Marrakech, MoroccoLong, long ago, on an ‘important’ birthday, I decided not to get hung up on growing older, but instead to book tickets to a destination where I’d never been before. After all, I love travelling and exploring a new destination each year as I added another candle to the cake seemed the best way to celebrate.

That was quite a while ago, and I still continue the tradition each year, inviting my family along for a visit someplace we’ve never been before.

Last year it was the interesting Baltic capital of Vilnius, Lithuania and this year we headed off to wonderfully exotic Marrakech, Morocco.

Marrakech marketsThe thought of exploring someplace new never fails to get me excited for my upcoming birthday, and my family is always anxious to see where we’ll be going. This year’s trip to Morocco was no exception, and we absolutely loved our short but enjoyable stay in Marrakech and can’t wait to get back.

For those of you planning your own visit to this north African city, here are some of the highlights:

Saadian Tombs:  Like everything in Marrakech, this is not well-marked. Unfortunately, the city suffers from a  dearth of street signs. Still, we had a pleasant and extremely meandering walk before we found these amazing tombs.

One of my favorite novelists, Edith Wharton, whose book on Morocco I still must read, wrote of the Saadian dynasty (1549-1668), highlighting their “barbarous customs but sensuous refinements”. Those sensuous refinements are on display at this series of sixty-six sumptuous tombs, constructed at the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th century.

The Hall of Twelve Columns

The tombs were “lost” and rediscovered by a French official in the 1920s. Excavations brought them back to the city of Marrakech. The spaces are rather small, so find your way here earlier than we did to avoid the large tour groups that stop here.

The chambers and prayer halls are all built in a style similar to AlHambra’s, in Grenada, Spain.

The carved wooden roofs, intricate tiles, Roman columns and stucco friezes are stunning, and look out on a pleasant garden marked by tombstones, flowers and stray cats.

The most impressive chamber is the Hall of the Twelve Columns, where the tombs of Sultan Ahmed El Mansour and his family are located. Try to get here during a quiet moment of the day to enjoy the beauty to yourself – minus the tour groups.

Kasba Mosque : This picturesque mosque, just beside the Saadian tombs, was built in 1190. the green-tile around the mosque dates back to the original construction. Unfortunately, in Morocco, non-Muslims cannot enter the mosques, so you will have to enjoy the views from outside.

El Badi Palace, MarrakechEl Badi Palace : It took twenty-five years to build this sumptuous palace for Sultan Mansour. Although it is now in ruins, the walls of this grand palace were once coated in gold.

Work on the palace began in 1578, following Moroccan victory over the Portuguese, who had colonized Marrakech.

Storks El Badi Palace, MarrakechBut this lush palace lasted only a century before the Sultan stripped the palace and had all the riches moved to Meknès, the new capital.

Still, wandering around the ruins is pleasurable. Ignore the pesky, and incredibly rude, self-proclaimed ‘guides’ who harass you inside the front gate and wander on your own.

View from El Badi Palace, Marrakech, Kimberly SullivanEnjoy the beautiful views over the twisting streets of medina from the palace’s terrace.

The palace walls are also a favorite spot for storks to build their nests. The palace is full of them. Storks are considered holy in Marrakech. Supposedly, it goes back to an old Berber belief that storks are thought to be humans transformed into birds. Whatever the reasons for the abundance of storks within these ruins, you’ll be sure to enjoy observing them.

With cobra, Jemaa el-FnaJemaa el-Fna : This is Marrakech’s main square and an all-day, open-air show. Stop off here a few times a day – mornings, afternoons and evenings to enjoy a rotating cast of performers, storytellers, hawkers and busy food stalls.

The name in Arabic actually refers to death, since this used to be the square where executions were carried out. UNESCO recognized the importance of this square by naming it a ‘Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.

With snake, Jemaa el-Fna, MarrakechMy kids loved the snake charmers, seeing a cobra ‘charmed’  by the music and getting the chance to put a snake around their necks was the highlight of their visits to Jemaa el-Fna.

Kids will also enjoy exchanging a  few coins for holding a monkey on their shoulders.

In the evenings, the food stalls are set out, along with long tables and benches, and you can enjoy a dinner cooked before you.

At the food stalls, Jemaa el-Fna, Marrakech, Kimberly SullivanIt’s also worth eating at one of the restaurants lining the square with their terraces high up, where you can watch the spectacle far below you.

There’s lots more to see in Marrakech,so I’ll continue my tips for wearing out your walking shoes on your next visit to this fascinating Moroccan city in next week’s post.