Morocco is a gateway to Africa and a country of dizzying diversity. Here you'll find epic mountain ranges, ancient cities, sweeping deserts – and warm hospitality.
Mountains & Desert
From Saharan dunes to the peaks of the High Atlas, Morocco could have been tailor-made for travellers. Lyrical landscapes carpet this slice of North Africa like the richly coloured and patterned rugs you’ll lust after in local cooperatives. The mountains – not just the famous High Atlas but also the Rif and suntanned ranges leading to Saharan oases – offer simple, breathtaking pleasures: night skies glistening in the thin air, and views over a fluffy cloudbank from the Tizi n’Test pass. On lower ground, there are rugged coastlines, waterfalls and caves in forested hills, and the mighty desert.
Morocco's cities are some of the most exciting on the continent. Join the centuries-old trail of nomads and traders to their ancient hearts, from the winding medina maze of Fez to the carnivalesque street-theatre of the Djemaa El Fna in Marrakesh. In the rocky deserts medinas are protected by kasbahs, on the coast by thick sea walls. But it's not just a heritage trip, as Morocco's cities are forward-facing too, with glitzy new urban design in Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier looking to the future as well as paying homage to their roots.
Enjoying Morocco starts with nothing more strenuous than its national pastime – people-watching in a street cafe with a coffee or a mint tea. Use the opportunity to plan your next moves – hiking up North Africa’s highest peak, learning to roll couscous, camel trekking in the desert, shopping in the souqs or getting lost in the medina. Between the activities, you can sleep in boutique riads, relax on panoramic terraces and grand squares, and mop up delicately flavoured tajines – before sweating it all out in a restorative hammam.
Morocco is a storied country, that has, over the centuries, woven its ties to sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and the wider Middle East into whole cloth. Its mixed Arab and Berber population forms a strong national identity, but an increasingly youthful one, taking the best of its traditions and weaving the pattern anew – from the countryside to the city, from the call to prayer from the mosque to the beat of local hip hop. Morocco has a hundred faces and sounds, all ready to welcome the traveller looking for spice and adventure.
Tips & Travel trends to help you pick the perfect time to visit this destination.
Put these must-see destinations on your next travel wish list.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Morocco.
French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé bought Jardin Majorelle in 1980 to preserve the vision of its original owner, French landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, and keep it open to the public. The garden, started in 1924, contains a psychedelic desert mirage of 300 plant species from five continents. At its heart lies Majorelle's electric-blue art deco studio, home to the Musée Berbère, which showcases the rich panorama of Morocco's indigenous inhabitants through displays of some 600 artifacts. In recent years, the site has become incredibly popular, and it now ranks as Morocco's most visited tourist attraction, with around 900,000 visitors a year. It's far from the peaceful oasis it was a decade ago, but it's still an extremely stylish place with magical gardens, art deco architecture and an excellent museum. To add more space for the huge number of visitors, the YSL Foundation expanded the gardens in December 2018 by opening up the section containing Villa Oasis, where Bergé lived until his death in 2017. Jardin Majorelle also houses a pretty courtyard cafe, a small book and photography shop, and a chic boutique selling Majorelle blue slippers, textiles and Amazigh-inspired jewellery influenced by YSL designs. All areas of Jardin Majorelle are wheelchair and stroller accessible. How to get tickets for Jardin Majorelle As Morocco's most popular tourist attraction, the line to get into Jardin Majorelle can be long. In peak season, expect to wait 15 minutes to an hour to get in. For your best chance of immediate entry, arrive before 10am, and ideally for opening at 8am. Tickets can now be purchased online, which is highly recommended for faster entry. Visit Friday to Monday when tickets include entry to the Villa Oasis gardens, which are a highlight. Don’t scrimp the extra Dh30 ($3.35) and miss the Musée Berbère; it's well worth the cost. An afternoon visit is the best time for keen photographers because it captures