Distinct, ornate traditional riads are quintessentially Moroccan—and staying in one is an excellent way to immerse yourself in the country’s history and aesthetic.
The first word you need to learn when visiting Marrakech (or Morocco more generally) is riad. While the term translates to “garden” in Arabic, it also refers to a style of traditional house that opens inward to an open-air courtyard. Originally the city homes of the wealthy merchant class, riads are often beautifully ornamented with detailed mosaics, richly colored tapestries, and intricate, patterned metalwork. Many also feature interior pools and fountains, citrus trees, and rooftop terraces; they’re truly oases in the middle of a hectic city.
“Riads make you feel right at home,” says Raphael Dana, operator of one such establishment, Maison Dana Marrakech. “They are very private; you feel guarded from external noise. And due to their [center-focused] architecture, riads create an ambience of connectedness.”
A riad’s external walls are thick and without large windows; this fortification was historically essential in the chaotic, maze-like medina, or walled city center. And in addition to increasing privacy and security, the solid walls block heat and keep the home naturally cool. “Summer in Marrakech can see temperatures exceeding 40°C [104°F],” says Mike Wood, who, with his wife Lucie, owns Marrakech Riad, a portfolio of four traditional riads around the city’s medina. He also notes, “As well as the cooling courtyards, other touches include dipping pools and roof terraces, the perfect spots to sit and sip mint tea and catch any cooling evening breeze.”
Mostly built in the 18th and 19th centuries or before, great numbers of riads have fallen into disrepair. But with renewed tourist interest in Morocco, locals and expats across the country have stepped in to restore many of these beautiful homes. With its wide range of riads, popular Marrakech is the best place in the country to experience these traditional accommodations. Some are run as bed-and-breakfasts, with four to eight guest rooms and shared central courtyards, lounges, and terraces. But if you’re traveling with a larger group, the best move is to rent a riad in its entirety.
Home-shares and B&Bs
Sites including Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO offer access to hundreds of riads. The airy, roomy Maison Dana Marrakech, for example, starts at $330 per night for the entire five-bedroom riad, which can sleep 10. Its many shared spaces include a courtyard pool, traditional steam room hammam, and rooftop terrace complete with sun loungers, an open-air kitchen, and a working fireplace. A full-time cook is available for breakfasts and dinners and prepares both Moroccan and European dishes.
The Moroccan-owned Riad Shiraz ($476 per night) has a modern-bohemian vibe and is outfitted in whites and cool neutrals rather than the richer hues of a more traditional Moroccan palette. Its four bedrooms sleep up to eight guests. The inviting roof terrace is home to hammocks, daybeds, and a cactus garden; up a different set of stairs, a higher shaded lounge is the prime place to view sunsets.
Boutique Hotels and Villas
The four properties of Marrakech Riad are spread across the medina, but they all rent rooms individually and allow for full book-outs; some are simple and intimate, others closer to the scale of a boutique hotel. The Riad Papillon (rooms from $100 per night, full property from $520 per night) preserves the coziness of a traditional riad, but its amenities befit a hotel: Each of the five rooms has an ensuite bathroom and includes a local cell phone loaner and satellite television.
The larger, 13-bedroom Riad Star (rooms from $145 per night, full property from $2,220 per night) sleeps up to 38 and has a storied history. Once part of the Royal Palace of Thami El Glaoui—the last pasha of Marrakech—in the 1940s it was the home of Josephine Baker, the 20th-century singer, actress, and French resistance agent. The Star’s many amenities include an on-site spa and hammam, three separate lounge areas on the expansive rooftop terrace, and a cooking school that offers half-day classes for those who want to try their hand at Moroccan cuisine.
If you want seclusion and privacy with all the comforts of a five-star resort, every “room” at the Royal Mansour (from $1,000 per night)—a hotel owned by the King of Morocco himself—is a riad unto itself. True to historic style, each is built around an open-air courtyard with a ground floor lounge and rooftop terrace. Less traditional: The roofs are equipped with rain sensors and close automatically when the weather turns. A watchman, housekeepers, and butlers are always on hand. And while the three-bedroom riads on the property feature private hammams, the Royal Mansour Spa—which is considered among the best in Morocco—has its own hammam rooms as well.
To rent a full riad boutique hotel, plan to book at least six months in advance—more for busy times of year such as the winter holidays. Individual rooms in B&B-style riads are usually available with much less notice.
Plan your arrival
Riads are generally located in the central medina of Marrakech, as they are in other Moroccan cities. Google Maps can’t quite keep up with the twists and turns of the medina’s tiny alleys, and most riads are relatively unadorned from the outside, making them tough to spot. Even the most seasoned navigators should ask their hosts for detailed directions, or better yet, arrange transport from a central location.
Ask about alcohol in advance
Don’t necessarily expect to enjoy a cocktail at sunset. Some riads do happily serve wine and spirits, but many in this Muslim country do not; it’s best to be respectful and ask your hosts before opening a bottle.
Consider the season
While riads were built to keep cool in the summer, “cool” is a relative term when temperatures soar above 100°F. And in the winter, nighttime temperatures can drop to 40°F. In warmer months, check to see if your riad has air-conditioning; in cooler months, ask about in-room heating or a fireplace.
Expect close quarters
These accommodations provide a great deal of privacy from the street, but it can be a different story inside. Bedroom windows generally open onto interior corridors, and sound can echo within the central courtyard. Some riads will have ensuite bathrooms; others will not. Think of a riad as a shared home, rather than a hotel with isolated rooms.
>>Plan your trip with AFAR’s Guide to Marrakech