Top 10 places to visit in Marrakech Morocco

1-Jemaa el-Fna

The fabulous square of Jemaa el-Fna 1 is the heart and soul of the old city and one of the liveliest places in Morocco, if not in the world. It is the obvious starting point for a tour. The area around it is dotted with budget hotels and small restaurants serving all kinds of delicious food. Overlooking the square is the surviving minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque . A little further on is the more contemporary Cyber Parc, with efficient public internet booths at its heart. The old and the new cohabit happily in Marrakech.The origin of the name of this most famous of Moroccan squares is lost, its meaning disputed. One source translates Jemaa el-Fna as ‘Assembly of the Dead’, a reference perhaps to the fact that it was used as a place of public executions. But rather than a place of death, ‘La Place’, as locals refer to it, is very much alive and kicking for most of the day and night, so much so that over the centuries it has become a showcase for popular and traditional culture. Activity starts early, around 9am, when orange juice vendors set up their stalls. Soon after appear colourful water sellers, along with snake charmers, dancing monkeys and potion sellers. In the late afternoon the arena in front of the juice stalls becomes busy with storytellers, reciting old Arab tales, with Gnaoua musicians singing their trance-like songs and acrobats building human pyramids. After the sun goes down the atmosphere becomes even more frenzied with more performers, larger crowds, a cacophony of noises and music, transvestite belly dancers, passionate storytellers and comic acts, all caught up in the swirling smoke and scents of hundreds of stalls selling excellent street food, from kebabs to a soup of snails.


 Getting lost in the warren of the souks 3 of Marrakech is one of the city’s most memorable experiences. Marrakchis have traded from the city’s earliest beginnings: gold, ivory and spices came from Africa, and leather, ceramics and spices went to Europe and it is still the city’s mainstay. The souks are a treat for the senses: the eyes feast on a dazzling display of the best of Morocco’s traditional crafts; the ears ring with noise from the workshops and the constant enticement of vendors trying to sell their wares with ‘Entrez, entrez, venez voir pour le plaisir des yeux...’ (Come in, come in, for the pleasure of your eyes...); the nose takes in every smell from the spice market, from the delicate scent of perfume stalls to the pungent odours of the leather tanners. The busiest times in the souks are during the morning and late afternoon, and haggling is very much part of the game when you want to buy something. The labyrinthine alleys may be confusing at first but the area is relatively small, and however deep you have ventured you are never much more than a 10-minute walk from ‘La Place’, which is often signalled by arrows on the wall. Shopping in the souks used to be a hassle, literally, but the introduction of a ‘tourist brigade’ has put a stop to ‘faux guides’ and overly pushy shop owners and has made the whole experience more relaxed. The easiest way to enter the souk is via an arch on the north side of the Jemaa el-Fna, near the café Les Terrasses de l’Alhambra . The covered market leads to the main artery of the souks, the Souk Smarine. This always-busy shopping street is mostly devoted to selling souvenirs to tourists – pottery, textiles, a few antiques emporiums – but a few shops still sell wares to local people, including celebratory circumcision outfits for boys. Au Fil d’Or at No. 10 sells good-quality traditional clothing for men and women as well as beautiful made-to-measure shirts and jackets.


Just beyond the turn-off to the Rahba Kedima, the Souk Smarine artery divides in two. The alley to the right leads to the Souk el-Kebir, the one on the left to the Souk des Babouches and further on to the Souk Kchachbia. Between the two is the Kissaria, a covered market that lies at the heart of the souks. Originally this was a place where the most expensive textiles were sold, but these days it is a place to look for all sorts of fabrics and clothing. The Souk el-Kebir still has some woodworkers and wood turners who sell bowls, skewers and other wooden household implements. Further on is the Souk Cherratine where there is a traditional saddle maker, and many stalls selling leather goods. Nearby, in Souk Cherifia , beneath La Terrasse des Epices , is La Galerie – a gorgeous split-level courtyard space that houses 15 quirky boutique shops which take the very best of Moroccan design – be that a lantern, a piece of jewellery or a kaftan – and work in modern twists that draw inspiration from around the world. At the end of Souk Cherratine, past the place Ben Youssef, take a right turn onto rue du Souk al Fes, which is lined with some very interesting old fondouks (caravanserai) selling lanterns and other traditional Moroccan crafts, then onto rue Bab Debbagh, and close to the city gate the pungent smell of the nearby tanneries will hit you. It’s a very smelly but interesting process to watch, even though most natural dyes have these days been replaced by chemicals. The left-hand alley off that main fork leads into Souk Kchachbia. At first this is called the Souk des Babouches, for obvious reasons: most of the stalls along here are devoted to selling babouches, the typical, colourful Moroccan slippers.


