Introduction to Marrakesh: A Brief History
Marrakesh was founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids, a Berber dynasty that ruled over North Africa and Spain. Over the centuries, the city has seen its fair share of conquerors and rulers, from the Almohads to the Saadians to the French. Today, Marrakesh is a hub of culture, commerce, and tourism, attracting millions of visitors each year.
As soon as you step into the old city, or medina, you’ll be transported back in time. The narrow, winding streets are lined with shops selling everything from colorful textiles to shiny brass lamps to hand-carved wooden furniture. The air is thick with the scent of spices – cumin, cinnamon, saffron – and the sound of vendors haggling with customers in a mix of Arabic, French, and Berber.
Berber Market, Mellah Souks, and Ensemble Artisanal: Marrakesh’s Must-Visit Shopping Spots
Let’s start with the obvious: the souks. Marrakesh’s markets are famous for their maze-like layout, bustling crowds, and endless array of goods. But be warned: the souks can be overwhelming, especially for first-time visitors. It’s easy to get lost in the labyrinthine alleys, and the hustle and bustle can be a bit intimidating. That said, the souks are an essential part of the Marrakesh experience, and they’re well worth braving the crowds.
As an alternative, avoiding the tourist hordes, head to the quieter alleys of the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter. Here, you’ll find everything from antique silver to hand-woven rugs, and the vendors are more relaxed and friendly. And if you’re looking for something truly unique, check out the Ensemble Artisanal, a government-run complex that showcases the work of local artisans. Here, you can watch craftsmen at work, from woodcarving to pottery, and buy directly from the source.
Hidden Gems of Marrakesh: Bahia Palace and Jardin Majorelle
One of my favorite off-beat travel recommendations in Marrakesh is to visit the Bahia Palace. While it may not be as famous as some of the other palaces and monuments in the city, it’s a true gem. Built in the late 19th century by a wealthy Moroccan nobleman, the palace is a masterpiece of Moroccan architecture and design. From the intricately carved stucco and zellige tilework to the lush gardens and tranquil courtyards, every corner of the palace is a feast for the senses
Another must-see in Marrakesh is the Jardin Majorelle, a botanical garden that was once owned by the French painter Jacques Majorelle. The garden is a tranquil oasis in the middle of the city, with shady paths, fountains, an array of cacti, and exotic plants from all over the world. But did you know that the garden also houses a small museum of Islamic art? It’s a hidden gem that’s often overlooked by visitors, but well worth a visit.
Today, it’s owned by none other than fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, who restored and preserved the garden for future generations to enjoy. From the bright blue walls and the vibrant cacti to the serene pools and fountains, the Majorelle Garden is a true oasis in the midst of the bustling city.
Experience the Flavors of Marrakesh
Of course, no visit to Marrakesh would be complete without sampling (but really, devouring) some of the city’s famous cuisine. After all, Marrakesh is a paradise for foodies, with a rich and varied cuisine that reflects its multicultural history. From spicy tagines (a slow-cooked stew of meat or vegetables with spices and herbs) to fluffy couscous, Moroccan food is a feast for the senses. And one of the best places to experience it is at a local street food stall.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: street food? Isn’t that a bit risky? But trust me, the street food in Marrakesh is some of the best you’ll ever taste. My personal favorite is the msemen, a fluffy and crispy pancake that’s served with honey or cheese. And if you’re a tea lover, don’t miss the chance to sample some traditional Moroccan mint tea, which is sweet, refreshing, and served with a lot of ceremony.
Jemaa el-Fnaa: The Famous Square of Marrakesh
One cannot visit Marrakesh without experiencing the vibrant energy of the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square. I would go as far as saying, if you haven’t made it to this square, you haven’t fully experienced this beautiful city. It’s a lively public space, especially during the evenings. As soon as you step onto the square, your senses are immediately awakened by the scent of sizzling tagines, the sound of drumbeats, and the sight of vibrant colors everywhere.
And the food here? Just, yes. The food stalls in the square are renowned for their authentic Moroccan cuisine, from grilled meats to seafood, to vegetarian dishes like tagines, couscous, and harira soup. The freshly squeezed orange juice is also a must-try, a refreshing drink that’s perfect for the city’s warm climate.
But what really sets Jemaa el-Fnaa apart from other street food spots is simply the atmosphere. The square is a hub of activity, and there’s always something to see and do. Street performers and artists of all kinds line the sidewalks, from snake charmers to henna artists, offering a glimpse into Moroccan culture. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of acrobats or musicians performing traditional Moroccan music.
But the best part of Jemaa el-Fnaa, in my opinion, is the nighttime experience. They say New York City never sleeps. I think this place is in the running for that same award. The square comes alive as the sun sets, transforming into a massive open-air restaurant with dozens of food stalls serving up steaming tagines, grilled meats, and freshly squeezed orange juice. You’ll see people from all walks of life, locals, tourists, and even street vendors, all coming together to enjoy the city’s finest culinary delights.
If you’re looking for something more intimate, then head to a traditional riad. These courtyard houses have been converted into hotels or restaurants that offer a relaxed atmosphere and a break from the bustling square. It’s a great way to unwind after a long day of exploring the city and indulge in some more sophisticated Moroccan cuisine.
But here’s the deal. I strongly advise against staying in a traditional riad in the medina for too long. We made the mistake of booking a riad for our whole trip, thinking it would be a slice of heaven. But the relentless hustle from aggressive vendors is very intense and unpleasant. Every day, whether you’re leaving the riad in the morning or returning for a mid-day break, you’ll face the pressure to buy. It dampened our riad experience, even though the place itself was stunning and peaceful, and the daily breakfasts were delicious. Towards the end, many vendors recognized us and gave us some peace, but it definitely affected our overall experience. Be wise and balance the allure with the reality. A couple days is enough to get a taste of the unique experience.
A Glimpse into the Almohad Dynasty’s Architectural Legacy
Would you be surprised to know that millions of people around the world visit Morocco each year just to experience their architectural wonders? Morocco’s historic buildings are a mix of Islamic, Berber, and European styles, reflecting its long and complex history. One of the most famous examples in Marrakesh in particular is the Koutoubia Mosque, with its iconic minaret that’s visible from almost every corner of the city. In fact, it is so iconic that the Marrakesh city ordinance forbids any building taller than the Koutoubia.
The mosque was built in the 12th century under the reign of the Almohad dynasty, a time when Marrakesh was a major cultural and intellectual center in North Africa. Its architecture is a perfect example of the Almohad style, with its clean lines, simple decoration, and emphasis on geometric shapes.
As you approach the mosque, you will notice the stunning stucco work on the walls and the intricate carvings on the doors. These are not just random patterns, but instead, they are a combination of Islamic calligraphy, floral motifs, and geometric shapes. Every detail has a symbolic meaning, and if you look closely, you’ll see that the patterns are never repeated.
The Koutoubia Mosque is also known as the “Bookseller’s Mosque” because of the many booksellers that used to trade their wares in the square outside.
As you explore the mosque, keep an eye out for the unique features that make it stand out from other mosques in the region. For example, the Koutoubia does not have a courtyard like other Moroccan mosques, but instead, it has a beautiful garden with fountains and orange trees.
If you want to get the best view of the Koutoubia Mosque, head to the nearby Cyber Park. It’s a beautiful green space filled with palm trees, cacti, and exotic flowers, and it offers an unobstructed view of the mosque’s stunning minaret. Plus, it’s a great place to relax and escape the hustle and bustle of the medina.