An enjoyable nights sleep is so much more than just a bed, and the quality of where that bed is located can make or break a holiday, no more so than in Morocco. There have surely been lamps rubbed and genies comanded to create such rustic opulance and the mysterious flavours in what are known as ‘riads’, the first choice of any sensible traveller to the country.
The Riad Experience
Despite it being late, and so hot that I was sweating profusely in my unstylish flight attire of comfy jeans and trainers, I felt like Scheherazade stepping into a palace to regale a sultan with her stories. No wonder her tales were so captivating if her surroundings were like this!
My particular sultan was similarly dressed in camo-style cargo shorts, and preoccupied with locating the bathroom after the long journey and a particularly unpleasant burger at Luton airport on the way out. So the scene is totally set for romance and the making of exotic tales of our own. Hmmm.
After a few minutes of frantic camera-snapping before we clutter up the bedroom and rumple the sheets, we venture out onto the roof terrace for some welcoming mint tea. Now for someone who dislikes tea, and can’t stand mint, I find it surprisingly tasty, and rather refreshing, something I would never have associated with hot drinks in hot weather. Mint tea does vary between riads, some heap in the sugar, some seem to forget it, so once you know what you like, don’t hesitate to tell the staff exactly how you take it. Often the tea is accompanied by little Moroccan pastries, no doubt purchased from the buzzing fly-laden piles of sweetness adorning several stalls along the souk alleyways, but they taste delicious.
The riad house manager then shuffles over in babouches (the only footwear for riads), spreads a map in between the tea and the pastries, and proceeds to explain the layout of the land. It looks so simple on paper, but we know the alleyways of Marrakech have a life all of their own, signs are virtually non existent, and in reality you’re probably better off trusting your instincts and helpful locals rather than the amateur cartographer.
As darkness falls, a tantilisingly aromatic dinner is served up on the terrace, which is now bathed in patterned light emanating soft orange from wall crevices tucked between overflowing plant pots of bougainvillea. We have a private little alcove and candles on the table. The flames don’t flicker as there is no breeze – it’s 9pm and still boiling hot. As we’re finishing our dessert of refreshing slices of orange dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon, the muezzin call-to-prayer begins from the nearby minaret, shortly followed by all the other local minarets until the whole city is hauntingly alive with chanting.
We later fall asleep in the mini kingdom that is our room, with faint traces of incense and spice in our nostrils, ready to dream about what magic tomorrow will bring.
So what is a riad?
A riad, or ryad is a traditional Moroccan house centered around an internal open air courtyard or patio, often with an enticing flower petal strewn dipping pool off to the side, and likely where you will have your breakfast. Usually with no external windows, rooms are located around the sides of the building overlooking the patio and offer bundles of charm and intimacy.There will be a dining room (for colder nights) and sometimes a lounge area too in larger riads. You will also find little bhous – comfy shaded seating areas tucked away in secret corners. Great for curling up in with a good book.
Winding stairs lead up to the piece de resistance – the roof terrace. These vary from riad to riad, but many have fantastic views of the city skyline, the Atlas Mountains beyond, and more satellite dishes than you can ever hope to count. Here you will enjoy a candlelit dinner if you are eating in (highly recommended), and look out for more dipping pools and comfy seating areas to while away a hot afternoon with some refreshing mint tea and pastries. Rooftop living at it’s finest.
Staying in a riad is the only way to properly experience Marrakech, and whilst there are some gorgeous 5* hotels in the Palmerie area outside of the city, the secret world of the medina riads must be visited to be believed.
The riads of Marrakech
Where to start
For riad recommendations and amazing places to stay, check out my favourite Marrakech riads.
One of the best places to start looking (for there are many!) is the excellent hipmarrakech website – very user friendly, with current pricing and availability, as well as photos that are often better than the riad owner’s websites. Another of my favourites is i-escape which features cool and unique places to stay all over Morocco (and the rest of the world) as well as Marrakech.
We fall in love with each and every riad we stay in, yet still the golden rule of never returning (see The Question of ‘the Return’) stops us from enjoying them more than once. However in a city where riads are as common as grains of spice in a souk, the anticipation of a new experience is an exciting and important part of the trip. So whilst we haven’t quite racked up 1001 nights, we’ve certainly stayed in a lot of riads and know what to look for when faced with the impossible task of chosing one over the other 147 on your short list.
Tips for chosing a good riad
You will want to be near to the centre of the medina (the old part of the city), but not right on top of the Djema el Fna (the square), or else you’ll never sleep. Good areas are the Dar el Bacha/Mouassine district (NW of the square as you’re looking at a map) and also the Mellah/Kasbah area around the Badi Palace, near the Place des Ferblantiers (SE of the square). Both are good, traditional areas, but still in the thick of things, and only a few minutes walk to the square. Our favourite is the Mouassine district for it’s quiet authenticity, proximity to ‘the sights’ and relatively simple navigation.
