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Traversing the alleyways and of Marrakech, particularly in the Medina (Old City), it is easy to believe you have been transported back in time or stumbled onto a movie set for a medieval production. It is this enchanting, fairytale quality that brings thousands of sightseers to the most-visited of Morocco's three imperial cities, Marrakech. The heart of the Medina is Djemaa el-Fna, an irregular 'square' which is a hive of activity - and the place to which tourists are drawn time and again to soak up the carnival-esque environment. Tourism, though, has not spoilt the atmosphere, if anything, it has only added to it. The modern side of Marrakech (called Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle), with its luxury hotels, banks and streets bursting with motor scooters, blends well with the past in a metropolis made up of people from the Berber Atlas tribes, Mahgrebis from the plains, and Saharan nomads, among others.
Marrakech was founded in 1062 by Youssef bin Tachfine of the Almoravid dynasty, and his son perfected the city by bringing in architects and craftsmen from Cordoba to build palaces, baths, mosques and a subterranean water system. The city walls were raised from the red mud of the plains, with the snow-covered peaks of the High Atlas Mountains forming the city's backdrop, though they are often hidden by the heat haze which blankets Marrakech.
One of the many ways to soak up the sights and sounds of Marrakech is in one of the hundreds of horse-drawn carriages (known as ) that are for hire, but it is also necessary to take in the Medina's on foot, plunging into the hurly-burly maelstrom of passages where tradesmen ply various crafts, from cloth dyeing, copper beating, and leather working, to herbalists, perfumers and slipper makers.
Towering over the labyrinthine streets and markets of Marrakech is the city's principal landmark, the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, known as the 'mosque of the booksellers' because of the bazaar of book traders that used to be nearby. The red stone mosque was first built in 1147, but demolished and rebuilt in 1199 because it was not correctly aligned with Mecca. The mosque has 17 aisles and 112 columns, and room for thousands to pray within. The ornately carved minbar (pulpit) is believed to have been a gift from the Almoravid Sultan Ali Ben Youssef. The minaret is 221ft (69m) high and consists of six chambers one atop the other, ascended by a ramp through which the muezzin rises to the top balcony.
What it lacks in beauty, the large town square of Marrakech, Djemaa el-Fna (Square of the Dead), makes up for with a pulsating liveliness that belies its name. Every day the square is a colourful circus of performing artists including snake charmers, musicians, storytellers and healers who vie with each other to be noticed by the milling crowds. Every evening food stalls take over and the competition is fierce among them for the passing trade, with everything from boiled snails and sheep's heads to thick vegetable soup, kebabs or fresh salads on offer. The square is a fascinating place to be a while relaxing at of the surrounding cafes and watching the swirling parade.
The beautiful necropolis was built by the Saadian Sultan Ahmed el Mansour in the late 16th century as a final resting place for him and his successors. Having fallen into disrepair, the tombs were rediscovered in 1917 and carefully restored to their former splendour. There are 66 indoor tombs, lavishly decorated with colourful, intricate mosaics. The central mausoleum, the Hall of the Twelve Columns, is exceptionally ornate with a high, vaulted roof, furnished with stunning carved cedar panels and columns of grey Italian marble. The tombs are spread through three rooms and there are gardens outside the building where the graves of soldiers and servants can be seen.
The Ben Youssef Madrassa was once an Islamic college in Marrakech named after Sultan Ali ibn Yusuf, who expanded the city considerably. This madrassa was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa and may have housed as many as 900 students. After being closed down in 1960, it was refurbished and reopened in 1982, an interesting attraction for the value of its educational influence, but mostly thrilling for tourists because of the stunning architecture and mosaics. The courtyards and patios are richly carved in marble, cedar and stucco, with intricate geometric patterns and Islamic inscriptions. The Ben Youssef Madrassa is often ranked as one of the best attractions of Marrakech.
