I often get asked about my recommendations for places to visit in Morocco. It's an incredible country with quite a lot to offer, offering visitors the opportunity to design their vacations depending on their specific interests and time constraints.
For those on a budget, Morocco can be visited on the cheap, backpacking from one place to another and traveling by public transportation between cities and the countryside.
For those looking for a more luxurious experience, there are riad hotels in most cities that offer a quiet reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the medina streets outside.
For intrepid travelers looking for thrills and adventure, there's world-class surfing all along the coast, long treks up Mount Toubkal, rock climbing in the Todra gorges, motorcycle tours through the Atlas Mountains, and desert camel excursions to top it all off.
The type of vacation you end up choosing in Morocco is often a factor of how much time you'll be in the country, along with your decision of whether or not to visit the edge of the Sahara for a desert trip.
After ten+ years of living in and traveling through Morocco, the following is my top ten list of sites to see, which includes a mix of big cities and smaller towns, with pictures and more explanations to follow:
Rabat is the capital of Morocco and the fourth largest city in Morocco. Because it is not often on the top of tourists' lists, Rabat's medina is fairly calm and pleasant to wander around, without the urgency or aggressiveness from vendors that you might get in other cities. There is a long shoe souk that leads up to the Rue de Consuls where you can find most of the other souvenirs and crafts that you might find in other cities, from rugs to Tuareg silver to wood and metal work.
While in Rabat, make sure to visit Chellah, an enclosed park that is the site of the ancient city of Rabat, featuring both Roman and Arabic architectural ruins. You can explore the ruins on your own or hire a guide at the main gate to walk you through.
Kasbah des Oudayas is another favorite-- it's a fortressed neighborhood along Rabat's coast with the same white and blue walls that can be seen in other coastal cities like Essaouira.
While this is a residential neighborhood, there are also plenty of things for visitors to do, including stopping for mint tea at the cafe, wandering through the gardens, and visiting the art galleries within the Kasbah walls.
While at the Kasbah, you can take a short walk down to the Bouregreg river which separates Rabat from its sister city, Salé, and have drinks or food at Le Dhow, a cafe/restaurant/bar on a boat.
Museums in Rabat that are worth checking out include the Villa des Arts and the recently opened Mohamed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.
An old favorite place for live music was at La Cabane Bambou, also known as Yacout, which offers live Congolese music every night, from 8pm until late in Rabat's Hassan neighborhood.
The old medina of Fes is a UNESCO world heritage site, in part because of its complex maze of tiny streets weaving their way past tiled fountains, stately madrassas, and ornate mosques. It's easy to get lost in the medina, but that's also part of the charm. In Fes, as in Marrakech, be wary of "false guides," who offer to show you the way. There are many entrances to the Fes medina but my favorite is from Bab Bou J'loud, or the Blue Gate, at the top of the medina. From here, the old city slopes downwards towards the leather tanneries and the Karaouine Mosque and Seffarine Place.
Near Bab Bou J'loud, you can visit the Batha Museum, the Bouania mosque, which is an old school and mosque, or get a bite to eat at Cafe Clock. Café Clock offers quite a bit of programming with great cultural shows featuring music and art, cooking classes, etc.
The city of Marrakech offers insight into the history of rural to urban migration in Morocco as well as the Western retelling of the Moroccan aesthetic. Most Moroccans who live here can trace their family history to the rural Atlas mountains and speak some of the Amazigh languages. The medina is worth a visit, but it can be overwhelming at times. In Marrakech, vendors are seasoned professionals who drive a hard bargain, speak multiple languages, and are accustomed to dealing with tourists from all over the world. If communication is your main goal, you will certainly find those that speak your language-- from English, to Mandarin, to Catalan. If you are seeking out authentic connection, it may be a bit harder in this environment.
The places that I like to visit in Marrakech include the following:
Jmaa el Fnaa
Bab el Khemis
Essaouira is a coastal town three hours from Marrakech. Visitors can travel there via direct busses with Supratours or CTM or more adventurous travelers can take a cheaper and somewhat speedier grand taxi. Read more about traveling via grand taxis here. Essaouira is known for its traditional gnawa music scene and the sound of gnawa's Afro-Moroccan reggae style music often provides a backdrop to strolls through the white- and blue-walled medina streets. The city hosts an annual gnawa festival in June of every year that is attended by tourists and Moroccans alike who come to listen to local and world renowned musicians.
Jimi Hendrix was very taken by Essaouira and there are famous, yet erroneous, claims that he wrote "Castles Made of Sand" after being inspired by the sight of an old Portuguese castle that has succumbed to the ocean sands in the shallows off of Essaouira's beaches. Not true, but the castle is an interesting reminder of all the colonial influences that ruled over Morocco.
Not far from the ramparts and the beaches is Essaouira's functioning shipyard where fisherman display the catches of the day and boat builders are hard at work building and repairing massive, sea-faring boats.
From Essaouira, you might continue your journeys further south to the pristine beaches of Sidi Ifni, which is a small Amazigh coastal town with breathtaking landscapes an top notch surf.
Chefchaouen is a small mountain town in the Rif mountains north of Fes. Unfortunately it's not the easiest to get to from Fes, but it's worth the journey. If you find yourself heading south from Tangiers, it's slightly easier to find reliable and frequent transportation to Chaouen. The city is known for its beautiful blue walls and mountainous medina. There is a lot of good hiking around Chaouen with gorgeous views.
