the colours of Marrakech
The colours of Marrakech. Corno van den Berg

Marrakech is one of the four famous imperial cities of Morocco, together with Fez, Meknes and Rabat. The city is located on the fertile soil of the Haouz plain, at the foot of the Atlas Mountains.

Marrakech is a mysterious city, where you’ll struggle to take in all the sights and sounds. If you spend any time pondering its history, you’ll soon discover it’s not entirely clear where the name came from, and there is debate around its etymology. It’s likely to have come from the Berber words amur (n) akush, which mean ‘Land of God’, but this is not entirely certain.

A musician in Marrakech.
A musician in Marrakech. Corno van den Berg

It was founded in 1062 by Abu Bakr ibn Umar, cousin to the king, and it became the capital of the Almoravid kingdom. This kingdom reached from Spain to Senegal at the time. In the 12th centrury Marrakech became the capital of the Almohads. It was a rich commercial centre along the route of all the caravans that crossed the Sahara to Timbuktu.

If you wander around Marrakech you cannot miss the red wall, which was built around the old city (the medina), in the 12th century when the city was under the rule of the Almohads. In the 16th century the city regained its importance, when it became part of the Saadian state of Ahmed el Arj.

A riad in Marrakech.
A riad in Marrakech. Corno van den Berg

He built impressive buildings and funerary monuments around the city, which you can still visit today. Later the city was conquered by the Alouites, as Sultan Moulay Ismail had set his sights on the city. During all this, the city’s trade kept flourishing.

Then the French seized the city in 1913, and they built the more modern part of the city. In 1917 Pash el Glaoui reigned over the city under the French regime. Then in 1956, the city was taken by king Mohammed V. A few years later, Rabat became the capital of Morocco, and Marrakech became the capital of the region of Marrakesh-Safi.

Because of the city’s prominence, Morocco was known up until recently as ‘the Kingdom of Marrakech’ amongst Arabs, Persians and Europeans alike. It’s obvious how important this city was and still is. It’s also known as ‘the red city’ as many of the houses and buildings were made out of red sandstone.

Dining at a night market.Dining at a night market. Corno van den Berg

Must Do! Tips:

Explore the main square of Jemaa el-Fnaa

It’s been the main attraction of Marrakech for decades. This central square is the beating heart of the city, and there’s always something happening. When you visit it, you’re bound to be amazed. The best time to go is the late afternoon.

The temperature drops pleasantly and the square fills up with people, there will be dancers, musicians, acrobats, story tellers, snake charmers and much more besides. When the sun sets, you can grab a bite to eat at one of the many food stalls and there is an exciting buzz about the place.

Master the Moroccan cuisine

The rich flavours of the Moroccan kitchen are a huge attraction for many tourists, and cooking classes are very popular. And rightly so, because it’s really worth learning all about the Moroccan spices and how to blend the flavours just right without them becoming overpowering.

More information:

www.soukcuisine.com
www.riadkniza.com

Hit one of the nightclubs

Marrakech is also very hip because of its vibrant nightlife. There are many bars, as well as nightclubs. One of these is Pacha, which claims to be the biggest night club in all of Africa. Another popular one is called So, which is part of the Sofitel hotel. It won’t be a cheap night out, but it will definitely be memorable.

Go shopping in a souk

There are many souks (bazaars) in Marrakech. The largest and most famous is the one in the medina. It’s a maze of little alleyways with endless scents, colours and flavours, as well as the usual souvenirs and completely unusual objects.

Here, haggling is part of everyday life and it’s practically impossible not to buy anything. It’s a wise idea to make sure you have room in your suitcase for souvenirs when you visit Morocco. You can visit the souk anytime during the day, as well as at the start of the evening.

Try a tagine with chicken or fish

A tagine (or tajine) is a shallow North-African earthenware pot, and the dishes cooked in them are named after it. Thanks to the tagine’s unique conical shape, the condensation drips back into the dish and enhances the contents. It’s a very popular dish. Tagine dishes are easy to distinguish on menus because the word is always in its name. Lamb tagine is very traditional, but those with chicken and fish are also very tasty. Make sure you try the different ones.

