On my most recent trip to Marrakech, I realized that Google Maps now works in the Medina, the ancient fortified section of the city. At first I was relieved: It certainly makes navigating its maze-like alleyways easier, especially for first-time visitors. But in the Red City, it is the wrong turns, the chance encounters, and the nondescript doors that lead to the most inspiring discoveries. I’ve been visiting at least once or twice per year since the early 2000s, and I still discover something new and wondrous every time in this city that never stops reinventing itself.
At the moment Marrakech is experiencing yet another heady moment of discovery and renewal: Over the last decade there has been a boom of designers, artists, and entrepreneurs from around the globe and its own streets who have been successful experimenting with and building small businesses inspired by traditional Moroccan craft.
The magic of the city, and its people, has long inspired some of the world’s greatest artists and designers, from modernist painter Jacques Majorelle (who gave the city its now famous Majorelle garden) to the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. But the focus now is on the new and, increasingly, the home grown.
“Marrakech now thinks of itself as a place with a cultural future rather than just a city with a medieval past,” says art collector Vanessa Branson who along with Abel Damoussi in 2005 launched the Arts in Marrakech festival. At the time, the week-long collection of exhibitions installed around the city, lectures, poetry readings and happenings was the first of its kind in North Africa. Over the years the festival evolved from a platform for international artists to one that focused more on emerging African artists.
The Biennale ended in 2016, in part due to a lack of funding and in part because it had done what it set out to do: reframe Marrakech as an African contemporary art and design hub to rival Cape Town. “I like to think that we were largely responsible for a number of very fine cultural initiatives that have grown from the event, including 1-54, the African Art Fair, and MACAAL, the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden,” Branson says. “But the real legacy has been its overall stimulus to design, artists, galleries, even restaurants.”
Janine Gaëlle Dieudji, the exhibitions director at MACAAL, cites this shift in focus by the community as the main driver behind Marrakech’s designation as the African Capital of Culture in 2020. “The will of the city and its cultural actors have built a destination that no longer just targets tourism,” she says, “but instead embraces the country’s cultural heritage with the goal of creating a platform to showcase the diversity of the continent’s rich creative scene.”
The steady stream of new cultural institutions has transformed Marrakech into a contemporary art and design hub worthy of the global stage, the most buzzworthy being the two-year-old Yves Saint Laurent Museum next door to the designer’s beloved Majorelle Gardens. The building’s terracotta-brick exterior designed by Paris- and Marrakech-based Studio KO references the inner lining of a couture jacket, while inside lies a small but substantial collection of YSL gowns. An auditorium, bookshop stocking volumes dedicated to the couturier, and re-edited jewelry by the fashion house’s designer Loulou de La Falaise, as well as a temporary exhibition space currently featuring the work of the women weavers of the Moroccan Aït Khebbach tribe are also on offer.
Not quite as hyped, but equally compelling, is the year-old Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), which launched alongside the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, an event that has taken over where the Marrakech Biennale left off. Spearheaded by the real estate-developing Lazraq family and filled with works from their massive private collection, MACAAL is one of only two museums on the continent committed entirely to contemporary African art, the other being Cape Town’s Zeitz MOCAA. The ambitious woman led-team team of art director Meriem Berrada and exhibitions director Janine Gaëlle Dieudji make it worth the trip to the outskirts of the city.
Known as an advocate for emerging homegrown photographers such as the late Leila Alaoui and Yto Barrada, Nathalie Locatelli is the force behind Galerie 127, a converted art deco apartment building in Gueliz. A more recent arrival garnering attention and challenging stereotypes about African art is Voice Gallery, a raw space hidden within the city’s Industrial Zone.
In addition to such larger institutions and traditional galleries, Marrakech has welcomed smaller, more eclectic cultural spaces in recent years. Farid Belkahia Foundation, for instance, takes visitors into the longtime studio and home of one of post-colonial Morocco’s most important modern artists. The Comptoir des Mines Galerie—established in 2016 by Casablanca auction house Art Holding Morocco—offers a wide view of local talent, hosting everything from experimental shows to works by Hassan Hajjaj (often referred to as the Andy Warhol of Morocco) in Gueliz. The new Museum of Confluences is the former Dar el Bacha, home of Thami el Glaoui, pasha of Marrakech in the first half of the 20th century. Filled with ornate zellij surfaces and hand-painted ceilings, the palace now gives over its rooms to historical Islamic objects related to the sciences.