A small alley at the end of the Souk Sebbaghine leads to the crossroads of rue Dar el-Bacha and rue Mouassine. This is the beginning of the up-and-coming Mouassine area, with more up-market antique dealers at the far end of rue Dar el-Bacha, as well as several trendy boutiques along the street, on rue Sidi el-Yamani and rue el-Ksour. One of the city’s most opulent buildings is the palace of Dar el-Bacha (also known as Dar el-Glaoui; closed to the general public). It was once home to the despotic and cruel T’hami el-Glaoui who ruled Marrakech and the Atlas for the French under the Protectorate. Nearby is the wonderfully atmospheric Hammam Dar el Bacha – worth a visit for those brave enough to experience a traditional Moroccan ‘bath’.Many fondouks in the area have also been renovated and taken over by shops and workshops. Several European fashion designers have bought properties in this neighbourhood and this is where they shop – their favourite place is Trésor des Nomades or ‘Mustafa Blaoui’ (rue Bab Doukkala) an extraordinary Aladdin’s Cave of treasures from around Morocco and Africa – and the fantastical, quirky art gallery-cum-design shop, Ministero del Gusto Past rue Riad Larouss lies Zaouia of Sidi Abdel Aziz, the shrine of another of the Seven Saints, who died in 1508. Nearby is the ornate Mouassine Fountain and further left the Mouassine Mosque (closed to non-Muslims), built by Saadian Sultan Abdullah el-Ghalib in 1560. As a result of these changes, Mouassine has become the place to look for something unique, although these things tend to come at a price.

5-Madrassa Ben Youssef

The green tiled roof and minaret of the Ben Youssef Mosque, which is not open for visits, rise above the place Ben Youssef. The Almoravid sultan Ali Ben Youssef first built a mosque here in the 12th century, but the building standing today dates mostly from the early 19th century. Across from the mosque is the Madrassa Ben Youssef Madrassas were residential colleges for the learning of the Qur’an, where free board and lodgings were provided to the tolba or students. This madrassa was founded in the 14th century by the Merenid sultan Abou Hassan, and restored in the 16th century under Saadian sultan, Moulay Abdellah, who turned it into the largest example in the country. As is usual in Islamic architecture, it has plain exterior walls, giving no hint of the staggering ornamentation inside, where every surface is covered in cedar and stucco carvings and zellige (mosaic tiling). Intricately executed floral and geometric motifs are repeated in mesmerising patterns, an effect intended to focus the mind on the infinite power and purpose of God. At its height, the monastic-style cells of the Madrassa Ben Youssef could house up to 900 students. It remained in use as a religious school until 1960. From the street, a small passageway leads into a hall from where stairs go up to the students’ rooms. At the end of the hall is the madrassa’s main courtyard, a large open space with a central marble basin, flanked by two galleries of pillars. At the other end is the entrance to the prayer hall. The prayer hall has an octagonal domed roof supported by marble columns. The arched mihrab, which indicates the direction of Mecca, is beautifully decorated with elaborate stucco work. No surface is left untouched and yet the rich and elaborate stucco, cedar carving and zellige never overwhelm or distract from the harmony created by the use of space. On the south side of the square is the historically important Koubba Barudiyin also known as the Almoravid Koubba. The two-storey domed structure covers an ablution pool that appears to be all that has survived of the Ben Youssef Mosque. It may look insignificant at first sight, but its scalloped and horseshoe arches, stepped, ziggurat-style merlons and fine arabesque patterns are all the more important and poignant in their evocation of the perfection of that period’s Islamic architecture.

 6-The Southern Medina

The Almohads under Sultan Yacoub el-Mansour first built their Kasbah, or walled citadel, in the southern part of the medina during the 12th century. The complex included palaces, barracks and the royal mosque. The Kasbah still holds the royal palace used today by King Mohammed VI when he is in town (closed to visitors). This is also where Sultan Ahmed el-Mansour built the Badi Palace . The Saadians also chose to bury their sultans here, in the magnificent Saadian Tombs . Next to the Kasbah is the old Jewish quarter, the Mellah , with narrow alleys, old synagogues and a colourful food market. At the heart of the southern medina is the lively place des Ferblantiers . From there the parallel streets rue Riad Zitoun el-Kedim and rue Riad Zitoun el-Jdid lead straight to the Jemaa el-Fna. The quarter is most easily visited on foot.Bab Agnaou The main gate into the medina was the Bab er-Rob, but nearby Bab Agnaou : gave entrance to the Kasbah. This elegant gate was ordered by the Almohad sultan Yacoub el-Mansour in 1185 and, exceptionally for Marrakech, was not built in pink pisé but carved in the local blue-greyish Guéliz stone. Agnaou in Berber means ‘a ram without horns’, referring to the fact that the gate lost its two towers, but it is more commonly believed that it means ‘Gate of the Guineans’, a reference to the royal guards who were brought from sub-Saharan Africa. Immediately inside the gate is the Mosquée de la Kasbah (no entry for non-Muslims), which was also built by Sultan Yacoub el-Mansour and is easily recognisable by the original green tiles that decorate the minaret. This vast mosque, which has five inner courtyards, was restored by the Saadians and later by King Hassan II. 