The Museum of Marrakech is located in the Dar Menebhi Palace, built at the end of the 19th century by legendary Mehdi Menebhi, in the old centre of Marrakech. The palace was restored by the Omar Benjelloun Foundation and converted into a museum in 1997. The house itself is representative of classical Andalusian architecture, with fountains in the central courtyard, numerous carvings and beautiful tiles. The museum holds exhibits of both modern and traditional Moroccan art, as well as historical books, coins, pottery and other Berber artefacts. The convenient location and interesting building make this a worthwhile stop, even for the museum-phobic, and it is one of the most popular attractions in the city.
Bab Agnaou is one of the 19 gates of Marrakech and was built in the 12th century, in the time of the Almohad Dynasty, and stands the innermost and most ornate of the city's gates and was one of the first stone monuments built in Marrakech. The colour of the stone seems to change drastically depending on the light, weather and time of day, and the bas-relief is sophisticated and still impressive to this day. Experts believe that the function of the gate may have been nationally symbolic, as suggested by the corner-pieces that are decorated with floral designs, framed by three panels with inscriptions from the Quran.
The Majorelle Garden is a botanical garden designed by the French artist, Jacques Majorelle, in 1924. Previous owners have included Pierre Berge and Yves Saint-Laurent (whose ashes were scattered there when he died in 2008). The garden is also home to the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech, which houses an exhibit of North African textiles from Saint-Laurent's personal collection, and paintings by Majorelle. The garden is home to more than 15 bird species endemic to North Africa, and full of ponds and water features. The garden took 40 years to create. It is one of the most popular tourist sites in Morocco and a must for all visitors.
Marrakech is home to a labyrinth of bustling souks (workshops and markets) that offer the city's most fascinating wares. The northern end of the souks, best accessed from the Ben Youssef Mosque, remains refreshingly unspoilt with blacksmiths making wrought-iron goods and alleys filled with the distinct odour of leather workshops. The stalls emerge further south and are met by the Rahba Kedima, a market famous for its bizarre offerings of animals and eccentric potions for spells. The market is colourful and crowded with plenty of fodder for keen photographers. The souks are a wonderful experience and many foreigners visit repeatedly during their stay.
The El Badi Palace ('the incomparable palace') consists of the remnants of a glorious palace built by the Saadian King, Ahmad al-Mansur, in 1578. The original building is thought to have had about 360 rooms, a courtyard and a pool, and was decorated with Italian marble and large amounts of Sudanese gold. It also had a small, underground jail where the king kept his prisoners. The design of the palace was influenced by Granada's Alhambra, but the original palace was torn apart by Sultan Mawlay Ismail. Today, the once luxurious palace is a ruin consisting of some intact rooms and numerous walls, terraces, gardens and foundations. The underground jail can still be explored and a number of beautiful mosaics survive.
Marrakech may not be the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of ideal holiday destinations for children, but for travellers taking their kids abroad, Marrakech offers a uniquely exotic, eye-opening experience that the little ones will never forget.
Travellers can start with a hop-on hop-off bus tour to discover the sights, sounds and smells of this bustling Moroccan city, and tell the children exciting stories about the sights along the way, including Theatre Royal, Palais des Congres and Les Jardins Majorelle. If they can't stand the heat, take them to Oasiria Water Park to cool off in one of the children's lagoons, ride on the pirate ship, or splash around in the wave pool - just don't forget sunscreen! The Majorelle Botanical Gardens provide plenty of space for the kids to run around and make an ideal picnic location for the whole family. In a similar vein, the Olive Grove of Mariah, about an hour from Marrakech, is home to a gigantic swimming pool, gardens and even a restaurant.
During the winter months (late November to March), when heavy downpours can occur, make use of the French Institute of Marrakech's cultural activities programme, which includes everything from circus shows to films, and storytelling fit for children of all ages.
The weather in Marrakech is sunny nearly all year round, with pleasantly warm, dry summers and mild, slightly damp winters. The climate is hot, semi-arid, and often typically Mediterranean. Despite the proximity of the formidable Sahara Desert, Marrakech does not have a desert climate. The average temperatures range from 54F (12C) in the winter, to 84°F (29C) in the summer. The hottest months of the year are July, August and September, when temperatures can reach 100F (38C); however Marrakech's humidity is low, making temperatures generally bearable. Winter can bring heavy downpours of rain, which leave the streets of the old town very muddy, and winter nights can be cold, though those visiting the city at this time should still get plenty of sun and will be rewarded by seeing the Atlas Mountains at their most beautiful, when they are capped with white snow. Marrakech is a year-round destination but spring (March, April, May) and autumn (October, November) are considered to be the best seasons in the city, as it is warm and sunny but not swelteringly hot.
