Exploring Marrakesh: A Guide to the Best Sights and Experiences
Marrakesh is a city that captivates the senses with its vibrant colors, exotic aromas, and lively energy. Located in the heart of Morocco, this ancient city has a rich history and a fascinating culture that draws visitors from around the world. From the bustling Medina to the tranquil gardens, there are countless sights and experiences to discover in Marrakesh. In this guide, we’ll explore some of the top attractions that you shouldn’t miss during your visit.
Medina: The Heart of Marrakesh
The Medina can be identified by the sight of the walls surrounding it. Whether you are inside or outside of it can be determined by this. The Medina has retained much of its original form since the Middle Ages, as its narrow streets are still paved with cobblestones and the houses have thick walls that are tightly connected. The labyrinthine design of the Medina, originally intended to disorient invaders, can now confuse visitors as well. Traditional methods of transportation, such as donkeys and mules, are still used to transport goods like produce, wood, and wool, while age-old crafts workshops continue to thrive as businesses.
Djemâa el Fna: A Feast for the Senses
Djemâa el Fna is a lively and vibrant open square market located in the center of Marrakesh’s medina. It has been a prominent meeting point for regional farmers, traders, storytellers, and healers for many centuries. The square is surrounded by bazaars, mosques, and cafes that offer balcony views of the bustling activity. At night, Djemâa el Fna transforms into a lively and vibrant hub of activity, with performers entertaining both locals and tourists alike. Traditional Gnawa dancers sway to the beat of their krakebs while playing on traditional guitars. Storytellers also regale the crowd with tales of the past. The makeshift food stalls offering grilled meats and other delicacies are set up every evening, and the square is filled with smoke and delicious aromas.
Ramparts: A Walk Through History
The ramparts of the medina are remarkably well-preserved and measure approximately 33 feet in height and 7 feet in thickness, with a circumference of 15 km (9 miles). They are constructed from locally-sourced reddish ocher clay and assembled in large blocks. Prior to the French protectorate in the early 20th century, the gates of the ramparts were shut at night to prevent outsiders from entering Marrakesh. Nowadays, eight of the 14 original arched entry gates, known as babs, are still in use. Among these, Bab Agnaou, located in the kasbah, is the most beautiful and well-preserved.
Ali ben Youssef Medersa: A Masterpiece of Islamic Art
The Ali ben Youssef Medersa is an incredibly well-preserved 16th-century Koranic school, which happens to be the largest institution of its kind in North Africa. The central courtyard is adorned with delicate and intricate gibs (stucco plasterwork), carved cedar, and zellij (mosaic) that make the building appear even taller than it is. The Merenids built the structure in the 14th century in a style somewhat different from other medersas, and it was later rebuilt almost entirely by Sultan Abdullah el Ghallib in the 16th century, with the addition of Andalusian details. The large central courtyard, flanked by two arcaded colonnades, leads to a prayer hall that is intricately decorated with rare palm motifs and Islamic calligraphy. Although the Koranic school closed in 1960, the building underwent restoration and was opened to the public in 1982. In 2018, the building was closed again for further restoration and reopened in 2022.
Bahia Palace: A Stunning Example of Moroccan Architecture
The Bahia Palace, which was built in the 19th century and used to house a harem, is a stunning example of intricate woodwork, ceramics, and well-planned gardens. The palace was constructed by the Grand Vizier Bou Ahmed, who served under Sultan Moulay el Hassan I. Although the palace was looted after Bou Ahmed’s death, visitors can still appreciate its layout and former splendor. Be sure to admire the elegant arches, intricate cedar ceilings, shiny marble finishes, decorative cornices, and beautifully painted zouak ceilings. Interestingly, each room in the palace varies in size depending on the importance of the occupant – be it a wife or a concubine. Recently, in 2020, the palace underwent a full repainting and some sections were restored to their former glory.
