Marrakech: highlights of the Red City

Gorgeous mosques and gardens, a beautifully preserved medina, the Sahara desert only some steps away… Marrakech is not only the main cultural hub of Morocco, but it has also become one of the most popular destinations in the country. And for a reason!

If you’re interested in experiencing the Moroccan culture first-hand, Marrakech is certainly your go-to place. Read more to discover what are some of the highlights that you can enjoy in this fascinating place!


how to get to Marrakech

 

Marrakech has a very well connected airport with low-cost routes to pretty much any big European capital. The airport is located only 4.5km west of Jemaa el-Fna, the main square of the city, so you’ll be right in the middle of the city in less than 10 minutes.

Marrakech Airport

The easiest way to go to town from the airport is by taxi. Agreeing on a price can be a bit of a hassle, especially as Moroccans love to haggle, but you should not pay more than 50 or 80 dirhams (approx. 5 to 8 euros).

If you're coming from other cities in Morocco, you'll most likely arrive by bus or train. The main bus companies for tourists are CTM, Pullman du sud and Supratours, all connecting Marrakech to all main cities. All long-distance buses stop at Bab Doukkarla, approximately 20 minutes walking from Djemaa El-Fna, or a cheap 20 dirham ride (approx. €2).

If you decide to get the train, there are connections to Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier that also connect with many other domestic destinations. Marrakech is the southernmost that you can get by train. The train station is located in the Ville Nouvelle at Avenue Hassan II, approximately 20 minutes away by taxi.

 

History of Marrakech

 

Marrakech was first founded in 1062 by Yusuf ibn Tashfin, the leader of the Almoravid empire and one of the most prominent figures of Morocco. He not only set Marrakech as the capital of the country, but he also spread the Islamic religion all over the Maghreb and Muslim Spain. 

In 1147, a new religious movement called Almohads and formed by Berbers coming from the High Atlas, seized the city commanded by Caliph Abd al-Mu’min. He ordered the construction of two mosques, as he claimed that mosques in Marrakech weren’t orientated correctly. One of these mosques is the famous Koutoubia Mosque, inspired by the architecture of Al-Andalus in today’s Southern Spain. 

Marrakech

The city was forgotten during the Marinid dynasty in the 13th century when the capital was moved to Fes for over two centuries. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the Saadians returned the capital to Marrakech and the city flourished once again with the construction of the Bab Doukkala Mosque, the Ben Youssef Madrasa and the Saadian Tombs. 

The city became a focus of interest during the 20th century when the French, Spaniards and Portuguese took control over Morocco due to its privileged location as the door to Africa. The city changed hands on multiple occasions until the country gained its independence in 1956. 

In 1911, the capital was moved once again, this time to Rabat. However, Marrakech remains one of the most prominent cities of the country, mainly thanks to its economical and touristic strength. 

 

Marrakech

 

I had previously been to the north of Morocco, but I was especially excited to explore Marrakech and venture into the desert a couple of days later.

I decided to stay as close as possible to the medina (old Arab quarter), as that’s the best place to start exploring the city. My first stop of the day, which was literally around the corner from my hotel, was Jemaa el-Fna square, the main activity hub of the city.

 

Jemaa el-Fna square

 

The amplitude of the square is truly fascinating. Filled with food and fruit stalls, restaurants with terraces overlooking the square, ambulant sellers, snake charmers and almost everything that you can imagine, the square is always thriving with life.

However, it is at night that Jemaa el-Fna really awakens. My visit took place during the Ramadan month, so all the locals went in herds to the square after the sunset to enjoy some food together. The square is also one of the main meeting points for locals, so you can really feel immersed in the Moroccan culture while walking around the square.

Be especially careful with some locals trying to get advantage of the tourists, especially those carrying around exotic animals. They will not doubt for a second to place a snake or a monkey on your head to try and push you to take a photo with them, and of course, pay an unreasonable tip!

I was taking some photos around the square when I suddenly felt a cobra that some prick decided to put around my neck without my consent. The whole incident involved some tension and much screaming and swearing that ruined my mood for part of the day. If you’re afraid of snakes or not a big fan of monkeys, be extra vigilant!

 

Snake charmer

 

On one of the sides of Jemaa el-Fna and not too far in the distance you’ll come into view with Koutoubia Mosque, the largest mosque in the city. The square and the mosque is connected by a wide street filled with horse carriages that will insistently try to bring you for a ride. I’d recommend avoiding walking through the middle if you want to avoid very insistent locals and a not very nice horse-smell.

Closed to tourists, the mosque is one of the main religious points in Marrakech. Its 77m minaret tower, inspired in other buildings such as the Giralda of Seville (Spain), stands out in the surrounding gardens. The mosque is richly decorated with curves, arches and ceramics in a typical Moorish style.

The mosque is built over the ruins of Abu Bakr ibn Umar Fortress, built in 1070. Part of these ruins can still be seen today, alongside part of the monumental stone gate of Ali ibn Yusuf’s Palace, built in 1226 and later destroyed by the Almohads when they started constructing the new mosque.

 

Koutoubia Mosque from Jemaa el-Fna

Minaret

Koutoubia Mosque

 

I headed into the winding streets of the medina until I reached the Place Moulay el Yazid, once a royal Almohad square before it was taken by the Saadians and the Alaouites. 

The mosque located in the square dates back to the late 12th century. Restored many times in the 16th century, then in the 18th and again at the dawn of the 21st century, it rivals the Koutoubia Mosque in its beauty. The mosque is remarkable for its T-shaped design, open-air courtyard and patios, ornate minaret and beautiful pulpit. As all Mosques in Morocco, it isn’t open to tourists.

