Against the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains, Marrakesh is a timeless city of red sandstone.
Storytellers still regale the public on the Jemaa el-Fnaa square and an army of vendors sell their wares on haphazard interweaving alleys, packed tight to keep the sun at bay.
Marrakesh went through two periods as an imperial capital, under the Almoravids and Almohads in Medieval times, and the Saadian Dynasty in the 16th century.
These spells left the city with masterpieces of Hispano-Moorish art, like the 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque, and the ruined palace and mausoleum of Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur (1549-1603). Marrakesh has caught the imagination of many Europeans, not least the long-term resident Yves Saint-Laurent (1936-2008), whose epoch-defining designs have found a stage at a new museum in his honour.
Marrakesh’s walled old town is an indecipherable labyrinth of alleys converging in the west on the Jemaa el-Fnaa square under the emblematic 12th-century minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque.
You’ll learn time and again that outward appearances can be deceiving in the Medina, and this goes for the plain-looking external walls of riads (courtyard mansions), giving no indication of the splendour of the mosaics and stuccowork within.
Naturally a riad would be the best accommodation in Marrakesh, and you can see inside more than a few that have been restored and turned into museums.
If there’s one way to enter the Medina it’s got to be the Bab Agnaou gate, the historic entrance to the kasbah greeting you with bands of interlacing carved sandstone radiating from its horseshoe arch.
2. The Souks of Marrakesh
A fact you may hear about Marrakesh is that it’s a city of 40,000 craftsmen.
On the close, intersecting alleys pulling off the immense Jemaa el-Fnaa you can see what all these artisans get up to.
Effervescent, picturesque and hectic, the souks are as much an experience as a shopping opportunity, and are broken down by speciality.
There’s a Souk Smata for babouche slippers, a Souk Seffarine for brassware, a Souk Haddadine for blacksmithing, Souk Chouari for carved cedar and the famed Souk Cherratin, selling all manner of leather goods, from purses to belts.
Souk Sebbaghine, the dyers’ souk, is a photographer’s dream with its strands of wool in bright colours drying overhead.
You will be expected to haggle, but through this act it’s worth bearing in mind that all traders want to make a sale.
Recommended tour: Marrakech: 3-Hour Colorful Souks Tour
3. Koutoubia Mosque
The 77-metre minaret of the city’s largest mosque has towered above the west side of the Medina for more than 800 years.
When the French drew up the Ville Nouvelle, this Medieval tower was still the guiding landmark, and is visible for almost 30 kilometres.
Completed in the reign of Almohad Caliph Yaqub al-Mansur, the minaret came before, and inspired, Seville’s famous Giralda and the Hassan Tower in Rabat, also Almohad creations.
Instead of steps, the minaret has a ramp inside, so that the muezzin could ride up to give the call to prayer.
This also means that the orientation of the interlaced window arches is slightly different on each facade.
Access is prohibited to non-Muslims, but you can get a good look from the esplanade by the Jemaa el-Fnaa.
To the right of this you’ll see the ruins of an earlier Almohad mosque, raised in the 12th century but abandoned because its mihrab (shrine) wasn’t oriented towards Mecca.
4. Jardin Majorelle
Yves Saint-Laurent and his label’s co-founder Pierre Bergé bought up and restored this transformative garden and its Cubist villa in the 1980s.
It was all the work of Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962), son of the fabled Art Nouveau furniture designer Louis Majorelle.
Jacques spent more than forty years perfecting this 2.5-hectare space, and you can wander among the bamboo, outlandish tall cactuses and bright bougainvillea.
Fronted by a square fountain in the same shade of cobalt blue, Majorelle’s villa and studio holds a museum for Islamic art, presenting Saint-Laurent’s personal collection of North African textiles, ceramics and jewellery, along with a collection of Majorelle’s paintings.
Suggested tour: Majorelle Garden and Palmeraie Camel Ride Tour
5. Bahia Palace
Up there with the masterworks of Moroccan architecture, Bahia Palace reached its current scale and opulence under the grand vizier Ba Ahmed (d.
1900). The intensely decorated palace, on eight hectares in the south-east of the Median, was begun in the 1860s and then extended by the famously portly Ba Ahmed, whose additions included a gigantic harem on a courtyard around a central basin.
The complex abounds with painted cedar and beech ceilings, gleaming white marble, multicoloured zellige, elaborate latticework, stained glass and gardens laden with jasmine, hibiscus, citrus trees and banana trees.
The grand vizier had no fewer than four wives and 24 concubines, which explains the magnitude of this space.
Ba Ahmed’s wives each had an apartment identical in size, denoting their equal status, and around the palace you’ll step through the school/mosque for his many sons and daughters and the hall where he conducted business.