Dar el Bacha Museum: A Journey Through the History of Marrakesh
Constructed in 1910, Dar el Bacha Museum was once the home of Thami el Glaoui, a prominent figure in Morocco’s history. The museum showcases Moroccan craftsmanship and is a must-visit for those interested in the country’s art and history. The palace’s walls are adorned with beautiful Zellij tiles of various styles, and the traditional courtyard features citrus trees and local flora. Visitors can explore the different exhibits that recount the story of peaceful coexistence between various faiths in Morocco.
Dar Si Saïd: The Museum of Moroccan Arts
The 19th-century Dar Si Saïd palace has been converted into a museum, and it features an impressive collection of antique Moroccan crafts. The museum boasts a rich collection of pottery from Safi and Tamegroute, jewelry, daggers, caftans, carpets, and leatherwork. The palace’s courtyard is a serene space adorned with flowers, cypress trees, a gazebo, and a fountain. The museum’s prized exhibit is a marble basin from 10th-century Cordoba, which was once displayed in the Ali ben Youssef Mosque. Visitors can also explore the dark room embellished with gibs cornices, zellij walls, and an intricately carved cedar ceiling painted in the zouak style.
El Badi Palace: A Window into the Past
El Badi Palace was built in the 16th century and was once considered one of the world’s most impressive monuments. Today, it stands in ruins made of sandstone, with storks nesting within its walls. The palace boasts a large central swimming pool surrounded by four smaller ones and four sunken orange orchards. The main hall, Koubba el Khamsiniyya, features 50 grand marble columns. Visitors can also explore the underground corridors and dungeons along the southern wall and view a collection of goods from the Koutoubia Mosque’s minbar.
Koutoubia Mosque: The Most Famous Mosque in Marrakesh
Marrakesh’s towering Moorish Koutoubia Mosque is a model for the Hassan Tower in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville. It was built on the site of the original 11th-century Almoravid mosque. The mosque takes its name from the Arabic word for book, koutoub, because of a large booksellers’ market nearby. The minaret is topped by three golden orbs, which were allegedly offered by the mother of the Saadian sultan Ahmed el Mansour Edhabi in penance for fasting days she missed during Ramadan. Although non-Muslims may not enter, the power of the evening muezzin call is sure to move anyone within earshot.
Mellah: The Jewish Quarter of Marrakesh
The term “Mellah” refers to the former Jewish quarter found in many Moroccan cities, including Marrakesh. The Mellah was once a self-contained community within the larger city and was home to a thriving Jewish population, complete with rabbinical schools and scholars. However, today the Mellah only has a few Jewish residents left. The Lazama Synagogue remains open daily and is still used for weddings and bar mitzvahs. Its inner courtyard is adorned with beautiful blue tiles. The Mellah’s name comes from the Arabic word for salt, and it is believed that the Jewish residents who lived here amassed their wealth through the salt trade.
Lazama Synagogue: A Testament to Jewish Heritage
The Lazama Synagogue, dating back to 1492, is one of the few synagogues still functioning in Morocco. The synagogue has undergone multiple renovations over the years, with the most recent one taking place at the beginning of the 20th century. Visitors can witness the fusion of various traditions and cultures while exploring Morocco’s Jewish heritage.
Musée de Marrakesh: A Blend of Old and New
The Musée de Marrakesh is a small, privately owned museum located next door to the Ali ben Youssef Medersa. Although the exhibitions of regional pottery, ceremonial daggers, and traditional costume are interesting, the real highlight is the stunning central atrium, a tiled courtyard containing a huge lampshade that resembles a descending UFO. The restored 19th-century Menebhi Palace is a perfect place to relax while enjoying Moroccan architecture and gentle music piped through speakers.
Qoubba Almoravid: An Ancient Islamic Monument
Qoubba Almoravid is the oldest monument in Marrakesh and the only intact example of Almoravid architecture in all of Morocco. This masterpiece of mechanical waterworks dates back to the 12th century and was used for ablutions before prayer in the next-door Ali ben Youssef Mosque. It also had a system of toilets, showers, and faucets for drinking water. Excavated from the rubble of the original Ali ben Youssef Mosque and Medersa in 1948, Qoubba Almoravid is a must-visit for anyone interested in the city’s ancient history.