Since this in the northern part of the country, most folks in town speak speak Spanish as their second language, as opposed to French. Other languages include the Moroccan Arabic dialect, called Darija, and the Amazaigh language of the Rif Mountains, called Tarafit.
This is my new favorite place to visit in Morocco. It's an old Glaoui town, about 25km off the winding Tizi N' Techka road between Marrakech and Ouarzazate, which is the same road you would take if you're headed to the desert oases of Merzouga or Zagora. It's worth stopping in Telouet for a night or two. It's a little bit off of the tourist path but has one of the most beautiful ancient, tribal Kasbahs that I've seen in Morocco.
The Glaoui tribe was a well-known nomadic and warring tribe from this part of Morocco and their Kasbah is replete with fortressed walls, intricate tile-work, and incredible views. You can camp or stay in hotels that are an easy walk from the Kasbah. Since Telouet is nestled in the High Atlas Mountains at quite a high elevation, during winter months, travelers should be aware of sudden snow storms.
VII. Ait Ben Haddou
Ait Ben Haddou is another ancient town featuring an old Kasbah fortress on the outskirts of Ouarzazate, about 4.5 hours from Marrakech. You can visit from the main Marrakech-to-Ouarzazate two-lane thoroughfare, called the Tizi N' Techka road (which in the Amazigh language, literally means "difficult road"), or you can continue along the backroads from Telouet to arrive at Ait Ben Haddou.
Visits to these impeccably preserved Kasbahs reveal a story about the import of the various tribal and indigenous factions that ruled Morocco centuries ago.
From here, you can continue on another 30 minutes to Ouarzazate, which is a great stopping point for travelers en route to one of Morocco's two desert spots. Ouarzazate is the hub of Morocco's film industry where many films were shot, including Gladiator, Alexander the Great, Babel, etc. Although I've never been, I know that studio tours are popular sightseeing options for folks who have some time to spare.
In the north, on the outskirts of Meknes, which is located between Rabat and Fes, is Volubis, an ancient town of Roman ruins. The Romans were some of the original colonizers to arrive in Morocco and their city is well preserved here. I recommend hiring a guide when you arrive at the front gate to walk you through the ruins, although some are better than others.
Near Volubilis is the town of Moulay Idriss which is known for its hot springs. The owner of Fes' Cafe Clock opened a B&B here called Scorpion House.
IX. Ourika Valley
On the outskirts of Marrakech is this small, riverside town where you can go hiking, experience a more rural version of Moroccan life and stay in beautiful hotels on the side of the mountain stream. Temperatures are considerably cooler in the Valle d'Ourika and so this is makes for an ideal Marrakech getaway.
X. The desert
You can book a trip to the desert from either Ouarzazate or Marrakech. There are dozens of companies that will take you in their 4x4s to the desert, arrange lodging in a hotel on the side of the dunes, and make sure you get your sunset camel trek into the desert. There are two main desert locations in Morocco-- Merzouga, which is somewhat closer to Fes (although quite far from everything) and Zagora, which is closer to Ouarzazate. I've been to both and prefer Zagora, in part because you travel through an incredible and verdant Draa river valley that is full of date and fig trees, en route to the desert.
Zagora is the departure point for many of the Sahara camel expeditions of olden days and as such you see influences on the culture, music, and food that are informed by sub Saharan Africa, the Tuareg, and the nomadic tribes that lived in the region for centuries.
This region is known for its carpets, some made with camel and goat's hair, for it's green pottery, silver Tuareg jewelry, and juicy dates and figs.
And, the short list:
It's hard to narrow this list down, harder I'm sure to actually structure your travel in a way that touches all of the places that you'd like to see. To make it even more challenging, here are a few other places that deserve a special mention:
Tiny little Portuguese fortress town south of Casablanca, which makes for a great day trip if you have the time. One of the main sites to see is a cistern built in the 1500s that was featured in Orson Welles' Othello.
In the mountains north-east of Marrakech is this popular waterfall destination in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains.
From Fes you can take a day trip to Ifrane which is about 1.5 hours by bus. They call this town Little Switzerland because all the houses are built in the Swiss alps chalet style. It's the richest town in Morocco and is home to the prestigious university, Al Akhawayn. In winter, you can pass through Ifrane en route to local ski destination, Michlifen.
A complex city, known for its historic place in Western literary cannon from the likes of William Burroughs and Paul Bowles, Tangiers also happens to be the border city between Morocco and Spain, or more broadly, between all of Africa and Europe, with a mere 9 miles separating the two countries. Most Moroccans in the north speak Spanish as their second language. Because of its proximity to Spain, drinking and tapas culture is a bit more accepted. If your travels take you through Tangier, get mint tea and besara soup at Hafa Cafe. Go to the Kasbah and the museum of the Kasbah. Check out the excellently curated Ligation Museum. Go to the Cinemetheque in the heart of town to catch a movie or to get a sense of the cultural undercurrents; the Cinemetheque is a great Moroccan-run space that is transforming that part of downtown Tangiers.
Between Tangiers and Rabat is the coastal town of Asilah that is known for its beaches. There may be better beaches along the Mediterranean coast or south of Essaouira near Sidi Ifni, but I always liked going to Asilah because of its proximity to Rabat.