the prettiest light. Musée Yves Saint Laurent, opened in 2017, is next door to the gardens, and combined tickets can be bought for both attractions. Plan to spent the best part of a day between the two. History of Jardin Majorelle In 1923, Majorelle decided to put down roots in Marrakesh and bought a 4-acre palm grove on the edge of the medina, planted with poplars that gave his home its original name, Bou Saf Saf (meaning "the poplars" in Arabic). The first dwelling built here was Moorish in style, with a traditional adobe tower. It wasn’t until 1931, after Majorelle had extended the plot to almost 10 acres, that he hired French architect Paul Sinoir to design a villa and studio in the art deco style. The building that has become Instagram-famous (now housing the Musée Berbère) was Majorelle’s studio and workshop. The main house, where Majorelle and then Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé lived, was renamed Villa Oasis by YSL. It remained a private residence until Bergé’s death in 2017. Who was Jacques Majorelle? Although famed for its tenure as the home of Yves Saint Laurent, it was Jacques Majorelle (1886–1962) who gifted the gardens to Marrakesh. He was a French painter from Nancy whose father, Louis Majorelle, was a celebrated art nouveau furniture designer. It was partly Majorelle's exposure to the art nouveau movement – rich with organic motifs – that cemented his lifelong passion for plants and animals. Majorelle arrived in Morocco in 1917 and was quickly bewitched by the same colors and vibrant street life in Marrakesh that seduced YSL half a century later. Majorelle became known for his Orientalist paintings of North Africa and particularly Morocco – some of the repro 1920s travel posters for sale around the medina are his work. The striking cobalt blue of the buildings at Jardin Majorelle are an original feature conceived by Majorelle himself, inspired by the bold Moroccan skies, the shade of blue in traditional Moroccan tiles and the head-turning blue veils of the Tuareg people in the southern Sahara. The color became known as "Majorelle Blue" and was even trademarked as such. Plants in Jardin Majorelle The gardens are home to more than 300 plant species from five continents, mostly collected by Jacques Majorelle over several decades of globetrotting. The gardens were first opened to the public in 1947 but were abandoned after his death until Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé made it their mission to save them from property developers. Aspiring botanists will be in heaven, but Jardin Majorelle is a wonderful space to explore whether you’re a plant super fan or not. Regular signage includes useful illustrations to help visitors identify everything from Mexican agave to Chinese windmill palms and North African date palms, though it could be more helpful if common names were labeled as well as scientific names. Dense thickets of bamboo stretch as high as desert towers, flecked with strong shards of sunlight. Jardin Majorelle’s exotic bamboo groves are well known and well loved, but what you might not expect is the immense volume of graffiti. For years, tourists have shown their affection for the site by thoughtlessly etching their initials into the gardens’ signature stalks and even into some of the giant succulents. Not only has this environmental graffiti become an eyesore, but the gardens’ botanists have realised that it is damaging the plants. Carving into the plants is now forbidden. Musée Berbère Majorelle’s electric-blue art deco studio houses the fabulous Musée Berbère, which showcases the rich panorama of Morocco’s indigenous inhabitants in displays of some 600 artifacts, including wood and metalwork, textiles and a room of regional traditional costumes displayed with the flair of a catwalk show. Best of all is the brilliant mirrored chamber displaying a collection of chiseled, filigreed and enameled jewels. Villa Oasis Gardens In December 2018, the Villa Oasis gardens opened to the public for the first time. Accessed via a pathway draped with bright bougainvillea and distinct from the main gardens, they are arguably the more sumptuous and engrossing of the two and have greatly enhanced the visitor appeal of the complex. The residence itself is larger than the studio and more Oriental in design, mixing Marrakesh’s signature terracotta red with Majorelle’s electric blue and Islamic green on its facade and tiled pyramid roof. The bamboo groves of the main garden give way to giant succulents, cacti and mature palms. There’s also a succession of calm-inducing water features filled with koi carp, noisy