The “red city” of Morocco is the most heavily touristed city in the country. From the circus-like square of Jemaa El-Fnaa to the ornate palaces and stunning gardens, it offers a bit of something for everyone. Here are the 11 reasons why you should visit Marrakech.
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The Red City
Marrakech is the fourth-largest city in the Kingdom of Morocco. Though Berber farmers lived there for centuries before, the city was founded in the 12th century. At that time, buildings were constructed in red sandstone.
Since the founding of the city, tradition has called for keeping all buildings a red or ochre color, sometimes ranging to a salmon color. Because of this, Marrakech is often known as the “Red City” or the “Ochre City.” The only exceptions made for building color are for religious or official government buildings.
Marrakech is one of the four imperial cities of Morocco and was a former capital of the country. It is one of the busiest cities in Africa and one of the most touristed in Morocco. Morocco has so many amazing places to visit so this is saying something.
The medina quarter of Marrakech is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the top sites to see in Marrakech are within the medina including Koutoubia Mosque, the Kasbah (markets), the Saadian Tombs, Bandia Palace, Ben Youssef Madrasa, Jamaa El-Fnaa, and more.
You’ll see the walls that encircle the old city rise around 20 feet high (6 meters)with around 200 towers. There are 20 sets of large gates allowing entrance to the old city. Marrakech is an interesting mix of historical sites and modern buildings and somehow they all blend together to make an intriguing city worth seeing.
Bahia Palace is one of the top sights to see when you visit Marrakech. It was built in the late 19th century to be the greatest palace of its time blending Islamic and Moroccan styles. It was built by Grand Vizier Si Moussa and was later enlarged and embellished by his son Abu “Bou” Ahmed. It’s a stunning and elegant example of Islamic and Moorish architecture with painted wood ceilings, carved stucco and cedar, and intricate tilework.
It was named Bahia, or “brilliance” after the King’s favorite of his 4 wives. The palace includes a 2-acre garden with rooms that open onto the courtyard. It features 150 rooms and a harem section that housed 24 women. Many of the enhancements made were to accommodate Bou’s desires to please his wives and his rather large harem.
The women were not allowed to leave the palace so it became a glittering prison of sorts. No men were allowed to enter the building except for the king and eunuchs. That sure seems like a lot to give up to look upon the King’s women!
Apparently, poor families wanting to improve their standard of life gave their beautiful daughters to the king in return for money and favors, essentially selling her into slavery. So, while it’s a beautiful place, it made me sad to think of the poor women who once lived there.
Bahia Palace is located in the medina on Avenue Imam El Ghazali, Marrakech 40000, Morocco. It is open daily from 9 to 6 and there is no charge to visit.
The Saadian tombs are mausoleums and sepulchers where the remains of the sixty most important members of the Saadi Dynasty are housed. This dynasty ruled Morocco from 1549 to 1659 and the most famous of which, Ahmad al-Mansur, is buried here. After the fall of the dynasty, they were sealed off and hidden, later located by aerial photography in 1917. The French restored the tombs to their former glory.
There are three rooms in the building and they are ornately decorated in finely carved cedar and stucco. There is also some intricate tilework, called zellige. Monuments are made of Italian Carrera marble. In the garden outside the building, you can see the graves of soldiers and servants.
You may notice that the graves appear very narrow. This is because, in Islam, people are buried on their right side facing Mecca. Though the building is ornate, the graves are not per tradition. Some have mosaic tile or fairly simply wood carvings.
The Saadian Tombs are located at Rue de La Kasbah, Marrakesh 40000, Morocco. It costs 70 MAD ($7.30 USD) to enter and the tombs are open daily from 9 to 5. It is a popular place to see when you visit Marrakech so it’s a good idea to arrive early.
The Marrakech markets are a beehive of activity. Just take a deep breath to balance yourself and head on in. They are chaotic, frenetic, loud, and confusing to navigate. But they are also fascinating, interesting, exciting, and exhilarating. You’ll see snake charmers, people walking monkeys on a leash, people haggling over the price of spices, and all sorts of things you never expected to see.
Some of the shops are in stalls lining the area. Others are inside and are with a fabric roof of sorts. They only allow you through the main passageways and not between the shops. It almost feels like you’re inside a large building.
Be prepared to negotiate if you want to make a purchase, at least, if you want to get a good deal on it. Read this for more tips on shopping in the kasbah. It’s a great place for people-watching, and a lot of fun watching the drama of negotiations unfold.
Pretty much anything you can imagine is for sale here. Specialties include spices, pottery items, leather goods, tilework, and metalwork. Many of the areas are segmented by what is sold but you will see some mixed throughout. But you can also find clothes, food, souvenirs, and even appliances!