Recently, the Royal Mansour, a fantasy of a resort initiated by the King of Morocco, has begun offering exclusive tours of the otherworldly and once off limits palace of Serge Lutens, the French perfumer and legendary recluse. Over the past four decades, Lutens has purchased more than 60 riads that serve as canvases for a breathtaking masterwork. Inside, the residences have been transformed into site-specific immersive art installations (there is only one functional bedroom, inhabited by his butler).
Some spaces have been completed and redone numerous times as Lutens pursues perfection, with one elaborately painted stalactite ceiling taking almost 10 years to finish. Advance warning: Time tends to disappear when wandering through the Escher-like warren of dark rooms and hallways with Moorish-inspired stained glass windows. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.
RESTAURANTS & BARS
A few years ago the San Franciso-based, Michelin-decorated Marrakech native chef Mourad Lahlou told me that the best Moroccan food in the city is not found in the restaurants; it’s cooked by local women in homes and private riads. The closest one can get to that authentic experience is at Gueliz’ women-run Al Fassia (another location sits outside the city in Aguedal). For old–school dining, head to Dar Yacout, an Orientalist-fantasy of a riad designed by Bill Willis. Start with aperitifs on the cushion-strewn roof terrace overlooking the Koutoubia Mosque, then settle into a table by the pool for lamb tagine and chicken with lemons.
The city’s most dynamic restaurateur, Kamal Laftimi, worked his way up the ranks in the area’s restaurants and now owns three of the Medina’s most popular: Café Des Épices, Terrasse Des Épices, and Le Jardin. All three offer traditional fresh Moroccan food with an international twist in modern settings. A few years ago he joined forces with Sebastian de Gzell to open Nomad, a three-story space with a rooftop terrace offering stunning views of the Spice Market. Its white-and-beige palette and patterned tile floors evoke a midcentury Marrakech bistro, while its menu puts a modern spin on local flavors.
De Gzell has also helped make Plus61, a minimalist space in Gueliz co-owned by Australian stylist and restaurateur Cassandra Karinsky and de Gzell, a new favorite. There, Sydney-native chef Andrew Cibej has brought a taste of his hometown to Africa and partnered with the region’s bio-organic farmers to source his housemade bread, pasta, cheese, and yogurt. Patrons will also find offerings such as fried chili cuttlefish and lamington sponge cake, a favorite dessert Down Under.
There is still no better way to start an evening in Marrakech than with drinks at the legendary, Moorish-style, Jacques Garcia-designed La Mamounia, where an array of choices await. Try the Churchill bar, named for the inimitable British prime minister and loyal guest, the glamorous L’Italien, or a table in the expansive gardens.
When day strikes again, find the beloved medina lunch spot La Famille, a white-washed vegetarian café with a multilevel garden opened by French jewelry designer Stéphanie Giribone. The selections from the small daily menu are so fresh that they often sell out, so get there early and stop by Giribone’s tiny boutique afterward to browse the selection of eye-shaped mirrors, rattan bags, and delicate gold jewelry.
Commissioned by King Mohammed VI, it took over three years and a thousand of the country’s top craftspeople to build the palatial Royal Mansour, an extravagant and sprawling property of stand-alone riads and expansive gardens, and a monumental showcase for traditional Moroccan craft. The lobby alone is a dizzying mix of zellige mosaics, carved cedar wood, and intricately carved plasterwork surfaces surrounding a reflection pool. Its spa, a haven of gurgling fountains, white marble, and Moorish-patterned lacing offering traditional hammam treatments, is worth the splurge. Recent additions include a swimming pool fringed by citrus gardens and palm groves and available excursions to the surrealistic palace of the eccentric perfumer Serge Lutens, which is not otherwise open to the public.
Architects Patrick Gilles and Dorothée Boissier are behind the layout of the Mandarin Oriental and its network of reflecting pools, olive groves, rose and jasmine gardens, and even an on-site farm. There are many reasons to stay at the 10-acre, all-villa property, including the Berber motifs, but the private plunge pools in every room is at the top the list.
Marrakech’s reputation as a stronghold for extravagant luxury hotels is known the world over, but the intimate riads tucked around town are truly special. El Fenn, owned by art collector Vanessa Branson and managed by interior designer Willem Smit, is a sensory overload that hasn’t stopped evolving since its 2004 debut. Its vintage Morroccan rugs, velvet furniture, gem-colored walls displaying contemporary artworks, verdant courtyards, corridors lined in zellige tiling, and 28 idiosyncratic rooms make it one of the most stylish riad stays in the medina. Its lantern-lit rooftop restaurant has become a go-to for authentic clay-potted tagines and on the lookout for a forthcoming expansion of 10 rooms and a winter dining room thanks to an investment by textile designer Madeline Weinrib.
