Kantara Blog

Traveling with the Smithsonian in Morocco

Last month I had the honor of joining a Smithsonian Journeys trip as their Morocco expert. We spent 12 days traveling through Morocco on a route that I have traveled countless times before.

It's the same route that I've taken for years through the Middle and High Atlas mountains on Kantara buying trips, visiting artisans along the way. This time I returned with a tour director who has spent the last 38 years leading trips in Morocco. 

Needless to say, we covered a lot of ground-- geographically, as well as in terms of content matter. 

Here are some of the highlights of the trip.

We visited the potters in Fes and learned about the zellij tile work.

I got recruited to help with the tea ceremony...

We visited ancient Roman ruins, dating back to 2nd century BCE...

And visited the more recently abandoned Kasbahs along the Route des Mille Kasbahs.

After a full day exploring Rissani and learning about its significance as the site of the medieval caravan trading village Sijilmassa and the birthplace of the current Alaouite dynasty, we headed out to the desert for a sunrise camel trek.

And we stayed in some pretty incredible places.

With impeccable design taste...

And sunrises to wake up for.

Morocco Travel Tips - Overview

Moroccan house Telouet

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:

Big cities:
1. Rabat
2. Fes
3. Marrakech


Smaller towns:
4. Essaouira
5. Chefchouen


Historical sites:
6. Telouet
7. Ait Benhaddou
8. Volubilis


Off the beaten path:
9. Ourika Valley
10. The desert (Zagora)


Morocco Travel Tips - Imperial Cities | Rabat, Fes, Marrakech

I. Rabat

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

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.

Rabat residential neighborhood

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.

Le Dhow Cafe on 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.

II. Fes

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.


III. Marrakech

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

An outdoor market that pops up every night in Marrakech's main square, rain or shine, and is filled with hot food stands, jugglers, story-tellers, snake-charmers, henna artists, dried fruit vendors, the orange juice guys who are right next to the snail guys, gnawa musicians, and so much more. My favorite stand are the stands with the large copper pots located at the front of the market where they serve hot ginger-spiced tea and a traditional Moroccan spiced desert called sfouf.


Jmaa el Fnaa

Jardins Majorelle 

This is an impressive 12-acre landscaped garden amidst an Art Deco villa that was once owned by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. With its sophisticated design, these gardens offer a welcome break from the hot and bustling Marrakech street life. Ensconced within royal blue garden walls is a perfect balance of Moroccan design and European influence.


Jardins Majorelle


Bab el Khemis 

This is a lesser known souk that functions as a mixture between a flea market and spot for antique thrifting. It's a short drive from the Jmaa el Fnaa and is not touristy at all; it features about 20 shops max with some real treasures inside. By wandering into the medina from Souk el Khemis, you'll come to various section of Marrakech's medina that specialize in different things-- there's the bed frame section, or the area where they make the cushions for the Moroccan sofas; there's the antique salesman with old wooden carved doors next to the kitchenware section.


Bab el Khemis



Morocco Travel Tips - Coastal Cities | Essaouira, El Jadida, Tangier, Asilah


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.

Sidi Ifni


El Jadida

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.


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.


Morocco Travel Tips: Amazigh Mountain Towns | Chefchouaen, Telouet, Ait Ben Haddou, Ifrane


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.


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.

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.

Ait Ben Haddou

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.


Cascades d'Ouzoud

In the mountains north-east of Marrakech is this popular waterfall destination in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains.

Cascades d'Ouzoud


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.


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.

Ourika Valley

Morocco Travel Tips: the Desert

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.

Morocco Travel Tips: the Ruins


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.

Phrases - 'Lousham' is 'Tattoos'

al'Lousham... الوشام

The arabic word for Amazigh tattoos is al'Lousham, but the Tamazight word is Ah-hat-djem. At this point you only see the tattoos on older Amazigh women as it once part of their practice but is currently considered shameful to have them.

One of the first people I met when I moved to Morocco in 2006 was a fulbrighter who was researching the social function and symbolism of henna body painting and tattoos in Moroccan society, focusing on gender relations. She was the first person to describe the symbols in the Amazigh tattoos as being related to the symbols in the rugs. Ever since that day in Fes, I have been fascinated by the symbols in the rugs, the Amazigh tattoos, and the confluence between the two mediums in which they are displayed.

The other day I encountered several older Amazigh women who had the tattoos on their face and hands. They proudly showed off the tattoos to me, claiming that it was their "Berber Passport."

Phrases- 'Souk' is 'Market'


The souk is the weekly market featuring everything under the sun; there are fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, second hand clothes and shabby-chic goods, and rugs and textiles. Anything you want, you can find at the souk. Certain cities have more well-known souks than others.

The two best souks for rugs and textiles are the Khemisset souk on Tuesdays and the Boujaad souk on Thursdays. The trick about buying rugs from the souk is getting there early; most of the weavers arrive at 6am on souk day to sell their products to middlemen and women. Normally, by 8am they have already left, rugs sold, and dirhams in hand.

Phrases - 'Oho' is 'No'


Oh-ho, pronounced like the Spanish word for eye, ojo, means "no" in Tachelhit.

Tachelhit is one of three Amazigh dialects spoken in Morocco. In the East, they speak Tamazight, in this region, in the south, it's Tachelhit, and in the far south they speak Souss. Some have equated the difference between Tachelhit and Souss as being similar to the difference between Mexican Spanish and Castellano; in other words the two languages are very similar. Apparently Tachelhit is the more guttural form of Souss which has softer sounds and is said to be prettier.

Despite the different dialects of Amazigh, there is one sole alphabet, called Tifinagh with its own unique characters that is used to transcribe the three Amazigh languages:Tamazight, Tachelhit, and Souss.

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