The history and culture of Morocco is so rich and expansive that, for visitors, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Such diversity is far easier to digest in smaller sittings, so for clients interested in delving into the vast entanglement of its historical roots, I recommend visiting two of the most important and accessible cities – Marrakech and Essaouira. While each offers a very different experience, both provide an insight into the past, the present and even glimpses into the future.
The Must-See Cultural Gems of Morocco
Intriguing, exotic and completely irresistible to those with an adventurous spirit, Morocco is defined by its culture, history and epic desert landscapes. The relics of its patchworked past are displayed in the centuries-old traditions and the bustling hearts of its ancient medinas. But nowhere is the storied past of this fascinating country told better than on the streets of Marrakech and Essaouira.
The written word really can’t do justice to the magnificent maelstrom into which you dive when you tread the ground of this ancient city. The architecture, artisan heritage, cuisine, the traditional riads and the local people come together in an unstoppable force of culture that makes this former imperial city one of the world’s most visited destinations.
For the uninitiated it can appear chaotic and confusing, but look a little closer and you’ll see there’s an underlying method to the madness; amidst the noise, dust and the vibrant colours, life goes on pretty much as it has done for centuries.
Marrakech is a city of two halves: the one behind the ancient ramparts of the medieval Medina and the other – the vibrant, contemporary Gueliz area – filled with shops, galleries and restaurants. There are so many “must-sees” that even after many trips I’m still learning about this incredible city. If you’re looking to experience the authentic culture, you really shouldn’t miss:
- Jemaa el-Fna: The very hub of the city, this open-air square pulses with sights and sounds. Street artists, performers, snake charmers, food stalls – you name it, you’ll find it here.
- Jardin Majorelle: When you need a little respite, this charming garden is a truly enchanting space. Filled with Art Deco and Moorish influences and more than 300 species of plants, it’s a wonderful place to slip away and reflect for an hour or two.
- Koutoubia Mosque: This beautiful twelfth-century mosque is the largest in the city and an exquisite example of Moorish architecture.
- Saadian Tombs: The final resting place of the rulers of the Saadi dynasty, these ornate, intricately carved tombs are located just outside the city. It’s a stunning site to explore and offers a great insight into the Arabic culture of the country.
- Museums: There are numerous notable museums dotted around the city, but some of the most important to see are the fabulous Museum of Moroccan Arts (for architecture) and the Musée de Marrakech, for ancient artefacts and also more contemporary art.
In a destination like Marrkech, it’s so important to have a safe and relaxing haven as a base. The wonderful Les Jardins de la Medina is that and so much more, with the heart of a traditional riad and the soul of a gorgeous hotel. Secreted behind ancient walls and surrounded by a garden filled with orange and olive trees, it’s an unexpected oasis in the very heart of the Medina; I couldn’t think of a better place to call home for the duration of your trip. There’s a genuine ambience of tranquillity, both in the gardens surrounding the pool and in the individually decorated rooms that overlook the central courtyard. With an onsite restaurant and a superb little wellness centre, you’ll be hard pressed to find a reason to leave. But just remember, the rest of Marrakech awaits…
Exciting, Exotic Essaouira
With a combination of spectacular coastal beauty and a character steeped in traditional culture, Essaouira is every bit as exciting as Marrakech, albeit in a far more laidback way. Very popular with windsurfers and sun-worshippers, the city is also an understated cultural gem, with a host of important historical sites – not to mention its appearance in the blockbuster Game of Thrones series.
More than most, Essaouira is a city whose appeal lies simply in its own “experience”. You’ll encounter the bulk of its history on display on the streets, promenades and souks, which are perfect for walking. Set out on your own walking tour of the city and you’ll never be disappointed.
- The Ramparts: The ancient stone ramparts that surround the city provided fortification against invaders of the port and, even today, are its defining icons. As well as offering a glimpse into the history of the city, a stroll along the walls offers some amazing views in either direction.
- Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah Museum: The city’s dedicated history museum is jam packed with ancient relics that tell the story of Essaouira’s past – from pottery to jewellery and other archaeological finds. The museum is housed in a magnificent nineteenth-century building that’s an attraction in itself.
- The Souks: Every town, village and city in Morocco has a souk, and they’re invariably the very heart of local life. If you want to really understand the culture of Essaouira, head down to one of its seething markets, filled with food, crafts, clothing and spices, and immerse in the magic and mayhem.
The Heure Bleue Palais lives up to its romantic name. With a location within the walls of the Medina and a truly welcoming ambience, this charming riad wraps you in hospitality. The historic building that the hotel occupies dates back to the nineteenth century and has been painstakingly restored in the traditional style. The luxurious rooms and suites provide a delightfully private haven, and when you can bear to emerge to enjoy the rest of the hotel you’re in for a treat. Along with a rooftop pool and sun terrace, there’s an excellent onsite restaurant, a lovely colonial bar, a cinema room and extensive wellness facilities, including an authentic Hammam.