To say that Moroccan cuisine is eclectic and exciting is an understatement and anyone eating out in Marrakech will learn this fairly quickly. An exotic mix of Arab, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African influences, dining in Marrakech is an unforgettable experience.
Spices are a major part of Moroccan cuisine with cumin, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, pepper, coriander and saffron being the most commonly used. Travellers cannot eat out in Marrakech without sampling a Tagine, a traditional lamb or chicken stew, which has been slowly braised in a clay pot resulting in delicately tender meat and an intensely aromatic flavour. Some of the most popular dishes include harira soup, couscous, jaouhara (fried phyllo pastry with cream) and bastilla (phyllo-pastry pie with pigeon, egg and almonds).
Visitors can sample street-side barbeques or splash out at upmarket restaurants throughout the city, where palatial-style eateries can be found as well as top-class French, Asian and Italian restaurants. For a truly authentic experience, visitors should head to the Medina at sunset and watch as over 100 kitchens and stalls specialising in different dishes are set up in Djemaa el-Fna Square to become one of the world's largest open-air eateries.
One of Marrakech's most popular eateries with foreigners, this simply furnished Italian restaurant and pizzeria has a wood-burning oven in an open kitchen, filling the air with delicious Italian aromas. Guests can order a royal pizza, topped with ground beef, prawns, mushrooms and ham; or try pasta in a creamy tomato and vodka sauce, and feel truly aristocratic as a bow-tied waiter caters to their every wish. It's recommended that guests save room for the excellent tiramisu, or perhaps the home-style apple crumble. Cantanzano is open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner (12pm to 2.30pm, and from 7.15pm to 11pm); reservations are recommended and they do serve alcohol.
This bookstore-cum-restaurant offers velvet chairs and comfortable loungers; a few strategically placed armchairs entice readers to sit down with coffee and cake, accompanied by free WiFi for those who need to stay connected. An open kitchen serves salads, soups, sandwiches and burgers, or mushroom risotto and freshly baked cakes. Patrons can indulge in brunch-style breakfasts or an afternoon high tea with complimentary brownies. The tapas plates of hummus, tapenade, aubergine d'caviar and pate are also good. Open Monday to Saturday, 9:30am to 9pm. Cafe du livre also serves alcohol.
This restored riad is a wonderful venue for a romantic dinner. The back garden is the best place to eat, its walls decorated in Majorelle Garden blue and encircling a central swimming pool. Candle-lit tables and rose petals accompany a set menu of nouvelle Moroccan cuisine; familiar meals with a fresh twist. Patrons should try the beef tagine with figs and walnuts, cooked with cinnamon and argan oil. Lively yet subtle Gnaoua and Andalusian music completes the ambient scene. Open Tuesday to Sunday 12pm to 3pm, 7:30pm to 11pm. Visitors should make reservations and alcohol is served.
Cafe des Epices is great for people-watching and the owner dishes out tasty sandwiches, salads, pastries along with helpful information. Spiced teas and coffees round it all off tastefully on the rooftop terrace at sunset, while the first floor's chill-out lounge has become a popular spot for local youngsters. The atmosphere is new world, with music to match. Open daily, 8am to 8pm.
Morocco is not renowned for a glitzy or exciting nightlife, but Marrakech is something of an exception, offering visitors some captivating experiences after sunset. Nightlife in Marrakech is a unique combination of sophistication and tradition, offering everything from local storytellers and dancers to international festivals, lounges, bars and energetic dance clubs. Flyers and posters around town advertise upcoming events and venues, and it isn't difficult to find something entertaining to do at night.
