14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Marrakesh
Marrakesh is a city that sums up all of Morocco's exotic North African charm. The city's name provided the root for the name of the country itself, spelling out this town's importance down the ages. Within the hustle of the city core you'll find old and new clashing and blending, which can make some tourists almost dizzy. Snake charmers and smooth shop touts both compete for your attention amid a noisy, colourful bustle that encapsulates Morocco's vibrant soul.
For shoppers this city is famous as a frenzied hub for bargain hunting. For history lovers the many museums and monuments are some of the country's not to be missed star attractions. And for those who just want to dive into local culture, the Medina offers Moroccan life in all its hectic glory. Marrakesh is also the gateway to Morocco's High Atlas region where you can relish the scenic mountain beauty after your Marrakesh metropolis adventures.
See also: Where to Stay in Marrakesh
1 Medina Souks
For many visitors, Marrakesh's labyrinth Medina (Old City) district is the town's star attraction. The narrow alleyways are a kaleidoscope of colors, scents and sounds, and bound to be the sightseeing highlight of your trip. As well as simply wandering (and getting lost) amid the bustling maze, there are myriad shopping opportunities where you can put your haggling hat on and barter to your heart's content. Shoppers shouldn't miss the Babouche (shoe) Souk, Chouari (carpenter's) Souk, El-Attarine (perfume and spice) Souk and the Cherratine (leather) Souk. Just west of the main souk area, at the end of Rue Bab Debbagh, you'll find Marrakesh's tanneries where animal skins are still dyed the old fashioned way.
2 Djemaa El Fna
This large square at the entry to the Medina is the centre of Marrakesh life. The Djemaa El Fna (assembly place of the nobodies) is a vibrant hub of bric-a-brac stalls, musicians, storytellers, fortune-tellers and snake charmers that never seems to rest. Here the entire spectrum of Moroccan life enfolds before you. If being down among the thrum becomes too much, it's also easy to escape to one of the many surrounding rooftop cafes and restaurants where you can survey the crazy scene from above.
3 Koutoubia Mosque
The Koutoubia Mosque is Marrakesh's most famous landmark with its striking, 70 m tall minaret visible for miles in every direction. Local Marrakesh legend tells that when first built it, the muezzin (man who calls the faithful to pray) for this mosque had to be blind as the minaret was so tall that it overlooked the ruler's harem. The mosque was built in 1162 and is one of the great achievements of Almohad architecture. Non-Muslims are not allowed into the prayer hall.
4 Medersa Ben Youssef
Built in 1565 by the Saadians, the Medersa (madrassa - Islamic school of learning) of Ben Youssef is the largest theological college in Morocco. The warrens of rooms (with student cells which once were home to 900 pupils) are clustered around small internal courtyards in typical Islamic architecture style. The fine zellige tiling, stalactite ceilings and Kufic inscriptions used as decoration across much of the building interior are the highlights of a visit to this Medina attraction.
5 Saadian Tombs
This 16th century burial ground is home to 66 members of the Saadian dynasty, which ruled over Marrakesh between 1524 and 1668. The tombs here include that of the ruler Al-Mansour, his successors and their closest family members. It's a rambling, atmospheric place with the mausoleums set amid a rather overgrown garden. In particular, the main mausoleum (where Moulay Yazid is buried) has a fine surviving mihrab (prayer niche).
6 Bahia Palace
This magnificent peacock of a palace was built in the 19th century as the residence of the Grand Vizier Bou Ahmed, who served Sultan Moulay al-Hassan I. The interior decoration is a dazzling display of zellige tiles, painted ceilings and ornate wrought-iron features showcasing the opulent lives of those high-up in the sultan's favour at that time. The palace is surrounded by sumptuous flower and tree-filled gardens.
7 Dar Si Said Museum of Moroccan Arts and Crafts
This lovely old palace built by Vizier Si Said is home to a wonderful collection of Berber jewellery in finely worked silver, oil lamps from Taroudant, pottery artifacts, embroidered leather, and marble. There is also a display of Moroccan carpets and an amazing collection of traditional Moroccan door and window frames, which highlight this country's local architecture styles. For anyone interested in the evolution of North African art and crafts, it's a lovely place to potter about for a couple of hours.
Near the Dar Si Said, the Maison Tiskiwine has a rather wonderful collection of costumes, jewellery, arms, musical instruments, textiles and furniture (focused on Saharan culture) put together by Dutch art historian Bert Flint. Another branch of the museum is located in Agadir.
