Year-round sun, medieval ramparts backed by the Atlas Mountains, bazaars and tangerine trees, peeling palaces and courtyards glazed in blue tiles: no wonder Marraksch is Morocco's top destination. Yet this isn't just an historic Islamic town. Crowded alleys contrast with flower-lined boulevards, luxe hotels rise beside traditional guesthouses. Oriented towards Africa, Marrakesh has strong Berber influences and a hearty dose of Western cosmopolitanism, French designer chic and heady nightclubs where you really can rock the kasbah.
Historic sights include the royal Saadian Tombs, ornate with plasterwork and stained glass amid a high-walled rose garden; rambling Bahia Palace (palais-bahia.com); and Ben Youssef Medersa (medersa-ben-youssef.com), a stunning Koranic school elaborate with cedar-wood carvings and stucco work. The city's icon, the 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque, is closed to non-Muslims but has an impressive minaret tower, splendidly spot-lit at night. Garden lovers should head to Yves St Laurent's colourful, cactus-filled Jardin Majorelle (fondation-pb-ysl.net), also home to the Berber Museum.
Salt (www.salt-marrakech.com) is one of the city's most innovative restaurants, with a visiting international chef program and seasonal menus focused on "new" Moroccan cuisine. It has an atmospheric setting in an old ryad (courtyard mansion) hung with lamps. Le Foundouk (www.foundouk.com) inhabits a renovated caravanserai and serves both Moroccan and international cuisine; the rooftop terrace is fabulous. Ask locals for directions to stylish old-town Le Tobsil, which serves set menus that include scrumptious tagines.
The bustling, hustling medina (old town) has scarcely changed in centuries, though motor-scooters are replacing donkeys in its narrow alleys. Plunge in and get lost in Ali Baba scenes, sip mint tea in cafés; plunder shops for leather slippers, kaftans and copper lamps; discover old bakeries, crumbling palaces and gorgeous courtyards. As evening falls, head to vast square Jemaa el-Fna, where all Marrakech strolls and snacks as monkeys juggle, performers drum and fortune-tellers mutter.
You can spot the snow-capped Atlas Mountains from medina rooftops but, to really appreciate the landscape, you ought to get beyond the city and into the fabulous alp-backed desert that surrounds Marrakech. Berber retreat La Pause (www.lapause-marrakech.com) sits in an oasis above a riverbed. The setting is particularly glorious at sunset, best experienced on a camel or horse ride across the dunes followed by dinner by lamplight in a nomad tent scattered with carpets.
Pass through the dark, claustrophobic entranceway and reception area of Villa des Orangers (www.villadesorangers.com) and into an enchanted kingdom of ornate courtyards where trees flourish, birds cheep and exhausted bazaar shoppers flop by the pool. Linger in shady alcoves framed in Moorish arches, or lounge on the rooftop of this centrally located hotel, just within hearing distance of the medina's crowded hum. Then retire to gorgeous guestrooms, where giant wooden beds will make you feel like a pasha.
Australian-owned tour company By Prior Arrangement (www.bypriorarrangement.com) specialises in handcrafted historical and cultural itineraries in Marrakech and Morocco that might focus on food, gardens, architecture or interiors. Excellent local guides provide insider knowledge of Marrakech's best shopping and hidden sights.
The writer travelled courtesy of By Prior Arrangement.