The best of Moroccan entertainment can be experienced at Djemaa el Fna square, where local musicians, storytellers and dancers entertain visitors into the night. The square is truly the heart of Marrakech and an entertainment hub for tourists. This traditional nighttime entertainment is really the best nightlife option in the city, but there is a bar and nightclub scene. Travellers should bear in mind that in Morocco locals refer to nightclubs as 'discos' and to cabaret venues as 'clubs', which are often great fun! The best areas to find bars and dance clubs are the districts of Gueliz and Hivernage, particularly along Avenue Mohammed V.
Morocco is an Islamic country and alcohol is not always available in restaurants and entertainment venues, although the attitude towards alcohol is somewhat laid-back in Marrakech in comparison to the rest of the country. The exception to this is the month of Ramadan, when foreigners need to exercise restraint and should only drink in hotels. The hotel bars and restaurants in more tourist-centric areas of the city can usually be relied upon to serve alcohol.
Shopping in Marrakech is an experience not to be missed. From the bustling labyrinth of the souks (an area of market stalls) to handcrafted pottery, contemporary art, couture kaftans and priceless antiques, Marrakech is a treasure trove of exotic goods.
From the souks, shoppers can purchase anything from traditional belgha (leather slippers) to magical potions, while La Porte d'Or is home to some invaluable antiques. The biggest souk in Marrakech is adjacent to the Djemaa El-Fna; while in Gueliz, Intensite Nomade sells trendy kaftans, and contemporary art is available from the Matisse Art Gallery. The Gueliz area also hosts some very upmarket, boutiques. Akkal, in Sidi Ghanem, is renowned for its beautiful, handcrafted pottery. Other popular souvenirs from Marrakech include 'cactus silk', spices, camel leather goods, and cashmere shawls. Many visitors to Marrakech leave having bought a rug. One of the largest and best-known shops is Les Nomades, an Aladdin's cave of carpets with rugs from floor to ceiling. Travellers should do some research before buying a rug, as it's very easy to overpay and buy a poor quality rug that was marketed as an antique.
In the souks of Marrakech, bargaining is essential (asking prices may be as much as five times what the salesman will eventually take), and the attention of shop owners or staff can be overwhelming. Travellers should be aware that when shopping in the medina with a tourist guide, his commission will be added to the price of the goods purchased. Most small shops are closed on Friday afternoons and on Sundays, although the big bazaars are open every day. Opening times may vary during the month of Ramadan and visitors should research any potential changes.
Some of the best parts of Marrakech, and certainly those of most interest to tourists, are best explored on foot. The city consists of the Medina (old town) and the Ville Nouvelle (new city), approximately four kilometres apart. Beige-coloured petits taxis are cheap, with metered fares, and provide a good form of transportation between the two destinations if it is too hot to walk. However, many travellers opt to find accommodation in the old city and seldom leave this area. Taxis can be hailed on the streets and it is best to check that the meter is working and turned on before departing. Alternatively, travellers should agree upon a fare before setting off.
Public buses are a bit of a free-for-all and can become unbearably hot, but they are cheap, frequent and cover the entire city. Driving in the city of Marrakech is difficult unless visitors know their way around, and is not recommended, considering the narrow alleyways of the central urban medina area, and the heavy traffic of various vehicles, pedestrians and animals. If travellers choose to hire vehicles (and there are many rental companies available) they would do well to use them for excursions out of the city, and keep them safe in hotel parking lots while sightseeing in Marrakech on foot. The coach bus stations are situated in the new city and cover routes between Morocco's major cities and towns. Mercedes Benz sedans are called grands taxis and are another alternative for getting to neighbouring towns. Travellers can also use the Roby Taxi app. The most recent addition to Marrakech is the extensive tram network, which is helping to thoroughly modernise transportation in the city.
With a rich and diverse cultural history and enough smells, tastes and colours to spark just about any traveller's interest, tourist attractions in Marrakech are second-to-none, and it will take visitors a while to explore all that this enchanting city has to offer. With its ochre sandstone buildings, Marrakech (known as 'The Red City') offers romance, exoticism and beauty.
