According to Instagram, Marrakech is the place-to-be at the moment. The new Yves Saint Laurent museum probably has something to do with this current hype. Or the fact that everything just looks so beautiful on camera. Besides the city being extremely photogenic, it also has a very interesting cultural history and present. Marrakech definitely has more to offer than pink walls, famous selfie-approved riads and a labyrinth of souks.
A bit of history
Before we start it’s important to know a tiny bit of the city’s history. Our opinion: traveling without being informed, even though it’s just the basics, is a waist of time and energy. So don’t roll your eyes and continue reading… you got that set of brains of yours for a reason.
Berber farmers have been living in Marrakech since Neolithic times. However, the actual city was founded in the 11th century by Abu Bakr ibn Umar, the cousin of king Yusuf ibn Tashfin and part of the Almoravid dynasty. Under their reign a part of Marrakech’ signature architectural style was set. An Andalusian influence mixed with designs from the Sahara and West Africa. A good example is the Ben Youssef Mosque, named after king Yusuf ibn Tashfin’s son. A millenium later it’s still the most important mosque in the city.
In the 12th century Ali ibn Yusuf built red walls around the city and several buildings were also constructed in red sandstone. This is where Marrakech has gotten its nickname the “Red City” or “Ochre city” from.
If you ever wondered why a big part of the population speaks French (besides Arabic and Berber) in Marrakech, we’ll have to go back to the early 20th century. To the moment when a lot of European countries decided they needed to expend their borders. In 1912, the French protectorate was established in Morocco till 1956.
At the moment, Marrakech is the 4th largest city in Morocco after Casablanca, Fez and Tangier.
First of all there’s the brand new Yves Saint Laurent museum, which opened in October 2017. It was the last project of his partner Pierre Bergé, who unfortunately died right before the opening. The museum exhibits a wide range of Saint Laurent’s couture collections, accessories, sketches and pictures of the designer himself. Compared to Paris, the Marrakech museum focusses on the designs that are inspired by the Moroccan city. The building is created by Studio KO architects in a typical local style, with a lot of terracotta.
Right next to the museum there’s Le Jardin Majorelle, one of the most popular places in Marrakech. It has been designed by French Oriental artist Jacques Majorelle in 1924. Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé bought the property in the 80’s and restored it.
A practical tip: when you want to visit these two sites, we suggest you go early or book a guide because nine chances out of ten there will be a long line. We booked a tour via Morocco Private Experience and didn’t have to wait anywhere. If you don’t have that much patience we strongly recommend you to do the same.
In the middle of the souks you’ll find La Maison de la Photographie. The museum has a collection of over 4500 old photographs taken from the 1950’s till the 1970’s. It’s a nice way to see how Marrakech has evolved throughout the past decades.
Two palaces that are a must are the El Badi palace and Bahia palace. The El Badi Palace was constructed on behalf of sultan Ahmad al-Mansur in the end of the 16th century and is just overwhelmingly beautiful. From all the places we’ve visited, this might be the one that was the most breathtaking. Constructed at the same time are the Saadian Tombs, sepulchres located on the South side of the Kasbah Mosque. Among the graves of Ahmad al-Mansur and his family, you’ll find around sixty members of the Saadi dynasty are buried there. The mausoleum was discovered in 1917 and renovated by the Beaux-Arts service.
The Bahia palace was constructed in the late 19th century and captures the essence of Islamic architectural style. Just don’t mind the Chinese tourists doing everything for the picture…
There are plenty of great restaurants in Marrakech, if you’re staying in the city for a short time it’s hard to choose. Some of our personal favorites are:
Nomad: located in the Medina and known for its famous rooftop. This restaurant offers a modern Moroccan cuisine and delicious cocktails.
Le Jardin: finding this location takes a while but once you arrive, there’s no sign left of the always crowded souks. Le Jardin is recommended for a small, quick lunch rather than a dinner. The food is great but the portions rather small.
Café Clock: located in the Kasbah and used to be a school. This cross-cultural café is perfect for a drink at the bar or having a delicious salad for lunch. And the rooftop terrace is definitely an asset.
Latitude 31: a bit more expensive but definitely worth the money. Latitude 31 serves up sophisticated Medi-Moroccan fusion cuisine, perfect for a late night dinner.
Gastro MK: one of Medina’s finest restaurants. If you want to be sure to have a spot here when you’re in town, make reservations. There are only twenty tables for those who want to taste this delicious fusion Euro-Moroccan cuisine.
If you have some extra cash on the side, we suggest you book a room at La Mamounia or the Royal Mansour. Staying here equals experiencing a 1001 nights fairytale on another level. However, if you’re not in the mood to spend loads of money, Marrakech still is a perfect option. There are a lot of riads to be found where you can have the Arabian Nights experience without being broke afterwards. One of the more affordable suggestions is Riad Palais Calipau, a great place (incl. rooftop) and a great service for a very reasonable price.
Outside of Marrakech
Staying at the Medina can be quite overwhelming, that’s why we suggest to also make a little trip outside of the city. If you want to do this on your own, perfect! Otherwise we suggest to contact the crew of Moroccan Private Experience for a guided tour. We can very much recommend to go for a ride through the mountains and visit the Berber villages and markets. This fascinating experience really helps you to get those feet back on the ground. It shows how life without all those luxurious tools looks like.
Another great tip is visiting the Scarabeo Camp for lunch or even better, staying there for one or two nights. It’s located a bit outside of Marrakech, in the absolute quiet of the desert. The tents are very comfortable, the food is great and they also organize activities such as camel-back rides. You can even follow yoga classes and have a massage. If you need to detach, this might be your best option.
Photo credits: Ruth Van Soom for ENFNTS TERRIBLES