This City In Africa Is A Must-Visit For History-Buffs

Winston Churchill loved Marrakech. He was so smitten with the Red City that he talked his pal Theodore Roosevelt into paying a visit with him during a summit in Casablanca in 1943. More recently, the Moroccan hotspot has become a playground for the rich and famous, attracting Hollywood royalty like Brad and Angela and pop superstar Rihanna. While the city may have changed a little since his time, no doubt its latest wave of celebrity guests will agree with Churchill's sentiment: "Marrakech is simply the nicest place on earth to spend an afternoon."

If you are visiting the city, you might well need more than an afternoon to make the most of its rich culture, architecture, and history. It has a unique place as a tourist attraction: Rabat may be the capital, Casablanca may be the largest metropolis, Fes may be the oldest, and Tangier may be popular with literary types (thanks to its connection with William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac). But Marrakech has managed to supersede them all as the superstar must-see destination of Morocco.

With a population of over 900,000 people, Marrakech is a thriving modern metropolis. Most visitors, though, come to experience its world-famous medina, the bustling old town surrounded by over 19 kilometers of ancient fortified walls. It is here that millions of people each year come to experience the sounds, tastes, and smells of the city — and it's also here that history buffs will find some of its finest sights.

Marrakech is full of historical sites

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage in 1985, the 11th Century Medina contains some of Marrakech's most precious sites, such as the landmark minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque. The 77-meter tower survived the earthquake that struck the city in September 2023 but many of the medina's old buildings were not so lucky, including sections of the ancient walls that sustained damage. The city, however, is now safe again for visitors. The thick ramparts, studded with ornate gates leading into the medina, make for a good walking or jogging tour around the outskirts of the Old Town.

Koutoubia Mosque is an important symbol of the city and one of the most beautiful places of worship in Morocco. It is free to enter, but visitors should take care to dress appropriately and not disturb people while they are praying. Also within the Medina walls are the Bahia Palace and El Badi Palace. The first has an ornately decorated exterior while El Badi is an enormous ruined complex with plenty to explore. The 14th Century Ben Youssef Madrasa school is an important example of Islamic architecture while close by El Badi you will find the Saadian Tombs, an opulent mausoleum resplendent in colored tiles and intricate carvings.

For a slice of Marrakech tradition that goes back centuries, visit the open-air tanneries where leatherworkers still use age-old techniques. Beware, however, as the process is notoriously smelly, involving soaking the skins in a mixture that includes bird droppings.

Explore the living history of Marrakech

While there are plenty of historical attractions to seek out in Marrakech, a huge part of the medina's appeal is the sense that you are walking through the city's living history. While you're exploring the souks and flea markets you will get a chance to engage in another time-honored tradition: haggling. It's a part of day-to-day life for Moroccans and can feel like a bit of a combat sport to the uninitiated — but if you hold firm, you might land yourself a bargain.

The feeling that the old town is an open-air cultural museum is most keenly felt in Jemaa el-Fnaa, the city's world-famous market square and meeting place. The square dates back to the 11th Century when it was a venue for public executions, hence its name "Assembly of the Dead." Nowadays it is more convivial, a place of great cultural importance and the city's top tourist attraction. It is where visitors flock to experience snake charmers, dancers, musicians, have their fortune told, or get a henna tattoo. 

Jemaa el-Fnaa is also the first port of call for many when they want to sample traditional Moroccan cuisine. In the evening, hundreds of outdoor restaurants and food stalls are set up in the square, creating a heady atmosphere rich with succulent smells. Many delicacies are on offer including kebabs, tajines, fresh fish, and a variety of street food snacks. If you're feeling brave, you can even try some freshly cooked sheep's brains.