Jemaa el Fna, the iconic physical and cultural heart of Marrakech, is a primal, ancient, intangible space that has been referred to as, ‘an inland, tideless sea’. Gathering place for a thousand years, this is where the great Saharan caravans, laden with spices, slaves and salt would arrive from Timbuktu. Today, the goods may have changed, but not the sense that here Africa and Arabia converge. At once circus, open-air food festival and living museum, it is the distillation of Marrakech’s mystique and magic.
If possible, arrive just before darkness falls, when the Koutoubia Minaret is silhouetted against a crimson sky, the crowds mill thicker than ever and Jemaa el Fna’s legendary food stalls are set up. You will see street entertainment at its best – Berber musicians and dancers, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, acrobats, snake-charmers and storytellers. Performers lead their monkeys and lizards past stalls selling orange juice, roasted chick peas, peanuts, sweet fritters, kebabs and tajines. Around the edges of the square are scribes, travelling dentists, henna tattooists, traditional doctors with potions and amulets, and grinning barbers wielding their cut-throat razors. When you need to take refuge, many cafés bordering the square have rooftop terraces offering a grandstand view.
Read more on the food stalls of Jemaa el Fna
The souks of Marrakech are the largest in Morocco and famed throughout the world as one of the most exotic places in the world to shop. They are also the oldest part of a city that thrived on commerce – and still does.
Historically, all souks were divided and laid out according to separate commodities being made and sold, with the most valuable products (gold, manuscripts) positioned in the centre of the main souk area and lesser goods radiating out from there. Today, little has changed. Each souk is still named after the product being sold and, aside from allowances for modern tastes, the goods are much as they would have been a thousand years ago.
The souks thread north from Jemaa el Fna and continue in a winding labyrinth until they hit the Musée de Marrakech. Open from around 9am to 9pm, the best time to visit is in the cool of morning, or in the evening when the sun seeps through slatted roof shades, illuminating a million golden dust motes.
For more on shopping in the souks, see Select Marrakech.
The tallest feature on the medina skyline is the minaret of Koutoubia Mosque (Mosque of the Booksellers). Completed by the Almohad Sultan Yacoub el Mansour in the 12th century, it is the city’s most important landmark and serves as a useful point against which to relate the other sites in the city.
It is the minaret that is the pride of the mosque today. It served as the model for the Hassan Tower in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville. The minaret is nearly 70 metres (230ft) high, and follows the Almohad proportions of 1:5, with the tower five times as high as it is wide. This proportion is found in nearly all Almohad mosques. The exterior of the tower is decorated with carved stone tracery, each side displaying different patterns. The rough stone of the tower would once have been covered with pink plaster and decorated. Remnants of this decoration can be seen in the lines of coloured tiles at the top of the restored tower.
Marrakech’s calèches – horse-drawn carriages – are as much a part of the city as the mosques and motorbikes. For something a little bit different and a lot more atmospheric, take a ride in the evening when the walls are dramatically lit by the setting sun.
The main calèche stand is on Place du Foucauld leading from the Koutoubia to Jemaa el Fna. The Tour des Ramparts takes in all 16km of Marrakech’s medina walls. The oldest parts date to the foundation of Marrakech in the 12th century and were built by Almoravid sultan Ali Ben Youssef to protect the city from Almohad attack. The walls – 10 metres high, 2 metres thick and built out of pisé (rammed earth) – are punctuated by 18 gates, or babs.
Bab el Khemis (Thursday Gate) marks the entrance to Marrakech’s fantastic flea market, Bab Dbagh (Gate of the Tanners) leads to the pungent tanneries, Bab Ghmat, was breached by Almohad mercenaries in 1147 as they laid siege to the city; Bab Agnaou (Black Gate) – a soaring horseshoe arch with intricate carvings framed by inscriptions of the Qur’an – is the most magnificent of them all and the entrance to the royal kasbah, and Bab Ahmar (Red Gate) was built by the Almohads exclusively to be used by sultans to gain entry to their palaces.
The carriages fit four people and you should agree the price before you set off. It should be no more than 100dh for an hour.
The Rahba Kedima or Spice Square is bursting with magic. Nowhere is the fusion of Africa and Arabia that so characterizes Marrakech more apparent than in this vibrant, colourful, chaotic, ancient square.
Come here to buy all sorts of mysterious potions and lotions. For magic spells, there are live chameleons (if a chameleon thrown onto a fire explodes, your husband is having an affair), turtles, lizards, leopard and zebra skins, roots, barks, herbs, leaves, seeds, horns, tusks – cures for everything, from arthritis to a broken heart.
There are stalls selling herbal remedies, cosmetics and toiletries: cochineal powder for rouge, kohl, henna, natural crystal deodorant, herbal ‘Viagra’, toothbrushing twigs and essential oils of amber, musk, rose, patchouli and orange blossom.
For cookery lovers, there is a plethora of spices to choose from: saffron (ask for the good stuff under the counter), argan oil, ground cumin and coriander, shards of mace, star anis, rolls of cinnamon and home-made mixtures of spices created for marinading fish, fruit or meat.
In the middle of the square are piles of handmade baskets, wooden harira spoons, hats and pyramids of fruit and vegetables from the countryside. The old slave market, now the Criée Berbère, is through a covered alley off the north side of the square and next to it is the gorgeous Café des Epices, where a sandwich costs around 30dh. Sit at wooden tables on the pavement, on the first floor surrounded by exhibits of art and photography or on the little roof terrace.
Read more about the highlights of Morocco in Insight Guides: Morocco
Insight Guide Morocco is illustrated with hundreds of specially commissioned photographs. Our inspirational Best of Morocco section picks out the highlights, ensuring you see the best the country has to offer.For centuries, Morocco's breathtaking landscapes and unique heritage ha...Read full description
Cancel your Saturday night out, stock up on Babycham and dust off that score card: yes, Eurovision is back. Last year Swedish chanteuse Loreen powered to victory with Euphoria, meaning that the 2013 c...Read More
Looking for inspiration in the Italian Lakes? Lisa Gerard-Sharp, our award-winning Italian expert, suggests you link your visit to a major festival or event. From contemporary art in Venice to opera ...Read More