Visitors should head to the Djemaa el-Fna Square where Berber merchants, travelling peddlers and entertainers such as snake charmers, musicians, fire-eaters and fortune-tellers can be found. This truly unforgettable cultural experience can feel at times like a free carnival-show. History buffs will enjoy the countless monuments to be seen and should not miss out on the Saadien Tombs, Koutoubia Mosque, El Badii Palace and the breathtaking fountains of Echrab ou Chouf and Mouassine. The Majorelle Gardens are a botanical masterpiece, having been touched by the hands of Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Berge, and are one of Marrakech's top tourist sights. Hop-on hop-off bus tours around Marrakech are readily available, and travellers will not be disappointed by the incredible array of attractions available for them to explore.
Marrakech is a genuinely intriguing city that invites days of sightseeing, but travellers should come prepared for some unwelcome pressure from the many touts, merchants and unofficial tour guides that throng foreigners. People in the street may misdirect tourists asking for directions into family-owned stores, and women travelling alone may encounter some unwanted attention.
A ski resort in the desert! Thick snow envelops the Jebal Oukaimeden mountain peak during the winter months (usually January and February), just a 46 mile (74km) drive from Marrakech. The town of Oukaimeden, which can be reached by taxi or car, is well-equipped with the basics for skiers, with restaurants, ski equipment to rent, comfortable hotels set in lush greenery and backed by blue mountains, as well as ski schools for beginners. Skiers can ascend the mountain by donkey or camel, but there are also some modern ski lifts. Five ski runs traverse down from the dizzying heights of Jebel Attar and there are nursery slopes and some intermediate runs.
The village of Ouirgane, in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, about 90 minutes' drive from Marrakech, stands at the centre of a popular resort area, where summers are cooler and winters less harsh than those experienced in the city. The surrounding Berber countryside offers picturesque villages and hamlets to explore, set in pine forests full of wildlife and groves of fruit trees, alongside streams cascading down from the High Atlas Mountains and fields of wild flowers. The soil is a striking red, which emphasises the luxuriant greenery and makes the landscapes slightly otherworldly in some lights. The area is also known for its extraordinarily beautiful rose gardens.
The Todra Gorge, a canyon on the eastern side of the High Atlas Mountains, is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular natural attractions that Morocco has to offer. Nature lovers who feel starved in the choked streets of Morocco's cities can simply take the trip to the Todra Gorge (most easily accessed from the town of Tinerhir) where they will be rewarded with the experience of a lifetime. To put the grandeur of the gorge into perspective, travellers should consider that over its final 1,950 feet (600m), the canyon narrows to a rocky passage only 33 feet (10m) wide, while the sheer walls rise up 984 feet (300m) on either side.
Ait Benhaddou is an ancient fortified city (ksar) situated along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech. It is certainly one of the most breathtaking tourist attractions in Morocco. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ait Benhaddou is not only a place of great historical significance that stands as a record of Maghreb architectural practices, but is so immediately evocative of the most romantic visions of ancient Arabia that visitors may mistake it for a fanciful mirage. The buildings are constructed against a mountain and surrounded by steep defensive walls, and are all built from moulded earth and clay brick.
The popular holiday resort town of Essaouira dates from the 18th century and is easily reached by bus from Marrakech. The town is encircled by a fortified wall and faces the sea, featuring a beautiful stretch of beach, some pretty whitewashed houses, boat-builders workshops and art galleries. What makes Essaouira popular is the laid-back holiday atmosphere, and the reliable coastal wind that makes it a perfect place for wind-reliant watersports such as kite surfing. The wind can make sunbathing and swimming more difficult, though. It is also famed for its woodcarving tradition, particularly due to the appeal of the local fragrant Thuya wood, which ensures that some gorgeous souvenirs can be found.
The holiday destination of Agadir, south of Marrakech, is contemporary and fresh, fast developing into Morocco's major resort town. The reason? Agadier's magnificent sandy beaches. Agadier was rebuilt as an important seaport and centre for caravans traversing the Sahara after an earthquake wiped out most of its historic heritage in 1960. The rebuilt city has been modelled as a tourist destination and fishing port, favoured by package tours, particularly as a starting point for excursions into the Western Sahara to the south. Agadir has a lovely promenade along the coast and a vibrant restaurant and cafe culture tailored towards tourists. The nightlife is also fast developing and the shopping scene shouldn't disappoint.
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