Founded as an imperial city in the 11th century to the north of the Atlas Mountains, Marrakesh today is all about showing outsiders a good time.
Open to foreigners
Marrakesh welcomes visitors — and needs them: it is the second most tourist-dependent city in the world, after Cancún in Mexico, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Last year, tourism accounted for more than 30 per cent of the city’s gross domestic product, and almost half (46 per cent) of visitors who flew to Morocco landed in Marrakesh last winter. French, Spanish and English are widely spoken.
The city’s international standing also benefits from Morocco’s reputation as a relatively stable north African nation. King Mohammed VI has returned to the centre of power, having stepped back in the wake of constitutional changes following the 2011 Arab uprising. Meanwhile, foreign direct investment has been rising steadily, totalling $3.6bn last year, up from $2.2bn in 2016.
Some of Africa’s most valuable homes are in Marrakesh. The city was joint fifth (with Tangier) in a 2019 AfrAsia Bank ranking of the most expensive residential property on the continent. La Palmeraie, 10km north of the centre, is the city’s most prestigious neighbourhood, where vast villas in varying architectural styles sprawl on large plots and can fetch up to $5,000 per sq ft.
Marrakesh has a small but growing profile as an international sporting venue. This year, the Circuit International Automobile Moulay El Hassan racetrack hosted its third E-prix, as races in the Formula E all-electric international championship are known. The city is also in the running to host the first African Formula One Grand Prix since 1993.
Meanwhile, in January the country’s first PGA Tour Champions golf tournament will take place at Samanah Golf Club in Marrakesh, where spectators will enjoy views of the Atlas Mountains alongside the golf.
Bathing Arabic style
Marrakesh’s hammams — Arabic communal bathhouses — have inspired copycat spas around the world. Countless variations of the basic formula — steam room, scrub, massage — are on offer throughout the city, from a $165 personalised treatment amid the marbled grandeur of the Royal Mansour hotel, to a scrub and soap for around $4 at the more humble Hammam Ziani.
“It is the most lovely spot in the whole world.” Though much has changed since Winston Churchill delivered that verdict in 1943, much of the charm he saw in Marrakesh remains. Its ancient architecture, such as the 1,000-year old medina and the 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque, sets the backdrop, alongside carefully planned green spaces such as the striking Jardin Majorelle and palm-lined boulevards. But the subtropical climate is arguably the star, rarely dipping below 20C, even in the depths of winter.
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