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
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
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
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).
Les Borjs de la
Kasbah is in the Medina, with the Royal Palace, Saadian Tombs, Agdal
Gardens and Bahia Palace nearby. The hotel is kitted out in Moorish style and
has a spa and outdoor pool (200 Rue Du Mechouar; from £80).
The cool splash of fountains and the casual interplay of
light, colour and shade soothe the soul at Riad
Kaïss. The highlight at this eightroomed guesthouse is the courtyard at
night – all candles and deep shadows (65 Derb Jdid; rooms from £170).
BA, easyJet, Ryanair and Thomson Airways
have flights to Menara airport from Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester and
Birmingham (Gatwick from £165, ba.com; Manchester from £155). From here, it’s a
four-mile journey north by petit taxi (local taxi) to the Medina (£5 by day, £7
by night) – transfers arranged through a riad will cost more than double these
prices. The Medina is mostly closed to car traffic, so the best way to get
around is on foot or by bike
– wearing a helmet is advised (from £20 per day).
The article 'Mini guide to history in Marrakesh' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.