A Time Out in Jemaa El-Fnaa
When you need a break, and you probably will, there are some restaurants and pastry shops on the edges of the market. A great place is Patisserie Lala Moulati. It is four levels and there is a great roof deck where you can still watch the action in the square while drinking a calming pot of mint tea.
Moroccan pastries are amazing and worth checking out. One great pastry to try includes briouat, a triangle-shaped pastry of phyllo dough, almond paste or peanut paste, and bitter orange oil. Schnek is a circular-shaped pastry with chocolate or Mille-feuille, an interesting twist on the traditional French pastry.
Jemaa El-Fnaa Square is located in the medina. Though it can be a bit overwhelming, you don’t want to visit Marrakech without seeing it.
Museum of Marrakech
The Museum of Marrakech was originally built as the riad of a minister. A riad is a traditional Moroccan home that includes three things: a garden, a fountain in the middle, and an area open to the sky. This one was quite grand, Dar Menebhi Palace. It was built at the end of the 19th century and became a museum in 1997. The Omar Benjelloun Foundation purchased it and restored it.
It’s an example of classic Moorish architecture featuring fountains in a central courtyard (now covered by glass panels), a hammam, and traditional intricate carvings and tilework. There is a huge chandelier made of metal plates in fine geometric patterns. The gorgeous cedar archways, intricately-painted door panels, stained-glass windows, and colorful geometric mosaic tilework, called zellige, are all features to see.
The museum is also an art museum with modern and traditional Moroccan art. There are also coins, books, and pottery from Berber, Islamic, and Moroccan Jewish cultures. Though this museum isn’t quite as brilliant as Bahia Palace, it is markedly less crowded and a wonderful representation of fine Moroccan architecture.
The Museum of Marrakech is located on Place Ben Youssef, Marrakesh 40000, Morocco. It is open daily from 9 to 6:30 and costs 50 MAD ($5.22 USD).
Ben Youssef Madrasa
Ben Youssef Madrasa was once the largest Islamic college in Morocco as well as North Africa. It was founded in the 14th century and was updated with ornate decoration during the Saadian era in the mid-16th century. There is a beautiful inscription above the front door that reads, “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded.” It was closed as a college in 1960 but was renovated and opened to the public in 1982.
There is a main courtyard with a shallow reflective pool with two open-air galleries and student dorms. The ornamentation pays homage to Andalusian architecture with gardens, fountains, and intricately decorated walls of tile and stucco.
Unfortunately, Ben Youssef Madrasa is closed for renovation until the spring of 2020 so you won’t be able to see it when you visit Marrakech. The hours are expected to be as they were previously, daily from 9 to 5 and the entry cost will be around $5 USD. It is located at Rue Assouel, Marrakech 40000, Morocco.
Koutoubia Mosque is the largest mosque in the city and a popular place to see when you visit Marrakesh. The minaret tower rises over 250 feet (77 meters) high. It has some rows of green tile for decoration with a spire of four orbs at the top. It’s an impressive building. At night it’s illuminated and worth seeing both during the day and at night.
Since no building in a Muslim city may be taller than the mosque, this is the top height for construction in Marrakech. It’s a useful landmark for getting orientation in the surrounding city areas. It was located near some booksellers and was named Koutoubia, the Arabic word for booksellers.
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Brief History of Koutoubia Mosque
The mosque was built in the 12th century by the founder of Rabat, an imperial city and the current capital of Morocco. It is located on the site of an original stone fortress with a mosque built in the 11th century. Both were razed to make room for the new mosque though you can see some remains to the right side of the building. Also on that side is a lovely garden laid out in a symmetrical pattern with fruit trees and fountains.
Our guide told us that a mosque is rarely destroyed as it is considered sacred. However, the minaret didn’t line up exactly with the direction of Mecca as is tradition. Though, even that may be a partial truth. The Caliph was also looking to build a larger and more impressive mosque than his grandfather had built with the original.
Unfortunately, tours are not offered in the mosque like at the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. Only the faithful are allowed to enter, and only to pray but not to tour the mosque. Even still, it is a must-see when you visit Marrakech.
Outside Koutoubia Mosque you will see the Water Men in their red robes and big hats. Traditionally, they were water sellers helping those in need. In return for the water they provided they often got food. Their bright red robes helped people to see them from a distance. Though they once had a function now they are more for tourists. If you do want a picture of them, be prepared to pay them 10 DH ($1 USD).
