A riad is a particular type of boutique hotel housed in a renovated, grand, old house in Morocco, mainly Marrakech and Fez. I’ll speak in general terms; with riads opening almost weekly now, there will certainly be some exceptions to this description. For a couple of decades now it has been quite trendy for Europeans to buy old riads and renovate them as vacation homes or guest houses. Now there are hundreds in Marrakech alone.
In the Kasbah neighborhood of the Marrakech medina, tucked behind the Kasbah Mosque are the Saadian Tombs, burial grounds of the Saadi dynasty, which ruled Morocco in the 16th & 17th centuries. The mausoleum was built during the reign of sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, not the first Saadi ruler but definitely the most famous.
There are near 200 graves altogether, with the sultan and princes inside and women and officials in the garden. After the fall of the Saadis, the succeeding Alawites (still ruling Morocco today) walled up the Saadian tombs and they were lost to history until discovered in 1917.
Unless you’re seriously into Moroccan history, the main appeal of this place is the interior architecture and embellishments – Carrara marble, elaborately carved cedar and plaster, and colorful tiles, as well as the peaceful courtyard garden, which feels far removed from the busy medina.
The tombs are accessed by a path around the right side of the mosque (non-Muslims cannot enter the mosque). This is a popular tourist stop in Marrakech and can get quite busy, with long lines to enter, best to go early and with a guide.
Many of our travelers to Marrakech, Morocco request a day trip into the High Atlas Mountains, the white-capped wall on the city’s southern horizon. With Berber villages dotting the foothills, there’s a cultural appeal to these trips, equal to the natural one. Many of the villages have weekly markets.
Probably the best-known mountain excursion from Marrakech is to the Ourika Valley, a stunning 60-90-minute drive southeast from Marrakech. It’s long been a favorite getaway for Marrakeshis and in recent years, it has become quite popular with tourists. While still very beautiful, it can feel overrun at times, especially in the summer.
Some lament the presence of vendor stalls set up along the river, others appreciate the development or look past it to thoroughly enjoy the mountain air and views of soaring peaks, including that of Jebel Toubkal, the tallest mountain in North Africa.
Setti Fatma, clustered around the Ourika River, is the main village of the valley. Above the village is a series of seven waterfalls. The hike to the falls, especially the upper ones, is steep and involves a lot of scrambling over large rocks. Some stretches of the trail skirt significant drops and there are no barriers. Many reach the first fall and call it good. Any hiking in the area, even just along the river banks, is best done in sturdy shoes with good tread.
Considerably less busy than Ourika (but increasingly popular with tourists), Ouirgane is 90 min-2 hours southwest from Marrakech, in the heart of the Toubkal National Park. This is another gorgeous drive, through Berber villages, orchards and forests, but the destination is quite different. There’s lots of easy-moderate walking in the hills and pine forests of Ouirgane, as well as mountain biking and horseback riding. Ouirgane village has a weekly market on Thursday.
Beautiful Ouirgane Lake (aka Yacoub el Mansour) was created in 2008 when the Nfis River was dammed. Nearby, the 12th-century Tin Mal Mosque was the original spiritual home and fortress of the Berber Almohad Dynasty, which rose from humble beginnings to conquer all of Morocco, much of North Africa, Portugal and Southern Spain. It is one of two mosques in Morocco that allows entry to non-Muslims (the other is the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca).
In the Marrakech medina, near the Mellah (Jewish quarter), the Bahia Palace sprawls across 8 hectares in an incoherent series of reception halls, living quarters, courtyards and gardens. It was built in two phases by father and son Grand Viziers, first 1859-1873 and then 1894-1900. Today, the palace is home to the Moroccan Ministry of Cultural Affairs and is still used by the king to host the occasional visiting dignitary.
The sedate façade reveals nothing of the splendid interiors, with elaborately carved, painted and inlaid cedar ceilings, vivid tile and marble floors and walls, stained glass windows and serene courtyards that seem a world away from the chaotic medina just outside. Some of the palace is closed to the general public, but those areas that are open do a good job representing the various moods of the palace as a whole.
Beginning in the 1920s and for nearly 40 years thereafter, French ex-pat painter Jacques Majorelle lovingly designed and planted his exotic garden on the fringes of central Marrakech. Over the years, his original 4 acres became 10 acres, but the high cost of maintenance forced him to sell off pieces of the property one by one until 1961, when he sold the last, 2-acre parcel.
Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé were instantly enchanted by the garden when they first visited in 1966. They bought it in 1980 after hearing it was to be destroyed.
Inside the garden, the dusty, blazing intensity of Marrakech seems a world away. Only 2 acres, the garden feels intimate, even secret. Benches hide among the palm and bamboo groves. Babbling fountains sooth and refresh.
Jacques Majorelle painted structural elements in bold primary colors, against which the garden greenery really pops. The distinct blue used on his 1931 Cubist villa/studio and throughout the garden is now known as Majorelle Blue. In 2011 a very good little Berber Museum opened in the villa displaying items from the collection of YSL and Pierre Bergé.
Also in the garden, the Galerie Love displays the Love posters designed by Yves Saint Laurent, Boutique Majorelle sells pricey but quality gifts and mementos, and a shady café serves breakfast and lunch (but is best for a cold drink).
An hour is more than enough time to stroll the gardens and the small museum, but I’ve heard tales of hours lost in this leafy sanctuary.
The Majorelle Garden is located in Marrakech’s Ville Nouvelle, about a 5-minute drive or a 20-minute walk from the medina.
The village of Imlil is tucked into the High Atlas Mountains. Trekkers use Imlil as a base for climbing Mt. Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. However, you needn’t be a mountain climber to enjoy the crisp air, soaring views and traditional charms of this Berber village. It makes a great day trip from Marrakech, only 90 minutes away.
Can you name that county?
See below for answers.
The Maison de la Photographie is a little gem of a museum, which captures a range of Moroccan life through photographs taken 1870-1950, as well as a fascinating 1957 documentary film.
The collection is arranged by region over three levels of a lovely riad in the Marrakech medina. An hour or so spent in the serene galleries and rooftop terrace makes a nice contrast to the intensity of the old city outside. From the café, you have a 360-degree view across the medina to the Atlas Mountains. If you time your café visit to catch the sunset, with the evening call to prayer ringing out over the city, it’s especially magical.
Reasonably priced prints are for sale in the museum shop.
The Maison de la Photographie can be tricky to locate in the medina maze.
A Ya’lla guide will lead you right there.
Click to see Ya’lla tours to Morocco.