Marrakesh, once the most powerful commercial and political center in the Arab world, was founded in 1062 by Berber chieftain Abu Bakr ibn Umar as the capital of the orthodox-Muslim Almoravid Empire. Full of ornate monuments built mostly between the 12th and 16th centuries, a visit to its medina, or old town, is like a walk through a heavily fortified open-air museum. It was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1985.
Surrounded by ancient walls and enormous gates, the medina contains a huge central courtyard called the Jemaa el-Fnaa, a center of trade and public gatherings since Morocco’s inception. The medina is also home to a series of stunning gardens, including the Majorelle Garden, set beside the Museum of Islamic Art and featuring plants collected from five continents.
The lavish Royal Palace and Badi Palace stand adjacent to one another, but neither are open to the public; to get a look inside royal life in the medina.
Some say the entrance to Ben Youssef Madrasa is purposefully humble and bland. Little more than a wooden door facing out towards the buzzing medina, the entrance is nothing more than perhaps a storefront, office, or home. The inscription, however, written above the door, beckons travelers in further: “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded.” Indeed, once you duck through the narrow entrance and the medina noise fades behind you, what emerges before you is the soaring courtyard of a 16th-century madrasa.
Constructed back in 1570 as an Islamic place of learning, Ben Youssef Madrasa would swell to include over 900 dedicated students. At its peak, it was North Africa’s largest Islamic school and had 132 dorms—some of which are so tiny and small you must crouch down low to enter. Though the madrasa formally stopped educating students back in 1960, extensive refurbishment has turned it into an informative site for visitors.
These massive dunes formed by golden wind-blown sand offer visitors an iconic taste of the Sahara’s constantly changing landscape. Spanning more than 50 kilometers near the border of Algeria, these towering shape shifters prove a destination for locals and tourists alike. While nearby Merzouga is considered the tourist center of this area, it’s the overnight journeys—either by foot, camel or 4x4—into the desert that provide visitors to Erg Chebbi with the quintessential Moroccan escape.
The crowning glory of Marrakech’s numerous palaces, even the name of the exquisite Bahia Palace nods to its greatness – ‘Bahia’ translates as ‘Brilliance’. Located by the medina, on the northern edge of the Mellah, or Jewish quarter, the Bahia Palace was once the 19th-century residence of Si Ahmed ben Musa (or Bou-Ahmed), the Grand Vizier of Marrakech, who famously lived here with his four wives, 24 concubines and numerous children.
The Palace, a medley of Islamic and Moroccan architectural styles, is one of the city’s most visited attractions, a richly decorated masterwork that was intended to become the ‘greatest palace of all time’. Although ultimately falling a little short of its aspirations, elements of the elaborate design work are exquisite. The dazzling floor to ceiling embellishments took over 7 years to complete, and include intricate mosaics, inlaid wooden ceilings, molded stuccos and gilded finishes.
Djemaa el Fna, or Place of the Dead, a huge open expanse at the core of the medina (old town) of Marrakech, is one of the great meeting places of the world. Traders meet merchants, merchants meet travelers, travelers meet snake handlers. And the past meets the present, with storytellers carrying on a centuries-old oral tradition, keeping their listeners spellbound with tall tales. The square functions as an outdoor market, music hall, restaurant and theatre as well as the point of departure or arrival for exploration of Marrakech’s myriad delights.
To get an overview, head for a terrace at one of the cafes which loom over the edges of the square. The price of a coffee will buy you respite from the commotion at ground level and a sensational view of the market, the Koutobia Mosque and the Atlas Mountains. And once the sun goes down the Place of the Dead is anything but. In fact it’s just getting going, with mesmerizing music and the smoke.
Built in the 12th century, the Koutoubia Mosque is not only the largest in Marrakech, it is also one of the most influential buildings in the Muslim world. Throughout Spain and beyond you’ll see echoes of its intricate geometric stone work, graceful arches and imposing square minaret.
This last feature, flood-lit at night, is a much-needed point of reference when exploring the low-lying tangle of streets and alleyways which comprise the medina. At 220 feet / 61 meters it was quite a climb for the five daily calls to prayer in pre-elevator times, so a spiraling ramp was installed for the muezzin to ride on horseback to the summit.
The Majorelle Garden is one of the most magical places in a city with no shortage of enchantment. Its founder, French painter Jacques Majorelle, fell in love with Marrakech in the early 20th century and after developing this charming oasis, opened it to the public in 1947. Apart from the huge range of exotic plants, including rare succulents and towering palms, the most distinctive feature is the intense, almost psychedelic shade of blue used in the garden’s walls and buildings.
The garden fell into disrepair and in 1980 was purchased and restored by the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. It now also houses the Islamic Art Museum, containing exhibits which belonged to both Saint Laurent and Majorelle himself.
