Editor’s note: On Friday, September 8th, 2023, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck Morocco in the High Atlas Mountains some 45 miles southwest of Marrakech, resulting in more than 2,800 deaths at time of update. Airports remain open and the country as a whole is still welcoming visitors. Relief and rescue efforts are continuing and there are a number of organizations accepting donations.
Search for “riad” and “Marrakech” online and you’ll encounter a stream of images of dreamy spots in Morocco filled with gorgeous mosaics, cozy courtyards, bijou pools, and lots of boho-chic people lounging in straw hats and caftans. But if you’ve found yourself wondering exactly what a riad is, how it’s different from a hotel, and if you should stay in one on your next trip to Morocco, we’re here to help demystify things.
What is a riad?
A riad is a guesthouse or small hotel featuring a collection of rooms set around an internal courtyard or garden, and they’re found in and around medinas across Morocco. Usually unassuming from the outside, riads often showcase Moroccan craftsmanship on the inside, and entering one feels like a portal into a completely different world.
The word “riad” can be used to describe anything from a small, privately run home-for-rent to a boutique guesthouse, like the seven-room Riad Jardin Secret in Marrakech with its intricate plaster carvings and ornate zellij tilework, all the way to the 53 palatial three-story riads of the luxurious Royal Mansour hotel, built for King Mohammed VI and a showcase of artisanal talents. In general, the main differences between a riad and a hotel come down to size and services offered, but the nuances go much further.
Beautiful Moroccan riads to book
Some recommended riads (mentioned throughout this story) include:
- Riad Jardin Secret in Marrakech
- Royal Mansour in Marrakech
- El Fenn in Marrakech
- Riad Goloboy in Marrakech
- Le Riad Yasmine in Marrakech
- Palais de Fès, a collection of historical houses in Fez
- Riad El Amine in Fez
- Riad Fès in Fez
- Riad Jardin des Biehn in Fez
- L’Heure Bleue in Essaouira
- Riad Inna in Essaouira
- Salut Maroc! in Essaouira
- Riad Zyo in Rabat
Are riads only in Morocco?
While you can find riad-style accommodations in other cities across North Africa, Morocco prides itself on its riads, with the Moroccan National Tourism Office website describing them as being “the epitome of Moroccan hospitality.”
Ghita Tazi, co-owner of Palais de Fès, a collection of historical houses dating back to the 14th century on the edge of the ancient medina in Fez, describes a riad as “holding a deeper meaning than just a physical space, somewhere that’s not just a place to stay.”
According to Tazi, “A riad is an embrace of family-oriented warmth and genuine Moroccan hospitality.” That’s exactly how I felt when I stayed at Palais de Fès earlier this year as a solo woman traveler. From the doormen who welcomed me back with big smiles every time I returned “home,” to the motherly restaurant manager Hayat who draped a shawl around my shoulders when she saw me looking chilly one evening, this individual attention is a special part of staying in a riad. “It’s like being welcomed into a caring family that takes pride in looking after you,” adds Tazi.
What to expect when you stay at a riad
When El Fenn opened in 2004, it was one of the first wave of Moroccan riads to blend traditional artisan work like tadelakt polished plaster walls with bold colors, contemporary art, and midcentury furniture. Co-owner Vanessa Branson says that for her, the essence of a riad is “private slumping areas, elegant architecture, peace, spicy fragrances, smiling staff, warm marble under your feet, and citrus trees.” It’s a list of attributes that sums up the experience of staying at El Fenn, a collection of 13 interconnected riads and one of the most stylish, art-driven accommodations in the city.
In general, staying in a riad brings a sense of calm, of peace and quiet, and of being surrounded by beauty, whether the interiors are based on local craft traditions, such as those at Riad El Amine in Fez, or opt for a more modern aesthetic with contemporary art and bold colors, like Marrakech’s Riad Goloboy. Others make the central swimming pool the star of the show, like the one in the green-and-white tiled courtyard at Insta-fave Le Riad Yasmine, also in Marrakech.
How is a riad different from a hotel?
Many riads have a very homey feel, sometimes with resident dogs, cats, and tortoises wandering around. The small scale means that service is personal, but there can also be a sense that you’re staying in a shared house, with all rooms leading onto the same courtyard. If you’re traveling as a group, it may be better to rent an entire riad to yourself.
Most small riads don’t have their own restaurants, but they usually include breakfast cooked on site, as well as Moroccan meals—such as tagines and couscous—if ordered in advance. It’s a good way to get a taste of authentic home cooking.
While guesthouse-style riads have a member of staff on hand 24 hours, if you’re privatizing a riad, that may not be the case. It’s worth considering what’s right for you. I recently rented an unstaffed riad in Marrakech for my parents’ golden wedding anniversary, which, with hindsight, is not something I would do again. We encountered people following us back to the tiny dark alley it was located on and had late-night knocks on the door from people asking for money. Having someone on site adds an extra sense of security and comfort and can also come in handy if you get lost in the labyrinthine medina and can’t find your way home.