frogs and lily pads, the largest of which pools around a white-pillared pavilion. The Villa Oasis house isn’t open to the general public (only a handful of very high-end hotels are allowed to run exclusive tours here), so you might just have to imagine the sumptuousness of its interiors. The salon is a masterpiece of Moroccan craftsmanship with elaborate painted cedarwood, magnificent zellige (colorful geometric tilework) and museum-quality art deco furniture. Yves Saint Laurent Memorial One of the most popular spots in the garden is the memorial. You’ll find it along the back wall on the opposite side of the gardens to the entrance/exit. If you can block out the photographers and Instagrammers, it’s a poignant space. The memorial is an ancient Roman pillar, which Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé found on a beach in Tangier. Bergé, who was both Yves Saint Laurent’s business partner and life partner, was added to the memorial after his death in Provence, France, in 2017. Where to stay near Jardin Majorelle Jardin Majorelle is in the Ville Nouvelle neighborhood of Marrakesh, the "new town" with modern amenities. Hotels in the medina beat those in the Ville Nouvelle hands down for atmosphere, but if you prefer a more contemporary sleep, the Ville Nouvelle and Gueliz area has plenty of options. In this neighborhood, you'll find the international hotels aimed at the package-holiday market. It's no better value to stay here, but most hotels have on-site bars and larger pools than you'll find in the medina. Where to eat near Jardin Majorelle Inside the gardens, the former servants' quarters house Café Majorelle, a lovely, leafy spot for tea or cake. Just outside the entrance of Jardin Majorelle, MyKawa serves salads, sandwiches and Moroccan breakfasts with a dash of Mediterranean style. How to get to Jardin Majorelle Bus No 12 from Bab Doukkala heads past Jardin Majorelle. If you want to walk, it's a 10-minute stroll from Bab Doukkala. Head up Avenue Moulay Abdullah and then turn right onto Ave Yacoub El Mansour. Taxi drivers who hang out around Jardin Majorelle are renowned for overcharging. Walk away and hail a taxi off the main road instead.
SquareDjemaa El Fna
Roll up, roll up for the greatest show on earth. Everywhere you look in Djemaa El Fna, Marrakesh’s main square (pronounced "jema" – the "d" is silent), you’ll discover drama in progress. The hoopla and halqa (street theater) have been non-stop here since the 11th century. Until a few decades ago, it hosted a daily food market for mountain traders. Now the whine of snake-charmer pungi flutes hits full throttle by mid-morning, and the show doesn't really kick off until sunset when restaurants fire up their grills, cueing musicians to tune up their instruments. History of Djemaa El Fna Djemaa El Fna sprang into life in the 11th century, around the time that the city of Marrakesh was founded by the Almoravids. Historians and locals will argue over whether the square got its name from the fact that public executions were likely held here: one translation is "assembly of the dead." Another translation is "mosque of the dead," which could be a nod to the partial collapse of neighboring Koutoubia Mosque in the 18th century, burying worshippers inside. For centuries, Djemaa El Fna square was used as a giant food market, with traders flooding down from the mountains to set up under canvas tents each day. Early photos of this era can be seen in Maison de la Photographie. The present boundaries of the square were imposed by the French, as all the buildings surrounding the Djemaa were erected during the protectorate era. Unesco declared Djemaa El Fna a Masterpiece of World Heritage in 2001 for bringing urban legends and oral history to life nightly, and although the storytellers who once performed here have since given way to communal games, musical performers, and slapstick comedy acts, Djemaa's nightly carnival continues to dazzle. Amazigh musicians strike up the music and gnaoua troupes sing while henna tattoo artists beckon to passersby, and water-sellers in fringed hats clang brass cups together, hoping to drive people to drink. This is a show you don't want to miss, and it's a bargain too: applause and a few dirhams ensure an encore. The square's many eclectic exhibitions are not without a darker side, though; you are likely to see monkeys dressed up and led around on chains for entertainment, and some of the practices of the plaza's snake charmers are ethically questionable to say the least. Cultural collapse on Djemaa? Djemaa El Fna has been a protected urban landmark since 1922 