7-Saadian Tombs

The descendants of Prophet Mohammed, known as shorfa, had long been buried in the walled garden here, often in anonymous tombs, and the 16th-century Saadian dynasty chose the same place to bury their own sultans and their families. The dynasty’s founder, Sultan Mohammed es-Sheikh, was buried here in 1557. Most of the exquisitely decorated koubbas, standing today, were built by his third son, the great conqueror Ahmed el-Mansour, for himself and his immediate family. There are 66 tombs inside and 100 outside in the gardens. Unlike the Badi Palace, which was dismantled by the later sultan Moulay Ismail and his Alaouite successors, the Saadian Tombs escaped pilfering out of superstition, though they were blocked up by Moulay Ismail. The tombs were almost forgotten until the French General Lyautey had the area surveyed from the air in 1917, and then cut a new narrow entrance through the wall. The restored Saadian Tombs are now one of the major attractions in town, so go early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid crowds.The first hall to the left is the prayer hall. Four pillars support lofty horseshoe arches and there’s a finely decorated mihrab. Ahmed el-Mansour connected this hall to his own tomb but didn’t intend it as a burial place. Later rulers, however, were buried here, including several 18th-century Alaouite princes. An elegant arch opposite the mihrab leads to the central mausoleum of Ahmed el-Mansour, known as the Hall of Twelve Columns. The central tombs, flanked by 12 decorated marble columns, hold the remains of Ahmed el-Mansour, who died in 1603, with his son Zaidan to his right and grandson Mohammed esh-Sheikh II to the left. The decoration of the gilded cedar wood dome is overwhelmingly rich, with some stunning calligraphy, while the walls are covered in splendid zellige mosaic. Thirty-three other princes are buried here, with more in the Hall of the Three Niches to the right. The Second Koubba in the middle of the garden was the first one to be built by Ahmed el-Mansour, and is more sober in decoration. The burial chamber, decorated with muqarnas (stalactites), contains the tomb of his mother, the venerated Lalla Messaouda, with a commemorative inscription. To her left is the tomb of his half-brother Sultan Abdullah el-Ghalib, and to his left the tomb of his father Mohammed esh-Sheikh. Only the torso of his father is buried here, as the Turkish mercenaries who killed him took his head to be displayed in Istanbul.

 8-The Mellah and Place des Ferblantiers

From the garden entrance, return to Bab Agnaou, turn right onto rue Oqba ben Nafaa and right again on avenue Houmman el-Fetouaki, which leads to the Place des Ferblantiers  (Tinsmiths’ Square) and the Jewish quarter or Mellah. The picturesque square, once part of a souk in the mellah, is a large fondouk now taken over by lantern makers. The square is a pleasant place for a drink and snack at one of the cafés. You could also head for the rooftop of the trendy Kosybar or elegant Le Tanjia restaurant . Across the street is a covered jewellery market, the Grande Bijouterie, which was once full of Jewish goldsmiths. To the east, through the Bab Berrima gate, lies the Mellah. In 1558, nearly 100 years later than most other Moroccan cities, the Saadian sultan Abdullah el-Ghalib moved all the Jews of Marrakech into the Mellah, a secure quarter adjacent to the royal palace, entered by just two gates. The Mellah formed a city within the city, governed by a council of rabbis, which was led by a Jewish Qaid (leader). The Mellah had its own souk, gardens and cemetery. The Mellah Market is one of the oldest food markets in Marrakech and was historically a lifeline for the Jewish quarter, which was effectively a ghetto. This is a colourful place to explore – crammed with butchers, flowers, fruit, vegetables, cosmetics and spices. The Jews were very influential traders and bankers under the Saadians and often made a living as middlemen between Muslim and Christian merchants. Before World War II, more than 16,000 Jews lived in the high buildings in this quarter, but after 1948 and the foundation of Israel many of them moved either there or to more cosmopolitan Casablanca. Today, fewer than 200 Jews remain in Marrakech. Several synagogues can still be visited, including Bitton (rue Touareg), Bethel and Lazama (36 Derb Ragraga; Sun–Thur 9am–6pm, Fri 9am–1pm; tip expected). Several guides will offer to show you around for a tip. To the east is the well-kept Jewish cemetery of Miâara (Sun–Thur 7am–6pm, Fri 7am–3pm; donation expected), believed to date from the 17th century, and including 11 shrines of Jewish marabouts (holy men).

