Marrakesh is divisive.
Built across the millennia, the Imperial city offers an unquestionably unique experience, serving as a gateway to the vibrance of the Islamic world while retaining cultural ties to both nearby Europe and the African continent on which it resides.
Visitors are, in equal parts, enchanted and overwhelmed by its discordant clash of old and new, light and dark, calm and frenetic. But they never forget it.
Take a deep breath. Embrace the chaos.
Welcome to Marrakesh.
5 things you can’t miss in Marrakesh
Explore the Medina and Ancient City
The focal point of any visit to Marrakesh should be the Medina.
The Medina functions as the city’s ancient heart, dating back a thousand years and marking the original city walls. While the modern metropolis has far outgrown the pinky-red fortifications, it’s still the most atmospheric area to explore.
Set aside some time to get lost in the labyrinth of alleyways. There’s no telling what you’ll stumble across as you wander the 19km walled city. Towards the center, things are more lively, but as you venture outwards, you’ll find a quiet that many claim is the best part of the city.
At its core is the Djemaa El Fna, the legendary night market that’s been a permanent fixture in the city since the 11th century. Unesco named it a ‘Masterpiece of World Heritage’ for its significance in preserving Morocco’s culture. An evening exploring the large central square is an enthralling one, with snake charmers and henna women rubbing shoulders with the endless lanes of stalls. While it’s moving with the times and not quite the Arabian wonderland it once was, it remains an unmissable aspect of Marrakesh.
Beyond the market square, it’s a good idea to jump on a tour. There are countless historically significant sights in the maze, like the Saadian Tombs, the stunning resting place of the former Morrocan sultans. The Kutubiyya Mosque is another iconic — almost thousand-year-old — landmark within the city, while Souk Semmarine is your number one stop for a bit of haggling.
Embrace the royal treatment at Bahia and Badia Palace
Few sights embody the former extravagance of Marrakesh’s sultans than Bahia Palace. The sprawling 8,000-square-meter residence is remarkable.
Despite being built in 1860, the site has seen a number of important historical moments in Morocco’s history take place within its walls. Impeccably designed and decorated down to the tiniest detail, Bahia is an explosion of color and opulence that is more than worth spending a few hours exploring.
Not to be confused with the former, Badia Palace is an older ruined royal residence from the 16th century. The dramatic sandstone building’s name means “The Incomparable,” in reference to one of the ninety-nine names for Allah in the Islamic religion.
While the centuries have stripped the palace of its former splendor, the barren walls now provide a unique atmosphere, possibly more in-line with traditional images of the region. The underground chambers are a particular highlight and feature photographic displays of the surrounding Kasbah area as it developed in the 20th century.
Get out of the city
Staying in Marrakesh is an engulfing experience. To keep yourself sane, head outside the city and experience a piece of Northern Africa’s astonishing natural beauty.
For the adventurous, head to the Atlas Mountains. You can get there yourself, but jumping on an organized tour is easiest. You’ll find day trips and multiple-day tours. Some will be culture focused, visiting the terraced Berber villages, while others will lean into epic mountain passes and treks.
In Marrakesh, you’re relatively close to the Sahara desert. While it’s still a few hundred miles away, it might be your best chance if you’re not sure when you’ll be back in Africa. It’s always recommended to take a two or three-day trip so you can experience as much as possible. You’ll likely stay in Bedouin camps, dune surf, or even ride camels during your trip. But just seeing this world-famous desert is an experience in itself.
You might not expect it, but if you’re an avid skier, there’s even the chance to hit the slope near Marrakesh. Just 80km away, the Oukaimeden Valley is home to several ski resorts, with six lifts, multiple hotels, and lessons available. Not where you’d imagine learning how to ski, huh?
Indulge in Moroccan cuisine
Food is an integral part of any visit to Marrakesh. Moroccan cuisine is as spectacular as the rest of its culture, so make sure you carve out some time to enjoy all it has to offer.
At the top of the list is the country’s most iconic dish — tagine. The flavorful stew is served in a conical clay pot where it is also cooked. While the pot is a quirk in itself, the dish shouldn’t be overlooked.
Doubling as a restaurant and education center for disadvantaged women in Morocco, Amal Center has become an immensely popular spot. Serving up local dishes at affordable prices, visitors can enjoy the local culture while helping the young women become trained chefs and in turn, broaden their prospects for the future.
If you feel like a more immersive experience, you can sign up for a cooking experience with the women and learn how to cook traditional favorites like tagines or couscous.
Fancying something else? Pay by the pound on Mechoui Alley, where whole lamb is cooked underground
Explore Marrakesh’s excellent museums
Marrakesh is home to a number of excellent museums.
Charting the history of the ancient city from its founding by the Almoravids, all the way through to its turbulent relationship with France, The Marrakesh museum is a must. It gifts context to much of the stunning surroundings in the city.
Those with an eye on fashion can’t miss the Yves Saint Laurent museum. The world-renowned designer was a lover of Marrakesh, owning a home where the museum now stands. It’s own of only two places, the other being Paris, where his work is on display to the public.