and Unesco-inscribed since 2001 as a place of unique cultural exchange. Yet Unesco has flagged the square as a space under "serious threat" from urbanization and cultural assimilation. For centuries, Djemaa has been a stage for gnaoua dance troupes, whispering fortune tellers, cartwheeling acrobats and, above all, hikayat (storytellers). Today, the last of the storytellers have gone and with them many of the square's traditional performers. Djemaa is still the throbbing heart of the medina, but like its inhabitants, it's moved with the times. Live music and local food are its 21st-century trademarks. Mornings in Djemaa El Fna Stroll Djemaa as it wakes up to catch the plaza at its least frenetic. At this point, the stage is almost empty. Orange-juice vendors are first on the scene, along with the snake charmers and their baskets of cobras. Eager dentists, potion sellers and henna-tattoo artists start setting up makeshift stalls under sunshades. Djemaa El Fna by night Cars are banned from the square after 2pm, and local food stalls start setting up for the nightly dinner scrum around 4pm. At sunset, Djemaa finds its daily mojo as Amazigh (Berber) troupes and gnaoua musicians start tuning up and locals pour into the square. The hullabaloo doesn’t knock off for the night until around 1am. To view it from a different perspective, head to one of the rooftop cafes ringing the square. Food stalls in Djemaa El Fna Spicy snail broth, skewered hearts, bubbling tajines, flash-fried fish: the Djemaa food stalls are a heaving one-stop shop for Moroccan culinary specialities, and they're not to be missed. Despite alarmist warnings, your stomach should be fine. Clean your hands before eating, use bread instead of utensils and stick to filtered water. Stalls have numbered spots and are set up on a grid. The snail chefs are in a line on the eastern side. For fried fish and calamari, pull up a pew at stall 14. Look for a lovely woman named Aicha who runs stall 1 in the southwestern corner for brochettes (kebabs), tajines and harira (a cheap, hearty soup made of tomatoes, onions, saffron and coriander with lentils and chickpeas). After dinner, join locals at the row of copper tea urns on the southern edge of the stalls. The speciality here is warming ginger tea called khoudenjal with cinnamon, mace and cardamom, served with a dense, sticky and similarly spicy scoop of cake. A pit stop at No 71 Chez Mohammed's is the perfect way to round out your meal. Tips for exploring Djemaa El Fna While wandering around Djemaa at any time of day, stay alert to cars, motorbikes and horse-drawn-carriage traffic, which whizz around the perimeter of the plaza (cars are banned after 2pm). Be on guard against pickpockets and rogue gropers who are known to work the crowds, particularly after sunset. To nab prime seats on makeshift stools around musician circles (women and elders get preference), arrive early in the evening. Keep a stock of Dh1 coins on hand for tipping the performers. A few dirhams (a little more if you took photos) is all that’s necessary when the hat comes around. Be warned that you will see chained monkeys dressed in sports jerseys paraded for tourists, and the practices of the snake charmers are ethically questionable. We advise avoiding both. Where to stay near Djemaa El Fna Marrakesh's biggest concentration of budget hotels is in this area, most only a stone's throw from Djemaa El Fna, along Rue Sidi Bouloukat and Rue de la Recette (easy walking distance from both the airport bus and taxi drop-off points). Upmarket riad accommodation is found off Rue Riad Zitoun El Jedid to the southeast. Where to eat near Djemaa El Fna Fancy some snail broth? Want to sample mechoui (slow-roasted lamb) or Marrakesh's famed tangy "bachelor's stew" tanjia? Djemaa El Fna and the area directly around it is the best place for adventurous foodies to get stuck in. South of the main square, there are more high-end options. For serious munching, follow your nose to Hadj Mustapha, a basic canteen that dishes up some of the best tanjia in town. The front terraces of the old-timer cafes rimming Djemaa El Fna are the best people-watching spots in town. There are a few places that serve alcohol in this area if you know where to look. If you feel your energy flagging, head to the terrace of Grand Balcon du Café Glacier for a mint tea. How to get to Djemaa El Fna Djemaa El Fna is on the edge of the Marrakesh medina, the ancient walled part of the city. It's a 20-minute walk from Bab Doukkala in the northwest or 15 minutes from Place des Ferblantiers in the south. From central Gueliz, take Bus 1 or 16.
