Why is the old city of Marrakech so famous? And what attracts today’s visitors?

The reputation of Marrakech as a tourism destination par excellence is based largely on the city’s long history as the former capital of the country to which it lent its name. Morocco’s first Imperial City, a World Heritage site, Marrakech today draws visitors from around the world in search of rather more than history alone but the city’s cultural heritage is still one of the main attractions exemplified by its museums and galleries and by historic buildings and monuments, many of them splendid examples of Islamic art. Another reason for the city’s popularity is its location, at the foot of the ever-present, snow-capped mountains of the High Atlas, a couple of hours from Atlantic beaches and under a day’s drive from the northern edge of the Sahara Desert.

Much of the Marrakech medina is still surrounded by its 12th-century, 9 metre high defensive walls, some 20 kms of them, punctuated every few hundred metres by square defensive towers (borjs). Few of the city’s ten original, monumental gates remain but among those that do Bab Agnaou, at the entrance to the Kasbah, is especially notable. To the west of the ancient walled medina is the modern quarter of Guéliz developed by the French during the protectorate (1912 to 1956), as was l’Hivernage, the elegant, residential quarter close by. Known as the ‘red city’ after the colour of its buildings, the Marrakech medina dates from the time of the Almohads, a confederation of indigenous Muslim Berber tribes who built an empire in northwest Africa and Muslim Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries and founded Marrakech as the capital city in 1062.

What attracts today's visitors to Marrakech?

At the heart of the ancient medina is to be found one of the city’s most celebrated landmarks, the Place Jemaa-el-Fna, a huge central square serving as a daily market place, converting each evening into a venue for purveyors of a whole range of street food and a variety of entertainers. Bordering this unique focal point of Marrakech lies the vast, labyrinthine network of the main Marrakech souk while, but a stone’s throw away, stands the iconic edifice that is the 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque with its 77-metre minaret.

Renowned for its balmy winter climate, exotic flowering plants, orange and olive groves and rich culinary heritage in which spices and local herbs play a large part, Marrakech has drawn celebrities for years, including politicians (Winston Churchill among them, during and after WW2), countless Hollywood celebrities and international royalty, many of them attracted, no doubt, to the huge choice of luxury boutique hotels and chic riads for which the city is famous.

Marrakech is also noted for its parks, especially the Menara olive groves and walled 405-hectare Agdal gardens and more recent additions such as the Jardin Majorelle (created by the French painter and acquired in the sixties by Yves Saint Laurent) and the wonderfully recreated medieval Secret Garden in the heart of the medina. An irrigation system, built under the Almoravids, bringing water from the Atlas is still used to water this and other gardens in the city.