Today's Marrakech seems to be living two lives, both as a playground for international jet-setters and a place where tradition still runs deep (most bars and nightclubs still close down for the month-long Ramadan fast). This dichotomy is most visible when surveying the available options for a night on the town.
Those seeking a taste of old Morocco should spend at least 1 night at Jemaa el Fna. Arrive before evening to watch the sunset, followed by an array of musicians, storytellers, and dancers. After you've sampled the square, stroll along the adjoining rue Prince Moulay Rachid, or take a seat on Abd el Moumen Square (in front of the Koutoubia Mosque) and end the night with some prime people-watching.
Culture seekers should coincide their visit to the city with one of Marrakech's festivals, while those who prefer a night of dancing and drinks will find everything from lounges to what claims to be the biggest club in Africa.
There was a time when most watering holes in the city were either of the all-male, sawdust-floor variety or the exclusive domain of the more expensive hotels, but nowadays there's a fair smattering of sophisticated, chic establishments where both genders can enjoy a drink without hassle.
Within the medina, choices are limited if you don't wish to have a meal with your drink. There are small stand-alone bars at Cafe Arabe and Narwama, while next to the Mellah is the Asian-chic Kosybar, place des Ferblantiers (tel. 0524/380324; http://kozibar.tripod.com), which is hugely popular. This former riad offers something different on each of its three floors. The small ground-floor bar, decorated with a zebra-skin hide, is a great spot for an evening of drinking and dancing. The second level combines shades of ocher and olive with heavy, dark-wood furniture and the original zellij flooring. On the terrace you'll be rewarded with a superb view of the medina, the top of the El Badi Palace, and the resident flock of storks who regularly cruise by at eye level. The terrace has heaps of comfy lounges and is a great place to chill out with a cold beer or a bottle of wine (the selection must be one of the largest in the country, no doubt thanks to the owner's family connection to the award-winning Les Celliers de Meknès winery). Kosybar is open daily from noon to midnight. Also on place des Ferblantiers is Le Tanjia (tel. 0524/383836; www.letanjia-marrakech.blogspot.com), which has a small and popular ground floor bar. Tucked away in a corner you'll encounter the in-house band, belting out mainly Moroccan and European music. Catch the barman on a generous night, and the shots of spirits have been known to increase in size as the night wears on. The restaurant upstairs (one floor indoors plus the roof terrace) offers very good fare, mostly Moroccan, and most nights your meal is accompanied by a belly dancer or two. It's open from noon to midnight.
For surroundings a little more distinguished, there are a couple of piano bars worth a visit. La Maison Arabe, 1 Derb Assehbe, off rue Bab Doukkala (tel. 0524/387010), is one of the larger riads within the medina. Its sub-Sahara-theme lounge has a stylish cocktail list. The lighting is low and the atmosphere reserved, making this the perfect spot for an aperitif or nightcap. The aptly named Piano Bar, within the mammoth Hotel les Jardins de la Koutoubia, 26 rue Koutoubia (tel. 0524/488800), is very low-key and rarely busy in the evening. The bow-tied staff members are pretty much at your disposal, while the resident piano player tries out his best Frank Sinatra impersonation. Come here if you want somewhere to drink and talk without the fuss and noise of the outside world.
In Guéliz, the restaurants Le Grand Café de la Poste, Kechmara, and Café du Livre are great places to enjoy a drink. If you're simply looking for a refreshing ale during the heat of the day, inside the Grand Café de L'Atlas, avenue Mohammed V at place Abdelmoumen Ben Ali, is a bar where Moroccan men and the odd tourist can sink one down away from the public eye. The compact Le Lounge, next to the Diwane Hotel, 24 rue Yougoslavie (tel. 0524/433703), is Daniel Guillard and Christian Hofer's affordable, unpretentious lounge bar that nightly attracts a loyal set of locals as well as a few stray tourists. The staff members are young, pretty, and friendly; drinks are served either in the downstairs lounge or the smoky upstairs mezzanine. The interior is sleek and modern, with black and red throughout. The music is largely dance, house, or funk, and widescreen TVs show the latest music videos. There's a reasonable menu, including tapas, available, and most diners prefer to take their meals under the covered alfresco terrace.
Out in well-to-do Hivernage is the icon of Marrakech nightlife, Comptoir Darna, rue Echouhada (tel. 0524/437702; www.comptoirdarna.com). The two-level former villa is renowned for its sexy Franco-Asian groove and is one of the places to see and be seen. Low lighting, scented candles, and Moroccan lamps are strategically placed in the ground-floor restaurant. Diners can choose from low-lying tables under the Berber tent, or inside the charcoal and ocher restaurant proper. Head out to the small garden where you can lounge on the lime, orange, and red cushions and heavy Berber carpets. A wide, central staircase leads up to the real reason to come here: the haremlike bar decked out in charcoal, orange, and burgundy veils where resident and guest DJs spin the latest in Euro-Arabian dance music. Oh, and did I mention the exotic dancers? Dress hot and arrive thirsty (and bring plenty of money).