King Mohammed VI occasionally stays at Bahia Palace, in personal quarters not open to the public.
Included in: Marrakech: Private Half-Day Walking Tour
6. Ben Youssef Madrasa
Until it closed in 1960, Marrakesh laid claim to one of the largest madrasas in North Africa, accommodating more than 800 students.
This was completed during the reign of Sultan Abdallah al-Ghalib (1517-1574) on the site of an earlier Marinid-dynasty madrasa from the middle of the 14th century.
The complex opened as a historical site in 1982 and is designed around a magnificent interior courtyard, decorated to provoke a feeling of astonishment through its brilliant zellige mosaics, feather-light stuccowork, finely carved cedar and bands of Arabic calligraphy around a rectangular reflection pool.
At the far end from the entrance is the mihrab couched in yet more vibrant tilework.
This richness continues in the latticework and moulded stucco niches of the secondary courtyards, while the student’s cells are purposely unadorned.
7. Jemaa el-Fnaa
Marrakesh’s fevered marketplace was born as a space for military parades and executions in front of the palace that preceded the Koutoubia Mosque.
Jemaa el-Fnaa is a frenzy all day and into the night.
In the afternoon there will be snake charmers, Barbary monkeys, orange juice stalls and water sellers.
Later these withdraw to be replaced by a mass of dancing youths dressed as women (who wouldn’t be permitted to dance), magicians, fire breathers, acrobats and storytellers, all soundtracked by bands of gnaoua musicians in blue robes.
At night there are myriad food stalls at Jemaa el-Fnaa for tagines, couscous, sizzling meat skewers and spiced soups with lentils and chickpeas.
Suggested tour: Marrakech: Medina by Night Tour
8. Saadian Tombs
Members of the powerful Saadian Dynasty, whose rule coincided with Marrakesh’s apogee in the late-16th century, were laid to rest in this sumptuous walled mausoleum complex on the south side of the Kasbah Mosque.
The tombs date from the time of Ahmad al-Mansur (1549-1603) and were lost for hundreds of years behind their indomitable walls until an aerial survey in the 1910s.
Some 66 people are entombed in these three rooms, including al-Mansur, his son and grandson in the showpiece Hall of the Twelve Columns.
The tombs here are fashioned from Carrara marble, ensconced in kaleidoscopic zellige mosaics on the floor and lower walls, all under an astoundingly intricate dome of carved cedar.
9. Maison de la Photographie
Opened in 2009 in an old merchants’ inn at the heart of the Medina, this museum has a collection of more than 10,000 historic photographs, from 1870 to 1950. You’ll witness seldom seen images of Moroccan landscapes, the ancient city of Volubilis, palaces, kasbahs and candid images of Berber culture.
There are pictures captured by some of the earliest photographers to arrive in Morocco, including the Scotsman George Washington Wilson (1823-1893), and many more anonymous travellers visiting the country on their grand tours.
There are new exhibitions every few months on themes relating to specific locations, photography styles and aspects of life in the country.
After perusing the exhibition you can head up to the terrace for a pot of mint tea and a privileged view of the Medina and the mountains.
10. El Badi Palace
This ruined palace inhabited by storks and stray cats, also constructed Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, was started immediately after his victory in the Battle of the Three Kings (1578) using funds raised by a ransom paid by the Portuguese.
Decades later, El Badi Palace, thought to have had 300 lavishly decorated rooms, was plundered by the Alaouite Sultan Ismail Ibn Sharif (1645-1727) for material for his palaces at the new capital Meknes.
The vestiges left behind are substantial, with spellbinding views from the crenellated walls and a mysterious network of subterranean passageways to explore.
Something not to be missed at the back of the courtyard is the Koutoubia minbar (pulpit), hewn from cedar in the 12th century, with fabulous marquetry and calligraphy in gold and silver by Medieval Cordoban artisans.
Recommended tour: Marrakech Historical Tour
11. Yves Saint Laurent Museum
This purpose-built museum for Marrakesh’s famed former resident opened on his namesake street in October 2017. The building, designed by Studio KO, looks at once traditional and modern, evoking Art Deco in its curving forms and dressed in bricks that were fired in Morocco and arranged in an interlacing pattern.
On a minimal backdrop, the permanent exhibition is rooted in Marrakesh, and features many of Yves Saint Laurent’s most iconic creations, like the Mondrian dress, the pea coat, “Le Smoking” and the safari jacket.
The 50-piece display is rotated every few months and organised along themes that guided the designer’s work: Art, Gardens, Morocco, Africa, Black, Imaginary Voyages, Masculine-Feminine.
Complementing this work are sketches, runway footage, photographs, audio accounts and music for an insight into the designer’s creative process and influences.
12. Menara Gardens
Some way out of Marrakesh towards the airport is a set of botanical gardens first planted around 1130 by the ruler of the Almohad Caliphate, Abd al-Mu’min.