Standard riad rooms tend to be rather cosy (small, even tiny!) but how much time are you going to be spending in there anyway? With the city to explore, and the rest of the riad spaces to relax in, it’s really just a bed at the end of the day. Literally. For a few more dirhams there are larger rooms to be had, some even colossal, such as the cavernous Suite Cardamone at Dar Mouassine.
It’s often better to try to get a room on the first floor or upper terrace as the ground floor rooms can be prone to the ‘noise’ of people on the patio…breakfast is nearly always served here so if people are up early (e.g. to catch flights) you might get woken up. Rooms are certainly not soundproof, and if you’ve eaten something disagreeable at the night market you might not enjoy being on the toilet just metres away from people on the patio where you (and they!) can hear everything! However, apart from at breakfast, riads are usually pretty quiet and deserted so it’s not a major problem.
Having said that, often the larger suites are on the ground floor, and we’ve always chosen the room first, before thinking about where it is. We’ve stayed in some amazing rooms on the ground floor, such as the romantic Olive Suite in Riad Mur Akush, and the cute Bougainvillea room in Riad Papillon.
We all have our quirks, some more than others, but for me, bathrooms are often the determining factor when choosing a riad room. When researching a trip for some friends recently, I did a Google image search of Marrakech riad bathrooms to show them what to expect. Worryingly, I could name the riads that the first 7 bathroom images belonged to. Time to switch off the computer and get out more! Anyway, my point is…traditional Moroccan bathrooms are often made out of tadelakt plaster, and can be very romantic, if not always entirely functional. Here, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, rather than in the shower temperature or pressure, or ferocity of the toilet flush. All part of the experience.
I always look for riads which have comfy looking roof terrace seating (the long cushioned bench-style are the best). Some riads prefer the wrought iron seats, which although are pleasing to the eye, aren’t always that practical for lounging in. The terrace is somewhere you’ll probably spend a fair bit of time with a book, mint tea and pastries, just chilling and enjoying the ambience, listening to the minarets. Also check to see if there is a dipping pool up here…often the ones on the patio downstairs look enticing but are far less private and it’s a bit odd sitting there in your swimmers whilst staff walk around cleaning or serving other guests with their mint tea.
Nearly all riad owners are European expats, mainly French and English. There will be a house manager (generally French, English or Moroccan) and the staff will be local Moroccans. The French owned riads often speak little or no English, which may be all part of the charm, or a bit frustrating, depending on your outlook if you are not a linguist. The trick is to just think of the communication struggle as all part of the fun. The staff, no matter what language, have always been brilliant – the best service we’ve ever come across on our travels.
Entry: To get back into a riad you have to knock on the big wooden door and wait for one of the staff to let you in. Just bear in mind that if the staff are up on the roof terrace it will take them a while to come all the way down to the ground floor. There’s no ‘curfew’ in the evening, but if you are going out partying in the new town till late it’s worth just making the staff aware so they’ll know not to sleep too deeply in their little night-staff room, or worry that they haven’t seen you for a while.
Tipping: It’s not obligatory, but certainly appreciated where deserved, and riads either have a general tip box in the office, or ask that you give directly to the staff to show your appreciation. We’ve always ended up tipping because the service has been second to none and we like to encourage this to remain so. Families often have only one or two bread-winners who they rely on to provide for many relatives, and a small tip from a guest often makes a lot of difference in this society. Always tip in Dirhams if giving directly to a member of staff – Euros are not ideal since they cannot be spent in the local markets and shops.
Eating: Dinner is available at most riads, just ask the day before, or first thing in the morning, so the cook has time to visit the local markets for the ingredients. You can tag along for the experience too if you wish. Guests can request their favourites, or just ask them to surprise you, which is what we do, a great way to stumble across new dishes. A good tip is to book an evening meal for your first night, so you can relax and settle into the riad without having to rush out to find somewhere to eat. This is especially good for British tourists since most flights from the UK arrive quite late in the evening. Dinner is a leisurely affair, and not for the faint hearted. Just remember that the first array of delicious dishes to appear are indeed just the starter and not the main! You’ll need a good nights sleep and a lay-in just to recover from the sheer amount of food. The quality of riad meals have always in our experience far surpassed that of restaurants in the city.
There isn’t a week goes by that hubbie and I don’t sit at the dining room table, sharing a bottle of red, discussing the riad that we’re going to buy one day. We know exacty where it’s going to be, who we’re going to employ and what the cook will rustle up for dinner to impress our guests. I have already decided on the theme of each room and last trip we even visited an enormous artisan warehouse crammed full of furnishings from the subtle and artifactual to the truely outlandish, to plan the internal decor. Needless to say, we’re hooked on riads. And I know you will be too!