Marrakech is a city in the grip of a feverish imagination – a thousand year old carnival with its plentiful storytellers and soothsayers, acrobats and water sellers making their way through the labyrinth of alleyways and past 100’s of minarets. An enchanted place where time has been suspended, giving you a glimpse of its rich and remote roots, its ancient past still planted firmly and un-shakingly in the present.
There is also a modern Marrakech, with luxury hotels and streets with impatient mopeds and guides, all co-existing seamlessly with the past. It is a Berber rather than Arab city; the traditional capital of Atlas tribes, Mahgrebis from the plains, Saharan nomads and slaves from beyond the desert. It was founded around 1062 and in 1126 the first circuit of walls were raised from “tabia” – the red mud of the plains.
Marrakech is completely magical, a mélange of Islamic green against the bare, brown plain of Haouz with the snowy High Atlas rearing up behind like a tidal wave towering through the haze. The focus of every approach to the city is the Koutoubia Mosques minaret, Marrakech’s crowning centrepiece with its 203 feet high tower, the very element of Moslem architecture.
Marrakech is one of the most hectic cities on earth, so for many two or three days is enough. We would recommend staying in a Marrakech Riad in the city centre for a shorter stay, and combine it with staying in the High Atlas Mountains or on the coast.
Alternatively, Marrakech is an excellent base from which to explore the surrounding area, so many people stay for 7 nights or longer, and often opt for a boutique hotel or Maison d’hote outside of the city where it tends to be a little quieter.
D’Jemaa-el-Fna Square - meaning ‘Assembly of the dead’ in Arabic
The Jemaa el Fna is Marrakech’s pulsating main square and one of the world’s great theatres. The magnificent 13th Century Koutoubia Mosque as its backdrop is a magical sight to behold.
The D’jemaa is a spectacular pageant of singers, tumblers, sorcerers, herbalists, raconteurs, impostors, preachers and snake charmers, all competing for your eye. There is nowhere else in Africa which so effortlessly involves you, blows aside travel cynicism and keeps you returning.
At dusk the square really comes to life, with visitors and locals thronging to watch the nightly spectacles or the acrobats, storytellers, water sellers and to listen to the hypnotic sounds of the Gnaoua musicians. Food stalls spring up every evening around the Square offering an array of tasty local food and snacks.
If you get tired, observe the spectacle from one of the overlooking rooftop cafes.
Other sights to visit are the Saadian tombs dating from 1557, over-lavish maybe, but sensational nevertheless. The tombs were only recently discovered (in 1917) and were restored by the Beaux-arts service.
The Mausoleum comprises of the corpses of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty that originated in the alley of the Draa River.
Once the largest Jewish quarter in Morocco, living in their own separate quarter meant that they were protected in the Kasbah walls, and more easily watched (and taxed) by the government. Mellahs in Morocco, especially by the mid-1500s became their won small cities, which included synagogues, outdoor markets and fountains.
Agdal, Majorelle (Yves St.Laurent Gardens) and Menara Gardens
The Agdal Gardens (or Aguedal Gardens) cover about 400 hectares to the south of the Royal Palace and the Medina of Marrakech. Their name derives from the Berber language for ‘walled meadow’. They were created as an orchard by the Almohad dynasty in the 12th Century, renovated by the Saadi dynasty, and then enlarged during the reign of Moulay Abderrahmane in the 19th century, when they were enclosed with pise walls.
The Majorelle Garden is a botanical garden in Marrakech, designed by the expatriate French artist Jacques Majorelle in 1924. Though Majorelle’s gentlemanly orientalist watercolours are largely forgotten today (many are preserved in the villa’s collection), the garden is his creative masterpiece. The special shade of bold cobalt blue which he used extensively in the garden and its buildings is named after him, blue Majorelle.
The garden has been open to the public since 1947. Since 1980 Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Berge have owned the garden. After Yves Saint-Laurant died in 2008 his ashes were scattered in the Majorelle garden.
The garden also houses the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech, whose collection includes North African textiles from Saint-Laurent’s personal collection, as well as ceramics, jewellery and paintings by Majorelle. The garden hosts more than 15 bird species which can be found only in North Africa. Have lunch in the lovely shady courtyard within these gorgeous gardens, and pick up a caleche from outside the gardens for an open air ride back to the Medina or your hotel.
The Menara gardens are located to the west of Marrakech, Morocco, at the gates of the Atlas mountains. They were built in the 12th century (c. 1130) by the Almohad ruler Abd al- Mu’min.
The name menara derives from the pavilion with its small green pyramid roof (menzeh). The pavilion was built during the 16th century Saadi dynasty and renovated in 1869 by sultan Abderrahmane of Morocco, who used to stay here in summertime.
The Bahia Palace
The Bahia Palace is a palace and a set of gardens located in Marrakech. It was built in the late 19th century, and intended to be the greatest palace of its time. The name means ‘brilliance’. As in other buildings of the period in other countries, it was intended to capture the essence of the Islamic and Moroccan style. There is a 2-acre garden with rooms opening onto courtyards.
Set up at the end of 19th century by Si Moussa, grand vizier of the sultan, for his personal use, this palace would bear the name of one of his wives. Here, the harem, which includes a vast court decorated with a central basin and surrounded by rooms intended for the concubines.
As the black slave Abu Ahmed rose to power and wealth towards the end of the 19th century, he had the Bahia palace built by bringing in craftsmen from Fès. The structures tell a lot about the taste of the nouveau-riche of its time, and can appear vulgar to modern tastes. It was intended to become the greatest palace of its time, but it is really dominated by hasty planning as well as uninspired detail work. This doesn’t make the palace less worth visiting, it is a monument of its time.
The Dar Si Said is a smaller version of the El-Bahia palace, built for Said, the brother of the Grand Vizier Abu Ahmad, in the late 19th century.
The palace is a nice structure, complete with courtyards with pools and gardens.
There is also the Museum of Morccan Arts here, which is very much worth the visit. It houses mainly woodwork from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Among the main attractions here is a marble basin from the Ben Youssef Madrasa. It appears originally to come from Cordoba (Spain), and is especially notable because of its imagery of animals. Although the Ummayads, its original builders, were open to this form of artistry, it is quite interesting that the conservative Almoravids who brought it to Morocco, did not touch its representations. As it is known, animal representation was at some point in early Islam deemed illegal.
By far the best way to visit these sights is to engage one of the horse-drawn carriages (caleches). They will take you riding in comfort and style (albeit slightly a little ‘wiffy’ as the horses have ‘hammocks’ strung under their tails to catch their manure!), and are a great way of seeing the outskirts of the Medina, as well as the Palmeraie (acres of palm groves to the north of the city).
Medina and Souks
To see the marvels of Marrakech’s Medina – all two square miles of it – you must go on foot. It is in the hurly-burly of the Medina where you will find the masterpieces of Marrakechi art. Each craft in the Medina has its own special quarter in one of the interminable passages that sprawls like some vast living organism, teeming with activity. There are two or three main thoroughfares in the Medina, off which branch most of the individual markets with alleys and squares devoted to specific crafts where one can watch part of the production process in dyeing, brass and copper beating, apothecary stalls, cosmetics, herbs, jewellers, leather workers, carpenters, sieve makers, perfumes, spices and slipper makers.
Marrakech Festivals and events