9-Badi Palace

Heading out of the southern side of the place des Ferblantiers you reach the towering walls of the Badi Palace recognisable from the many storks’ nests that top the wall. Ahmed el-Mansour came to the throne in 1578 after the Battle of the Three Kings – King Sebastian of Portugal and his Moroccan ally Abu Abdullah Mohammed II Saadi, who wanted to recover his throne from his uncle Abd Al-Malik Saadi. All three died in battle but the Portuguese were defeated and the Moroccans acquired great wealth from ransoms and captured treasures. Just five months after the battle, Ahmed el-Mansour Eddahbi started building this palace, which deserved its name ‘the Incomparable’, a very worldly use of one of the 99 names of Allah. In 1598 Ahmed el-Mansour captured Timbuktu and acquired so much wealth that he was given yet another title, ed-Dhabi or ‘the Golden’. The king employed the best craftsmen and bought the finest materials. It is said that he exchanged Italian marble for Moroccan sugar from the Souss Valley, pound for pound, and that his quest for precious materials went as far as China. Walls and ceilings were covered with gold from Timbuktu, sunken gardens were filled with perfumed flowers, the central pool was 90m (300ft) long with an island in the middle: everything was as lavish as it could be. The palace took 25 years to build, and although it was finished only a few months before al-Mansour’s death in 1603, he threw plenty of extravagant parties and celebrations for the inauguration. Allegedly, when the old sultan asked his joker what he thought of the palace, the fool answered that it would make a big pile of stones if it were demolished. Little did he know that 90 years later Moulay Ismail would destroy the palace, and that it would take him 12 years to strip all its precious materials. He built himself a fine palace in Meknes with the ‘big pile of stones’. Moulay Ismail did a definitive job, and visitors must use their imagination to envisage the splendour of what was one of the most magnificent palaces ever constructed.The palace’s central courtyard is massive, with five basins and four sunken gardens planted with orange trees. They would have been typical Moorish gardens with cypresses, palms, olive trees and perfumed flowers as well as citrus trees. On each side of the courtyard was a pavilion. The largest on the western side was the Koubba el-Hamsiniya (Pavilion of 50 Columns) and opposite it the Crystal Pavilion. To the north was the Green Pavilion, and south the Koubba Khaysuran, named after the sultan’s favourite wife and now an exhibition space for local artists. In the northeastern corner a staircase gives access to the rooftop terrace with great views over the vastness of the complex and the rest of the medina.

10-El-Bahia Palace

North of the place des Ferblantiers are two parallel streets that both run to the Jemaa el-Fna. These are the rue Riad Zitoun el-Kedim (Street of the Old Olive Grove) and rue Riad Zitoun el-Jdid (Street of the New Olive Grove). The first street starts off with shops selling interesting picture frames and small pieces of furniture made from recycled car tyres, and becomes a budget hotel haven when it gets closer to Jemaa el-Fna. Rue Riad Zitoun el-Kedim is lined with a mixture of traditional Moroccan stalls, a scattering of western-run boutiques and some small antiques shops. At the top of rue Riad Zitoun el-Jdid, on the corner, is another palace, El-Bahia or ‘the Brilliant’ El-Bahia was built by two generations of 19th-century grand viziers, a ranking similar to prime minister. Si Moussa, who started building in the 1860s, was grand vizier to Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Abdehrahman, and his son, the cruel Bou Ahmed, served Sultan Moulay Hassan and was regent for the child sultan Abdul Aziz. Sultan Abdul Aziz is said to have become so jealous of his vizier’s fortunes that when Bou Ahmed died, he forced the family, who included four wives and 24 concubines, to leave. When the staff started stripping the palace, the sultan stopped them, only to collect all the booty for himself. The Bahia Palace extends over 8 hectares (20 acres), and its complicated plan included a series of courtyards, gardens, pavilions and 150 rooms. One can almost smell the intrigue that must have been rife here. The infamous warlord Madani Glaoui lived here from 1908 until 1911, when it became the residence of the French Résident-Général under the Protectorate. Only part of the empty palace can be visited, as some of it is still used by the current royal family and their guests and by the offices of the ministry of Culture of Morocco.

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