Things to Do in Central Morocco
The crowning glory of Marrakech’s numerous palaces, even the name of the exquisite Bahia Palace nods to its greatness – ‘Bahia’ translates as ‘Brilliance’. Located by the medina, on the northern edge of the Mellah, or Jewish quarter, the Bahia Palace was once the 19th-century residence of Si Ahmed ben Musa (or Bou-Ahmed), the Grand Vizier of Marrakech, who famously lived here with his four wives, 24 concubines and numerous children.
The Palace, a medley of Islamic and Moroccan architectural styles, is one of the city’s most visited attractions, a richly decorated masterwork that was intended to become the ‘greatest palace of all time’. Although ultimately falling a little short of its aspirations, elements of the elaborate design work are exquisite. The dazzling floor to ceiling embellishments took over 7 years to complete, and include intricate mosaics, inlaid wooden ceilings, molded stuccos and gilded finishes.
Built in the 12th century, the Koutoubia Mosque is not only the largest in Marrakech, it is also one of the most influential buildings in the Muslim world. Throughout Spain and beyond you’ll see echoes of its intricate geometric stone work, graceful arches and imposing square minaret.
This last feature, flood-lit at night, is a much-needed point of reference when exploring the low-lying tangle of streets and alleyways which comprise the medina. At 220 feet / 61 meters it was quite a climb for the five daily calls to prayer in pre-elevator times, so a spiraling ramp was installed for the muezzin to ride on horseback to the summit.
The Majorelle Garden is one of the most magical places in a city with no shortage of enchantment. Its founder, French painter Jacques Majorelle, fell in love with Marrakech in the early 20th century and after developing this charming oasis, opened it to the public in 1947. Apart from the huge range of exotic plants, including rare succulents and towering palms, the most distinctive feature is the intense, almost psychedelic shade of blue used in the garden’s walls and buildings.
The garden fell into disrepair and in 1980 was purchased and restored by the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. It now also houses the Islamic Art Museum, containing exhibits which belonged to both Saint Laurent and Majorelle himself.
The Saadi dynasty, which dominated much of Morocco in the 16th and 17th centuries, is closely identified with Marrakech, and some 60 members of the ruling family are now permanent residents. Assuming your reverence for long-dead Moroccan sultans is limited, the main reason for visiting the Saadian Tombs is the outstanding decorative work on the buildings which house them. Stunning geometric mosaics, minutely detailed stonework and serene courtyards evoke comparisons with the Alhambra.
The more important tombs are arranged in three rooms, including the magnificent Hall of Twelve Columns, with lower-ranked notables resting in the garden. The site was sealed at around the same time that El Badi Palace was destroyed and was only rediscovered in 1917. Faithful restoration ensures this jewel of Moroccan architecture continues to delight, and it is one of the most visited sites in Marrakech.
Djemaa el Fna, or Place of the Dead, a huge open expanse at the core of the medina (old town) of Marrakech, is one of the great meeting places of the world. Traders meet merchants, merchants meet travelers, travelers meet snake handlers. And the past meets the present, with storytellers carrying on a centuries-old oral tradition, keeping their listeners spellbound with tall tales. The square functions as an outdoor market, music hall, restaurant and theatre as well as the point of departure or arrival for exploration of Marrakech’s myriad delights.
To get an overview, head for a terrace at one of the cafes which loom over the edges of the square. The price of a coffee will buy you respite from the commotion at ground level and a sensational view of the market, the Koutobia Mosque and the Atlas Mountains. And once the sun goes down the Place of the Dead is anything but. In fact it’s just getting going, with mesmerizing music and the smoke.
Marrakesh, once the most powerful commercial and political center in the Arab world, was founded in 1062 by Berber chieftain Abu Bakr ibn Umar as the capital of the orthodox-Muslim Almoravid Empire. Full of ornate monuments built mostly between the 12th and 16th centuries, a visit to its medina, or old town, is like a walk through a heavily fortified open-air museum. It was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1985.
Surrounded by ancient walls and enormous gates, the medina contains a huge central courtyard called the Jemaa el-Fnaa, a center of trade and public gatherings since Morocco’s inception. The medina is also home to a series of stunning gardens, including the Majorelle Garden, set beside the Museum of Islamic Art and featuring plants collected from five continents.
The lavish Royal Palace and Badi Palace stand adjacent to one another, but neither are open to the public; to get a look inside royal life in the medina.
