Marrakesh is a cultural afficianado’s delight. It is home to a Berber culture dating back over 9,000 years, together with extensive Oriental and Islamic influences. From architecture to folklore, haute couture to food, there is something for everyone. Simply being in the centre of the city, you are within an area designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It covers not just the souks and the spectacular central Jamaa el Fna square but also countless riads (traders houses), palaces and mosques. The Medina is a massive complex, almost labyrinthine in layout focusing on traditional architecture and trading methods.

Palaces of Splendour

The Bahia Palace is a feast for the eyes with its soaring architecture, intricate lacey stonework, metalwork grilles and gates, brilliantly decorated rooms and shady, fragrant gardens. Occupying 8 acres, it contains the first stained glass windows to be created in the Maghreb as well as countless paintings, carvings and stucco work. It is not surprising that the name translates into ‘beautiful palace’. Not far away is the Dar Si Said Museum housed in another former nineteenth century palace built by the brother of Marrakesh’s Grand Vizier. Filled with vivid Byzantine colours and designs, it now houses displays of historic and contemporary Moroccan art along with folk art, antiques and weapons.

Riad discoveries

Many of the former traders houses have now been turned into hotels. Hidden behind plain wooden doorways are incredibly ornate, atmospheric rooms. Beautiful plasterwork and local crafts are much in evidence, along with reminders of other cultural links such as 1940’s French resistance worker and vaudeville singer, Josephine Baker who stayed at one of these riads as a guest of the Pashah of Marrakech. Staying in a Riad brings the local culture vividly to life, especially when sitting on the roof in the evening listening to the muzzein calling the faithful to prayer, along with the drift of noise and aromas from the surrounding souks and stalls while in the distance the looming bulk of the Atlas Mountains can be seen.

Spices and local food

Famed for its vivid colours and exotic spices, Marrakesh is a sensory delight. At the heart of family life are shared meals made with fresh, seasonal ingredients using recipes handed down over the generations. Taking part in a guided foodie tour is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the aromas and tastes of local food. Secret Food Tours is one of the companies which guide people around the souk, exploring the different food ingredients including delicacies like sheep’s eyeballs, pastries and handmade couscous. Sometimes such foodie tours can be linked to a cooking experience. Guests staying with Marrakech Riad for example can enjoy a guided tour of the spice district, food markets, bakery and traditional Meshwi lamb ovens before heading back to the Riad Star and cooking a meal. Vegetarian options can be arranged!

Parisian haute couture in the heart of Marrakesh

For Parisian fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakesh was very much his second home as he divided his time between the two cities. A purpose built modern building, the Yves Saint Laurent museum contains a vast array of his work. A rotating collection of over 100 costumes complete with accessories such as jewellery and gloves can be seen, along with original boards dealing with every haute couture collection he designed. On display too are notebooks and sketches making it possible to trace his development as a fashion designer across several decades, including clothes he created while working for Christian Dior. Added interest comes in the form of vintage prints by leading fashion photographers during the past century. 

Traditional to contemporary

Art has always played a major role in the culture of Marrakesh. Buildings continue to be adorned with traditional art and designs created by local craftspeople. Merely wandering through the souks provides an insight into characteristic artistic styles of the area.

Head over to the Majorelle Garden to visit the Berber Museum filled with over 9,000 years of distinctive traditional costumes, jewellery, art, weapons and ceremonial items. Even approaching the museum bears witness to the local love of colour, as the Art Deco styled building is completely painted in a vivid shade known as Majorelle Blue.

The Musee de la Palmeraie, on the Route de Fes offers a very different artistic style. Although housed in one of the oldest agricultural buildings in the city, it houses permanent displays of works by around 50 contemporary artists working in a variety of artistic disciplines including photographs, sculpture, calligraphy and paintings. Take time to stroll in the adjacent gardens and watch the artists at work – and not just artists. You can also find writers and musicians bringing Marrakesh’s modern culture vividly alive.

Head to the stars

Complete your cultural immersion with a visit to the Cultural Centre of the Atlas Golf Marrakech where you can explore the universe as well as the story of the earth itself. A vast array of fossils and minerals can be seen, some dating back millions of years. Head up to the top floor of the Cultural Centre to admire the solar system painted across the ceiling, and to visit the observatory. Book an evening visit and you can watch the universe unfold through massive telescopes, seeing the stars, moon and planets in their continual orbit through space. 

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