Marrakech: Morocco’s cultural capital is brimming with stunning architecture

I took a trip to Marrakech, the former capital and one of Morocco’s imperial cities. With its historical sites and packed medina, it was the perfect introduction to Morocco.

So what is a medina exactly? Found in many of Morocco’s major cities, this is the name given to the historic walled area of the city, which features many narrow, winding alleyways and lots of market stalls, mosques and traditional Moroccan houses.

The medina in Marrakech is car-free, as the roads are too narrow for them to enter, instead they’re filled with motorbikes and donkeys making their way through the busy streets. The medina can get very busy, and is full of many stalls, with plenty of merchants eagerly trying to persuade you to take a look at their goods.

To be honest, I found that some of the stall owners were a bit aggressive, with some of them even following me down the street in an attempt to persuade me to stop and take a look. I understand that they’re just trying to earn a living, but I feel like this kind of approach would put off a lot of travellers, and it was one of the things I didn’t like about Marrakech. Fortunately, there was also a lot of good stuff to discover.

Marrakech is the perfect introduction to Morocco

The medina of Marrakech is also home to a number of historical sites, which are adorned with beautiful architecture unlike anywhere else I’ve ever visited. Le Jardin Secret, or the Secret Garden, is one such example.

As its name suggests, this garden is hidden away in the medina, but inside are two large courtyards filled with fountains and many kinds of plants. It really does feel like a tranquil retreat away from the busy medina streets outside. There’s also a tower that offers views over the whole of the medina – the entire old city of Marrakech is made up of low rise buildings, most only a couple of storeys high, with mosque towers being the tallest structures in the medina. It’s quite special to hear the prayer calls echo across the city, instructing Muslims to pray 5 times per day.

The largest mosque in the city is the Kotoubia Mosque, located to the south of the medina, near the Jemaa el-Fna Square. Both areas are worth visiting and great for photography. The Jemaa el-Fna Square is the main square of Marrakech, and is absolutely packed with market stalls selling souvenirs, leather bags, orange juice, and countless other merchandise. The square is full of street performers and entertainers, including snake charmers – be careful not to get too close!

Outside of the medina and well worth visiting, the Majorelle Garden is located to the northwest of the medina. Similar to the Secret Garden, this is another beautiful Islamic garden, which is famous for the ‘blue house’ in the middle. A popular site for photos, the building also contains the Berber Museum, a small museum dedicated to Berber culture.

Berbers are considered to be the original inhabitants of North Africa, before the Islamic Conquests in the 7th century, and a large proportion of the Moroccan population today still identifies as Berber and speaks Berber languages, which are distinct from Arabic. This makes Moroccan art and architecture somewhat different from styles present on the Arabian Peninsula.

Nearby to the Garden is the Yves Saint Laurent Museum – dedicated to the fashion designer, the museum houses a collection of art from various artists who have made Marrakech their home over the last century.

Marrakech is also home to a couple of palaces. El Badi Palace is a huge ruined palace in the south of the medina, and its scale is really impressive. Once a lavish palace, it was stripped of most of its contents in the 17th century for the Sultan’s palace in Meknes.

For a more intact palace, head to Bahia Palace. This palace is mostly untouched, with beautiful marble floors, large open courtyards, and intricate archways and doorways. The carvings on the door are so detailed that it really does make you wonder how people were able to craft something so beautiful.

The Museum of Marrakech is also good for this – in fact I’d go as far as to say that the building is the star of the show, not its exhibits! If I ever got the chance to build my dream house, I think I’d take a lot of inspiration from Moroccan architecture.

Without a doubt, the most memorable experience of my visit to Marrakech was when I took a day trip to a small Berber village in the Atlas Mountains, south of the city. The drive there took around two hours, with our minibus winding around narrow mountain roads, with huge mountains and expansive valleys beside us.

When I finally got to the village, I took a short trek up the mountain path to a small house for lunch. The tallest mountain in North Africa, Toubkal, towered over the tiny village, and provided some absolutely breathtaking views. It felt like I’d stepped back in time – some of the houses were made of mud, and there were no paved roads in the village at all. The locals used donkeys as transportation.

Our guide was from a neighbouring village, and he told me he’d woken up at 4am that morning, in order to drive to Marrakech to meet myself, and the rest of the group, at 9:30am. As I walked through the village, plenty of locals would stop and chat to him in the local Berber language. He told me that although Arabic is the main spoken language in Morocco, there are various local dialects, called darija, and that the Marrakech dialect can’t necessarily be understood in other parts of the country.

In small villages like this though, Berber is the everyday language, although most people learn Arabic in school. Visiting the village gave us some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen in my life, and although it was cold, the village was tranquil and a really eye-opening experience to how some Moroccans live their lives.

In the city though, I noticed quite a big difference outside of the medina. In the more modern ‘new city’, I noticed that some more upmarket shops and foreign food chains like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut only offered menus in French, not Arabic.

Morocco was colonised by France during the 19th and 20th centuries, and even today French is the unofficial second language of the country, with most Moroccans being at least conversational in it. This made it a bit easier to get around, as a lot of signs are bilingual in Arabic and French, and French is a hell of a lot easier to read as a native English speaker than Arabic!

I noticed that a lot of locals would address me in French first, and if they realised I didn’t understand, they’d try English or Spanish after that. So overall, the language barrier wasn’t a huge issue, although knowing a few French phrases would certainly help any traveller visiting Morocco.

Onto the food: the most famous dish is couscous, but a common Moroccan dish is called tagine. This can come in many varieties, as the word ‘tagine’ actually refers to the pot in which the food is cooked. Common ingredients are chicken, lamb, beef, vegetables, dates, chickpeas and nuts. There are plenty of spices, and it’s now my favourite Moroccan dish. The mint tea is also amazing – it was served regularly throughout my trip – it’s sweeter than I expected, but very refreshing.

Bread is also a large part of the Moroccan diet, being served as a side in most restaurants and sold on stalls throughout the city. As someone without much exposure to Moroccan cuisine before, I’d definitely be eager to get my hands on a tagine again soon!

Overall, I really enjoyed visiting Morocco – it opened up my eyes to a completely different culture that I didn’t know much about beforehand. While it may be challenging for some people, with pushy local merchants and crazy drivers, there is genuinely a lot of unique sights to see here that you won’t find in other parts of the world. North Africa is definitely somewhere that I’d be intrigued to visit again someday.

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