Since my friend and I were with a guide, the Water Men approached us and asked her where we were from. Apparently some people had given them coins from other places and they were hoping to exchange them. We gladly helped them and in return got a free picture with them!
Tomb of Lalla Zohra
In front of the Koutoubia Mosque is a small but striking white building called the Koubba de Lalla Zohra. Though Islam forbids worshipping individuals, it does allow for the worship of saints and holy men and women. These places are usually housed within koubbas, white buildings with a domed roof.
Unfortunately, the exact details of her life and death aren’t known as it was not documented. It is believed that she was the daughter of a liberated sub-Saharan slave who converted to Islam. She caught the eye of a prince who fell madly in love with her and wanted to marry her.
When she refused, he imprisoned her. Since she would not change her mind, she remained imprisoned for many years. The prince eventually freed her and paid her for her suffering. She refused the money and donated it to the poor and sadly, died young.
Legend has it that she performed miracles and religious acts. In a region dominated by men, Lalla is an important figure for local women. Many pay respects at her tomb and send their children to be blessed there.
Jardin Majorelle took more than 40 years to fully come to life at the hands of the dedicated and talented French painter, Jacques Majorelle. This enchanting garden was his labor of love and completed in 1962 becoming a live version of an exquisite painting. It features bougainvilleas, a bamboo grove, banana trees, lily-filled ponds, fountains and marble pools. Bright accent colors are seen throughout including what became known as “Majorelle Blue.” The garden was his greatest masterpiece.
The garden fell into disrepair in the last years of Majorelle’s life. It was discovered by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in 1966 and they purchased it in 1980 when they learned it was going to be demolished. They established a restoration project and lovingly restored the garden to its original vision. When Saint Laurent died in 2008, his ashes were spread in the rose garden.
New Ownership and the Berber Museum
Two years later, ownership of Jardin Majorelle passed to the Foundation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent. This French non-profit organization opened the Berber Museum in 2011 on the garden grounds providing insight to the arts of the Berber people, the native people from North Africa.
Jardin Majorelle is a stunning oasis. It is known to be the most beautiful garden in the city and worth seeing when you visit Marrakech. It does get very crowded as it is a top attraction in Marrakech, so if you decide to go, it’s a good idea to visit early in the morning before the crowds pick up. When you visit, you’ll enjoy the exotic plants, flowing pools, and vibrant colors amongst the Moorish architecture with a hint of art deco.
Jardin Majorelle is located at Rue Yves St Laurent, Marrakech 40090, Morocco. It is open daily, from May 1 to September 30th from 8 to 6 and from October 1 to April 30 from 8 to 6. The garden entrance fee is 70 MAD ($7.30 USD) and the Berber Museum cost is 30 MAD ($3.15 USD).
A hammam is a traditional Moroccan bathhouse. When homes didn’t have public water, hammams were where people went to bathe. This traditionally consisted of a building with three connecting rooms: a hot, or steam room, a warm room for bathing, and a cold room for rinsing off prior to leaving. Though hammams were for bathing, they were so much more than that. Hammams played a cultural role as a social gathering place where people would catch up, gossip, and plan.
Today, there are still some traditional hammams, or you can have a hammam experience in a spa-like atmosphere. In the spa hammams, you are scrubbed with black soap in a steam room, shampooed, and rinsed. In the more traditional hammams, you generally see the three rooms of different temperatures. You can scrub and shampoo yourself, or pay extra to have someone tend to you.
Either option that you choose is a relaxing experience. They take the cleaning and scrubbing very seriously, so expect to feel quite polished when you’re done! And as conservatively as many Moroccan women dress, don’t expect the same in a hammam. Full nudity, or just wearing a tiny thong, is what goes in a hammam and every inch of you will be scrubbed.
It’s a lot of fun to get a Moroccan hammam, though most people who aren’t accustomed may be a bit uncomfortable at first. Just lean into it and enjoy the experience. It’s a unique Moroccan experience for when you visit Marrakech.
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The People of Marrakech
My friend and I decided to get a guide for a few hours to explore the city of Marrakech. Why? Because we were nervous to go out on our own as two women. I had done a good bit of research and it seemed that many people advised against solo female travel in Morocco and even two women traveling together. I had never been to an Arab country before so I decided to heed the words of caution.
However, our experience was so different. Not only did we have no issues when we were on our own together, but I had no issues at all when I was on my own. People were very friendly and helpful in general and that is what Moroccans are known for.
An Amazing Local Female Guide
I searched on several sites and then stumbled across a female guide named Ouidad on WithLocals. After being on a group tour with only male guides, we thought a female perspective would be really interesting. And it was.