8 Marrakesh Museum
The Marrakesh Museum has an eclectic collection, which ranges from contemporary art to Qur'anic inscriptions with local ceramic work, textiles and coins thrown in for good measure. For most visitors, the real highlight of a visit here is the building the museum is housed in. The Dar Me'nebhi was built in the early 20th century and was once home to a minister in Morocco's government. The architecture is a harmonious blend of local North African form with Portuguese elements, and features an extremely impressive central courtyard area complete with lavish chandelier.
9 Almoravid Koubba
Also known as the Koubba Ba'adiyn, the Almoravid Koubba is Marrakesh's oldest monument - built in the 12th century during Ali Ben Youssuf's reign. Although its original use is unknown, some experts have suggested that it may have been the ablution house of a mosque that once sat next door. Its simple exterior design (a squat, square building topped with a dome) belies an interesting interior, with a dome ceiling covered in Almoravid motifs. The koubba was one of the few buildings to survive the destruction wrecked on the city by Almohad conquerors who destroyed much of the earlier Almoravid architectural legacy.
10 Majorelle Gardens
These lush tropical gardens, full of cacti, palms and ferns, are the work of painter Jacques Majorelle. Originally from the town of Nancy in France, Majorelle came to Marrakesh for health reasons and became well known for his paintings of local Moroccan life. His most famous work though was this garden and the vibrant blue (the colour now known as Majorelle blue) painter's studio he lived in on the grounds. After Majorelle's death in 1962, French fashion designer Yves St Laurent bought the property and upon his death in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the gardens. A small pavilion on site has a small but interesting collection of Islamic art.
11 Manara Gardens
This inner-city garden is a bubble of serenity hidden right in the heart of Marrakesh. It's a local-favorite spot for getting out of the hustle to enjoy some peace and quiet. The large pool in the center of the garden has a fine pavilion, built on the water's edge in the late 19th century. For many local Marrakesh families the Manara Gardens are picnicking central and on the weekend it can be a great place to witness local family life.
12 Tizi-n'Test Pass
Even in a country chock-a-block full of sublime road-trip scenery, the Tizi-n'Test Pass stands out. This winding mountain road heads south out of Marrakesh down to Taroudant in a dizzying array of switchbacks that may give the wobbles to those who don't like heights. The mountain scenery along the way is simply sumptuous. A road branching off the pass just past Taliouine is the start of the high pass into the Draa Valley.
The charming mountain village of Imlil is the starting point for excursions into Toubkal National Park. It's a chilled out kind of place that provides respite if you've been amid the Marrakesh hustle for awhile and want some peace and quiet. The village is also home to a rather impressively restored kasbah (fortress). The structure is now one of the town's best hotels, and played a starring role in the Martin Scorsese film 'Kundun'.
Location: 57 km south of Marrakesh
14 Toubkal National Park
This National Park is home to Morocco's (and North Africa's) highest mountain, Djebel Toubkal, as well as a number of fantastic walking opportunities. If you don't fancy bagging Toubkal's 4,167 m peak then you can opt for the lovely scenic village-to-village Aremd circuit, which has sumptuous views without the sweaty effort required for mountain climbing.
Location: 57 km south of Marrakesh
Where to Stay in Marrakesh for Sightseeing
If you're visiting Marrakesh for the first time, and want to be in the heart of the action, the best area to stay is in the medina, near the Djemaa El Fna, the large square at its entrance. Some of the best-value accommodation options here are riads, traditional Moroccan guesthouses with inner courtyards that are shielded from the hustle and bustle of the medina outside; breakfast is usually included in the price. Here are some highly-rated hotels and riads in this popular location:
- Luxury Hotels: Oranges and rose blossoms perfume the air at La Villa des Orangers, steps away from all the medina attractions and the Koutoubia Mosque. This is a Relais & Châteaux property, with three patios, a rooftop pool, and a spa with a hammam. In the medina, near the entrance to the old souk, Riad Dar Anika is a more affordable luxury option, with a lovely courtyard pool and warm Moroccan hospitality. If you prefer to stay away from the hubbub of the medina, the Four Seasons Resort Marrakech is a taxi ride away. Facilities include palm-lined pools, a spa, fitness center, and kids' club.
- Mid-Range Hotels: In the heart of the medina, the evocatively-named Riad Romance resides in a restored 17th-century building, with a lovely courtyard pool, cozy rooms, and a rooftop garden. Also in the medina, Dar Charkia, with a heated swimming pool, is in the Dar el Bacha antique dealers district. All the rooms are air-conditioned, and many come with a fireplace. Orange trees adorn the courtyard at the hospitable Riad Aguerzame, on a quiet side street in the medina, a short stroll from Djemaa El Fna.
