There's a reason Marrakech draws millions of tourists every year, the ochre city is rich with history. Here are some of the most historic places Marrakech has to offer and the story behind them.
Jemaa el-Fna Square
Perhaps Morocco’s most famed destination, all those who come to Morocco should experience the magic of Jemaa el-Fna at least once.
The history of this square dates back to the 11th century, securing it a spot on the UNESCO world heritage list. For almost a thousand years, Jemaa el-Fna has been the social hub and marketplace of Marrakech, and while walking around the square, it sometimes feels like very little has changed. The snake charmers, musicians, and monkey trainers create a truly unique experience.
Travelers are advised not to carry any unnecessary valuables and to be aware of their belongings to prevent being pickpocketed.
Ben Youssef Madrasa
This Qur’anic school was founded in the 14th century and named after Almoravid Sultan Ali ibn Yusuf, who brought significant change to Marrakech during his reign. Although it only has 132 dorms for students, during its heyday 900 students would come every day from all over Marrakech to attend the famed school and study theology and law.
The school still stands in perfect condition, making it easy to imagine how these students lived hundreds of years ago. One cannot help but smile at the Arabic inscription at the entryway that reads, “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded.”
After walking through a narrow and dark hallway, you find yourself in a large sunlit courtyard. If you look up, you will see wooden lattice balconies, and if you look around you will notice the 5-color zellige tiles and carved cedar details. After climbing the steep stairs to the next floor, you will find the dorms and marvel at the dedication it would require to live in such a small room.
The school is walking distance from the medina (old city) and a dozen other sites worth visiting, making it something you must include in your Marrakech itinerary. Entrance costs MAD 60.
Bahia is Arabic for brilliant, and this could not be a more fitting description of this palace. The palace was commissioned by Si Moussa, a former slave who rose in rank to become grand vizier of the sultan in 1866. When his son, Bou Ahmad, took control of the state, the palace grew even more lavish.
Bou Ahmad brought craftsmen in from Fez to add lush gardens, an extra riad, and carved stucco details. Because he also hired a famed architect who previously worked in Andalusia, the mix of Spanish and Arab influence is clearly seen.
When Bou Ahmad died in 1900, Sultan Abd al-Aziz came to power and ordered the palace be looted and ransacked. From 1908 to 1911, Pacha Glaoui, a renowned warlord, used the palace to entertain French guests, who took such a liking to the palace that they claimed it for their own. It became the residence of the French Protectorate’s resident general.
The palace sprawls over two acres in the heart of the medina and has an astonishing 150 rooms. The large courtyard with green tiles, a beautiful fountain, and carved wooden columns ensures any visitors are instantly impressed upon walking in. The palace is also home to dozens of rooms with beautiful zellige fireplaces and a harem, although it is closed off to visitors. However, visitors are more than welcome to the beautiful gardens.
Bahia Palace is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day and costs only MAD 10 to enter.
Majorelle Garden is one of the most famed tourist sites in Morocco, and for good reason. The site was initially designed by Jacques Majorelle, a painter who, like many others, fell in love with Marrakech and decided to call it home. He bought a four-acre plot in 1923 and built a house in Moroccan style, but he kept adding to the land over the next 10 years, adding a villa and another six acres of land.
Perhaps his most spectacular work of all, Jacques Majorelle worked on perfecting the beautiful garden on this property until his death in 1962. He was once quoted as saying, “This garden is a momentous task, to which I give myself entirely. It will take my last years from me and I will fall, exhausted, under its branches, after having given it all my love.”
He painted all the walls a vibrant ultramarine blue, now commonly known as “Majorelle blue,” in order to perfectly contrast the green of the hundreds of different plant species he sourced from all over the world.
The love and hard work the painter poured into this garden truly ensured it lives on. While it remained open to the public after his death, it fell into disarray until renowned French designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge stumbled upon it on a trip to Marrakech in 1980 and fell in love. Upon hearing the land was to be sold and turned into a hotel, they decided to do everything in their power to preserve the beauty of the garden and eventually bought it.
Saint Laurent and Berge moved into Majorelle’s old villa and took it upon themselves to restore the garden to its former glory. They installed an advanced sprinkler system, hired a team of 20 gardeners, and increased the number of plant species from 135 to 300. After Saint Laurent died in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the garden that was so dear to him and a memorial was built in his honor.
The garden has continued to improve in recent years, with an Amazigh (Berber) museum filled with artifacts being inaugurated in 2011 and a luxury boutique and a highly rated cafe being added to the site. Costing only MAD 70 to enter, there is a reason this is one of the most visited sites in Marrakech.
The Saadian tombs are one of the few well-preserved relics from the Saadian dynasty, which reigned from A.D. 1524 to 1659. In the 18th century, Sultan Moulay Ismail ordered all evidence of the Saadian dynasty be destroyed. However, he did not dare desecrate their tombs. He went as far as ordering an entrance to the tomb be constructed.
It is thanks to Moulay Ismail’s fear of sacrilege that the Saadian tombs still stand in all their glory today. However, he did seal the tombs, hiding them from view, and they were not rediscovered until 1917.
The tomb was constructed as a place of burial for the founder of the Saadian dynasty, Mohammed ash-Sheikh, by his son. The fifth and final ruler of the dynasty, Sultan Ahmed el Mansour, added to much of its splendor. By his death, the site contained 66 tombs across two mausoleums, with princes, royal wives, advisors, and even two Jewish dignitaries.
When the stray cats, storks, and dust were cleared out after 100 years of desolation, the tombs were just as beautiful as ever and opened for visitors. The Italian marble, gold, and intricate zellige show the prosperity of the Saadian dynasty. Outside, a sprawling garden houses the burial sites of 100 more influential people of the time.
There is a MAD 70 entrance fee, and the tombs are open to visitors from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Koutoubia mosque, located just 200 meters from Jemaa El-Fna square, is named after the Arabic word “koutoubiyyin,” meaning bookseller, because of the hundreds of booksellers that would gather at the base of this mosque in the 12th century.
The original mosque on the site, built by the Almoravid dynasty, was not properly aligned with Mecca, so when the Almohads took control of Marrakech in the 12th century, they decided to build a mosque on the same plot of land that would be properly aligned with Mecca.
The mosque was built exactly the same as the first one, but the Almoravids soon fell into disarray. Today, Almohad’s Koutoubia mosque still stands as the largest mosque in Marrakech and the oldest and most intact structure from this dynasty.
The mosque was built from sandstone, brick, and ceramic tiles. Its 70-meter-high minaret was used as a prototype for Seville’s Giralda and Rabat’s Tour Hassan. Although the mosque is not open to non-Muslims, it is still worth a visit when you are in the area to see the exterior that inspired architecture globally.