Marrakech is a city of wonders, and finding out all of its secrets could take years, if not a lifetime. If you only have a few days, visit these attractions to get a feel for the Ochre City’s noble past, fast-paced present and eternal obsession with beauty.
Although it can be tempting to try to stay totally off the beaten track when visiting new cities, Marrakech’s most famous sights are still worth your time, and a wander through the medina will uncover plenty of surprises. This list rounds up the very best that the city has to offer, from well-photographed gardens like Jardin Marjorelle to under-the-radar palaces and burgeoning creative neighbourhoods.
The heart of Marrakech is the medina, which comes from the word “city” in Arabic. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the old city was founded in the 11th century. Its labyrinth of winding streets and alleyways is best explored with a sense of adventure and a willingness to get lost. Your bravery will be rewarded with a nearly endless feast for the senses as you stroll through its markets and squares and explore its riads. But give a polite “no thanks” if someone offers to show you the way, unless you’re willing to pay for a guide.
The giant square at the entrance to Marrakech’s medina, Djemaa el-Fnaa is the heart and soul of the city. Wandering through on scorching hot afternoons, you’ll encounter snake charmers and merchants hawking everything from babouche slippers to spices in several languages at once. At night, the square comes alive with street-food stalls, storytellers and musicians in long robes playing gnawa, a traditional music known to put listeners into a trance.
Just behind Djemaa el-Fnaa are alleys upon alleys of souks. Shop for sweets, clothing and leather goods on your way to the Place des Épices. There, in the medina’s centre, is where you’ll find spices, soap and perfumes. A narrow, almost hidden entrance leads to the carpet souk, where you can find rugs made by women of the Amazigh, or Berber, tribe, one of Morocco’s indigenous peoples. Just around the corner, float through lighting shops that resemble miniature galaxies, or shop for large castanets, known as qraqeb, so you can jam with those gnawa musicians in Djemaa el-Fnaa. And remember – in the medina, all prices are negotiable, and bargaining is a social art. If you can relax and take your time – which is difficult when you have so much to see – you might make a friend as well as a great deal.
When you’re overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the souks, step into the silence of one of the many riads, or traditional houses, that have been converted into museums and art galleries – works of art full of works of art. The Musée Boucharouite features beautiful tapestries and a hidden rooftop café, while the Musée de Mouassine shows off the works of local artist Abdelhay Mellakh and often features traditional music concerts. If you want something more modern, try the Museum of Photography or, if you can find it, contemporary art gallery Le 18. Meanwhile, Le Jardin Secret provides an oasis of calm, and while boutique hotel El Fenn might be outside your budget, you can at least get a drink on the rooftop. Other hidden gems include Dar Charifa, the Tiskiwin Museum, Dar Si Said, the Musée de la Femme and the Heritage Museum.
Every Moroccan neighbourhood has a mosque, a communal oven and a hammam, which tells you how essential the hammam is to Moroccan life. At public hammams, locals bring their own buckets and beauty products and spend hours giving themselves a deep clean in one of the steam rooms. Unless you have a plastic bucket handy, you might be better off in a private hammam, where you’ll have a room to yourself. These range from the affordable and no-nonsense to the ridiculously lavish, but the gist is the same: you’ll be massaged with Moroccan black soap and then scrubbed from head to toe – no exaggeration here – with a rough bath mitt. Warning: don’t try this after getting sunburned, and be prepared to emerge an entirely new person (at least as far as your skin is concerned.)
A large complex of lavish mausoleums and tombs, the Saadian Tombs contain the remains of the founder of the Saadian dynasty along with princes and other prominent figures. The site dates back to the 1550s, and gold, Italian marble and colourful tiling add opulence to the final resting places.
Two of the most impressive palaces in Marrakech, Bahia and Badi, are on the edges of the medina and a good way to break up a day in the souk. Badi Palace, built in the 17th century, boasts reflecting pools and sunken gardens. Meanwhile, Bahia Palace, built in the 1860s and worked on until the turn of the 20th century, features ornamental wooden ceilings and stunning tiled courtyards.
The towering minaret of Koutoubia Mosque is the symbol of Marrakech. Constructed from red bricks and sandstone, the outside of the mosque features many ornamental details. Turquoise tiling, plasterwork, calligraphy, arches and fountains are a few of the mosque’s attractive features.
Wherever you look in the Jardin Majorelle, you gaze at a work of art. The organic lines and muted colours of succulents and cacti clash with unexpected grace against the bright blues and yellows of the Art Deco buildings in this gorgeously designed garden. Originally created by French painter Jacques Majorelle, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé bought the garden in the 1980s to save it from being bulldozed. Next door, you’ll find the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, where you can explore his career through drawings, photographs and garments, as well as the Berber Museum, which showcases arts and crafts from Morocco’s Amazigh people.
The gardens of Marrakech are known the world over for their impeccably manicured styles and unmatched greenery. This unique tour takes you to two of the city’s most exquisite gardens – the already mentioned Marjorelle, and Menara, with insane views of the Atlas Mountains. The icing on the cake comes in the form of a horse carriage ride through the Agdal Gardens that border the luxurious Hivernage and Mamounia hotels.
One of the best ways to beat the heat of Marrakech is to embark to Oasiria, the most exciting water park in Northern Africa. Oasiria features the largest wave pool on the continent, epic water slides, a lazy river and so much more. It’s the perfect family getaway after dragging the little ones around the souks.
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To find Marrakech’s local scene, you’ll have to leave the medina for the new city, Gueliz. While you’ll find an American-style mall on its main drag, hit the side streets for boutiques, private art galleries and both trendy and traditional cafés. If you stick around until nighttime, you’ll find live music in almost every bar and restaurant, ranging from hectic, traditional chaabi to classic rock covers to Latin dance music.
If you want to feel like you’re in the countryside without leaving the city, head to the northern part of town, the Palmeraie. Spanning 140 square kilometres (54 square miles), the palm-tree oasis is also home to luxury resorts and golf clubs.
One of the more unique attractions in Marrakech, André Heller’s ANIMA is a stunning botanical garden that features Mother Nature’s natural beauty alongside works of art by Rodin, Picasso and Keith Haring. Shaded paths allow visitors to stroll at leisure as vistas of the Atlas Mountains tower in the distance. The garden is a 45-minute drive outside the city, but it’s worth sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the views along the way in the free shuttle bus from behind the Koutoubia Mosque.