Arriving back into Marrakech this year has been a magical and soul filling experience after 2 years away. I've spent the first few weeks beating the jetlag with early morning laps around the old medina, getting my daily step count up in tourist mode visiting all the heritage sights, in between rooftop catch ups with suppliers and old friends.
Not much happens before 10am, so waking up early on Australian time still I love wandering the quiet and calm streets of the medina with no crowds. The stall holders and street cleaners setting up at Jmaa El Fna, the shop keepers mindfully sweeping their steps and stacking their wares, before the organised chaos begins.
Once the crowds kick in it's back to orange juice sellers yelling for your attention from their stalls, snake and monkey handlers chasing tourists for photos, Berber music troops playing their drums, t-shirt sellers, acrobats and henna artists - the energy is a full blown assault on all 5 senses at once. And I love it.
A protected UNESCO heritage site, Marrakech's medina has had a huge amount of funds pumped into it over the last few years for restoring significant buildings, re-paving the streets, and upgrading the ramshackle and mis-matched doorways.
The old thatched awnings throughout the neighbourhoods that let the dappled sunlight in and give the streets those magical shadows have mostly been replaced by uniformed lattice panels and shade cloths. While it's great to see so many local workers keeping busy with the restorations, I can't help but feel a bit of nostalgia for the 'old Marrakech'.
Like many so places that have become increasingly Instagram famous over the last few years, (Think Bali, Tulum, Maldives...) Marrakech is rapidly modernising, and seeing a huge spike in tourism numbers this year as holiday starved travelers, fashion brands and film crews flock back to the city in search of the iconic photos in it's dusty pink streets, it's romantic roof tops, and luxurious riads with their sparkling tiled swimming pools.
Some locals say this Instagram version of Marrakech focusing on the latest hotel openings, new rooftop bars, luxury desert camps, fashion shows and European concept stores is driving much needed visitors and money to the city.
Others say this influencer style of tourism where getting the shot is the most important item on the to do list, is the new era of digital colonialism, damaging to local culture, contributing to over tourism, and totally misses the reality of what local life is like.
If you're visiting Marrakech and want to find a balance between capturing the instagram dream and experiencing a piece of the old Marrakech, you can't go past the absolutely breath taking palaces, gardens and galleries that tell tales of old worlds.
Here's some of them to put on your itinerary:
Ben Youssef Madrasa.
The old islamic college and mosque. Recently re-opened after the last 3 years being closed for restorations. Incredibly I was lucky enough to wander in with no crowds on this particular day, and got the most magnificent view of the empty courtyard.
Palais El Badi
The 16th Century 'incomparable palace' that has generations of both wealth poured into it, and decline - with it's riches and resources pillaged for other monuments. Get there early to catch the morning shadows and empty courtyards before the school groups and tour crowds arrive.
Dar El Bacha
Dating back to the early 1900s it's the newer of the palaces built during French colonial times. Built as a home for powerful politician and governor of Marrakech at the time. Is now a museum with it's beautifully maintained traditional gardens and courtyard.
Marrakech Photography Museum
I love a walk around this historic old riad reading the stories of the waves of migrants, caravan trails and communities. The photography is an incredible time capsule into the Marrakech of the past and it's people. The rooftop has a nice view and set menu for lunch too.
The Bahia Palace
An expansive and opulent palace built in the late 19th century. Usually the busiest of the historical monuments, with waves of crowds flowing through the huge courtyards, traditional gardens and labyrinth of zellige tiled rooms with huge fireplaces, handpainted doors and impossibly high ceilings.
Now I'm not suggesting to get all of these sights ticked off the list in a day or two - quite the opposite actually. It's taken me years to get to all of these palaces and see them properly.
Stomping from one end of the medina to the other on foot is both tiring and can be a bit overwhelming. So if you've only got a couple of days to spend in the red city, pick one or two you'd like to see and get there early to avoid the crowds.
Then head back into the souks to enjoy a refreshing drink or mint tea above the rooftops to rest your weary legs. The mint and lemon mojito at Shtatto is the perfect spot.