Marrakech is a city ruled by two contrary kings. There is, of course, the king of Morocco, your standard royal strongman. And then there is the willowy French king of fashion, Yves Saint Laurent, who may ultimately be the stronger man, at least in terms of his lasting local impact. That’s because the late designer, a part-time resident who left his Majorelle Garden to the city when he died in 2008, really helped define its hybrid style: part soulful Berber grandeur, part Gallic chic. Thankfully, that legacy, seen in his villa and collections, keeps evolving. In fact, one-upping even Yves, the latest wave of largely Euro expats have bought the Medina’s finest riads, turned those courtyard townhouses into boutique bolt-holes, and helped inspire a heady rediscovery of Moroccan craftsmanship paired with slightly unhinged boho savvy. Here, a guide to modern Marrakech’s quirky best.
Every other week, some designer artfully revamps another Medina riad, but few match the effortless élan of Riad Dixneuf (Dixneuf-La-Ksour.com). Avoiding the clichéd Arabian nightmare of Day-Glo tiles and dangling lanterns, this intimate property on the edge of the Medina, designed by local Studio KO, edits things down to wooly tribal rugs, stucco fireplaces, and freestanding tubs. Even better, its daybed-lined rooftop overlooks the souk, so you can hear the city’s somber music at dusk, when the mosques send out their call to prayers.
The Palace Resort
When the Medina starts to feel claustrophobic, retreat to the classic La Mamounia (Mamounia.com), recently renovated by Jacques Garcia into a sensual, plum-colored desert haven. Or try Palais Namaskar (PalaisNamaskar.com), a Malibu-goes-Moorish sprawl of pools, fountains, gold domes, and contempo-Cali guest villas.
Hotel La Maison Arabe (LaMaisonArabe.com) owners José Abete and Fabrizio Ruspoli (an Italo-French aristo whose relativeswere intimates of Marcel Proust and Jane Bowles) are the kind of culturally wired couple who can steer you to the best underground boutique or art party in town. But the signature lamb and orange tajine dished up poolside in their handsome hotel’s Les Trois Saveurs dining room should prove party enough.
Homosexuality is illegal in Morocco, so you won’t find any openly gay bars or clubs. But Terrasse des Épices’s (TerrassedesEpices.com) rooftop still collects the Medina’s most photogenic, polyglot insiders, all tucked into stone cabanas with wicker chandeliers, sipping fruity drinks and contemplating their Moroccan salads.
The Dat Trip
Boutique Souk (BoutiqueSouk.com) will organize just about any Moroccan expedition (transfers, guides, and meals included), from the Atlas Mountains to haunting ports like Essaouira.
YSL’s greatest memento is his Jardin Majorelle (JardinMajorelle.com), a 12-acre garden with cobalt- blue planters, a cafe, and one of the town’s best gift shops. And for a vision of Moroccan craftsmanship at its most exuberant, visit Ben Youssef Madrasa, a 15th-century Koranic school; its zellij mosaic tilework is a master class in color-blocking.
The Medina’s central marketplace, the Djemaa el-Fna, is a catwalk of snake charmers, food vendors, and butch dancing drag queens in rose caftans and really tiny slippers.