The name Menara comes from the pavilion building, with horseshoe arches, a balustraded terrace and pyramidal roof, impressive before the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains.
That pavilion, dating from the 19th century on an earlier 16th-century foundation, sits on a giant reservoir that was constructed to irrigate the orchards and olive around it.
As was the case almost 900 years ago the gardens are a respite from the heat of the day.
13. Cyber Park
The name of this park to the west of the Medina gives little indication of its great age.
With a clear view of the Atlas Mountains the garden was laid out by Prince Moulay Abdeslam, son of Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah, at the end of the 18th century.
The space became public in the early 20th century, and lost its landscaping until a rehabilitation project by the Foundation Mohammed VI for the Protection of the Environment in the early 2000s.
The Cyber Park pairs a historic arsat (orchard) garden, planted with citrus trees, lucerne and olive trees, with a modern park laid out with spacious lawns, water features and walkways.
The name comes from a cyber cafe and telecom museum that opened in 2005 but also the free Wi-Fi available at the park.
14. Tiskiwin Museum
This museum was founded by the Dutch anthropologist Bert Flint as a place to show off his extensive assemblage of Amazigh artefacts.
Such is the importance of the collection that the museum has now become part of Marrakesh’s Cadi Ayyad University.
The permanent exhibition is conceived as a trip into Berber Sahara on the old caravan routes between Marrakesh and Timbuktu.
On your journey you’ll become acquainted with Berber festivities, commerce and domestic life.
In this fine riad you’ll see carvings in stone and wood, furniture, baskets, fabrics, djellabas (robes), jewelry, cooking implements and more, all matched with well-researched descriptions.
In Marrakesh’s Jewish quarter you’ll notice that the city’s already narrow streets constrict even more, and that the buildings are a little taller.
This is because until the arrival of the French Protectorate in 1912 Jews were unable to live outside this dense quarter, and so had to make the most of what little space there was.
The quarter grew up in the middle of the 16th century during the Saadian dynasty, on the plot where the Sultan’s stables used to be.
At its height it was a hectic neighbourhood of jewellers, sugar traders, tailors and bankers.
The Mellah has been restored a little in the reign of Mohammed VI, readopting its original Jewish street names.
Marrakesh’s Jewish population has now dwindled to just a few dozen, as you’ll see from the occasional glimpses of Stars of David on the walls.
As well as somewhere to get a handle on the city’s past, the Mellah is a place to shop away from the city’s frenzied main souks.
16. Salat Al Azama Synagogue
This 16th-century synagogue in the Mellah was built on the back of the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
Newly revamped with a gallery for women, you’ll find it on a courtyard hidden down a narrow alley, its vivid blue tilework, doors and benches contrasting with the oranges and browns of the city.
The Salat Al Azama Synagogue is one of two active places of worship for Marrakesh’s Jewish community, but for everyone it’s a place to gain a bit more insight about Judaism in the city, through an exhibition of photographs and documents.
The courtyard here once served as a yeshiva (religious school) for 400 students from the region.
17. Miaara Jewish Cemetery
The cemetery in the Mellah, the largest Jewish cemetery in Morocco, gives a clearer picture of just how many people lived in this district after it was first developed in the 16th century.
As with so many places in the Medina, the nondescript entrance belies the beauty and magnitude of what lies behind.
Men will be given a yarmulke to wear as they go in, to be faced by a field of long, whitewashed tombs, most worn down over time but some keeping their triangular outline.
It’s staggering to think that there are three burial layers here.
The Miaara Jewish Cemetery has a special place in Jewish culture, as the burial place of many tzaddikim (Hasidic spiritual leader or guide). An ornate mausoleum, with a carved cedar roof and detailed stucco mouldings, is reserved for the president of the city’s Jewish community.
18. Dar Si Said Museum
The oldest museum in Marrakesh opened in 1932 in the exquisite late-19th-century palace ordered by Si Said ben Moussa, minister of defence to his brother, the grand vizier Ba Ahmed (d. 1900). Go in to luxuriate in the hypnotic zellige tilework, the stained glass and the beautifully fashioned cedar ceilings.
The museum documents the traditional crafts of the region, incorporating Marrakesh, the banks of the Tensift River and the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas ranges.
There’s Berber jewellery, hammered copper, pottery, rugs, ceremonial clothing and weapons, as well as an exhibition of fastidiously embellished doors and window frames from Kasbahs across the south.
19. Boucharouite Museum
On your adventure through the Medina you can step inside this museum in a riad, with a central courtyard and a calm, green terrace above.
The museum shines a light on the Berber Boucharouite rug-making technique, in which strips of colourful rags are woven together, normally by a woman.
