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.
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.
Home to some of Morocco’s best preserved Kasbahs, the UNESCO-World Heritage listed city of Aït Benhaddou once occupied a prominent position on the trans-Saharan trade route and is now one of the country’s most famous attractions. Sculpted from traditional mud bricks, the town is a striking sight, perched on the edge of the High Atlas Mountains and fortified by walls of dark red pisé.
The highlight of the city is the Telouet Kasbah, once the lavish 20th-century home of notorious Thami el Glaoui, ‘the Lord of the Atlas’, who was both a pasha of Marrakech and the chief of the Berber Glaoua tribe, and famously conspired to overthrow Sultan Mohammed V. Since his death in 1956, Aït Benhaddou fell into ruin, but traces of its former glory linger on in the immaculately restored buildings, the magnificent hilltop Granary and the elaborate Mausoleum of Benhaddou.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Stretching along the high Jebel Zerhoun plateau in northern Morocco and blooming with wildflowers throughout the summer months, the Roman ruins of Volubilis are a striking sight. Renowned as the best-preserved ruins in Northern Africa, the archaeological site offers a unique glimpse into ancient Morocco and makes a popular day trip from nearby Meknes or Fez.
Initially founded as a Carthaginian settlement in the 3rd century B.C., Volubilis became an important Roman town from around 25 BC and later, the administrative center of the province of Mauretania Tingitana, producing and exporting commodities like grain and olive oil to Rome. Today, the ruins are conserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site and feature the ruins of a series of houses, temples, olive mills and public buildings, surrounded by the remnants of the city defense walls.
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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.
Located by the village of Tanaghmeilt in the High Atlas Mountains, the Ouzoud Falls are Morocco’s highest waterfalls, tumbling 110 meters through a dramatic red-rock gorge of the El Abid River. Taking their name from the olive groves that blanket the valley (‘Ouzoud’ is Berber for ‘Olive’), the summit of the falls is still dotted a number of historic water mills, some of which are still in use, extracting olive oil from the surrounding crops.
A popular day trip from nearby Marrakech, the three-tiered falls provide a magnificent backdrop for hiking or picnicking, surrounded by lush greenery and trees teeming with macaque monkeys. Clamber down the stone steps into the gorge and you can even enjoy swimming beneath the falls, take a scenic boat trip along the river, or explore the natural caves carved into the cliffside.
Nestled in the foothills of the mighty High Atlas Mountains, the Ourika Valley makes a popular day trip from Marrakech at just 30km from the city center. A lush expanse of terraced fields and forested hillsides, the valley provides a picturesque backdrop for hiking expeditions, with its verdant hills set against the stark red rock of the mountains. At the heart of the valley are the dramatic Setti Fatma falls, a series of 7 cascading waterfalls that flow into the Ourika River and make a thrilling scramble for adventurous travelers.
Set at around 1,300 meters, Ourika not only offers welcome respite from the summer heat of Marrakech but makes a popular base-camp for winter tourists visiting the ski resort of Oukaimeden. For the majority of visitors though, the area’s principal attraction is its traditional Berber settlements and the valley sides are dotted with red mud-built houses, camouflaged against the sparse mountain slopes.
A short stroll or tram ride from United Nations Place, in the heart of Casablanca city center, the Marche Central de Casablanca is the city’s main market, located along the busy shopping street of Muhammad V Boulevard. Crammed with locals, the daily market is fascinating place for tourists to get a taste of local culture, as well as pick up bargains, with everything from food to fresh flowers and traditional clothing on sale.
The vibrant stalls serve up a myriad of fresh produce, with mounds of fruit and vegetables, a vast array of fish and shellfish, and a rainbow of spices filling the senses with exotic sights and smells. This is also a popular spot for lunch, with a number of renowned fish restaurants and hole-in-the-wall eateries lining the market place.
In the southeastern part of the city, Casablanca’s New Medina or Habous Quarter (Quartier Habous) was laid out in the 1920s by the French and remains one of the most atmospheric districts. Characterized by its small tree-lined squares, neat alleyways and elegant arcades, strolling around the Habous unveils a curious mix of French colonial buildings and traditional Maghrebi architecture, dotted with small souks selling Moroccan handicrafts and leather goods.
A key destination for those undertaking a walking tour of the city, the Habous Quarter is bordered by the Boulevard Victor Hugo and includes highlights like the elaborate Royal Palace of Casablanca and the Mahakma of the Pasha (the courthouse of the Pasha), which dates back to the 1950s and is renowned for its Hispano-Moorish design. Other noteworthy buildings include the Mohammed V Mosque and Moulay Youssef Mosque.
When you think of the Sahara, Northern Africa, or the sunny Moroccan plains, things like snow, ice, and crampons usually aren’t part of the picture. When climbing Mount Toubkal, however, conditions quickly go from hot to brisk, mountainside cold. Towering 13,751 feet above sea level, Mount Toubkhal is not only the highest mountain in central Morocco, but also the highest in the Atlas Range and all of Northern Africa. It’s a trail that’s accessible all year round to a wide range of hikers, and is more of a long, very steep stroll as opposed to a technical climb.