The Saadi dynasty, which dominated much of Morocco in the 16th and 17th centuries, is closely identified with Marrakech, and some 60 members of the ruling family are now permanent residents. Assuming your reverence for long-dead Moroccan sultans is limited, the main reason for visiting the Saadian Tombs is the outstanding decorative work on the buildings which house them. Stunning geometric mosaics, minutely detailed stonework and serene courtyards evoke comparisons with the Alhambra.
The more important tombs are arranged in three rooms, including the magnificent Hall of Twelve Columns, with lower-ranked notables resting in the garden. The site was sealed at around the same time that El Badi Palace was destroyed and was only rediscovered in 1917. Faithful restoration ensures this jewel of Moroccan architecture continues to delight, and it is one of the most visited sites in Marrakech.
A short taxi ride from the bustling Djeema el Fna, La Palmeraie offers a tranquil escape from the lively souks and traffic-laden streets of the Old Medina and Marrakech’s most affluent district has often been nicknamed the ‘Beverly Hills of Marrakech.' A quiet, sun-soaked oasis of palm and orange tree-fringed boulevards, neatly-tended rose gardens and vast swimming pools, La Palmeraie is home to many of the city’s most extravagant resort hotels and luxurious private villas.
Even if you can’t afford to stay in La Palmeraie, the scenic district makes a worthwhile detour from downtown Marrakech and the 32,000-acre stretch of palm groves provides a shady backdrop for leisure activities. As well as walking and biking tours, horseback riding and camel riding are popular pastimes, and there’s also a beautifully situated golf course overlooking the villas.
The El Badi Palace is an open-air account of the successive dynasties which have held sway in Marrakech. It was built in the late 16th century by King Ahmad al-Mansur of the Saadi dynasty, who spared no expense, filling his home with the best materials and craftsmanship of the age: Italian marble, Sudanese gold and intricately carved Indian woodwork.
But the glories of El Badi (“the incomparable”) were fleeting, and Sultan Mawlay Ismail of the succeeding Alaouite dynasty ransacked the building for his own palace. Even in its ruined state you get a clear idea of the scale of the palace, with high, stark walls enclosing the traces of stately reception halls and other official chambers. The intricate Koutobia minbar (the pulpit-like stairway from which the imam preaches in the mosque) is also on display.
Get a very visual understanding of Morocco by visiting this small, photo-dense museum tucked away on a tiny street in Marrakech’s medina, or old quarter. Housed in a former fondouk—a building to lodge merchants and travelers—the museum’s collection of images highlight life in Morocco over the course of roughly 100 years, from the 1870s to the 1950s.
Not just photos are on display either: you’ll also find glass photographic plates, postcards, and documentaries, including the first color film taken in the High Atlas Mountains. The collective images – of which the museum has thousands --provide a thought-provoking and visually intriguing overview of the country’s culture and history, especially as it relates to its Berber people. A relatively small venue, the Photography Museum spans several floors, on top of which sits a rooftop terrace. It is there that visitors are rewarded with sweeping views of Marrakech and even the Atlas Mountains beyond.
Marrakech’s foremost museum is housed in a 19th century palace which draws on earlier architectural glories for inspiration, all centered on an Andalusian-style courtyard. The current form of the museum is largely due to patron Omar Benjelloun, who did much to reanimate interest in Morocco’s cultural heritage.
Exhibits include ceramics, jewels, arms, costumes, calligraphy and a collection of Judaica, reflecting the diverse cultural history of the city. Also on display is a fascinating selection of etchings which show Morocco as it has been viewed by foreign artists over the centuries. Works by contemporary Moroccan artists round out the permanent collection, while a program of temporary exhibitions makes use of the old hammam and other spaces of the palace.
The historic core of Fez and the seat of the Moroccan government until 1912, Fez Medina (Fez el-Bali) remains the city’s biggest draw – a sprawling district of jumbled souks and snaking alleyways, dotted with grand mosques, palace and madrassas. The old medina is now a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, still surrounded by its 13th-century city walls and reached via a series of monumental gates, most notably the 20th-century Bab Boujeloud, celebrated for its striking blue tilework. With the medina largely pedestrianized, the best way to explore Fez Medina is on foot and there’s plenty to see, starting with the rambling souks, home to the famous Tanner’s Quarters, the soul of the city’s leather trade, where animal hides are soaked in gigantic pots of natural dye.
The star attraction of Morocco’s hippie haven has to be its eponymous beach, and the windswept coast and sandy shores certainly live up to the hype. Lined with bars, restaurants and surf shops, the beach is best known as a hotspot for surfers, windsurfers and kitesurfers, thanks to its steady, year-round winds. The shores near Diabat may be the quietest areas for a bit of relaxation.
With few wind-free days, Essaouira beach is better suited for water sports than swimming and sunbathing, but there are still sunbeds and umbrellas available for rental during the summer months. In addition to kitesurfing and windsurfing lessons, Berber horse and Arabian camel rides are possible and popular along the beach. You’ll likely also see travelers enjoying quad buggy rides along the coast and local children playing soccer in the sand.