MuseumMusée Yves Saint Laurent
This captivating museum, opened in 2017, showcases finely selected collections of haute couture clothing and accessories that span 40 years of creative work by legendary French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. The aesthetically warped and wefted building resembles woven fabric and holds a 150-seat auditorium, research library, bookstore and terrace cafe serving light snacks. Architecture of Musée Yves Saint Laurent Undoubtedly the most thrilling example of contemporary architecture in Marrakesh, Musée Yves Saint Laurent rises from a granito base of Moroccan marble and stone, draped in a lacework of terracotta bricks. The textured arrangement of the bricks is designed to resemble the weft and warp of fabric. Step inside and it's a complete contrast, with a silky smooth finish intended to complement the exterior like the lining of a couture jacket. The museum was designed by Studio KO and was the brainchild of Yves Saint Laurent's partner Pierre Bergé (1930–2017), who wanted to create a repository of the fashion designer's work that was "profoundly Moroccan." To this end, the building was designed without external-facing windows, to emulate Marrakesh's traditional riads. The terracotta color of the exterior brickwork mirrors the dominant hue of Morocco's "Red City." Like a traditional house of the medina, internal patios are an integral design feature of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent. The first is a striking circular walk-through that segues between the museum entrance and internal exhibition spaces. Here a series of stained-glass windows echoes the work of French artist Henri Matisse, who greatly influenced YSL's designs. The second patio forms the heart of the building, a square chamber covered with zellige (colorful geometric mosaic tilework) with a giant circular dish that catches the rain. The use of green here is significant, as it's highly prized in both Amazigh and Islamic cultures. Main exhibition at Musée Yves Saint Laurent The core of the museum is the Yves Saint Laurent Hall, a permanent display of his sketches, rotating haute-couture fashions and color-themed accessories. The backdrop is entirely black – a key color in YSL's designs – creating a cavernous cocoon pierced only by audiovisuals of the designer's catwalk shows and recordings of him speaking. On the right-hand wall as you enter, the exhibition starts with a biography of Yves Saint Laurent constructed from personal artifacts, including a letter sent by YSL to French Vogue's editor-in-chief Michel de Brunhoff in June 1954 at the age of 17. Top-quality temporary exhibitions, which change two or three times a year, are held in a smaller adjacent room. YSL's Theater Yves Saint Laurent's attention-grabbing fashion designs owe more than a little to his reverence of the stage and screen. Tapping into this theme, the Musée Yves Saint Laurent incorporates a 150-seat auditorium with state-of-the-art acoustics. It is designed for the projection of films, live performances and broadcasts of theatrical performances from around the world; check the website for the schedule. Outside the auditorium entrance, don't miss the "Costumiere," a fascinating display of YSL's sketches of costumes he made for cinema and the theater. Museum library By appointment, visitors can access Musée Yves Saint Laurent's 1st-floor library and study room, an important repository of 5000 books on botany, fashion, and Amazigh and Arab-Andalusian culture. Much of it is the personal collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. History of YSL in Marrakesh Yves Saint Laurent's love affair with Marrakesh began in 1966 – by the end of his first visit, he'd acquired the deeds to a house in the medina. The Algerian-born French fashion designer (1936–2008) was fascinated by the artistry and palette of Morocco. This museum opened as a homage to his work and the inspiration he drew from his second home. YSL found career-defining inspiration in the beauty of Morocco, with all its raw forms and pure colors. He marveled at the gardens of Marrakesh, where nature parades on overdrive, and the brightly hued caftans of women in the medina. He found inspiration in the stark blue skies, the earthen architecture and the dramatic waving dunes of the southern deserts. Nomadic fashions for cuffs and collars are hinted at in his iconic accessory designs. Tips for visiting Musée Yves Saint Laurent Jardin Majorelle is next door to the museum. If you plan to visit both, buy a combined ticket and see them on the same day. Combined tickets covering Jardin Majorelle, Musée Berbère and Musée Yves Saint Laurent can be bought directly from the Musée Yves Saint Laurent ticket counter, avoiding the lengthy lines at Jardin Majorelle. Note that you must start your visit at Musée Yves Saint Laurent if you buy your ticket here. Tickets can be bought online. Where to stay near Musée Yves Saint Laurent Musée Yves Saint Laurent is in the Ville Nouvelle neighborhood of Marrakesh, the "new town" with modern amenities. Hotels in the medina beat those in the Ville Nouvelle hands down for atmosphere, but if you prefer a more contemporary sleep, the Ville Nouvelle and Gueliz area has plenty of options. In this neighborhood, you'll find the international hotels aimed at the package-holiday market. It's no better value to stay here, but most hotels have on-site bars and larger pools than you'll find in the medina. Where to eat near Musée Yves Saint Laurent The museum's light-filled Le Studio is an upmarket canteen where stylistas linger over traditional Moroccan and French dishes. Down the street from the museum, comfy Pause Gourmande has a more local flavor and serves bastillas (savory-sweet pies), tajines and European classics. How to get to Musée Yves Saint Laurent Bus 12 from Bab Doukkala heads past the museum. From Djemaa El Fna, a taxi should cost no more than Dh20 ($2.25), but you'll be lucky to get one for less than Dh50 ($5.60). Haggle hard.
