Best of Marrakech, High Atlas and Essaouira
Marrakech, the so-called Red City, is actually many shades of dusty terracotta, a complex crossroads of a place within reach of cool high Atlas valleys and windsurfing Atlantic beaches. Here are our top 10 things to do and see when visiting, taken directly from our Marrakech, High Atlas and Essaouira Colour Guide.
Medersa Ben Youssef
Marrakech’s most beautiful building is a fine example of Islamic architecture. The ex holy school was built by the Saadians in the 16th century and once held up to 900 students. In the heart of the medina, it is a calm and noble space, beautifully proportioned and with exquisitely detailed stucco plaster carving and zellij tiling.
Hidden from prying eyes for centuries, the 66 intricately decorated tombs here date from the 16th centuries but were only “discovered” by westerners in the early 20th century. Finely wrought stucco, zellij tiling and 12 Carrara marble columns embellish the central room. Outside, stray cats and tour groups wander among the notably less grand graves of children and servants.
High in the hills near the pass of Tizi-n-Test, this huge mosque has been partially restored to something approaching its 12th-century glory when this remote spot was the power base of the mighty Almohad Empire. The mosque itself is one of only two in Morocco that non-Muslims can enter and it’s a stunning design – one that the Koutoubia in Marrakech was subsequently based on.
Essaouira’s fish market
The port fish stalls have been greatly spruced up in recent years, and though they still offer good value food, for a really fishy experience, the town’s central fish market tops them. Select your fish from the market and then take it to the covered benches at the back, where for a small fee it will be cooked for you.
Shopping in the Marrakech souks
The city’s souks are for many the defining image of Morocco – a tightly packed labyrinth of alleyways, heaving with colour, sound and retail opportunities. The purchasing part of the experience is optional, though few manage to resist for too long. Be prepared to haggle and to laugh off the sales patter of eager slipper sellers.
A favourite getaway from the city heat for Marrakchis, the lake is actually a reservoir created by the Barrage Couvagnac hydroelectric dam. The expanse of blue surrounded by the dusty pink foothills of the Atlas may be a little unreal but it’s a peaceful spot, the countryside is beautiful and it offers some of the best natural swimming around.
Toubkal National Park
For serious walking, many head to the peak of Jebel Toubkal, the highest in Northern Africa, and the national park that surrounds it. 4,167 metres up, the panoramic views from the top are striking, and, except in winter the route is a relatively easy one. There’s also plenty to be seen further down and there are five other peaks over 3,800 metres.
Spring blossom in the Ourika valley
These days cherries are the predominant fruit crop in the Ourika Valley, and a journey in spring up to Setti Fatma goes through a wonderful film set of blossom. Once you’re there it’s an attractive place for a walk up some waterfalls, or a tagine by the mountain stream.
Touted by some as a new Essaouira, Oualidia is in fact a very different place, with some excellent seafood restaurants but almost nothing in the way of antique atmosphere. What it does have, however, is a strikingly beautiful lagoon, into which rolling Atlantic waves break through gaps in a natural sea wall, making it a calm and unusually safe place for kids.
Sand dunes near M’Hamid
In many ways a camel trek into the sub-Saharan sand dunes is a tourist trap, with little connection to the realities of desert life. On the other hand, spending the night under the bright stars of the dark desert sky and watching the sun rise over the majestic dunes is an experience hard to beat.
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