As one of the world’s largest mosques, the magnificent Hassan II Mosque not only boasts a capacity for over 100,000 worshippers, but is also one of Casablanca’s top tourist attractions. Built to commemorate the 60th birthday of former Moroccan King Hassan II, the elaborate mosque was the brainchild of French architect Michel Pinseau and opened its doors in 1993.
From its regal cliff-top perch overlooking the ocean to its soaring 210-meter high minaret (the world’s highest) that shines a beam towards Mecca in the evening hours, everything about the Hassan II Mosque is grandiose. No expense was spared for the landmark building, with hand-carved ceilings, 10-meter-high zellijs, gleaming marble floors and Venetian stained glass windows, complemented by high-tech conveniences like heated flooring and a retractable roof. Inspired by the Koranic verse that tells of God's throne being built upon water.
Carved into the sea cliffs looking out over the Atlantic, the Hercules Cave is one of Tangier’s most distinctive landmarks, located just down the coast from the Cape Spartel. The vast cave takes its name from Greek hero Hercules who allegedly slept in the cave while undertaking one of his twelve labors, and has been inhabited since prehistoric times, as well as being used more recently by the Berber people to carve millstones.
Today, the cave’s most interesting feature is the man-made entrance that looks out towards the sea – nicknamed the ‘Map of Africa’ for its striking shape, which appears like the outline of the African continent. Whether intentional or not, it’s a fitting tribute, considering the cave’s location, at the northernmost tip of Africa and just minutes from the Strait of Gibraltar.
Jutting out into the Strait of Gibraltar, just west of Tangier, Cape Spartel lies on the northwestern-most tip of Africa, at the meeting point of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Famous for its jaw-dropping views and dramatic coastal roads, the scenic cape is also a popular spot for walking and wildlife spotting, with its pine-covered headlands fringed by sandy beaches and laced with hiking trails. Highlights include the Spartel Lighthouse, which makes a striking landmark perched on the sea cliffs at the end of the cape, and the Hercules Cave, renowned for its magnificent views and rock face that resembles a map of Africa.
Perched on the edge of the vast Sahara Desert and with access to 30,000 square meters of natural landscapes, the Atlas Film Studios have made a name for themselves not only as the center of Morocco’s film industry, but as the world’s largest film studio. With a history dating back to the early 1960s, the studios boast an impressive pedigree, having hosted iconic film sets like Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and ‘Star Wars’; popular movies like The Mummy, Jewel of the Nile, and Babel; and even scenes from recent TV hit Game of Thrones.
Today, the legendary film studios are open to visitors outside of filming hours and tours offer the chance to peek into the studios, see the remains of old sets, marvel over film memorabilia and get the inside scoop on the studio’s most famous projects.
Bab (meaning ‘gate’ in English) Boujloud was built by the French during their occupation of Morocco in 1913. It serves as the gateway into the heart of the bustling streets of the Fez medina. Right next to it stands the original 12th-century gate, built with an indirect entrance on a slant to block battering rams from entering. Bab Boujloud is Mauresque-Andalusian in style. Its grand horseshoe arches are decorated with Fassi mosaic blue tiles on the outside and green ones within. From the main archway, two minarets are revealed in the distance: one is part of the crumbling 20th-century Sidi Lazzaz mosque, while the smaller one, topped by two golden orbs, belongs to the recently restored 14th-century Bou Inania Medersa. Throughout the day, the area around Bab Boujloud bustles with local life, and as such this is one of the best spots in the city to observe everyday life in Morocco, with mules, and mopeds filling the streets as much as the locals.
Rising above the northeastern corner of Rabat, Hassan Tower stands as a visual promise of what the city’s historic residents hoped it to be: a grand city, even a capital city (which it now is). Also called Le Tour Hassan, its construction began in 1195 during the Almohad Dynasty, and it was built as part of a larger mosque, which was meant to be the largest in the world.
But alas, when the sultan passed away, work on the project came to an end, leaving the mosque unfinished, and its minaret – the tower – standing only 44 meters high (some say half as high as it would have been). Then, come an earthquake in 1755, the incomplete mosque was further destroyed. Today, though, you can still see the surviving, sandstone Hassan Tower, along with the mosque’s remains, such as the columns and walls. Other highlights while here include impressive city and sea views, as well as a visit to the nearby, free-to-enter Mausoleum of Mohammed V.
Found in the north of the city between the port and the majestic seafront Hassan II Mosque, the Old Medina of Casablanca contains the last vestige of pre-20th century Casablanca. Up until the French took over in 1907, the coastal city was defined by this small area, encircled by defense walls and presided over by the Portuguese-built Borj Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah fort. Today, the modern city has grown out in all directions but the historic quarter remains, still surrounded by the remnants of its city walls and 18th century fort.
Today, the maze of narrow alleyways that trace the Old Medina are home to a sprawling souk, selling everything from linens, brass-work and leather goods to traditional handicrafts, jewelry, food and spices.