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World Travel Guide > Guides > Africa > Morocco > Marrakech

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Marrakech History

Founded in 1062, Marrakech served as the capital of Morocco under the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties. At its height, the Berber empire Almohad Caliphate controlled much of northern Africa and southern Spain, which in turn gave rise to a unique blend of cultures and distinctive Moorish architecture with interweaving arches, central courtyards, and attractive tile work among the main elements.

In subsequent centuries, Marrakech continued to grow under different leaders who also added various grand buildings to mark their reigns. Some examples include the 16th-century Saadian Tombs, the 18th-century Dar el Bacha Palace, and the 19th-century Bahia Palace.

In the early 20th century, Marrakech was captured by the French colonial army which installed their key ally T'hami El Glaoui as the Pasha of Marrakech, a post he held for 44 years until 1956. On 2 March 1956, Morocco gained its independence from France and Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Yusef was restored as Mohammed V.

Marrakech has long fascinated European tourists. Winston Churchill frequented Marrakech in the 1930s and 40s, calling it "the Paris of the Sahara". In the 50s and 60s, the city became an escapism hub for hippies, surrealists, and pop culture giants such as Alfred Hitchcock, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Yves Saint Laurent – the latter restored and turned Jardin Majorelle into a living work of art and one of the must-see sights in Marrakech today.

Did you know?
• It is illegal to cut the palm trees dotted across the landscape.
• The souks in Marrakech are vast and varied, with an estimated 30,000 craftsmen working in the area between Jemaa el Fna and Medersa Ben Youssef.

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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.

Les Jardins de la Koutoubia

Tucked behind the Jemaa el Fna, this lovely hotel has 100 rooms and suites, clustered around a palm-filled courtyard with a large pool, decked out in a modern Moroccan style. Other major draws include the serene spa, offering traditional hammam treatments, and the piano bar and rooftop terrace, perfect for that evening sundowner.

La Mamounia

Set within lush gardens (once the royal grounds of the Saadians) and with fine views of the Atlas Mountains, this art deco luxury hotel has been the place to stay in Marrakech since it opened in the 1920s. Winston Churchill was a frequent visitor and has a bar named in his honour. Expect beautiful rooms, succulent on-site dining and world-class spa facilities.