Ouidad was very open about sharing what it is like to be a Moroccan woman and she was absolutely delightful. She echoed our other guides in talking about how progressive Morocco is. Like them, she made a distinction between the practice of Islam and Muslim culture. She said the contract is between the person and Allah, or God. So, it is not up to anyone to decide who is a good Muslim, only Allah.
She chooses to wear the hijab scarf, but that is her personal choice. She does not feel pressured in any way to do so. We saw women wearing them, some wearing none, and others in a full burka. All of that is ok, and up to the woman wearing them. Ouidad is smart, funny, independent, and kind and it was such a pleasure getting to know her.
If Ouidad isn’t available or you’d rather other tours, here are some other great options for you:
Women’s Love of the King
One story Ouidad told us that I want to share is how much women love the King of Morocco. In Muslim tradition, a man may take up to four wives. The King said, of course, that is acceptable. However, he passed a law that in order to take additional wives, the man must get written permission from his existing wives first.
So, Ouidad asked us where a man must go for approval. “A government department? A mosque?” No, we were told. “In his dreams. And this is why women love our King!”
Best Day Trips from Marrakech
Marrakech is central in Morocco and well-located for day trips. There are a number of great day trips or multiple-day trips you can take to explore using Marrakech as a base.
Essaouira is a striking oceanside fortress on the Atlantic coast. The Medina of Essaouira is a UNESCO World Heritage site recognized as an exceptional example of a late 18th-century fortified town. It has a soothing and laid-back vibe in contrast to Marrakech. Wander the maze of the medina, explore the city walls and ramparts, take pictures of the bright blue fishing boats in the harbor while enjoying amazing ocean views.
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Take a break from your explorations to grab a bite at many great restaurants, then do your shopping at a calmer and lower-key market. There is so much to see in this quaint ocean town.
If you are looking for a more active adventure, the strong year-round tradewinds make for great surfing and kitesurfing. There are horseback rides on the beach as you won’t find many sunbathers due to the winds. The city can get crowded with tourists but still has the feel of a relaxing vacation spot. It’s a popular day trip when people visit Marrakech.
High Atlas Mountains
The High Atlas mountain range overlooking Marrakech is s a great spot to see for a day trip when you visit Marrakech. Though you may have passed through on your way to visit Marrakech, it’s worth taking some time to investigate further.
Explore Berber villages and take a cooking class while you’re there. Go trekking through the mountains to a beautiful waterfall. Go skiing in the mountains or take a hot air balloon ride. There is so much to see and do and exploring this area shows you a very different side of Morocco from city life. There are many great tours to choose from.
We ate at Le Caspian Hotel’s restaurant on our first night in Marrakech and enjoyed it so much we ate there again! They offer a mix of cuisine with a focus on French and Moroccan. It’s a spectacular place and the food and service were great!
The rooms in the hotel look really nice as well. We stayed right down the street at a budget place. It’s a great area with lots of restaurant and cafe options and also several hammams. It’s also within walking distance to Jemaa El-Fnaa (40 minutes or so).
Another great place for Spanish tapas just a few doors down from Le Caspian Hotel is Taberna12. It is located at 12 Rue Loubnane, Marrakesh 40000, Morocco. There are many great restaurants in Marrakech to choose from with many styles of cuisine available.
Where to Stay in Marrakech
Riads are one of the most popular places to stay when you visit Marrakech. These traditional homes offer a great view into what it is like to be Moroccan and they are beautiful, featuring a garden, a water feature like a pool or fountain, and an area open to the sky. There is a wide range of hotels and riads for every budget.
Marrakech Menara Airport is an international airport serving Marrakech and the surrounding area. Most of the international flights currently are from several locations in Europe as well as some Arab nations. It serves over 5.2 million passengers a year. A third terminal was built and it is new and modern and quite nice.
Marrakech Weather and When to Visit
Spring and fall are the best times to visit Marrakech weather-wise, from March to May and September to November. Average daytime temperatures are typically in the low 70s to the low 90s Fahrenheit (21 to 33 Celcius) and temperatures at night are usually in the 50s and 60s (10 to 15 degrees Celcius).
In the summer, temperatures can be unbearably hot spiking to 96 F or higher (35C). And in the winter, high temperatures are usually around 66 F (19 C) but at night it falls to 44 F (7 C) or lower.
There are so many reasons why Marrakech is the most touristed city in Morocco. The “Red City” is a lot of fun to explore. It’s worth taking at least a couple of days to explore the beautiful historic homes, palaces, gardens, and of course famed Jemaa El-Fnaa market. It’s a whirlwind for sure, but one you won’t want to miss.
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