Saadian Tombs: A Historical Site of Great Importance
The Saadian Tombs are a small and beautiful 16th-century burial ground that is the permanent resting place of 166 Saadians. The central mausoleum, the Hall of Twelve Columns, contains the tombs of Sultan Ahmed el Mansour and his family. It’s dark, lavish, and ornate, with a huge vaulted roof, carved cedar doors, and moucharabia. In a smaller inner mausoleum, on the site of an earlier structure containing the decapitated body of the Saadian dynasty’s founder, Mohammed esh Sheikh, is the tomb of El Mansour’s mother. Rediscovered only in 1917 by General Hubert Lyautey during the French protectorate, the Saadian Tombs are one of the few Saadian relics left.
Majorelle Garden: A Botanical Oasis in the Heart of the City
Nestled in the heart of Marrakesh, the Majorelle Garden is a stunning oasis of calm and tranquility amidst the bustling city. Designed and created by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s, the garden is a true botanical wonderland, featuring a rich and diverse collection of plants and trees from all over the world. Visitors can wander through a labyrinth of paths and walkways, taking in the vibrant colors and exotic scents of the various flora. The garden also houses a small museum dedicated to the life and work of Jacques Majorelle, as well as a charming café where visitors can relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings. A visit to the Majorelle Garden is a must for anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and experience a moment of pure tranquility.
The Secret Garden: A Hidden Gem in Marrakesh
The Secret Garden, or Le Jardin Secret, is a 16th-century riad that is now open to the public after years of restoration and excavation. This hidden oasis in the middle of the city is one of the largest private riads in the medina. The site is home to beautiful Islamic architecture, the lush Exotic and Islamic gardens, an ancient water management and irrigation system, and the original watchtower that provides panoramic views of the entire medina.
The restored Pavilions, which were once formal reception rooms, now house a small café and an exhibit of photographs that show the property’s excavation and reconstruction. Visitors can relax in the garden, peruse the bookshop, and explore the exhibition rooms. The well-informed guides provide free tours of the gardens, offering visitors the opportunity to learn about the rich history of this beautiful attraction.
Maison de la Photographie: A Journey Through the History of Photography
The House of Photography, or Maison de la Photographie, is a restored riad located in the heart of the medina. The riad showcases a unique collection of original black-and-white photos and glass negatives depicting the lifestyle of Moroccan communities from 1862 to 1960. Established in 2009, the archive continues to expand with regular thematic exhibitions.
In addition to the exhibitions, visitors can enjoy a delightful café on the rooftop terrace with panoramic views of the city. The Maison de la Photographie is a must-see attraction for art lovers and photography enthusiasts.
The Souks: A Shopper’s Paradise
The Souks, or Marrakesh’s marketplace, is a vast labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys at the center of the medina. It is a wonder of arts, crafts, and workshops, where every step brings you face-to-face with the colorful handicrafts and bazaars for which Marrakesh is famous. The deeper you venture into the souk, the more you will be rewarded by better prices and the opportunity to see artisans at work.
In the past, every craft had a special zone within the market – a souk within the souk. Today, savvy vendors have pushed south to tap trading opportunities as early as possible, but the souk still retains its unique charm. Look for incongruities born of the modern era beside handcrafted wooden pots for kohl eye makeup and handmade Imazighen carpets. The souk is a shopper’s paradise, and it is a must-see attraction for anyone looking for a unique shopping experience.
The Tanneries: A Fascinating Glimpse into a Traditional Craft
For a glimpse into traditional Moroccan life, head to the tanneries of Marrakesh. Although the process is smelly and labor-intensive, the tanneries are an essential part of the city’s history and culture. Six hundred skins sit in a vat at any one time, resting there for up to two months amid constant soaping, scrubbing, and polishing to get the leather strong, supple, clean, and ready for use.
The final stage involves soaking and rubbing in a mix of ground mimosa bark and water, which eventually turns the grayish-green hides into the natural reddish-brown or “tan” shade that we always expect in our natural leather goods. Visitors can pop into one of the thirteen tanneries still in operation in the Bab Debbagh area, where the local manager will offer mint leaves to cover the smell and guide you around the vats of dyes.