La Bahia (The Beautiful) is an 8000-sq-metre, floor-to-ceiling extravagance of intricate marquetry, plasterwork and zouak (painted wood), and certainly one of Marrakesh's most eye-popping sights. The salons of both the Petit Riad and Grand Riad host intricate marquetry and zouak ceilings, but the Cour d'Honneur, a grand courtyard, with its 1500 sq metre floor of Italian Carrara marble, is the undisputed highlight. Despite the vast area on show, only a portion of the palace’s eight hectares and 150 rooms is open to the public. Its grand spaces sometimes play host to important cultural events. History Built by Grand Vizier Si Moussa in the 1860s, the palace was later expanded and embellished from 1894 to 1900 by his son and successor Abu ‘Bou’ Ahmed. The Cour d'Honneur (courtyard) was converted into a harem by Bou Ahmed after he became Grand Vizier in 1894. Indeed, the expansion and beautification of Bahia Palace was driven by Bou Ahmed's desire to accommodate his four wives and 24 concubines. Bou Ahmed died in 1900, and in 1908 the palace's beguiling charms attracted warlord Pasha Glaoui, who claimed it as a suitable venue to entertain French guests. They, in turn, were so impressed that they booted out their host in 1912, installing the protectorate’s resident-general in his place. When Morocco gained independence from France in 1956, the palace was used as a royal residence, until King Hassan II transferred it to the custody of the Moroccan Ministry of Culture, so the building could serve as a cultural icon and tourist attraction. Touring the palace Petit Riad Closest to the entrance, the single-storey Petit Riad is similar in layout and size to traditional houses of the medina, but it's notable for the ornamentation of its salons. Its walls of intensely elaborate white plasterwork are inscribed with verses from the Quran. In the 19th century when it was originally decorated, this plaster would have been carved in situ while wet – just imagine the artisan skill required to work so swiftly and accurately. Cour d'Honneur Sandwiched between the Petit Riad and the Grand Riad, you'll pass through two courtyards. The first is relatively plain, but the second, called the Grand Cour or Cour d'Honneur, is the undisputed heart of the palace and one of the most spectacular open spaces ever to be conceived in Morocco. It is 1500 sq metres in size and was restored to its original brilliance in 2018. The floor is a vast expanse of Italian Carrara marble, encircled by a gallery uniquely coloured with bright blue and yellow plaster and woodwork. Grand Riad Step through the doorway from the Cour d'Honneur into the large courtyard of the Grand Riad, studded with fountains and lush foliage and sound-tracked by birdsong. This is the oldest part of the palace complex, completed in 1867 by Si Moussa, a former slave who rose through the ranks to become one of Sultan Hassan I's most important aides. The riad's salon is bedecked with carved wood lintels, zouak artistry and stained-glass detailing – Bahia Palace was thought to be the first building in North Africa to use stained glass as a decorative feature. Tickets and other practicalities Entrance fees are Dh70 for adults and Dh30 for children. Aim to arrive early to dodge the large tour groups that regularly descend on the building.
