Marrakesh (or Marrakech) is the third-largest city in Morocco after the fabled Casablanca and capital Rabat. Established in 1062 during the Barber Empire as one of four original imperial cities of Morocco, Marrakesh is still one of the major players in the north-west African country. More than that, this is an important economic center and city filled to the brim with tourist attractions.
In 1931, without any preconceived notion of what I should find there, I paid a visit to Morocco. Two months, I thought, would suffice for seeing the place. And so they would have if what I saw had not awakened a wish to see more, a wish which seemed to grow even as it was being satisfied. At first it expressed itself as a desire to wander over the surface of the land … After the War I returned to Morocco and bought a home there. This time I became aware of the fact that it was not the landscape I wanted to know, but the people.
– Paul Bowles
It is found in the west-central part of the country and exhibits a population of just below one million people, even though the entire metro area raises that to the other side of the border. What’s more important to Marrakesh is that it attracts double that in tourists every year with a tendency of increasing the number further. Moreover, the vast majority of tourists that visit Marrakesh are overseas tourists. You might think that average annual temperatures exhibit very high figures here given the city’s position.
While hot semi-arid climate does have a grip on the city, average yearly temperatures are slightly below 20 °C (67 °F) with July and August being the hottest, and December and January being coldest months. There isn’t much rain here – that much is clear.
Only 280 millimeters (around 11 inches) of it fall here throughout the year – least of it during the summer, naturally. All in all, you won’t have that many problems with the climate there, no matter which period you choose for the visit. Be advised, though, that summer days can be really hot with average high’s close to 100 °F (37 °C), while winter nights are usually rather cold. August is probably the least recommended month because of high temperatures and closed vendors. Don’t forget the Ramadan too which also closes most of the shops for a month (mostly June).
History of Marrakesh – old town Medina
Like every major Moroccan city, Marrakesh to is comprised of the old fortified part of town (medina) and modern neighborhoods that stretch outside the gates. Needless to say, walled part of the city is where most of the magic happens, and even the red walls themselves – built between 1122 and 1123 by the Almoravids are an imposing sight to see. They stretch 19 kilometers (12 miles) in total and stand almost 6 meters (19 feet) high. Being made out of red sandstone and clay, walls which exhibit 20 gates and 200 towers along their route, reflect orange-ochre-red gradients giving the city its nickname – the red city.
Place to visit
When you pass through one of the gates – most notable of which are Bab Agnaou and Bab er Robb, you’ll find yourself surrounded by souks (marketplaces), mosques, palaces, riads, and tombs. Mellah (the Jewish quarter) is worthy of a visit too, and so are most of the city’s museums. A must-see while in Marrakesh, however, are already mentioned souks and at least one of food and tea vendors that deal in unique Moroccan dishes. Tasting tanjia Marrakesh – a local beef with spices, and green tea with mint should be high on your priority list.
The best way to get around the city is by foot, but that can sometimes be exhausting – especially during the summer. Horse-drawn carriages are your best alternative and they will cost you $12 per hour. You can also hail a cab which isn’t that expensive, but you’ll lose much of the atmosphere that can only be experienced under the open roof. They are best utilized for the airport to hotel transfer, and you will likely arrive in the city by the Menara Airport.
Koutoubia – best-known building
But let’s get back to the architecture of the old town. Arguably the most impressive building in Marrakesh (and one of its symbols) is Koutoubia mosque with its 77 meters (253 feet) high hallmark minaret. Built from reddish bricks and sandstone during the late 12th century, Koutoubia represents the prime example of the Almohad architecture. It has even inspired other towers such as the Hassan Tower in Rabat and UNESCO world heritage site La Giralda in Seville. Ben Youssef and Mouassine Mosques are another couple of sacral buildings in the city’s medina which also call out for prayers five times a day.
El Badi palace
Palaces are some of the most prolific buildings in Marrakesh too. Most important is, without a doubt, El Badi palace built between 1578 and 1593 by the Saadian sultan Ahmad al-Mansur to commemorate the victory over Portuguese. It now stands deserted and devoid of almost all of its former splendors, but still contains a museum and is one of the major tourist attractions. Other notable palaces within the city include Bahia and the Royal Palace. The former was built during the late 19th century and comprises of both buildings and vivid gardens, while latter Dar el-Makhzen was built in the 12th century.
Sadly, it’s privately owned and closed for tourists. Riads and villas to adorn the medina, and you just have to spend some time to take a glance at Jardin Majorelle and take a stroll through its 300-species garden and 600-artifact Barber Art museum.
Saadian tombs were commissioned in the 16th century in order to bury notable dynastic rulers and their families. Located next to the Kasbah Mosque, this three-room antechamber is the resting place of around sixty Saadi dynasty members. Most notable of the three chambers – one with 12 pillars features Carrara marble, tiles, and gold as most prominent materials, while its floral motifs and calligraphy are second to none.
Most notable museums are Marrakesh museum filled with both modern and traditional Moroccan art, and Dar Si Said museum which houses similar traditional commodities. A number of well-preserved madrases can also offer museum-like experience thanks to their countless miniature architectural and artistic details.
Jemaa el-Fnaa – the most famous place
Finally, we return to souks and other traditional meeting places. Souks offer pretty much everything you can think of, but most notable are famous Marrakesh carpet and rag souks. One of the most important places of both historic and modern-day Marrakesh is its famous UNESCO-protected square Jemaa el-Fnaa. This is where you’ll likely experience the full extent of the city’s vibrant tradition and activities. Just immerse yourself in the atmosphere and let your feet pave their way themselves. Snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, water vendors – Jemaa el-Fnaa has it all. It also has day-long open performances that culminate in the evenings when music and grilled meat dull the senses.
All in all, Marrakesh represents a different kind of vacation. Forget laying motionless on sunny beaches – this city will make you walk. This is an active, leisure tourist destination offering plenty of things to do while going around. It’s even close to the High Atlas whose snowy peaks can be seen during the winter months. They add to the scenic view of this city which is – as we have seen, quite spectacular.
When to go
Marrakech is a true “year-round” destination. Spring and autumn see the city at its best with almost guaranteed sunshine and bearable temperatures (days are warm and nights are not too chilly). At the height of summer, daytime temperatures can reach a sweltering 42C, and shops and restaurants often close during Ramadan and in August. Winter can be warm and blissfully free of crowds – but remember that temperatures drop dramatically at night.
Forget all those bucket-and-spade beach breaks that can be summed up on a postcard… Marrakech leaves you with holiday photographs that demand further explanation. How did you wind up sipping tea with blacksmiths, shedding your skin – quite literally – in a hammam (bathhouse), and busting Berber dance moves in the Djemaa el-Fna? Sipping a sunset cocktail on the roof of an 18th-century riad, you think back over the day’s experiences and, in your mind, try to retrace your steps.
Possibly there was a donkey cart dodged or a magic shop stumbled upon among the city’s 3,000 winding derbs (alleyways), but that doesn’t entirely explain your iron lantern, your henna tattoo and your newfound capacity to shimmy.