Stay at a riad

Don’t waste your money on hotels in Marrakech, stay at a traditional riad (or ryad). It’s an ancient form of house with a central courtyard, which often has a pond in the middle. Most of them are in the medina, so you’re nearly always walking distance from the main square, for example. There are many riads to choose from.

Watch the sunset from a balcony

Around the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, the restaurants and bars often have terraces and balconies. They offer a great view across the busy square, especially late in the afternoon and around sunset. These are great locations to take photos. Especially the shadows that fall across the square will give a great effect. Take a seat and watch it all happen.

Visit the Dar Cherifa literary café

Dar Chefira is the oldest house in the medina of Marrakech. After it had fallen into disrepair for a long time, it was carefully restored to its former glory by renowned craftsmen in 2000. These days it’s a real cultural centre, a hip literary café. There are exhibitions of paintings and sculptures, and there are concerts and other cultural events. You can also enjoy a meal there with likeminded people.

More information: Reviews Dar Cherifa

Discover the qualities of Argan Oil

Argan oil is also known as ‘liquid gold’. This oil is often used in Moroccan kitchens as well as in cosmetics. It has therapeutic qualities: scientist have proven that argan oil can stimulate blood circulation, lower cholesterol and improve the immune system. The oil is made of the fruit of the argan tree (Argania spinosa).

Remarkably, nobody really knew about this oil outside of Morocco, but it’s becoming popular. Marrakech is in a region with many argan trees, so there is lots of trade of this oil here. It’s not a cheap product, but its’ very special.

Taste real saffron

Many dishes in Morocco are prepared with saffron, such as sauces, rice dishes, fish dishes, doughs, desserts and milk. If you take a guided tour past the old apothecaries, you’ll quickly learn about this special spice, which is derived from the saffron crocus flower. You’ll also learn about it if you do a cooking course here. Make sure you ask how to distinguish real saffron from imitations, so you can use this knowledge when buying it in the future.

Visit a Moroccan hammam

An invigorating body scrub- and wash, a cold plunge and then a massage: your skin will feel like a baby’s! Visiting a Moroccan bath house is a popular tourist activity, and Marrakech has many options on offer. For centuries, this city has had places where people can bathe (or be bathed) and converse with in the meantime. It’s wellness the Moroccan way.

Discover many colours in a tannery

The tanneries of Fez are world famous, but they can also be found in Marrakech, though you cannot photograph them from above like you can in Fez. You’ll be able to see the three-week process used to prepare the hides of cows, goats, sheep and camels to turn them into leather. One of the steps is to soak them in vats of water and blood to strengthen them, after which they are covered in animal urine and a grape mixture to soften them again. Last, they are dyed.

The tanneries are located near the northern medina, near the Bab Debbagh: the ‘tanner’s gate’, and also along the Rue de Bab Debbagh. This trade is slowly disappearing, so there are less tanneries these days, also because of the smell of the process. Tourists are offered fresh mint to hold near the nose to mask the smell.

Meet the tooth pullers of Marrakech

It’s a real spectacle here, but also in other parts of Morocco. There are several tooth pullers who wander the main square armed with pliers and other instruments looking for people with toothaches. They will pull the tooth out on the spot, usually with lots of commotion, as it is draws a crowd. So if you’re wandering around the square, keep an ear out for people screaming!

Best times:

Marrakech is delightful anytime of year, the climate here is wonderful with mild winters with snow, and warm, humid summers. Spring and autumn are perfect to enjoy a few rays of sunshine.

The weather is usually very pleasant, but it can get hot in summer (above forty degrees Celsius), so many people choose to take a siesta in the afternoon. It’s a good time to spend some time by a pool!

Please Note!

It can be tricky to take photos here, and it’s recommended to ask for permission to take photos. You can expect one of two reactions:

People will either turn their faces away and shout something, others are happy to have their photo taken but only in exchange for payment. You can give them dirhams, but they might also accept other currencies. Do make sure you agree on a price beforehand, it’s likely the photos will be worth it.