Five times a day, one voice rises above the din of Djemaa El Fna as the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer from the Koutoubia Mosque. The mosque's minaret has been standing guard over the old city since the Almohads erected it in the 12th century. Today it's Marrakesh's most famous landmark. The tower is a monumental cheat sheet of Moorish ornament: scalloped keystone arches, jagged merlon crenelations and mathematically pleasing proportions. Koutoubia Mosque architecture They say imitation is the greatest compliment, and the 12th-century 250ft-high minaret has quite the reputation as an architectural muse. It’s the prototype for the Giralda in Seville, Spain, and Le Tour Hassan in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. Unlike Middle Eastern mosques, which have domed minarets, the Koutoubia's square design is an Amazigh trademark. There are no stairs inside the minaret, only a ramp that the muezzin would have once ridden up on horseback to give the call to prayer. Legends of Koutoubia Mosque The Koutoubia Mosque minaret is topped by a spire of brass balls. Once made from gold, local legend tells that the balls were "gifted" to the mosque by the wife of Almohad sultan Yacoub Al Mansour, who melted down her jewelry as punishment after being spotted eating during Ramadan fasting hours. Today, the balls are filled with special mineral salt from the High Atlas Mountains, which includes nitrate and magnesium that prevents the spire from oxidizing. The salt is changed once a year, during Ramadan, to maintain the golden glint. In front of the spire, the wooden stick points towards Mecca (all mosques in the Marrakesh medina have this feature) and is also used to bear flags on religious holidays. Another Marrakshi legend tells that the pious Almohads had the original mosque felled halfway through building because it wasn’t properly aligned with Mecca. Exact dates of construction are murky. Ruins of the Koutoubia Mosque prayer hall On the northwestern side of the Koutoubia Mosque minaret are the ruins of the original prayer hall. One story goes that it collapsed during the massive 1755 Lisbon earthquake, killing hundreds of people as it crumbled. Research suggests this could be plausible. To the north of the Koutoubia minaret, the original doorway still stands. On the far wall of the ruins the remains of the arches that would have held up the ceiling are visible. The stumps on the floor are the hall's columns, and they stay in situ as a memorial. In Arabic, djemaa means congregation as well as gathering, and one theory is that the true translation of Djemaa El Fna, the famous square in Marrakesh that's near Koutoubia Mosque, is not "assembly of the dead," but "mosque of the dead," a legacy of the tragic event that occurred here. Meaning of Koutoubia Mosque In the 19th century, as many as 100 booksellers clustered around the Koutoubia Mosque's base – hence the name, from kutubiyyin (meaning booksellers in Arabic). Before that time, it was simply called the Almohad Mosque, after its founders. Koutoubia Gardens Stretching out behind the Koutoubia Mosque, the palm-tree-dotted green swath of Koutoubia Gardens is a favorite Marrakshi spot for strolling, relaxing on park benches and generally taking a quiet break. If you need some downtime after dodging motorbikes amid the medina's skinny alleyways, take the locals' lead and head here for a peaceful meander. Koutoubia Gardens are one of the best parks in Marrakesh, and there are great views of the Koutoubia Mosque's minaret. Visiting Koutoubia Mosque Non-Muslims can’t go inside the Koutoubia Mosque or minaret but are most likely to get a glimpse inside on a Friday when the doors are open for prayers. The best spot from which to photograph the Koutoubia's minaret – framed by old stone and date palms – is under the archway to the left of the main entrance. Where to stay near Koutoubia Mosque Koutoubia Mosque is just outside of the Marrakesh medina walls, a short walk from Djemaa El Fna square. Marrakesh's biggest concentration of budget hotels is in this area, most only a stone's throw from the square, along Rue Sidi Bouloukat and Rue de la Recette (easy walking distance from both the airport bus and taxi drop-off points). Upmarket riad accommodation is found off Rue Riad Zitoun El Jedid. Where to eat near Koutoubia Mosque Refuel with a sugar fix at Pâtisserie des Princes, lauded for its pastries (though the ice cream is delicious too). For a refreshing mint tea with a view of the Koutoubia Mosque minaret, head across the road to lovely old-fashioned Café El Koutoubia. How to get to Koutoubia Mosque Bus 16 from the Gueliz neighborhood drops you directly opposite the mosque. Koutoubia Mosque is a one-minute stroll west of Djemaa El Fna, and a 25-minute walk from Gueliz, straight down Avenue Mohammed V.
