One of the most visited cities in Morocco is Marrakech, and with good reason. There is a lot to do and see here. Marrakech was the crossroads of North African trade routes and the capital of Morocco for centuries. The city dates back to the 12th century.
Like many old Moroccan cities, the oldest part (called the Medina) of Marrakech is surrounded by a wall with numerous gates. Inside the gates are a maze of narrow alleys and interesting sights.
Outside the Medina, you’ll find the modern Marrakech with beautiful apartment buildings, trendy shopping boutiques and even McDonald’s. It’s like two completely different worlds.
We happened to arrive on the day of Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice), an Islamic holiday where thousands of sheep all over the country meet their maker, and families cook and share the meat – almost like Thanksgiving! In the city on this day there were small fires everywhere with roasted (and burnt) sheep flesh (including heads and entrails) – what a wonderful smell greeted us!
By the end of the next day, most of this celebration mess was cleaned up and the city was pretty much back to normal.
Here are some of the major sights:
Bahia Palace. This palace is not old by Marrakech standards (mid 1800’s) but is beautiful and contains a number of interesting chambers. It was built for grand advisors to the sultan.
El Badi Palace. This huge palace complex is a testament to the wealth gained from the African caravan routes that came through Marrakech. It was built in the late 16th century and is largely in ruins now, but does retain its huge outer walls and some other remnants of structures worth visiting.
What a place it must have been in its heyday! One of the treasures housed on the grounds is the original minbar (or pulpit) from the Koutoubia Mosque (discussed below). It is an incredible work of art, with thousands of intricate wood designs and carvings, which took eight years to complete. It was crafted in the 1100’s.
Jemaa el Fna (The Main Square). This is an open area in the center of the Medina and the hub of Marrakech nightlife. It was interesting to watch it come alive as the sun set.
This is a city that comes out at night in the main square – with numerous food stalls, snake charmers, a variety of other entertainers, games and all kinds of locals and tourists mingling. A number of surrounding restaurants provide a view over the square, but eating at one of the food stalls is a bit cheaper and provides a good option to rub shoulders with fellow travelers and locals.
Koutoubia Tower & Mosque. Considered the “most perfect minaret” in North Africa and the symbol of Marrakech. The Mosque is not open to tourists, but there are lovely gardens around the mosque. This is an old structure, dating back to the late 12th century.
The Souks. These are mainly just north of the Jemaa el Fna and are fun to wander through. There are hundreds of shops containing all kinds of goods. One wonders how they all stay in business. They are more or less organized by craft. Early morning or late afternoon are the best times to visit.
City Gates. Bab Agnaou was one of the two original entrances to the citadel or Kasbah of Marrakech – which was the main royal residence or fortress.
Saadian Tombs. Near the Bab Agnaou is the Kasbah Mosque and the Saadian Tombs. These beautiful tombs were constructed by the same dynasty (the Saadians, who ruled Morocco from 1554 to 1669) that built the El Badi Palace.
There is usually a line for viewing these tombs, but it moves pretty quickly. Have your cameras ready so you can take your pictures before others are pressing for their turn.
Practical Information: We stayed at a lovely riad (Riad Alnadine), which are old wealthy merchant houses turned into guest residences in the center of the Medina. It’s owned and run by a French couple and was comfortable, with a great rooftop terrace for breakfast and relaxing and enjoying the open air.
While no visit to Morocco would be complete without a visit to Marrakech, be sure to visit other parts of this fascinating country. We spent a day and a half exploring the city and then took another day trip to the coastal city of Essaouira (highly recommended) which I will share in a separate post.
Reference: The Lonely Planet Guide to Morocco
Great post, how safe would you say Marrakech is at the moment. I am going in Feb with some work colleagues, one person going who is French is worried for some reason, can’t think why? Any advice ?
Thanks. If you get two replies, forgive me – my first one disappeared off the screen. I wouldn’t hesitate to go to Morocco and Marrakech specifically. Lots of tourists, especially from Europe. French is their 2nd language, so having a native French speaker will be a real advantage. English is 3rd or 4th on the list. As we know, no place these days is perfectly safe. My rule of thumb is to be courteous, respectful of the culture/religion and to keep a lower profile (avoiding dress or behavior that draws more attention than the usual obvious signs of being a tourist).
I hope you get to see more of Morocco than Marrakech too. Fez is incredible as are other parts of the country.
Have a great trip!
Thanks Paul this is perfect,
Just a couple other points, James. Tips (backsheesh) are expected almost for everything, so have small change available at all times. We were also invited into several people’s homes, which we graciously accepted, for tea, or a special view over the city or whatever. Probably a more friendly people than what you’d find in your own neighborhood :).
Ok thanks Paul
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