The most famous of Morocco's four imperial cities, Marrakesh is filled with must-see attractions. It was founded in 1062 and its history is related by a wealth of fascinating mosques, palaces and museums, each with its own stories to tell. In the walled medina, visitors can watch artisans practicing skills that have remained unchanged for centuries; then purchase their products in the bustling souks. Luxury riads, tranquil gardens and annual arts festivals are amongst the city's more modern attractions. In this article we take a look at 10 of the best ways to spend your time in Marrakesh, from sampling traditional street fare in Djemma el Fna to learning how to cook your own Moroccan meals at one of the city's culinary schools.
This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on February 19 2019.
Enjoy Dinner in Djemma el Fna
A large square in the center of the old city, Djemma el Fna is the beating heart of Marrakesh. By day it's a place to people watch while sipping mint tea or freshly squeezed orange juice. As dusk gathers it transforms into a medieval entertainment center complete with jugglers, snake charmers and story-tellers. Snack stalls are replaced with vendors offering traditional tagines and grilled meats. While the food is fresh, it's not the finest cuisine in the city - but you're here for the atmosphere. Choose the busiest stall you can find, grab a seat at a communal table and admire the plumes of smoke billowing up into the night sky. Dinner should cost around $10 per person and Moroccans dine late, so go after 8:00pm.
Shop 'til You Drop in the Medina
Marrakesh is the original bargain-hunter's paradise. The maze-like souks of the medina are lined with haphazard stalls selling everything from spices to carpets, jewelry and fabulous lamps that look as though they belong on the set of Aladdin. Vendors are typically friendly but relentless in their attempts to make a sale. The key to successful souvenir shopping is to enjoy the bargaining process, to stay friendly and to know what your price limit is. If you find yourself inside a carpet shop (and anyone using a tour guide will inevitably end up in one), don't feel pressured to buy. Instead, leave a small tip for the assistants who roll them out for you. They are beautiful to look at and most vendors will offer cups of mint tea while you admire their wares.
Find Peace in the Majorelle Gardens
Situated northwest of the medina, the Majorelle Gardens are an easy 30-minute walk from the city center. They are filled with rare plants and an overwhelming sense of peace that comes as a welcome antidote to the chaos of the souks. Designed by Jacques Majorelle, a French painter who settled in Marrakesh in 1919, the gardens were purchased by Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent in 1980 and restored to their original glory. Majorelle's garden workshop is now a small museum dedicated to Islamic art. The gardens are popular, and the best time to visit is in the early morning before the crowds arrive. Pack a picnic and spend an hour or two exploring Majorelle's fantasy landscape of flowerbeds, palms and water features.
Uncover History at the Saadian Tombs
The Saadian dynasty ruled much of southern Morocco during the 16th and early 17th centuries. Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour created the Saadian Tombs for himself and his family in the late 16th century; now, more than 60 members of the dynasty are buried here. Their final resting place has not always been the attraction it is today. In the 17th century a rival ruler sealed the tombs in an attempt to destroy the legacy of the Saadians. The tombs were only re-discovered in 1917. Since then, they have been beautifully restored and their intricate mosaics, wood carvings and plasterwork are simply stunning. Located in the heart of the medina, the tombs are surrounded by a beautiful garden and open daily (but close for a few hours over lunch).
Take a Cooking Course
Moroccan cuisine is world-famous with fragrant tagines, soups and grilled meats lent mouthwatering flavor by a multitude of locally produced spices. Recreating these dishes is an art - one that is best mastered by taking lessons from the experts. Cooking classes are popular in Marrakesh, whether you choose to attend an informal session organized by your riad; or to enrol in a formal class with a professional chef. The best classes include an afternoon spent shopping for ingredients in the city's fresh food markets. They are also a great way to meet new people with a shared passion for cooking. Recommended courses include those offered by House of Fusion Marrakesh and La Maison Arabe.
Steam in a Traditonal Hammam
A hammam is a type of public steam bath popular across North Africa. In the past, private bathrooms were luxuries that only a few could afford. Instead, people would go to the hammam to bathe, scrub and socialize. Nowadays there are fewer public hammams but many of Marrakesh's riads and luxury hotels have their own upscale version of this age-old tradition. They offer massages, scrubs and soaking sessions enhanced by locally produced oils. Options range from the incredibly luxurious Les Bains de Marrakech to more affordable options like Hammam Ziani. For the most authentic experience, attend a local hammam (usually located next to a mosque). These public bathhouses are always segregated by gender.
Visit the Dyers' Souk
For a unforgettable insight into Marrakesh's artisan community, visit the working souks located behind the tourist trinket stalls on the medina's main thoroughfares. Photos aren't always welcome, but if you ask politely, you may be given permission to document the blacksmiths, woodworkers and silversmiths at work. For the most photogenic shots, head to the Dyers' Souk, where great swathes of freshly dyed silk and wool hang from the ceiling in a riot of splendid color. Stop for a moment to speak to the dyers and watch the ancient traditions they use to prepare the fabric and apply the dyes. Souks like these serve as a welcome reminder that the frenzy of the medina is not merely a tourist attraction - it's a way of life.
Wander Through Dar Si Said Museum
Also known as the Museum of Moroccan Arts, Dar Si Said is housed within the palace owned by the brother of one-time Grand Vizier Bou Ahmed. The palace is an opulent example of Moorish artistry, complete with fine zellij mosaics and intricate plasterwork. The wedding reception chamber is a particular highlight, thanks to its magnificent painted, domed ceiling and surrounding musicians' chambers. The museum's architecture and interiors aren't the only reason to visit, however. The rooms themselves are stocked with displays of art and crafts from all over the country, ranging from Berber and Tuareg jewelry to ceramics, weapons and traditional costumes. The museum is open daily, but closes for a few hours over lunch.
Visit Ali Ben Youssef Medersa
Founded by the Merenids in the 14th century but completely restored in the 16th century by the Saadians, the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa once housed up to 900 religious students. The architecture is beautifully preserved and you can explore the tiny rooms where the students used to live as well as the magical central courtyard. It was a working school up until the 1960s and today the corridors still echo with the call to prayer issued from the next-door mosque. Take a moment to stop and admire the view of the mosque and the street below from the medersa windows. The medersa and mosque are open daily and it's possible to buy discounted combination tickets to both attractions as well as the nearby Marrakesh Museum.
Attend the Marrakech Popular Arts Festival
Traditionally held in June or July, the Marrakech Popular Arts Festival is one of Morocco's most eclectic annual festivals. It attracts folk singers, traditional dancers, fortune-tellers, acting troupes, snake charmers, fire-swallowers and more from all over the country and overseas. These performers entertain the crowds in Djemma el Fna and the 16th-century El Badi Palace in a series of open-air events, all of which are free to the public. Make sure to catch the Fantasia, a horse-riding spectacle that sees hundreds of charging horsemen (and women) gallop around the city walls wearing traditional dress. Of course, all events are accompanied by a bounty of freshly prepared food and drink, making the festival a literal feast for the senses.