vibrantly painted Relais Saint Exupéry.

Pack an overnight bag for restful retreat Dar Ahlam, styled with the exquisite taste of designer and owner Thierry Teyssier. Its name translates to ‘house of dreams’ and if yours is to slack off for a swim in a glittering pool, be cleansed and fragranced in a hammam and follow that with a glorious tagine from Pierre Hermé pâtisserie, then yours may very well come true.

Riad ventures: explore our complete Morocco collection