On the surface there is almost a Disney-like feel to Marrakech, the most popular city in Morocco for gay and lesbian travelers. It?s where you?ll find hordes of tourists snapping pictures, Internet caf?s dotting the traditional marketplaces known as souks and a beautifully restored Djemaa el-Fna, sporting a paved plaza and rows of dazzling food stands. The city, especially the built-up modern section with well-maintained roads, office buildings and new neighborhoods of McMansion townhouses outside the souk, trumpets a prosperity largely absent just 20 years ago.
Locals drive zippy European cars and walk around with cell phones pressed to their ears. Though many women are veiled, a large number are not, and many who choose this typical Muslim respect for tradition combine it with snazzy outfits.
You'll find world-class restaurants (many with a divine fusion of French and Moroccan cuisine and most with live music and beautiful belly dancers) and even a chain of McDonald's outlets. Accommodations run the range from generic chains to huge world class hotels to truly one-of-a-kind riads (former residences -- now small B&Bs) and boutique hotels.
Marrakech is a beautiful, exotic place to visit that retains an aura of mystery and ancient charm -- despite a veneer of modern trappings and the welcome improvements to life for locals.
Consider staying the grand dame of all Marrakech lodging options, La Mamounia. A fabled hotel, La Mamounia has hosted presidents, prime ministers (Winston Churchill was a regular) princes and even the artist known once again as Prince. But a queen doesn't have to be famous to stay here.
Chicken Tangine, a favorite dish
There is much buzz about staying in a riad, a former private home built around a lovely inner courtyard and fountain. Three highly recommended ones include: Dar Doiukkala, with both Art Deco and Moroccon touches; Riad Ka?ss, with colorful exotic birds flying around and splashy fountains cooling things down; and Riad Mabrouka, sporting a modern, spare look.
At the souk's entrance, these brightly-lit stands lure hungry passersby with everything from fresh-squeezed lemon juice to grilled shrimp to the very popular and tasty delicacy, goat's head.
If you prefer your goats' heads attached to their bodies and not on your plate, you have plenty of other options in Marrakech, whose dining scene has evolved to a point of remarkable sophistication.
The native cuisine is rich and delicious and often prepared with an accent on French culinary traditions. Many are surprised by the variety and quality of Moroccan wines, which include perky whites, rich reds, delightful roses and cheery sparkling wines.
Dinner typically starts later than in the United States, with diners heading to restaurants at 9 p.m. Check out European-run and gay-friendly Comptoir, a beautiful, contemporary French-Moroccan restaurant, with a super-hip lounge upstairs, a cool boutique and hot belly dancers.
In the old city, Tobsil (22, derb Abdellah Ben Hessaien, R'mila, Bab Ksour; +212-44/44-40-52; 150-300 DH) is a fabulous French-Moroccan restaurant, located in the heart of La Medina and accessible only by walking along several narrow, twisty alleyways. (But don?t worry: A guide will meet your party where the taxi drops you off.) This dining establishment is almost unbearably romantic and impeccably managed.
Marrakech's sights and attractions are nearly endless.
Not to miss are the Ali Ben Youssef Mosque and 16th-century Madersa (meaning "school") smack in the middle of the principle souk near Place Djemaa el-Fna. The Madersa was founded by a dynasty that valued education above all else (including religion) and the school attracted Muslim students from throughout Africa.
Facade of the Saadian Tombs
Next-door is the early 12th-century Koubba Ba'adiyn, an elegant station for the cleansing ablutions necessary before entering the mosque.
Another important site is the Saadian Tombs alongside the Kasbah Mosque, the original cemetery for descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. The tombs were "lost" for centuries until an aerial survey of the area in 1917 rediscovered them. It's best to visit early morning or late evening to avoid crowds.
Mus?e de Marrakech -- a must-see -- is housed in a beautiful 19th-century riad, Dar Mnebbi, and features temporary art exhibits.
Another spot to visit is the Jardin Majorelle, a garden owned and renovated by Yves St. Laurent and which houses le Mus?e d'art Islamique. It?s really nice to take a horse and carriage there, which is easy to arrange with your hotel concierge.
You won?t find any gay bars in Marrakech but you will find lots to entertain you. The principal square, Place Djemaa el-Fna is alive all day and all night and a great place to people watch. You probably can?t understand the words they speak, but listen to one of the many local storytellers surrounded by enthralled crowds. You?ll be entranced no matter how little you pick up of the actual tale. Watch the snake charmers and the fire swallowers.
Once you?ve had your fill of the late-night chaos of the main plaza, go grab a drink and watch the energetic and sensual belly dancing performances at the Comptoir.
Most tourists make a beeline for the hustle and bustle of Marrakech's ancient souks, which are busy all day but come alive at sunset when workers stop by for a bite on their way home.
Souk in Marrakech
Inside the souk, tourists can easily get lost down any number of twisting alleyways. It's all perfectly safe, even at night, so part of the adventure is to let yourself discover different parts of the marketplace, which is conveniently organized by specialty from gold and silver to traditional garb to leather and handbags -- a shopper's paradise!
You'll find beautifully handcrafted items, but beware: You are expected to bargain hard. Some sellers start out at a price point many times what they think they should get. Counteroffer way down low and let the fun begin. Don't be surprised if halfway through your negotiations you are offered a delicious cup of refreshing mint tea. You're under no obligation to purchase anything, but it makes for a very pleasant afternoon of bargaining.
If you are looking for rugs, Palais Vizir (29, Derb Essanya rue El Kssour -- across from Restaurant Stylia) offers a mind-boggling array of quality carpets in a huge variety of styles and prices.
You'll find high-quality, good prices and good service at L'Ourika (77, daffa Warbaa Semmarine; +212-44/44-09-65; firstname.lastname@example.org), specializing in traditional Moroccan costumes for men and women.
Boutique la Douce (1 bis Derb El Rassall-Moussine; email@example.com) is a tiny boutique offering more modern designs in a no-pressure setting (unlike many of the other clothes sellers, which lard on the hard sell.
Herboristerie Avenzoar (78, bis Derb N'khel Rahba Lakdima, Marrakech) supplies spices, herb teas, oils, perfumes and creams and ointments treating such ailments as diverse as acne, high blood pressure and sea sickness.
The legendary city of Marrakech, nestled deep in the center of the country behind the Atlas Mountains, is, like most places once populated with hippies, now a magnet for those with money and taste. You?ll find modern hotels and ancient minarets and the pulsing heart of the city, the Djeema el-Fna. Like something out of a dream, this huge open square rises toward you--the sounds of ancient flutes, the clicking of horse-drawn carriages and the calls of fortune-tellers all around.