A short taxi ride from the bustling Djeema el Fna, La Palmeraie offers a tranquil escape from the lively souks and traffic-laden streets of the Old Medina and Marrakech’s most affluent district has often been nicknamed the ‘Beverly Hills of Marrakech.' A quiet, sun-soaked oasis of palm and orange tree-fringed boulevards, neatly-tended rose gardens and vast swimming pools, La Palmeraie is home to many of the city’s most extravagant resort hotels and luxurious private villas.
Even if you can’t afford to stay in La Palmeraie, the scenic district makes a worthwhile detour from downtown Marrakech and the 32,000-acre stretch of palm groves provides a shady backdrop for leisure activities. As well as walking and biking tours, horseback riding and camel riding are popular pastimes, and there’s also a beautifully situated golf course overlooking the villas.
Some say the entrance to Ben Youssef Madrasa is purposefully humble and bland. Little more than a wooden door facing out towards the buzzing medina, the entrance is nothing more than perhaps a storefront, office, or home. The inscription, however, written above the door, beckons travelers in further: “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded.” Indeed, once you duck through the narrow entrance and the medina noise fades behind you, what emerges before you is the soaring courtyard of a 16th-century madrasa.
Constructed back in 1570 as an Islamic place of learning, Ben Youssef Madrasa would swell to include over 900 dedicated students. At its peak, it was North Africa’s largest Islamic school and had 132 dorms—some of which are so tiny and small you must crouch down low to enter. Though the madrasa formally stopped educating students back in 1960, extensive refurbishment has turned it into an informative site for visitors.
The El Badi Palace is an open-air account of the successive dynasties which have held sway in Marrakech. It was built in the late 16th century by King Ahmad al-Mansur of the Saadi dynasty, who spared no expense, filling his home with the best materials and craftsmanship of the age: Italian marble, Sudanese gold and intricately carved Indian woodwork.
But the glories of El Badi (“the incomparable”) were fleeting, and Sultan Mawlay Ismail of the succeeding Alaouite dynasty ransacked the building for his own palace. Even in its ruined state you get a clear idea of the scale of the palace, with high, stark walls enclosing the traces of stately reception halls and other official chambers. The intricate Koutobia minbar (the pulpit-like stairway from which the imam preaches in the mosque) is also on display.
More Things to Do in Central Morocco
Get a very visual understanding of Morocco by visiting this small, photo-dense museum tucked away on a tiny street in Marrakech’s medina, or old quarter. Housed in a former fondouk—a building to lodge merchants and travelers—the museum’s collection of images highlight life in Morocco over the course of roughly 100 years, from the 1870s to the 1950s.
Not just photos are on display either: you’ll also find glass photographic plates, postcards, and documentaries, including the first color film taken in the High Atlas Mountains. The collective images – of which the museum has thousands --provide a thought-provoking and visually intriguing overview of the country’s culture and history, especially as it relates to its Berber people. A relatively small venue, the Photography Museum spans several floors, on top of which sits a rooftop terrace. It is there that visitors are rewarded with sweeping views of Marrakech and even the Atlas Mountains beyond.
Marrakech’s foremost museum is housed in a 19th century palace which draws on earlier architectural glories for inspiration, all centered on an Andalusian-style courtyard. The current form of the museum is largely due to patron Omar Benjelloun, who did much to reanimate interest in Morocco’s cultural heritage.
Exhibits include ceramics, jewels, arms, costumes, calligraphy and a collection of Judaica, reflecting the diverse cultural history of the city. Also on display is a fascinating selection of etchings which show Morocco as it has been viewed by foreign artists over the centuries. Works by contemporary Moroccan artists round out the permanent collection, while a program of temporary exhibitions makes use of the old hammam and other spaces of the palace.
One of the great distinguishing landmarks of Marrakech, the Menara Gardens are grouped around a reservoir which once formed part of an irrigation system. They date back to the 12th century, with the green-roofed pavilion added four centuries later and occasionally used as a royal summer residence in the years since. This modest yet perfectly-proportioned structure is best viewed from the opposite end of the reservoir, reflected in the still waters with the majestic snow-capped Atlas Mountains as a backdrop.
Olive groves, citrus trees, palms and other plants offer shade from the burning sun. Here the frenetic souk seems a lifetime away, and the gardens attract as many locals as tourists, particularly at sunset.
The rugged highlands of the Kik Plateau make a popular destination for hiking in the High Atlas Mountains, with numerous trails running from nearby Berber villages like Asni, Moulay Brahim and Ourigane, and easily accessible from Marrakech.
Renowned for its unique limestone topography, the plateau is a scenic spot, blanketed with alpine wildflowers and wheat fields, and offering magnificent views over the surrounding peaks, including the looming Mount Toubkal, Northern Africa’s highest peak.
