The Imperial Cities of Fez and Marrakech, founded in the 8th and 11th centuries respectively, have a wealth of Islamic architecture and crafts. These ancient medinas have tiny streets where magnificent palaces rub shoulders with humble market places, tranquil medersas or theological schools contain exquisite mosaic tiles, carved plaster and cedarwood, delicate calligraphy and marble fountains. These ancient skills are still practised in the medinas of Morocco, along with other crafts such as brass and copperware, leather tanning, ceramics and embroidery.
The medinas are just like a living museum. Marrakech is the largest, followed by Fez, then Rabat and Meknes. You soon realise that the medina operates not because you’re there as a visitor, but because people are living there, shopping, going to school, getting bread baked at the community oven, plying their wares or going to the mosque.
Modernity is visible in the satellite dishes, plastic goods for sale and the odd motorbike (or more in Marrakech). But the medinas are essentially ancient and nothing much has changed for more than 1200 years.
In each of these medinas you will find exquisite traditional houses that have been restored and renovated to include all modern comforts. Accommodation in these cities is in beautiful guesthouses, called riads, in the medinas.
When the French arrived in Morocco in 1912, they built new cities next to each medina, where they could live. The Marrakech Ville Nouvelle is particularly striking and well worth exploring. It has a wealth of Art Deco buildings, many now housing interesting art galleries. The Jardin Majorelle and adjacent Yves Saint Laurent Museum Marrakech is a wonderful respite from city life. You’ll find a great restaurant culture and chic boutiques here, too.
How you can discover the Imperial Cities:
*English-speaking guides will lead you on a half-day or full-day walk through the streets, visiting the historic sites and museums, pointing out the architecture, exploring the souks, all the while focussing on your particular interests.
*Our special half-day tours: on the artisanal tours you can meet the artisans, pick up their tools and learn about their lives, while food tours take you to produce markets to taste street food.
*The Marrakech medina sports almost 20 museums: ask for our list to decide which to visit.
*In Fez, we offer an Architectural Insights tour to get an inside look into the workings of the medina, how it’s laid out, the hydraulic system, and the crafts used in decorating homes, from the smallest abode to the fanciest palace.
*In Fez, set off on a half-day photography tour with a professional photographer, gaining access to places that tourists rarely see and learning how to photograph these remarkable streets with their vivid colours and light.
There are plenty more cities to explore, each with their own character. Here are a few:
Casablanca is Morocco’s gritty commercial hub, but there’s more to see here than initially meets the eye. The magnificent Hassan II mosque is definitely worth a visit, and it’s the only mosque in Morocco that non-Muslims can enter on a 45-minute-long tour.
If you enjoy architecture, wander the downtown area to see the crumbling Mauresque and Art Deco buildings. There’s a burgeoning art scene with galleries and performance spaces, and top restaurants abound.
Rabat, the kingdom’s capital, is a gentle, slow-paced city with clean, wide streets, some interesting monuments such as the pirate lair Kasbah, the Phoenician/Carthaginian/Roman site of Chellah and the Mausoleum of Hassan I. The Museum of History & Civilisations has treasures from Volubilis, and there’s a good Museum of Contemporary Art.
Excellent restaurants will tempt you, many of them specialising in fish. Whizz over the Bouregreg River on the handy tram system to more conservative Salé and its beautiful medina architecture.
Tangier, the white city on the hill that has shrugged off its shady past, sports a delightful medina topped by the Kasbah, gorgeous places to stay overlooking the sea, excellent shopping, superb restaurants and art galleries galore. And yet Tangier retains that raffish air of the Beat poets and bathes in the light that so entranced Matisse and Delacroix.
Essaouira is everybody’s favourite coastal resort. With a history of Romans who harvested sea molluscs to give them their royal purple dye, to Portuguese pirates who built the ramparts on the sea, to its extensive Jewish history, this little city is a fascinating spot. It can be windy here, giving rise to the many kite-surfing and wind-surfing opportunities. Enjoy walking or playing soccer on the beach rather than sunbathing and swimming. The medina is small and fairly easy to navigate, with interesting galleries and shops specialising in naif art and thuya wood products. Lovely riads entice (especially if they have a sea view from the roof), and superb restaurants beckon.
Chefchaouen, the famous blue town with red roofs and a Spanish flavour, tumbles down a mountainside in northern Morocco. It’s enchantingly photogenic and easy to find your way around. An imposing red-earth kasbah dominates the main square, alongside the mosque with an unusual octagonal minaret. There’s a lot of Jewish history here too, as many Jews thrown out of Spain came to live here.