Are riads only found in Marrakech?
Riads are available across Morocco and often take on the character of the city in which they’re located. Searching for the riad that’s best for you can feel overwhelming, but the hunt is all part of the fun of finding the right one.
In seaside Essaouira, many riads are built into the ramparts, benefiting from external windows for ocean views and sea breezes. Riad Inna combines riad living with a water sports center offering surfing and kite-surfing coaching, and Salut Maroc!’s rooms are filled with eye-popping colors and kaleidoscopic contemporary mosaics, along with spectacular Atlantic sunsets from the rooftop restaurant.
In Morocco’s laid-back capital of Rabat, a city that many travelers skip (don’t—it’s a friendly city and well worth a visit), at lovely Riad Zyo you feel like you’re being welcomed into the family; owner Ali and his sons offer hot mint tea and pastries the second you arrive.
In Fez, home to the oldest and largest medina in Morocco, Riad Jardin des Biehn is a plant-filled oasis, formerly a palace outbuilding, with water features, fragrant jasmine, and a lovely on-site restaurant and boutique that may inspire you to recreate the riad look back home.
Tips for booking and choose a riad to stay in
These days, the line between a riad and a hotel can be vague. Some luxury boutique hotels across Morocco started as small riads, like Palais de Fès and El Fenn, and have subsequently grown.
Branson dropped “Riad” from El Fenn’s name 10 years ago as the property grew to incorporate surrounding riads, adding more rooms, a restaurant, room service, and laundry. “Our offering was clearly so much richer than what most presumed the experience of renting a room in a smaller riad would be, and it was time to differentiate ourselves from the others,” she explains. Did that growth mean that El Fenn no longer has the essence of a riad? Not at all, she says. “As El Fenn is made up of so many different riads and courtyards, the feeling is the same; there is simply more of it!”
When selecting a riad, you should consider a few key things. Are hotel-style amenities—room service, concierge, laundry—important to you? If so, properties like El Fenn, Riad Fès in Fez, and L’Heure Bleue in Essaouira offer the comfort of a hotel, while still making you feel like you’re in a riad.
Do you want to book a room in a riad or have the entire property to yourself? Airbnb is full of private options, running from more basic properties to lavish multi-bedroom riads with pools and elegant furnishings. Not all of these retreats are actually in the medina though, so be sure to check the location if that’s a priority for you.
Decide how close to the medina do you want to be
Other questions to ask yourself are whether you want to be right in the center of the medina, or out on the edge, which can often cost a bit less but can make navigation trickier. Are you carrying lots of luggage or unsteady on your feet? If so, you may want to check if the riad you’re considering is easily accessible by taxi. What time of year are you traveling? Summers can be very hot, so it’s worth checking if your riad’s bedrooms have air-conditioning.
Consider mobility issues and noise
If you’re traveling with older people or very young children, or have mobility issues, you may find getting around tricky. There can be plenty of trip hazards—steep, narrow staircases, loose rugs, low light, and ledges—as well as central plunge pools that can’t be child-proofed.
They can also be noisy. I’ve experienced fellow guests coming home in the wee hours and continuing to party in their rooms. Admittedly this was unusual, but with rooms sharing the same courtyard, noise carries in riads and is something to bear in mind if you’re a light sleeper.
With many riads being on the small side, it pays to book ahead. This also goes for renting your own private riad. Consider booking six months ahead for an entire riad and even further out for peak periods.
Ask about alcohol policices in advance
As lovely as it is to indulge in a few sundowners on the roof of your riad, it’s better to ask about alcohol in advance. Many riads have a fridge stocked with wine and beers and also have no objection to you bringing your own, but with Morocco being a Muslim country, there will be some that prefer not to have alcohol on the premises. Better to be respectful and check in advance before cracking those beers open.
Not all have keys to lock your room while you’re out
Another peculiarity of riads—including some of the hotel-style riads—is that many of them don’t have keys to lock individual rooms while you’re out. One riad owner told me “we don’t need keys here,” which many travelers may feel is a choice they would like to make themselves. If you do want to lock your room, some will happily provide a padlock. Alternatively, carry your own if you prefer to secure your own space while you’re out. All doors lock from the inside though, usually with an old-school metal bolt, so you’re safely tucked in at night.
A final thought
Staying in a riad is a lovely, atmospheric experience that showcases a special side of Moroccan hospitality and allows guests to appreciate the intricacies of Moroccan decorative arts in close quarters. With so many available, you can easily riad-hop your way around Morocco. As Tazi says, “A riad embodies the soul of Morocco, embracing visitors in its rich cultural embrace and leaving an indelible mark on their hearts.” And how could you not want to experience that?
This article was originally published in 2019. It was most recently updated on August 23, 2023 to include current information.