If you’re planning a trip to Morocco, it’s likely that your itinerary will include at least one night in a riad. But what is a riad, and how does it differ from a conventional hotel? Essentially, it’s a traditional Moroccan home built around an interior garden or courtyard. In fact, the word “riad” stems from the Arabic word for “garden.” They are the most authentic accommodation options for travelers who want to experience the country’s culture and history on a more immersive level, and can be found in the old medinas of most Moroccan cities.
Architecture of a Riad
Riads are thought to date back to the time of the Idrisid sultans, who ruled Morocco between 788 and 974 AD. Ruins at sites like Volubilis suggest that the dynasty’s architects took inspiration for their building style from the villas of the ancient Romans; while Andalusian architects and artisans contributed their own decorative traditions when they were sent to Morocco after the Almoravids conquered Spain in the 11th century.
Riads were originally commissioned and lived in by wealthy merchants or courtiers, and typically housed several generations of the same family. In order to make the most of the limited space available in Morocco’s crowded medinas, riads are narrow and tall, with at least two stories overlooking the central courtyard. These stories have open balconies, allowing residents to enjoy the fresh air and sunlight streaming in from the open roof. Nowadays, some riads are enclosed with glass while others are still open to the elements.
Riads have no exterior windows on the lower levels and are entirely inward facing. This keeps out the heat, dust and noise of the city while also preserving the privacy of its inhabitants — something that was especially important for the Muslim women who would once have lived there. Traditionally, the garden included citrus trees and a central fountain, although some modern riads have replaced it with a courtyard or plunge pool. The rooms and interior walls are usually adorned with spectacular zellij mosaics, intricate wood carvings and plasterwork.
Why You Should Stay in a Riad
There are many reasons to choose a riad for your stay in Morocco. Firstly, they offer a much more authentic experience than a chain hotel, imbued as they are with a real sense of local culture and history. Because they were once private homes, they are usually small with 10 rooms or less — giving you the benefit of a boutique atmosphere and exceptional, personalized service. Often riads are run by their owners, who can provide valuable insider information about the city you’re visiting.
Of course, the privacy and coolness that once greeted the aristocratic families of old is just as welcome for modern travelers. In the old days, riads would not have had running water and residents would have bathed at their nearest public hammam. Today, most riads have been renovated to include the latest modern comforts and are often the most luxurious options available.
Above all, the main reason to stay at a riad is the sense of wonder one gets when passing through the blank exterior wall into the secret oasis within. With their fountains, abundant greenery and tranquility, each one is a sanctuary from the heat and hubbub of the city outside.
Things to Look Out For
When choosing a riad, there are several things to consider:
- Most riads have a rooftop terrace – does yours? Is it a welcoming space where you can picture yourself sipping mint tea, watching the sun set over the city and listening to the muezzin’s call to prayer?
- Does your riad have a restaurant? Most have local chefs that prepare authentic Moroccan cuisine from the freshest market produce. Some include traditional breakfasts and many cook to order rather than running a full service restaurant.
- Because Morocco is a Muslim country, many riads don’t serve alcohol. If you enjoy a glass of wine with your evening meal, make sure to find out if yours serves alcohol before booking.
- Does your riad have any special wellness facilities? Many luxury riads now offer plunge pools, spas or private hammams.
- What experiences does your riad offer? Many can organize cooking classes, city tours and day trips to nearby attractions upon request.
- Lastly, make sure to ask for detailed directions. Most riads are located down narrow side streets and because they lack exterior features, can be particularly tricky to find.
Top Riads in Marrakesh
Riad Kheirredine: Located in the heart of the medina, it blends traditional Moroccan architecture with contemporary Italian design elements. Each of its rooms are uniquely decorated. Some have carved stucco alcoves, others have fireplaces or opulent four-poster beds. Whichever room you choose, you’ll have access to a breathtaking rooftop terrace, a plunge pool located in the courtyard and a hammam. The fine-dining restaurant serves Moroccan and northern Mediterranean fusion cuisine.
Riad le Clos des Arts: Situated a 10-minute walk from Djemma el Fna, Riad le Clos des Arts offers nine rooms and suites, all with en-suite bathrooms and individual air-conditioning. You can spend your days in the plunge pool on the rooftop terrace, or practicing yoga in the first-floor living room. There’s a hammam, and a traditional Moroccan breakfast is included in your room rate. The restaurant serves local specialties cooked to order, and you can ask to join a cooking class or artisanal workshop.
Riad el Zohar: A slightly more affordable option, 3-star Riad el Zohar is situated in the medina’s Mouassine district and dates back to the 18th century. Its central courtyard includes a plunge pool and with just five rooms, it boasts a particularly intimate atmosphere. All rooms include complimentary Wi-Fi, en-suite bathrooms and reversible air-conditioning. Authentic Moroccan cuisine can be enjoyed in one of two saloons or on the rooftop terrace; or you can prepare it yourself during a cooking class that includes a trip to a local market.