- Budget Hotels: Down a maze of alleys, a ten-minute walk from Djemaa El Fna, Riad Dar Thalge is great-value, with simple but clean rooms, a large patio, and plunge pool. Also in the medina and with a pool, Riad Sadaka has comfortable and cozy rooms and serves up tasty Moroccan cuisine, while Riad L'Orchidee has air-conditioned rooms, a plunge pool, and plenty of inviting nooks for relaxing and dining.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Marrakech
Taking an organized tour is a great way to see all the highlights of Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains and experience the traditional culture without the hassle of finding your way around. Along the way, you'll learn all about the area's history as well as insider tips and stories. These tours also include convenient pickup and drop-off at select hotels. Below are some fun sightseeing tours and day trips that guarantee the lowest price:
- See the Sights: On the Marrakech Discovery Tour, you can relax and enjoy the sights while a local guide takes you on a tour through the city's labyrinthine backstreets and bustling souks, as well as historical highlights such as Bahia Palace and the Koutoubia Mosque. This full-day tour includes lunch at a Medina restaurant, entrance fees, and pickup and drop-off from select hotels.
- Take a Day Trip: The perfect complement to a hectic city stay is the Three Valleys Day Trip from Marrakech with Optional Visit to Takerkoust Lake and Kik Plateau. This full-day tour gives you a great overview of the Atlas mountains, with a visit to three lush valleys, traditional Berber villages, Ourika Valley waterfalls, an optional lunch in a Berber home, and an optional upgrade to include the Takerkoust Lake and Kik Plateau. This is a small-group tour with more personalized service and a maximum of seven people. For a different perspective of Morocco's dramatic landscapes, consider the Atlas Mountains Hot Air Balloon Ride from Marrakech with Berber Breakfast and Desert Camel Experience. On this full-day adventure, you travel into the desert by 4x4 and board a hot air balloon for a bird's-eye view of the sun rising over the rippling desert and the Atlas Mountains below. Afterwards, descend to ground level for a delicious Berber breakfast and a camel ride through the desert dunes. Also included is a flight certificate as well as pickup and drop-off from select hotels.
Other Notable Attractions
Behind Marrakesh's Royal Palace, these orchards are packed to the brim with fruit trees. Depending on the season you'll find oranges, figs, pomegranates and olives bursting from the branches. The grounds stretch for 400 hectares and were first laid out in the 12th century.
Now just remains, the Badii Palace is where the most celebrated Saadian ruler, Ahmed el Mansour (1578-1603), traded gold, marble and onyx for their weight in sugar. All that is left are devastated mud walls that enclose a large square.
The Mellah is the old Jewish quarter of Marrakesh. It was established in the 16th century and is now populated mainly by Muslims. There are small synagogues that can be visited by the aid of a local guide.
The outskirts of Marrakesh are surrounded by date-palm groves. During the worst of the summer heat, the groves are a soothing shady escape from the sweltering city. Visitors can take a horse and cart tour through the tranquil paths.
The Almoravides made Marrakesh the capital of an empire that covered most of the Mahgreb (Northwest Africa) and extended well into Europe. With the Almoravide conquest of southern Spain, Marrakesh was invested with the cosmopolitan culture of Andalucia and became a bastion of Islamic civilization and an intellectual centre where the most famous scholars and philosophers of the age converged. Lavish buildings were constructed and splendid gardens designed. The ancient ramparts and gates of the city are monuments to its medieval preeminence.
Almohade armies stormed the gates of Marrakesh on March 23, 1147, conquering the Almoravide capital. The Almohades under Abdal Mou'min continued their conquest of North Africa, extending their empire through Algeria and Tunisia and moving across the Mediterranean to capture Seville, Cordoba and Granada. Under Abdal Mou'min, Marrakesh became an even greater Islamic capital.
Marrakesh went into a period of decline under the Merinids who captured the city in 1269. The Merinid capital was already centred in Fes, and Marrakesh fell into neglect for two-and-a-half centuries. The fortunes of Marrakesh revived under the Saadian dynasty. The Saadians were tribesmen from the Souss region, who conquered the whole of southern Morocco in a war against the Portuguese colonialist in Agadir. When the Saadians gained control of the whole of Morocco their leader, Mohammed Al Mahdi, made Marrakesh his capital in 1551 and began to restore the city. Although the new city district of Marrakesh was constructed in 1913 during the French occupation and reflects this European influence, the majority of the city (like Fes) is a genuinely Islamic city in both its genesis and traditions.