Marrakech Tourism: Sights and Attractions
Marrakech is clearly a large city divided into old quarters – the Medina – and the new town – Guéliz.
The focus of the whole city is Djemaa el Fna, a large open space full of entertainers and food sellers at the heart of the Medina. Along the alleyways adjacent to Djemaa el Fna, lie some of the most remarkable landmarks of Marrakech. North of Djemaa el Fna are the souks and the Sidi Ben Youssef Mosque, the main mosque after the Koutoubia. South of Djemaa el Fna, you have the Saadian Tombs and an area full of palaces and the ethnographic museum Maison Tiskiwine.
Another popular sight in Marrakech is the tour of the many gardens. These include the Jardin Majorelle, near Bab Doukkala, the Ménara, a large pool set in a large olive grove and the Agdal, another pleasant olive grove. Across the Oued Issil to the northeast of Marrakech, lies the Palmery dotted with oases.
Djemaa el Fna
Djemaa el Fna is the most famous landmark in Marrakech, a place sure to involve you so effortlessly you will come back again and again.
It is an open space in the heart of the city where a long-established ritual takes place. Large crowds of onlookers – both locals and tourists – gather around to mingle together and watch groups of acrobats, drummers, snake charmers, story tellers, dancer, comedians and fairground acts.
The Koutoubia is to Marrakech what the Statue of Liberty is to New York and the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.
Nearly seventy metres in height and visible for miles afar, the Koutoubia is a landmark that dominates the whole of Marrakech, rising from the low-rise buildings of the old town and the plains of the north.
Originally built by the early Almohads, this is the oldest and most complete of three great Almohad towers – the other two are the Hassan Tower in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville.
The Souks of Marrakech
The souks of Marrakech stretch immediately after Djemaa el Fna, along Rue Souk Smarine, a long, covered street. At the end of this street are two lanes: Souk el Kbir and Souk el Attarin – Follow the alleyways and you will discover small squares devoted to specific crafts and products.
At first sight, the souks may seem vast and bewildering. However, with a good map it is perfectly possible to navigate the souks on your own. If you’d rather use some help, there are no shortage of offers from guides, both official and non-official.
The best times to visit the souks is in the early mornings (6:00 to 8:00) or late afternoons (16:00 to 17:00) as goods are more amenable to bargaining at the end of the day.
The Almoravid Koubba (Koubba el Baroudiyine)
Opposite the Ben Youssef Mosque, on the southern side of Place de la Kissaria, is the Almoravid Koubba.
At first glance, it looks a very simple building with variously shaped doors and windows. With a closer look, you will understand the significance and fascination of this monument, for it is the only Almoravid building still standing intact in Morocco!
Dating back to the reign of Sultan Ali Ben Youssef (1107 – 1143), the Almoravid Koubba probably formed part of the ablution facilities of a nearby mosque. The style of the monument is at the root of all Moroccan architecture, subsequently used in all Almohad and Merenid designs.
Climb down the stairs to get to the level of the Dome and view its ceilings. Note the unique range of Almoravid motifs – the pine cones, acanthus and palm leaves and the powerful expression of form in the square and star-shaped octagons at the dome’s interior support.
The Almoravid Koubba is open daily from 9:00 – 13:00 and 14:30 – 18:00. Admission fee is 10dh.
The Marrakech Museum
The Marrakech Museum is housed in a magnificent late-nineteenth century palace, Dar Mnebbi, on the west side of Place de la Kissaria.
The palace was originally built by Mehdi Mnebbi (1894-1908), Moroccan ambassador to London. It was then bought by T’Hami el Glaoui, the famous Pasha of Marrakech during the French protectorate. Restored in 1997, it houses today both traditional and contemporary exhibitions of Moroccan arts and sculpture.
The Marrakech Museum is open daily from 9:30 – 18:00. Admission fee is 30dh.
At the edge of the Medina, by Bab Debbagh are the tanneries where you can observe the process of tanning and drying skin.
The process involves tanners treading and rinsing skin in large vats of dye and pigeon dung, while other artisans scrap and stretch the skins to dry. The tanneries are very similar to the ones in Fez, although they are more scattered making it less of an interesting experience.
The best time to visit is in the mornings, when there is most activity. To get a good view of the proceedings, use of one the shops with terraces overlooking the tanneries.
The Saadian Tombs
Long-hidden from intrusive eyes, the Saadian Tombs is another great landmark of Marrakech only rediscovered in the early 20th century.
The tombs are the original burial place of the Saadian princes, most notably Sultan Ahmed el Mansour.
The tombs are lavishly decorated, conveying the opulence and great artistry of this important period in Moroccan history.
El Badi Palace
The most famous palace in Marrakech is El Badi Palace (or Palais el Badi), south of Djemaa el Fna. Its name “El Badi” literally means “The Incomparable” – in comparable in its luxury and grandeur and reputed as one of the most beautiful palaces in the world.
Built by Ahmed Al Mansour between 1578 and 1602, the Palace did not escape the plundering hand of Sultan Moulay Ismail who spent a further 10 years stripping the palace of everything moveable!
Although it stands today substantially in ruins, enough remains of El Badi to suggest its former grandeur. The size of its pool and sunken gardens give an impression of its incomparable scale and the traces of tile and plaster evoke a dazzling and exhaustive decoration.
The Mellah, east of the Medina, used to be the Jewish quarters in Marrakech. It was here that sultan Abdullah Al-Ghalib moved the Jews to his protected Kasbah in 1558.
The royal family appreciated the talents of the Jewish community of traders, jewellers and bankers who spoke many languages. This protected quarter was surrounded by walls and entered by two gates. The Mellah looks distinctly different from the rest of the Medina, almost a town in itself – supervised by rabbis, with its own souks, gardens and synagogues.