Up until a few years ago, Marrakech's nightclub scene had become quite seedy, but recently some very classy (and very expensive) clubs have opened up in tune with the general trend that is sweeping the city. Most are located in Hivernage or farther out in a new zone hôtelière on boulevard Mohammed VI. They usually don't get busy until after midnight and may charge admission ranging from 150dh to 300dh, which includes your first drink. Alcohol is generally available at exorbitant prices, and although the city is inundated with tourists for the greater part of the year, the dance clubs are mainly the domain of European residents, seasonal visitors, and young well-to-do Marrakchis. Come dressed to impress.
Consistently one of the hottest places in town is Theatro, inside the Marrakech Casino at the Hotel es Saadi on avenue Quadissia, Hivernage (tel. 0524/448811; www.theatromarrakech.com). Converted from an old theater and with the original stage still intact, this place, at times, rivals Europe with its unabashed on-stage hedonism (visualize seminaked people lounging around on four-poster beds surrounded by flame throwers). At other times, it's simply a high-end techno dance club and a good place to show off your best moves.
Out past Hivernage is Pacha Marrakech, Complexe Pacha, boulevard Mohammed VI (tel. 0524/388400; www.pachamarrakech.com), which bills itself as the biggest club in Africa (and possibly the loudest). This kasbah-style club, an outpost of the clubbing giant Pacha in Ibiza, pumps out 50,000 watts of DJ-mixed music that pulses through your body (it even makes your nose vibrate). It boasts two formal restaurants and a huge swimming pool (more for trying to look good next to rather than to actually swim in) in addition to its neon cavelike nightclub, with its large open spaces decked out with exotic rugs, high ceiling, and low-lying sitting areas. Nightclub die-hards will be at home on the tented dance floor that often looks like a giant circus ring complete with shirtless Europeans, while those hankering for more lounge than thump will gravitate to the separate chill-out lounge. Monday night is Ladies Night, but it can be a bit quiet during the week, so try to go on Saturday night when international guest DJs are flown in.
Farther out, on the Ourika road, is Bô & Zin (tel. 0524/388012; www.bo-zin.com), which can be a bit hit-and-miss with its cuisine (mainly French and Thai), served within the various rooms inside. However, it definitely hosts a pretty good late-night party, with both a resident DJ and guest musicians out in the garden. During summer it's usually packed with beautiful people being served by beautiful staff -- it's definitely pretentious but go there to have fun, dance to last year's hit pop tunes, and to see how the other half lives in Marrakech.
For the ultimate in live music, look no further than the nightly concert on Jemaa el Fna. Besides this obvious choice, live music in Marrakech seems to revolve around troupes of Andalusian or Gnaoua musicians performing as part of a dinner show, like that at Palais Chahramane, or one-man synthesizer shows in the smoky (and usually depressingly empty) bars of some expensive hotels. Unfortunately, live offerings of any other genre, such as jazz, Latino, reggae, or even simple rock and pop are largely absent in Marrakech.
In Guéliz there's Montecristo, 20 rue ibn Aïcha (tel. 0524/439031; www.montecristomarrakech.com). Although it takes itself far too seriously and the food is nothing special, the saving graces for this two-story, floodlit mansion are the shedlike Bar Latino and the even smaller Bar Africaine, where two to three times a week live music generally pumps out from late evening until the early hours. The number of high-class prostitutes in residence can be a concern, but if this doesn't trouble you, drink and salsa the night away. Irregular offerings of live reggae music can sometimes be found at the earthy Mama Afrika Café, off avenue Mohammed V on rue Oum Errabii (tel. 0524/438790). Only recently opened but already a favorite for young Moroccans and international backpackers, this small, smoky, Caribbean-style lounge-cafe is decked out in bamboo and reeds with a smattering of wooden tables and benches, as well as a few tables on the front pavement. It's one of the few places in Morocco where I've seen females openly smoking, which reflects the relaxed and friendly vibe that emanates from within. Only nonalcoholic drinks such as milkshakes, fruit cocktails, and tea are served, as well as a small selection of sandwiches, salads, and ice cream. It's open Monday to Saturday from 8am to midnight, and Sunday from noon to midnight.
Live classical music (both Andalusian and European) sometimes makes its way to Marrakech, generally courtesy of the Institit Français, Route de la Targa on the outskirts of Guéliz (tel. 0524/446930). Keep an eye out around town for posters promoting upcoming performers.