Last Updated: 2021-05-25
How do you pick where to stay when you’re travelling? Three things top my list: a good location, a comfortable bed, and a shower with hot water. There’s nothing better after a long day of exploration and adventure than a place nearby to get a hot shower and a good night’s sleep.
Finding good accomodations in Morocco is no simple matter. It’s worth doing your research before you make your final decision.
Today’s article, dear readers, will help you make that choice. We’ll talk about what a riad is and how it’s different from hotels in Morocco.
Let’s get started!
What is a Riad?
In general, a riad is a building with rooms and common areas around a central courtyard. Of course, riads aren’t a modern day phenomenon. They’ve existed in Morocco for centuries.
Historically, the houses in Moroccan medinas were almost always inwardly focused with a large courtyard at the center. There were two reasons for this: the weather and the culture. Small exterior windows and a central courtyard helped to keep a constant, comfortable temperature inside the home. Moroccans have always valued privacy and don’t like to show off, they prefer houses that look modest on the outside and lavishly furnish them with beauty in every detail on the inside. The ample courtyard at the center also provides a pleasant space for activities with the family.
If you’ve ever been to Andalusia in Southern Spain, you’ll notice a lot of architectural similarities, since that region was culturally connected to Morocco for 800 years. This style of architecture bears some similarities also to the much older Roman domus.
“Riad” means “garden” in Arabic and only the finest of the medina houses with sumptuous central courtyards were worthy of the name.
Riads were the expansive villas of the wealthiest families with a panoply of rooms (some for housing servants) and a more elaborate courtyard with a garden or, at least, a sizable fountain and some greenery.
Don’t get me wrong. The other houses in the medina weren’t small by any stretch of the imagination because they housed several generations of the family at once. Even today it’s not strange to see a newly built house with the upper part unfinished, waiting for a son to get married so they can keep building upwards.
In the following image you can see that riads are few and far between within the fabric of a medina.
If we stick to its current definition, nowadays a “riad” is any house in the medina with a central courtyard that welcomes travellers, regardless of the size of its courtyard or how beautiful it is.
So, we can distinguish two types of riads: (1) the 2-storey type with 5 to 8 rooms, and (2) the authentic traditional riads which are usually 3 to 4 storeys with more than 10 rooms (but normally no more than 20), both of them set up as accommodations for travellers. Sometimes the first type is also called “dar” (which simply means “home” in Arabic) so as not to create confusion with the traditional meaning of the term.
Both types are an amazing experience. You’ll walk through the unassuming entranceway and be dazzled by the interior design. Traditional riads are more impressive, but the dars are more intimate. I can’t even recommend one over the other. They’re both amazing.
Space in a medina is limited, so oftentimes riads don’t have large, open lobbies. Think of it as a boutique hotel with a small reception area, rooms with private bathrooms, a cozy common area, breakfast included, etc.
The atmosphere is often so intimate and the service so personalized that it seems like you’re staying at the home of a well-to-do friend or relative. They’re often run by Europeans who fell in love with Moroccan culture and ended up buying a property and converting it into a guesthouse. So, while they usually take pains to preserve authentic local flavor when it comes to decor, they provide service with a familiar touch of Western culture.
When it comes to riad décor, there are two schools: Traditionalist, very ornate and complex, and Modern Traditionalist, with one foot in tradition (white plaster walls, carved wood as a base) and the other firmly grounded in the minimalist approach.
Riads vary from city to city also because of differences in climate. Marrakech is dry and hot, so you’ll see mainly stucco-clad walls and likely a pool in the courtyard. In the more humid and cool climate of the north, tiled walls are more common and the courtyard is a place for guests to walk through or to simply sit and relax.
Here’s a gallery of riads around Morocco. See if you can tell which ones are found in dry and humid climates, and which ones are converted medina houses and which are historically authentic riads:
The Hotel Experience in Morocco
In Morocco, as in many other countries, hotels are ranked from 1 to 5 stars. But in practice it causes quite a bit of confusion, since, for example, a 4-star hotel in Marrakesh is not as luxurious as a hotel of the same rank in Paris or New York.
The best way to rank a hotel in Morocco, in my experience, is based on its age. In contrast to the direct personal involvement you typically get with a riad, hotels usually have a board of investors behind them. So, they tend to start off spectacularly, but don’t get the TLC they need and lose their luster as the years go by.
For example, hotels built in the 80s still have floral motifs everywhere with lots of dark colors, as well as brown and red.
Fortunately, in recent years, a few international chains are building new hotels and buying old properties to remodel. The decoration is radically different, with some modern elements grafted onto the traditional Arabic rootstock. For example, carpet is still the main flooring option, as it is in most houses and mosques in Morocco, but layout of the new hotels is geometrically simple.
So, the advantage of hotels over riads is size, for example spacious lobbies and other common areas. For the very same reason though, it’s impossible to build a hotel in the confines of a medina, so riads almost always offer a more favorable location.
As we did with the riads, here’s a gallery with an array of traditional Moroccan hotels as well as new or recently renovated hotels. See if you can tell which is which:
Another Type of Accommodation: Kasbahs
This article wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention another accommodation option you see in Morocco, especially as you get closer to the Sahara: kasbahs.
As with the riads, we need to distinguish the historically authentic kasbahs of Southern Morocco, which functioned as a place to host wealthy families and as a meeting point along trade routes.
In terms of accommodations available to travellers, there are a few that are historically authentic kasbahs refurbished as guesthouses. Most of them, however, are newly built with guestrooms and common areas arranged around a central courtyard, ideas obviously borrowed from riads.
The adobe walls of kasbahs are traditionally made from straw and soil found at the site. So, it looks like the walls are growing straight out of the ground.
Check out this gallery with both newly built and historically authentic kasbahs:
Differences between a Hotel and a Riad
Here’s all of the information you need and more at a glance:
- Located on the outskirts
- Outdated decoration in older hotels
- Built by a large company, usually somewhat cold and impersonal
- More common spaces
- Extras: Wifi, TV and hairdryer in the rooms
- Optional packages with two or three meals per day included
- You can pull your vehicle right up to the door
- You can lock your room with a key or a key card
- Professional service
- Less intimate
- Specific clientele: some hotels are geared to locals, other focus on travellers from other countries.
- Located within the medina
- Traditional but updated decoration
- Usually the owner is directly involved in every operations, warm and personal
- Limited common areas
- Extras: Wifi, TV or hairdryer in the rooms NOT always available
- Usually only breakfast is included, other meals tend to be expensive
- Location inside the medina means you’ll need to park at some distance from your accommodations
- The rooms don’t usually have a lock
- Personal service
- Cozy atmosphere
- Varied clientele: in a riad you’ll find travelers from all over the world
There are as many types of travelers as there are people: some seek total cultural immersion, some like to spend all or most of their time unwinding in their hotel room, with a range of preferences in between.
As I pointed out at the beginning, although I enjoy the getaway feel of a hotel, I still almost always choose a riad when I travel to Morocco, because of its cultural link with Moroccan hospitality.
I hope that gives you enough information to decide which type of accommodation to choose. If you are going to stay for a while, you can even try a couple of different options.
Much love to all and see you in the next post!