The present Mellah is today almost entirely inhabited by Muslims as most of the Jewish community in Marrakech have either moved to Casablanca, France or Israel. However, the quarters are distinct and still worth a visit. Do not miss the local Jewish cemetery, the Miaara, with its brilliant white tombs stretching into the distance. The oldest synagogue in Marrakech, Rabbi Pinhas, on Rue Talmud Torah is still in use.
The Bahia Palace
The Bahia Palace, the “Brilliant”, is the perfect antidote to the simplicity of the nearby Al Badi Palace.
Originally built in 1867 by Si Moussa, a grand vizier of Moulay Hassan, it was enlarged by his son Bou Ahmed, who added a mosque, a hammam and a garden.
The Bahia Palace was recently restored to its former glory and splendour, although some work is still yet to be carried out.
You enter the Palace through an arcade courtyard that leads to a small riad, beautifully decorated in cedarwood and carved stucco. In the riad itself, there are three adjoining salons leading through elaborate reception halls, pleasure gardens, living quarters and numerous secluded courtyards.
You can only visit part of the Palace, as some of it is still used by the royal family. You can visit the vizier’s sleeping quarters and various courtyards set aside for his wives and different concubines.
The Bahia Palace is open daily from 9:00 t 15:00. Admission fee is 10dh.
Maison Tiskiwin, a beautiful early twentieth-century townhouse between the Bahia and Dar Si Said, is the house of Bert Flint. Bert, a Dutch anthropologist and long-time resident of Morocco, has opened his house where he still lives and works as a museum dedicated to the African roots of Morocco.
Maison Tiskiwin has a unique collection of Moroccan and Saharan artefacts, based on a journey from Marrakech to Timbuktu and back. Different rooms feature carpets, fabrics, jewellery and clothes arranged by area or tribe of the Sahara.
Maison Tiskiwin is open daily from 10 – 12:30 & 15:00 – 18:00. Admission fee is 15dh.
Dar Si Said
Further to the north of the Bahia Palace is a pleasurable building, Dar Si Said, housing an impressive Museum of Moroccan Arts.
The building is the work of Si Said, a half-brother of grand vizier Bou Ahmed who expended the Bahia Palace. In fact, Dar Si Sadi is a smaller version of the Bahia, with finer and more impressive decoration.
The Museum houses an important collection of Moroccan arts, including jewellery from the Anti Atlas, an impressive eighteenth and nineteenth-century woodwork collection, Berber carpets from the High Atlas, pottery from Safi and Tamegroute and leatherwork from Marrakech.
The most important exhibit in the Museum is a marble basin dating back to the 10th century, brought to Marrakech from Cordoba by the Almohad Sultan Ali Ben Youssef.
Dar Si Said is open daily from 9:00 – 12:00 & 15:00 – 18:00. Admission fee is 20dh.
With the hustle and bustle of the souks of the Medina, and the afternoon heat reaching temperatures of 38 C, at least part of your day in Marrakech should be devoted to total inactivity. A good place to get a cool and peaceful break is in one of the many gardens in the city.
The main gardens in Marrakech are the Agdal and Menara, stretching through acres of orchards and olive groves with an immense pool of water. Other smaller gardens include the Majorelle, the gardens of the famed Mamounia Hotel and the palmery, which will give you a taster of the southern oases.
To get to these gardens, at the edge of the Medina, you will want to hire a petit taxi or a horse-drawn carriage (calèche). Alternatively, you can rent a bike or charter a grand taxi for the day.
The Agdal Gardens is located just south of the Royal Palace and Mellah. If you walk out here, it is around 3 kilometres from Jemaa el Fna.
This is a confusingly large expanse, over 400 hectares and 3 kilometres in extent, surrounded by walls with gates at its corners. It includes a half a dozen small irrigation pools as well as large pools at its heart. This extensive watering system irrigates apricot, lemon, fig and pomegranate orchards and olive groves.
The main series of pools at the heart of the Agdal include Sahraj el Hanna, flanked by a summer pavilion used by sultans for picnics and boating trips. From its roof, you can enjoy a panoramic view over the garden, Koutoubia and the Atlas.
The Agdal Gardens are open on Fridays and Sundays only from 8:00 to 17:00. Admission is free.
The Menara Gardens are similar to the Agdal, but a lot smaller with just one central basin and more olive groves than orchards. The gardens are easier to get to: just follow the Avenue de la Menara from Beb Djedid.
The Menara is very popular with locals for picnics and tourists for its postcard-like image: its central pool and summer pavilions with a good view over the Atlas Mountains are a familiar picture on many postcards and brochures.
The Menara Gardens are open daily from 8:00 to 18:00. Admission is free.
The Majorelle Garden is a small, meticulously planned botanical garden just off Avenue Yacob al Mansour. The garden bears the name of its creator in the 1920s, French painter Jacques Majorelle.
Today, the Majorelle is maintained by fashion designer Yves Saint Lauren. It conveys both tranquillity and strong colour. The keynote colour on buildings, a vivid cobalt blue, offsets the multicoloured bougainvillea, pink geranium and orange nasturtiums. Bulbs sing in the bamboo thickets and flit among the leaves of the date palms.
A green-roofed garden pavilion, the former studio of Majorelle, is the Museum of Islamic Arts. It exhibits the personal collection of Yves Saint Laurent, including North African carpets, furniture and pottery, as well as Jacques Majorelle’s paintings and engravings of local scenes in Morocco.
The Majorelle Gardens are open daily to visitors.