It’s not Morocco’s capital city (that’s Rabat). It’s not the country’s largest metropolis (that’s Casablanca). It’s not even the African nation’s oldest city (that’s Fes). But Marrakech triumphs over other Moroccan cities as the unofficial cultural center thanks to the winding alleys of its vast medina, contrasted with the modern malls and restaurants of the Nouvelle Ville, juxtaposed yet again with the luxurious palm tree-lined resorts and villas of its Palmeraie district. Before you lose your way in the city’s souks, get lost in these 25 facts about Morocco’s most popular tourist destination.
1. Religious nomads called the Almoravids wandered to the Tensift River, where they built their capital, establishing Marrakech in 1062.
2. The name Marrakech is rooted in the Berber phase murr akush meaning “the land of God.” But another theory says that the name comes from the Arabic words murra kish, which translates to “pass by quickly”—a warning to travelers to be wary of thieves and wild animals.
3. Marrakech is frequently referred to as the Red City, because of the shade of the walls surrounding its old town district.
From the summit to the sand to the sea: Marrakech’s prime location is just 50 miles north of North Africa’s highest peak, Toubkal, in the Atlas Mountains; 122 miles northwest from Ouarzazate, the gateway to the Sahara Desert; and 110 miles east of the port city of Essaouira.
5. Marrakech was one of Morocco’s Imperial Cities, or historic capitals, during the Berber Empire. The others were Fes, Meknes, and the current capital, Rabat.
6. In the middle of World War II, Winston Churchill begged Franklin D. Roosevelt to accompany him on a jaunt to Marrakech following the Casablanca Conference: “You cannot come all the way to North Africa without seeing Marrakech,” he said. “I must be with you when you see the sun set on the Atlas Mountains.” So the two set off on a 1943 journey, driving down from Casablanca. Churchill stayed a day longer, engaged in one of his favorite hobbies—painting. His canvas of the Atlas Mountains’ view ended up being the only artwork he painted during the war.
Roosevelt and Churchill at the Casablanca Conference, 1943, Getty
8. One example? The Bahia Palace, which was built in two phases by a father-son team around 1900. Covering 19.8 acres, the structure stands out thanks to its irregular design. Today, the Moroccan Ministry of Cultural Affairs is housed in the building and is often used to host foreign dignitaries.
9. The 230-foot-tall Koutoubia Mosque tower isn’t just Marrakech’s most symbolic landmark. Five times a day, the call to prayer, or “adhan,” rings from the tower as the predominantly Muslim population pauses to worship. Legend has it that the original mosque wasn’t properly aligned with Mecca, and had to be rebuilt by the Sultan Yocoub el-Mansour in the 12th century.
10. In general, non-Muslims aren’t allowed to visit mosques around Morocco, but similarly intricate Islamic architecture is on full display at Marrakech’s Medersa Ben Youssef, a university founded in the 14th century and rebuilt in the 16th century. Covering 17,976 square feet and featuring 132 dorms rooms, the school was one of the largest in North Africa until it shut down in 1960. Twenty-two years later, it reopened as a museum.
Parlez-vous Arabic? Although the official language in Marrakech is Arabic, many locals also use the Berber language Amazigh as well as French.
12. Marrakech’s exotic hotels have lured Hollywood filmmakers for decades. Among movies filmed in the Red City are 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (at the Mamounia Hotel), 2010’s Sex and the City 2 (at the Taj Palace), and 2015’s Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, filmed in the Selman Hotel.
13. The Moroccans, just like us, worship Bill Murray. He rocked the kasbah (well, technically, the medina) at the 15th annual Marrakech International Film Festival in December 2015, where after receiving the Etoile D’Or Lifetime Achievement Award, he hosted a screening of Ghostbusters for more than 20,000 fans in Jemaa el-Fnaa square. “I’m here because I love this country and I love these people,” Murray declared.
14. Look up and see white storks nesting along top of the red-tinted ramparts of the El Badi Palace. The majestic structure was built by Saadian sultan Ahmed al-Mansour in the 16th century with money received from the Portuguese after the Battle of the Three Kings. One century later, his successor Moulay Ismail stripped the palace of all its luxuries. Yet even in its stark state, the 426-foot long century courtyard—featuring four sunken gardens separated by pools—still lives up to its name, which translates to “The Incomparable.”
15. The same sultan al-Mansour, who died in 1603, is surrounded by as much luxury in death as he was in life. Accessible only through a tiny passageway in the Kasbah Mosque, his Saadian Tombs’ mausoleum is made of Italian marble and honeycomb plasterwork gilded in pure gold.
16. When Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé found out that Marrakech’s Jardin Majorelle, which they discovered on their first visit to the city in 1966, was being transformed into a hotel complex, they bought the property and lived in the Villa Oasis on the grounds. Now a Roman pillar memorial stands in the garden, as an ode to the fashion designer who died in 2008.
Yves Saint Laurent's former residence, Getty
Despite its many identities, the soul of the 954-year-old municipality lies in its old town, where locals and tourists mix in the continent’s largest square, Jemaa del-Fnaa, to be dazzled by snake charmers and monkeys, indulge in the more than 100 food carts, or simply mingle among the locals.
18. Uber chic nightclubs and golf resorts may be within city limits, but in 2010, it was reported that 20,000 homes in Marrakech still had no access to electricity or water.
19. Marrakech was officially made a sister city of Scottsdale, Arizona, in January 2012. Their similarities? Both desert cities “share interests in climate, tourism, cultural heritage, and golf management.”
20. Construction for the 45,240-seat Stade de Marrakech began in 2003, but the Olympic-sized stadium didn’t open until 2011. Primarily used for soccer, the venue has hosted matches for both the 2013 and 2014 FIFA Club World Cup Finals.
21. Stroll around the streets of Marrakech and you'll quickly discover that there are cats around every corner. Though the felines are rarely kept as pets, they're generally well-fed. Some even take up residence in local shops.
Though many Moroccan men and women still wear djellabas, or traditional loose-fitting robes with a hood, locals do strip down at the hammans—gender-segregated bathhouses peppered through Marrakech’s medina. The experience is more than about scrubbing clean with savon noir soap and ghassoul clay masks; Moroccans are known to gossip and talk shop while gathering.
23. Since 1987, the city has hosted an annual marathon, which draws approximately 6000 runners a year from all over the world. The first place finisher in the women's inaugural race was 14-year-old Nadia Ouaziz-Colombero, one of the youngest athletes to ever win an international marathon.
24. Whether dining along the perimeter of Jemaa el-Fnaa square or staying at one of the hundreds of riads (Moroccan houses with an open courtyard or garden in the middle), escape the city bustle by climbing to the rooftops. Meticulous gardens dot the top-floor panoramic views of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
25. Marrakech Menara Airport, designed in 2006 and completed in 2008, regularly appears on lists as one of the most striking terminals in the world. The strong lines of the ultra modern geometric patterns are contrasted with delicate details likened to the intricacies of Morocco’s iconic buildings.