 

Entrance to the medina

Place Moulay el Yazid

Moulay el Yazid Mosque

 

Around the corner from Moulay El Yazid Mosque, in the northern part of the Almohad Kasbah district, you will reach the Saadian Tombs. There’s an entrance fee of 70 dirhams (approx. €7)

The main access to this necropolis of the Saadian royal family was through the mosque beside it, but in 1917 a new entrance was opened into the south-west corner, leading to an open-air space occupied by a cemetery and a garden, closed off to the east and south by an interior wall flanked with towers.

The nucleus of this necropolis was erected by the sultan Abdallaah Al-Ghalib in 1557 to house the tomb of his father Muhammad Shaykh, the founder of the Saadian dynasty. 

 

Courtyard of the Saadian Tombs

 

The middle room, known as the Chamber of the Twelve Columns, is an elaborate hall under a cupola resting on four groups of three Carrara marble pillars. They support a ceiling of sculpted cedar wood, decorated with grand muqarna arches whose design resembles the oriental pavilion of the Qarawayyin madrasa in Fes, which was probably built around the same time. 

The first ensemble is completed with the Chamber of the Three Niches, covered by a carved cedar wood ceiling.

This masterpiece of funerary architecture draws indisputably from the necropoles of preceding dynasties, most notably those of the Merinides at Fes and Chellah. Furthermore, the craftsmanship throughout the complex, as seen in the stucco work, the ceramics and the carved cedar wood ceiling, is very similar to the Hispano-Maghrebi style, most notably to the Nasrid art immortalised in the Alhambra of Granada. 

 

Saadian Tombs

Moorish decoration inside the tombs

Saadian Tombs

 

Built by the Saadian sultan Ahmed el Mansour over the course of his reign (1578-1603), the El Badi Palace is another incomparable point of interest in Marrakech. Tickets cost 70 dirhams (approx. €7)

Meant for festivities and official audiences with the sovereign, it hosted countless foreign ambassadors, distinguished visitors, wise men and poets. All were struck by the height and thickness of its walls, the lavishness of its decor, the size of its pools and the lushness of the vegetation. Around its immense courtyard, four large pavilions are supported by marble columns and adorned with mosaic tile, sculpted plaster and finely painted wood. 

Unfortunately, the current state of preservation is quite poor, and most of the buildings inside the Badi Palace are quite decadent. If your time is tight, I personally wouldn’t recommend a visit inside.

 

El Badi Palace

 

Contrary to the Badi Palace, which I found quite disappointing, the Bahia Palace was one of the most impressive constructions that I saw in Marrakech. The entrance fee is only 10 dirhams (approx. €1).

The palace holds a collection of courtyards, gardens, salons and outbuildings, all of which are equal in their beauty, architectural splendour and surroundings. You can easily spend a few hours inside!

Its name means “magnificent”, and it truly is. At nearly two hectares, it is one of the largest palaces in the medina. It was built by the grand vizier Ahmed Ben Moussa, known as Ba Hmad, who ordered its construction from 1894 to 1900. 

The palace is composed of a large entrance courtyard with enormous trees, a small riad (traditional home) surrounded by rooms and niches, a small, open-air courtyard with rooms housing master’s quarters, as well as the main courtyard and its magnificent meeting room. The palace is entirely decorated with zellij (mosaic tile) and finely sculpted and painted plaster and wood. 

 

Entrance to the palace

Stucco decoration

Sculpted arches

Orange trees on the courtyard

Sculpted and painted wooden ceiling

Bahia Palace back courtyard

 

With most tourist attractions closing early due to Ramadan and with so many interesting places left to visit, I decided to end my day of sightseeing by visiting Ben Youssef Madrasa, located not too far from the Bahia Palace. It has an entrance fee of 60 dirham (approx. €6).

The madrasa is a former Islamic school that today only works as a historical site. The school was founded during the Marinid dynasty, but the current building was constructed during the 16th century. It served as a very prominent centre of learning and worship, being the biggest school back in the time. Over 800 students used to attend the school to learn Quranic and Islamic law, as well as literature, history and science.

The madrasa closed down in 1960, when it become a historical site.

 

Ben Youssef Madrasa

 

My visit to Marrakech had come to an end, so I headed back to our hotel. Next day, we’d be heading to the Sahara desert for two days, the most awaited part of my trip!

But on the way back I could still enjoy one of my favourite parts of exploring Marrakech: getting lost in the Medina. Winding streets, markets that fill the air with spices and local scents… all your senses will explode while walking around the old town!

The medina in Marrakech is much better preserved than in many other cities in Morocco, with paved streets that are much cleaner compared to Fes or Tangier. I’m sure that exploring the medina will be a fascinating adventure that you will never forget!

 

Where to sleep in Marrakech

During my visit, I stayed in the Hotel Cecil, located just around the corner from Jemaa el-Fna square. Its location couldn’t be any better, located right in the heart of the medina with pretty much all tourist attractions reachable by foot within just a few minutes.

The hotel was part of a package that I book which included a 2 day trip to the desert.

Although the hotel is quite modest, the facilities are actually quite good for Moroccan standards. All rooms include a private bathroom, as well as air conditioning and satellite TV. Breakfast was included with my stay, which was served in the top terrace with views of Jemaa el-Fna.

Staff were very friendly and helpful, and overall the place had a very cozy atmosphere. Definitely a great option for a getaway to Marrakech!

All opinions are my own.



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