Historic SiteSaadian Tombs
Saadian Sultan Ahmed Al Mansour Ed Dahbi was just as extravagant in death as he was in life. After the "golden king" built Badia Palace in the 16th century, he transformed an existing necropolis into this lavish tomb complex, sparing no expense and importing Italian Carrara marble and gilding honeycomb muqarnas (decorative plasterwork) with pure gold. Al Mansour died in splendour in 1603, but a few decades later, Alaouite Sultan Moulay Ismail walled up the Saadian Tombs to keep his predecessors out of sight and mind. The mausoleum lay forgotten until aerial photography exposed it in 1917. Chamber of the 12 Pillars The tomb complex's main chamber is to the left of the site entrance – just look for the line of people. At the time of writing, it could only be admired through an arched viewing door, though plans are afoot to build a viewing platform circling the chamber to help ease congestion. Elaborate zellige (geometric tilework) and gilded honeycomb muqarnas abound in this hall, which gets its name from the fact that its cupola ceiling is supported by three groups of four pillars of marble. Two of these columns are noticeably older – plundered loot from the ancient Roman city of Volubilis. This chamber, the most luxurious part of the tomb, is the final resting place of Al Mansour and his sons. Chamber of Three Niches and Prayer Room Surrounding the central Chamber of 12 Pillars are two other tomb rooms. Alpha princes were buried in the Chamber of the Three Niches, while the room to the left was originally a prayer room, though it later became a secondary tomb for favored members of the royal court. The intricately carved, pentagon-shaped feature in the back wall is the mihrab (prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca). Lalla Massouda's Tomb In the courtyard cemetery, the secondary mausoleum was erected by an earlier sultan in 1557 and predates the rest of the tomb complex. Carved with blessings and vigilantly guarded by stray cats and the odd tortoise, the tomb was embellished by Al Mansour who claimed it for his mother, Lalla Massouda. Hers is the singular tomb recessed in a niche at the back of the mausoleum; the rest belong to other important women of the court. Next to this structure you can still see the original main entrance to the tombs, blocked up by Moulay Ismail and never reopened. Accessible for centuries only through a small passage in the Kasbah Mosque, the tombs were neglected by all except the storks until the French discovered them and built the alleyway in the southwestern corner through which visitors now enter. Garden Tombs Not an alpha prince during Al Mansour’s reign? Then you were relegated to the garden plot along with royal household members and some 170 chancellors. Rumor has it that one of these tombs belongs to the sultan's most trusted Jewish adviser – see if you can spy one that looks subtly different to the rest. Tips for visiting the Saadian Tombs The site is busy with tour groups from about 9:30am to 1pm, and a long line can form to view Al Mansour’s chamber. Either get here right at opening time to admire the tombs in peace or come later in the day. Late afternoon is the best time for photography as the marble work takes on a golden hue in the light. Where to stay near the Saadian Tombs The Saadian Tombs are located in the Kasbah area of the Marrakesh medina. This area is less popular than Mouassine and Djemaa El Fna for accommodations, but the neighborhood can actually be a far more pleasant option because it's a little quieter and tourists receive less hassle here than in the northern souqs (markets). Where to eat near the Saadian Tombs Conveniently just across the road from the entrance to the Saadian Tombs, Kasbah Café is a top spot to recharge your sightseeing batteries. For camel burgers, date milkshakes and a fun, friendly vibe, head down Rue de la Kasbah to Cafe Clock. How to get to the Saadian Tombs Rue de la Kasbah is outside the entrance to the Saadian Tombs, so it's easy for taxis to drop off passengers. If you're walking, follow the main roads heading west from Place des Ferblantiers until the Kasbah Mosque turnoff. The entrance to the Saadian Tombs is unmarked. Walk to the southern end of the Kasbah Mosque, with the Kasbah Café directly across the road, and head down the skinny alleyway.
The area's star attraction is the misnamed Erg Chigaga, not a single dune (erg) but an incredible stretch of golden sand sea some 56km southwest of M'Hamid. It is the largest sand sea in Morocco, snaking along the horizon for 40km and bordered to the north and south by mountain ridges. The best way to get here is in classic movie style: by camel (from Dh500 to Dh600 per day), which takes between five and seven days round-trip.
The 3-storey granite, palm and argan house, some 400 years old, was inhabited by 20 family members – three generations – until 1982. The owner, Mohammed, is friendly, knowledgeable and multilingual, and obviously takes great pleasure in sharing tales of traditional life. On the tour you'll wind your way through the central kitchen, storehouse, bedrooms and, finally, the salon reserved for formal guests (you!). Highly recommended.
The largest car-free urban area in the world, Fez El Bali (Old Fez) is a warren of twisting lanes and centuries-old monuments and mosques. As well preserved as the traditional architecture are the traditional crafts practised here for centuries: this is a rare opportunity to see how many distinctly Moroccan treasures, from fine leather to copper pots, are made.
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