As they can be made by a single weaver rather than a workshop, Boucharouite rugs often tell you something personal about their maker.
This goes for the pieces hanging at this museum, and if you’re in luck the museum’s owner will be around to share some of the background on each rug and what they say about Berber culture.
At the end you can take tea on the terrace, high above the clamour of the Medina.
20. Ouzoud Waterfalls Full Day Tour from Marrakesh
Marrakesh’s inland location puts awesome natural wonders within striking distance, and there’s a whole catalogue of once-in-a-lifetime experiences available.
The Ouzoud Falls in the Middle Atlas Mountains are 150 kilometres northeast of the city, and this tour will take you there in the comfort of an air-conditioned minibus, safe in the hands of a local guide.
The drive is memorable, passing through olive groves and little Berber villages perched in the High Atlas.
The falls are breathtaking, where the El Abid River roars down three drops with a total height of 110 metres, into a vast gorge with mossy walls.
You’ll get the chance to swim in the river and take snaps of the curious Barbary macaque monkeys that have made the falls their home.
Recommended tour: Ouzoud Waterfalls Full-Day Trip from Marrakech
21. Marrakesh to Merzouga 3-Day Desert Safari
Marrakesh is as close as many people will ever come to the open Sahara Desert, and it’s thrilling to think that those romantic orange and bronze dunescapes are within reach.
This tour on GetYourGuide.com is a three-day odyssey, crossing the High Atlas Mountains and visiting the spectacular Kasbah of Ouarzazate, a dreamlike city long known as “The door of the desert”. After seeing the high craggy walls of the Todgha Gorges you’ll continue to the Erg Chebbi dunes, which fit everyone’s most romantic notions of the Sahara.
After a camelback ride you’ll pass the night in a Bedouin camp, tucking into a tagine cooked under the stars and being entertained by real nomadic gnaoua musicians.
22. Atlas Mountains Day Trip with Camel Ride
The High Atlas Mountains are tantalising and ever-present on Marrakesh’s southern horizon, and this day trip will take you into the range’s Imlil Valley for sublime mountain panoramas, a camelback ride and a dose of Berber culture.
On the way you’ll stop at a women’s only Argan oil cooperative to buy this coveted cosmetic product at its source.
Later, at the town of Asni, you’ll visit a Berber souk unaffected by tourism, followed by little hamlets, waterfalls and a stop at the steep fertile terraces of Tamatert, growing vegetables, corn and barley since time immemorial.
Heading back towards Marrakesh there will be a stop at the Moulay Brahim Gorges for a camelback ride in epic scenery.
Book online: Atlas Mountains Day Trip with Camel Ride
23. Museum of Marrakesh
Despite the name, the Museum of Marrakesh is concerned less with the history of the city and more with the architecture and decor of its admittedly beautiful building.
Next to the Ben Youssef Madrasa, this is a palace built at the end of the 19th century for Mahdi Menhbi, the defence minister under Sultan Moulay Abdelaziz (1878-1943). The palace lost its sheen during a period of neglect, until it was restored and turned into a museum in the 1990s.
The best bit is the unusually large patio, taking up more than 700 square metres, and dominated by a spectacular multi-tiered chandelier.
On the ground floor are small displays of hammered copper objects, Berber jewellery, weapons and clothing, while upstairs you can take a close look at the dainty Moorish decor and fine cedar furniture.
24. Le Jardin Secret
Worthwhile as a momentary escape, Le Jardin Secret is a hushed palace and garden complex right in the Medina.
The fanciful story goes that this was initially a pair of Saadian Dynasty riads in the 17th century, reconstructed by the ambitious 19th-century kaid (commander) al-Hajj Abd-Allah U-Bihi during the reign of Sultan Mohammed IV.
He later met with a sticky end when his tea was poisoned.
From the 1930s onwards the palaces became dilapidated and opened in 2016 after an eight-year restoration.
There’s an Islamic and an exotic garden to peruse, and the palaces show off modern examples of Moroccan design in their tilework, hand-moulded stucco, carved cedar and tadelakt (waterproof plaster). The newly constructed tower almost matches some of Marrakesh’s minarets for height, looking down on the Medina and out to the mountains.
After braving the medina with children or teenagers you may be ready for some time out.
Attached to a resort, Oasiria is a water park with eight pools and 17 different slides, all in ten hectares of gardens.
Grown-ups can take it easy in this oasis-like environment of lush lawns, palms and ancient olive trees.
But there’s lots of fun to be had at the wave pool, lazy river and a choice of heated pools.
For the tiniest there’s a space to splash around in knee-high water, and a sprawling playscape with low slides.
Bigger kids can contend with rides with names like Rio Loco, Kamikaze and Cobra, and there’s a new climbing wall for a change of pace.