With its deep blue waters set against a backdrop of sweeping desert plains and the distant Atlas Mountains, it’s easy to understand the appeal of Takerkoust Lake and it’s a world away from the chaotic souks and busy medinas of nearby Marrakech. A manmade dam built by the French in the late 1920s to provide water and electricity for Marrakech, Takerkoust is now an important recreational area, drawing a stream of both locals and tourists during the summer months.
Swimming is not permitted at the lake (although many locals still do), but water sports like jet skiing, wake-boarding and kayaking have become popular pastimes, and many visitors bring a picnic to enjoy along the lakefront. The real highlight is the dramatic view over the surrounding desert and mountains, and the lakeside offers an ideal backdrop to walking, cycling or quad biking tours, as well as horseback or camel riding excursions.
One of Marrakech’s most fascinating museums, the Tiskiwin Museum, or Maison Tiskiwin, is housed in a beautifully restored riad tucked between the Bahia and Dar Si Said Palaces and showcases a quirky array of North African arts and crafts that chronicle the region’s vibrant cultural history.
The collection, amassed by Dutch anthropologist Bert Flint who has resided in the city since 1957, is organized into geographically themed exhibitions, with each room of artifacts marking out a different spot along the along ancient Saharan trade route from Marrakech to Timbuktu. A colorful assemblage of objects are on display including exquisite hand-woven carpets and textiles, traditional Berber clothing and jewelry, intricate basketwork and tribal handicrafts, many of which were bought from the legendary souks of Marrakech and preserved by Flint.
Rue Dar el-Bacha marks the northern edge of Marrakech’s Central Medina — the city’s heart and soul. This area is also home to many of Marrakech’s top shops, restaurants and hammams. Walk along the road, and you’ll find shops selling antiques, Oriental rugs, Berber jewelry and housewares, as well as a handful of fondouks — a sort of Middle Eastern caravanserai — dealing in artisan wares like bags, tapestries, hand-painted tile and ottomans.
Dar Moha, ranked among the city’s top Moroccan restaurants, occupies a beautiful riad along Dar el-Bacha, where diners can eat al fresco around a patio swimming pool. For a bit of relaxation after a day wandering the medina, Dar el-Bacha boasts two excellent spas, the more traditional, public Hammam Dar el-Bacha (the largest traditional hammam in the city) and the upmarket, spa-style Hammam de la Rose.
Spread over 24 acres (10 hectares) just outside of Marrakech, Oasiria Water Park offers a perfect place to get away from the city and cool down in sunny Morocco. The water park has a bit of everything you’d expect, including thrilling river rapids and water slides, as well as a lazy river, splash tower, adults-only pool areas and Africa’s largest wave pool. Young visitors enjoy their own pirate-themed splash zone and mini toboggan slides.
While Oasiria doesn’t permit outside food or drink (except water), the park does have five eating establishments to choose from, including a sit-down restaurant, two fast food counters and a dessert cafe serving waffles, pancakes and pastries.
Morocco’s bathhouses, or Hammams, are both an important cultural tradition and a right of passage for travelers to the country, and Marrakech’s hugely popular Bains de Marrakech (Marrakech Hammams) is one of the most famous, located at the gateway to the Medina. The luxury private spa was the first of its kind in the city, opening in 2001 and now even featuring its own range of cosmetics, sourced from natural Moroccan-sourced ingredients.
The creative mastermind behind the spa is Frenchman Kader Boufraine, whose vision was to marry western facilities and spa innovations with the steam rooms, plunge pools and cleansing scrubs found at a traditional bath house. The Bains de Marrakech’s modern flair has served it well, making it a popular choice for first-timers looking to experience the time-honored Moroccan hammam within lavish surroundings and without doing away with their modesty.
When you think of the Sahara, Northern Africa, or the sunny Moroccan plains, things like snow, ice, and crampons usually aren’t part of the picture. When climbing Mount Toubkal, however, conditions quickly go from hot to brisk, mountainside cold. Towering 13,751 feet above sea level, Mount Toubkhal is not only the highest mountain in central Morocco, but also the highest in the Atlas Range and all of Northern Africa. It’s a trail that’s accessible all year round to a wide range of hikers, and is more of a long, very steep stroll as opposed to a technical climb.
Trips begin from the town of Imlil about an hour south of Marrakech, where temperatures can still be blazingly hot despite the hillside perch. By the end of the first day of walking, however, the trail levels out at Toukbal Refuge near 10,000 feet elevation, where the air is suddenly crisp, cool, and a welcome break from the heat.
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