Formerly one of Morocco imperial capitals, Marrakech (also spelled Marrakesh) is an exotic city luring visitors with its Moroccan charm. Whether travelers arrive on the express or tour the city with thoughts of Charles Boyer and his Kasbah at the fore, all will be enchanted by what they find. Whether haggling for a bargain in a souk or watching a snake charmer at work, this medieval North African city will always find something new to tempt visitors with. An overview of the top tourist attractions in Marrakech:
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The Menara gardens are popular with locals and visitors alike since they provide a cool place to escape the heat of Marrakesh’s scorching summer days. The original purpose of the 12th century gardens was to provide a place for people to cool off and grow crops. Smaller gardens are built around a large arterial lake that is fed by canals. Palm, olive and fruit trees grow in the orchards, so visitors can usually see pruners and pickers at work. A good place to view the gardens is from the pavilion or minzeh, once used by a sultan and his family, that overlooks the pool.
The Saadian Tomb were used as a burial place for royalty and nobility for a couple of hundred years starting in the mid-16th century. The last burial took place in 1792, and then the tombs were neglected, until they were rediscovered in 1917. The tombs consist of two main mausoleums where 66 people are buried, while another 100 are buried in the gardens, with their gravestones covered in tile. The buildings are imposing, plain in some places and highly decorative in others.
El Badi Palace may be in ruins today, but it was once an ornate palace that was funded by ransom paid by the Portuguese after the Battle of the Three Kings in the mid-16th century. Only the most lavish and expensive materials were used during the 25 years it took to construct the palace. Gold and onyx were used throughout, with the sultan trading sugar for the Italian marble used in the columns. The palace had 360 rooms and several pavilions. A later sultan raided the building of its lush materials and furnishings for his own palace; as a result, only ruins remain today.
The Koutoubia Mosque is a Marrakesh landmark, towering over the southwest medina of the city. Dating back to the 12th century, the mosque stands out, easily since its minaret is 77 meters (253 feet) high, as Marrakesh’s largest mosque. While other roads may all lead to Rome, In Marrakesh they lead to the mosque. During the French Occupation, the mosque was used as the central point for the network of roads. The red stone mosque has six rooms, one on top of another, so designed to keep people on the minaret from looking in on the king’s harem. Non-Muslims are not allowed inside.
It took the best workers in Morocco 60 years to build Bahia Palace, found in the medina or old quarter of Marrakesh. The collection of one big house and several small ones into a palace was certainly worth the wait. Built in the 19th century for a grand vizier, it incorporates the best of Islamic and Moroccan influences. The palace today receives state visitors to Morocco. Because it is a working government building, not all rooms are open to the public, but some of those that are include the harem quarters and gardens.
When it comes time to relax in busy Marrakesh, savvy travelers will head to Jardin Majorelle, an oasis of beautiful flowers, lush greenery and patios where visitors can sit and refresh their senses. The garden is named for the French painter, Jacques Majorelle, who spent 40 years creating it after he moved to Morocco. Since 1980 the garden has been owned by Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé. The garden is small by some standards, but is exquisitely designed with exotic plants, fountains and meandering pathways, all with the aim of reminding visitors of some aspect of Morocco.
Ben Youssef Madrasa was once a theological college devoted to teaching of the Quran. Once the largest learning center in North Africa, it housed up to 900 students at a time. The madras is centered around a large courtyard, with an elaborately decorated prayer hall in back. Now an historic site, the madrasa is marked by distinctive architecture, which is reminiscent of the Alhambra in Spain. Inscriptions in Arabic can be found throughout the complex. Visitors say it’s worth a visit to see the mosaics and 14th century architecture.
The old medina of Marrakech is full of intertwining narrow passageways and local shops full of character. The Medina is also the place to stay in a Riad, a Moroccan house with an internal courtyard. Most windows are inward facing towards the central atrium. This design suits Islamic tradition, as there is no obvious wealth statement being made externally, no windows to peer through. They are great places to stay and offer an intimate and relaxing retreat.
Shoppers in the souks of Marrakesh are in for a mind-boggling experience. The city has five main souks, each devoted to a single product. There’s one for carpets and another for traditional Moroccan leather slippers known as babouches; note bright yellow slippers are intended for men. A third centers around metalworking, while another sells a fragrant array of spices. The Mellah or Jewish Quarter isn’t really a souk, but it’s a good place to buy fabrics, trims and notions. Haggling is expected; shoppers should start their initial price at no more than half what the merchant is seeking.
Djemaa el Fna, located in the medina, is the main square in the city as well as the most popular tourist attraction in Marrakesh. It also is a market, where travelers can buy orange juice or watch a snake charmer at work. As the day moves on, the snake charmers are placed with traditional dancers and magicians, who are replaced themselves by food stalls. A souk selling daily necessities is on one side, hotels on another. The colorful market square may be familiar to moviegoers, since it was featured in the Hitchcock film, The Man Who Knew Too Much.