Trips begin from the town of Imlil about an hour south of Marrakech, where temperatures can still be blazingly hot despite the hillside perch. By the end of the first day of walking, however, the trail levels out at Toukbal Refuge near 10,000 feet elevation, where the air is suddenly crisp, cool, and a welcome break from the heat.
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.
Along with the neighboring United Nations Square to the north, the Mohammed V Square forms the central hub of Casablanca’s new town and is home to some of the city’s most striking architecture. Laid out in the early 20th century and named in honor of the former Sultan, the large square centers around a monumental fountain, dramatically lit up in the evening hours, and is buzzing with activity day and night.
Many of Casablanca’s most important administrative buildings can be found on Mohammed V square, reflecting the Mauresque and Art Deco style architecture popularized during the French colonial period. Architect Henri Prost is the brains behind many of the most outstanding buildings, with highlights including the French Consulate, the Bank of Morocco, the Court of Justice, and the Post Office.
A masterpiece of Islamic architecture, surrounded by picturesque orange groves and elaborate water features, the Royal Palace of Casablanca is a suitably grand royal abode. Located in the Habous district of the city’s New Medina, this is the King’s principal Casablancan residence and host to a number of important events and royal receptions.
The palace grounds, as with most Moroccan royal residences, are closed to the public, but that doesn’t stop it from being a popular attraction on city tours. If you’re lucky enough to peek through the ornate gates, you might catch a glimpse of the spectacular façade, flanked by a team of uniformed royal guards.
From trekking across the dunes on a camel, following ancient Sahara trade routes, to sleeping out under the stars in a traditional Bedouin encampment, then rising at the break of dawn to watch the sun rise over the desert plains; visiting the Sahara desert will likely check a few things off your bucket list. Multi-day tours from Marrakech are the most popular way to experience the desert and most trips pass through the gateway town of Merzouga, before continuing on to the dunes of Erg Chebbi or Erg Chigaga.
With seemingly endless swathes of untamed terrain, there are also ample opportunities to get off-the-beaten-track and enjoy longer treks through the Sahara, but don’t be tempted to go it alone – the scalding hot climate, ferocious sand storms and vast uninhabited plains mean tackling the desert is a task best entrusted to seasoned guides.
With its scenic promenade bordering the western seafront of Casablanca and a cluster of stylish hotels and beach resorts, the Ain Diab Corniche is one of the city’s most fashionable districts. The coastal suburb is traversed by the 3km-long Corniche Boulevard, which stretches from the magnificent Hassan II mosque in the east to the landmark El-Hank Lighthouse in the west, offering expansive views along the Atlantic. At the western tip of the Corniche, the mausoleum and shrine of Sidi Aberrahman is one of the area’s principal attractions, an important place of Muslim pilgrimage, perched on a cliff-top and only accessible at low tide.
On summer days, locals flock to the beaches of the Ain Diab Resort, which is lined with beach clubs and swimming pools, but the real draw comes after dark, when the nightclubs and restaurants open up along the boardwalk and the Corniche becomes a central hub of Casablanca’s nightlife.
All too often overshadowed by the magnificence of the Hassan II Mosque, the Notre Dame de Lourdes Cathedral is an important center of worship for Morocco’s Roman Catholic population and serves as a striking example of Casablanca’s modern architecture.
Built in 1954 by architect Achille Dangleterre, the cathedral’s imposing white concrete façade looks more like a warehouse than a church and a simple white cross is the only hint to its purpose. Step inside however, and the cathedral’s popularity becomes obvious – a dazzling kaleidoscope of floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows. Painstakingly crafted by French glassmaker Gabriel Loire, the masterpiece includes an incredible 800 square meters of glass and many visitors to the church come solely to admire its artistry.
One of the great distinguishing landmarks of Marrakech, the Menara Gardens are grouped around a reservoir which once formed part of an irrigation system. They date back to the 12th century, with the green-roofed pavilion added four centuries later and occasionally used as a royal summer residence in the years since. This modest yet perfectly-proportioned structure is best viewed from the opposite end of the reservoir, reflected in the still waters with the majestic snow-capped Atlas Mountains as a backdrop.
Olive groves, citrus trees, palms and other plants offer shade from the burning sun. Here the frenetic souk seems a lifetime away, and the gardens attract as many locals as tourists, particularly at sunset.
The rugged highlands of the Kik Plateau make a popular destination for hiking in the High Atlas Mountains, with numerous trails running from nearby Berber villages like Asni, Moulay Brahim and Ourigane, and easily accessible from Marrakech.
Renowned for its unique limestone topography, the plateau is a scenic spot, blanketed with alpine wildflowers and wheat fields, and offering magnificent views over the surrounding peaks, including the looming Mount Toubkal, Northern Africa’s highest peak.
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