Mini guide to history in Marrakesh
The sun sets on Marrakesh's Djemaa el-Fna square and Koutoubia Mosque. (Vincenzo Lombardo/Getty)
There’s more to Marrakesh’s colourful past than the yarns spun by the storytellers in the Djemaa el-Fna square – travel beyond the souqs to find out about this Moroccan city’s architecture, traditions and culture.
Best for the outdoors
The Jardin Majorelle provides a haven away from the hectic pace outside. Designed by French painter Jacques Majorelle, the villa and garden are composed and coloured like a painting, with accents of cobalt blue. Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent bought and restored the garden before gifting it back to Marrakesh (Ave Yacoub el-Mansour; garden £2.20).
When Moorish Art Deco hotel La Mamounia opened in 1923, a ‘Mamounia’ sticker became something of a must-have for well-travelled steamer trunks. In its heyday, Churchill stayed here and Hitchcock filmed here for his 1934 movie The Man Who Knew Too Much. It has recently been restored to its Art Deco glory – its gardens recall the grandeur of old Morocco, and make for a fine destination for high tea or high balls at sunset (Ave Bab Jedid; pot of tea £3).
Moroccan sultans greeted dignitaries in the Agdal Gardens for eight centuries, among its fragrant fruit orchards and olive groves. The gardens, which stretch for several miles south of the Royal Palace in the Kasbah district, still serve ceremonial purposes, so they’re only open at weekends and when the king isn’t in residence. The gardens were granted Unesco World Heritage protection in 1985 (Fri 3pm–6.30pm, Sun 12–6pm; admission free).
Best for religion
The calls from Koutoubia’s muezzin rise above the din of Djemaa el-Fna, the city’s busy hub. This 12th century tower is an impressive feat of Moorish design and, at 70 metres tall, it makes a good landmark for navigating the city. The mosque is closed to non-Muslims, but you can wander its gardens (Rue el-Koutoubia; gdns 8am–8pm; admission free).
The Mellah is the historic Jewish quarter of Marrakesh and is surrounded by high walls, much like the European ghettos. Only a few Jewish families remain in the narrow derbs (alleys) – most moved to Casablanca, Israel or France in the 1950s – but you can still spot the Star of David on old doors, witness cross-alley gossip through wrought-iron balconies, and visit the Lezama Synagoge, with its ancient Torah (east on Rue Riad Zitoun; admission free).
Anyone who says you can’t take it with you hasn’t seen the Saadian Tombs. Sultan Ahmed el-Mansour Eddahbi – of the Saadi dynasty who ruled Morocco from 1554 to 1659 – spared no expense on his tomb, importing Italian Carrara marble and gilding plasterwork with pure gold to make the Chamber of the 12 Pillars a suitably glorious final resting place (Rue de la Kasbah; 8.30am–11.45am, 2.30pm– 5.45pm; admission 80p).
Best for culture
Musee de Marrakesh – a former palace – showcases contemporary Moroccan art as well as Rabati embroidery, Moroccan Jewish artefacts and High Atlas carpets. There’s a courtyard café and a bookshop offering a good selection of books, maps and postcards (Place ben Youssef; admission £2.10).
Art collectors Patrick Menac’h and Hamid Margani opened the Maison de la Photographie to showcase vintage Moroccan photography in its original context. Fascinating works from 1870 to 1950 include a 1907 view of the Djemaa el-Fna and a photo of Ali ben Youssef Medersa from 1920. Enjoy lunch on the panoramic terrace (46 Rue Souq Ahel Fes; admission £2.90).
Flights of fancy come with the territory at Dar Bellarj, a stork hospital (storks are revered in Morocco) turned into Marrakesh’s premier arts centre. Each year the Dar Bellarj Foundation adopts a programme theme, recently ranging from film to women’s textiles and storytelling (00 212 524 444 555; Ali ben Youssef Medersa; 9am–1.30pm, 2.30pm–6pm; admission to most events is free).
Where to stay
Despite its location close to the Djemaa el-Fna, Limoun is wonderfully quiet. It’s also one of the tiniest riads (courtyard mansions) imaginable, with just four rooms, but it’s neat and clean with a pretty patio and a roof terrace accessible via a candlelit stairway (25 Derb Ben Amrane; from £33).