For a more subdued experience, try the six-suite Marrakech location of Riad Mena & Beyond near Jemaa el Fna, the city’s historic main square. Here, owner Philomena Schurer Merckoll sets a relaxed, eclectic mood with a combination of midcentury minimalism (Panton chairs, Saarinen tables) and artisanal details (hand-painted doors, crafted decor objects). Owner Philomena Schurer Merckoll also proves a generous host, organizing everything from shopping tours to dinner parties for her guests with the help of her friendly staff and beloved orange cat. On the ground floor of the Riad, there’s a small but superbly edited boutique with Schurer Merckoll’s picks from Marrakech and abroad including erotic tapestries, handcrafted in Cairo, from designer Louis Barthelemy.
Fans of Popham Design’s gorgeous tilework will be happy to know that the owner couple, Caitlin and Samuel Dowe-Sandes, have recently finished Popham House, a showroom meets guesthouse in the medina. Designed to show off their latest tile designs and experimental projects, such as brass furniture and lighting or the leather swing in the hallway, the joyful, colorful two-story, two-bedroom, riad is available for weekly rentals.
For a quick but worthwhile escape to the nearby Atlas Mountains, book a night at the nine-room Berber Lodge, a pared-down inn overseen by Romain Michel-Meniere, the amusing, talented designer behind several of Marrakech’s most appealing properties including Riad Mena, Riad de Tarabel and Bab Ourika. Originally conceived with Studio KO as a Berber village, the site offers adobe-like structures, eccentric gardens of wild grass and cacti, interiors minimally outfitted with Michel-Meniere’s collection of midcentury rattan furniture and Berber antiques, and no WiFi in the rooms—a true blessing come night when open windows let in the mountain breeze and guests have access to the main house’s fully stocked library.
The long-respected 33 Rue Majorelle finally has competition for one-of-a-kind finds now that a Boutique at El Fenn has debuted. Here, model and casting agent Paul Rowland helps general manager Willem Smit source custom hand-woven kilim blankets and locally designed kaftans while Weinrib adds vintage Berber carpets and objects to a space that turns into a bar and restaurant at night. It’s still worth going to shop at the Jardin Majorelle, however. Creative director Stephen Di Renza oversees the museum’s excellent diminutive gift shop, selecting only the best (mostly local) materials and craftsmen to create unique pieces such as its selection of embroidered purses and soft blankets. Also on offer are reproductions of jewelry designed by Saint Laurent’s muse, Loulou de la Falaise.
Of course, every treasure hunter knows about Mustapha Blaoui, whose reputation for sourcing everything from vintage artifacts to African tribal objects is well deserved. Lesser known is that it lies next door to V. Barkowski, the shop of textile designer and artist Valerie Barkowski. There, she offers up her inspired, high-quality linens, robes, towels, leather accessories, and more.
At Riad Yima, a gallery, boutique, and tearoom owned and overseen by Hassan Hajjaj and designed by Romain Michel-Meniere, visitors can pick up everything from one of his large-format photographs framed with found objects to lanterns made from recycled tin cans. One of the most talented and constantly surprising fashion designers working in the country today is Artsi Ifrach, a transplanted Israeli who creates one-of-a-kind costumes made of deconstructed vintage garments and textiles picked up at flea markets. His atelier in Gueliz, Maison ARTC, is filled with his wildly bespoke designs, though access is by appointment only, so call ahead.
One of the bigger local success stories of the last few years has been Belgian designer Laurence Leenaert who launched her LRNCE brand with the help of her husband Ayoub Boualam in 2013. Leenaert collaborates closely with Moroccan artisans to produce joyful hand-painted ceramics, woven rugs, furniture, housewares, fashion accessories, and clothing, much of which features images inspired by her paintings. It’s worth the 20-minute drive to Sidi Ghanem, Marrakech’s industrial zone, to visit the LRNCE atelier, which is open by appointment only. While there, stop by the fashion designer Randall Bachner’s new atelier—Marrakshi Life—and pick up one or two of his tailored unisex jumpsuits, then duck in to Topolina for eccentirc women’s fashion made from vintage fabrics.