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World Travel Guide > Guides > Africa > Morocco > Marrakech

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Marrakech History

Founded around 1062 by the Almoravids, Marrakech is one of Morocco’s four Imperial Cities, along with Méknes, Fes and Rabat. It would go on to become the capital of the Almohad caliphate in the 12th century, which sprawled through Spain and Africa.

During this period, Marrakech was blessed with its mighty walls built from red sandstone, gleaming mosques like Koutoubia, fine gardens and palaces. The architectural influence of the Almohads was strong and featured carved domes and arches. When blended with influences from the Sahara and West Africa, it created a unique style of architecture in the city.

Marrakech’s rapid growth turned it into a cultural, religious and trading centre and despite a later period of decline, it resurged in the 16th century during the reign of wealthy Saadian sultans, who built magnificent palaces such as El Badi Palace.

Until 1867, Europeans were forbidden from entering the city unless they were granted permission from the sultan. By the early 20th century, when the country was overwhelmed with unrest, the French were able to colonise Morocco. French influence lingers on in the wide boulevards of the new town, Guéliz, and its few remaining art deco villas, most notably landscape painter Jacques Majorelle’s stylish cobalt blue retreat in the Jardin Majorelle. But the most significant legacy of colonial rule is the French language, which is still spoken by all educated Moroccans.

After WWII, a vast array of pleasure-seekers rediscovered Marrakech. Winston Churchill, Yves Saint Laurent and the Rolling Stones rubbed shoulders with American beat writers, hippies and a new breed of curious visitors anxious to see what all the fuss was about. More recently, a tourism drive led by King Mohammed VI has resulted in new luxury hotels, shops and restaurants. A moderate constitutional monarch, he has been responsible for social reforms and gave parliament new powers during the Arab Spring.

Did you know?
• Although Marrakech was founded in the 11th century, Berbers had been living in the region since the Neolithic era.
• The city was popularly known as Marrakush al-Hamra, meaning Marrakech the Red, inspired by the blushing sandstone used for the ancient walls.
• Marrakech still uses an 11th century irrigation system to water the city’s gardens.

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Riad Dar Aby

Situated just outside the Medina, Riad Dar Aby houses a number of en-suite rooms circled around a bright, tiled courtyard. The daily breakfast of Moroccan pancakes with lashings of jam provides a homely touch, while free Wi-Fi access, optional specialised tours and friendly staff complete the package.

Riad Cherihane

Notable for its vibrant rooftop garden where tortoises laze in sun, the well-priced Riad Chrihane is situated near the northern edge of the Medina, roughly a 15-minute walk from Jemaa el Fna. Though it can be tough to track down, due to its location down a quiet side alley, complimentary Moroccan tea and biscuits greet wearisome guests.

Riad L'Etoile D'Orient

Restored in 2010, this tastefully appointed riad mixes the modern with the traditional, meaning guests can upload snaps of the refined Moroccan decor using the speedy free Wi-Fi service. Just minutes from Jemaa el Fna, rooms here include flatscreen TVs and gorgeous bathrooms. There's also a rooftop terrace to enjoy.

Riad Al Massarah

This riad is the definition of Marrakech cool, with its blend of traditional lofty architecture, handsome custom-made furnishings and ultramodern bathroom fittings by Philippe Starck. Proprietors Michael and Michel are blazing the trail for responsible tourism with clever use of natural light and solar energy, contributions to local charities, and standard-setting wages for staff.

Riyad El Cadi

This elegant guesthouse is a maze of historic riads set around five courtyards and faceted with private balconies, terraces, staircases and light wells. Each of the rooms has its own décor scheme (stay in the cupola-capped Ottoman suite with Turkish tile and latticework harem balcony). It also has a pool with Jacuzzi, subterranean hammam and well-stocked wine cellar.

La Maison Arabe Marrakech

Opened in the 1940s, La Maison Arabe was a popular dining place for the rich and famous (Winston Churchill was a patron). It closed in the 1980s but reopened in 1998 as a hotel with Italian blueblood and African antiques collector Frederic Ruspoli at the helm. His collection is now the centrepiece of the hotel's luxuriously restored suites and rooms.