Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman may have given the world Casablanca, but there is much more to see in Morocco than its largest city. This former French colony gives travelers the opportunity to experience life in an ancient Arabic and Berber culture, sunning on beaches or snow skiing in the High Atlas.
Get lost in the local life of the meandering medinas of Marrakesh, rock the kasbahs and follow in the footsteps of ancient traders in Fez, while Casablanca offers up a more modern mindset mixed in with its heritage. Chances to leave the cities behind are in abundance, as the sweeping Saharan desert seduces visitors, while Atlantic beach destinations create the perfect spot for kitesurfing enthusiasts.
Whether sampling cuisine at a local souq or relaxing in the sun at a white-washed seaside town, the past is always present in this colorful country. Here’s a look at the best places to visit in Morocco:
Lying along Morocco’s southwest coastline, the small fishing town of Sidi Ifni is a lovely place to visit. It’s home to some beautiful beaches, great surf spots, and awe-inspiring rock formations. As it was only returned to Morocco in 1969 after decades of Spanish rule, the Berber town also has a fascinating history and culture for visitors to delve into.
As everything is painted blue and white, the city stands out delightfully against its desolate surroundings, with a few Art Deco buildings dotted around town. While Sidi Ifni has a very laidback vibe, lively cafes and restaurants can be found along its oceanfront and around its souk and old Spanish Town.
One of the main draws is its excellent beach, which is pounded by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Here you can enjoy surfing and kite surfing or simply sit back, relax and take in the magnificent scenery and dramatic coastal cliffs. When in Sidi Ifni, many people also take a trip to the nearby Legzira Beach to look at its spectacular 30-metre-high rock arch.
Although it is often overlooked in favor of Agadir, Casablanca, and Marrakech, Morocco’s capital Rabat is well worth visiting. One of four imperial cities in the country, it is set on the northwest coastline and bordered by the Atlantic Ocean.
Home to peaceful, palm tree-lined boulevards and an atmospheric old medina, Rabat is a lovely place to wander around, with interesting historical sights and cultural landmarks dotted here and there. While its massive Royal Palace and beautiful Art Deco cathedral look a treat, the main attraction is its well-preserved kasbah.
This is not only home to a delightful old mosque, but also an idyllic Andalusian Garden and magnificent museum on the sprawling site’s history. Among its sturdy stone walls, you can find lots of exquisite architecture, as well as a beautiful blue and white painted neighborhood. From the kasbah, you can also enjoy astonishing views out over Rabat, its large public beach, and the ocean.
Located near to the city of Fes in northern Morocco, Meknes is known as the “City of a Hundred Minarets” for its abundance of monuments, mosques, palaces and pavilions. Founded by a Berber tribe in the 9th century, Meknes rose to eminence during the 11th century as a fortified town. In the 1700s, the Sultan of Morocco Moulay Ismail made Meknes the country’s imperial capital and added to the city’s construction. It’s the city’s former prestige and glory that distinguishes it from other towns in Morocco. Few other places offer visitors such an intimate look at Morocco’s golden past. It is also the nearest city to the Roman ruins of Volubilis.
The Dar Jamai palace, located in a well-tended garden, includes a museum with exhibits of imperial clothing and jewels. The Sultan’s sumptuous palace, Dar El Makhzen, and mausoleum are worth a visit as well. Among the multiple monument gates in Meknes, the Bab Mansour is perhaps the most famous. The 11th-century gate cost its architect, El Mansour, his life. When the architect admitted that he felt he could have done better, the Sultan had him executed on the spot. Featuring elegant cobalt blue tile mosaics and marble columns confiscated from Roman ruins, the striking gate now bears the architect’s name.
Despite the wealth of historical sites throughout the city, Meknes has a laid-back atmosphere, primarily due to its large student population. Market places are animated with jugglers, musicians and fire-swallowers as well as with friendly easy-going merchants. Situated on the fertile plains below the Atlas Mountains, the city is supported by a vibrant agricultural industry. Whether feasting on locally produced olives and citrus, touring an 11th century subterranean prison or strolling through the site of an ancient palace, Meknes is filled with can’t-miss experiences to surprise and please every visitor.
Nestled among the Rif Mountains in northwest Morocco, Chefchaouen is one of the prettiest and most picturesque towns in the country. This is, in large part, because all the buildings in its old medina are painted a beautiful blue, and stand out delightfully against its dusty surroundings.
Known as the ‘Blue Pearl‘, the colorful old town’s winding narrow alleys are a delight to get lost in as lovely Moroccan and Andalusian architecture lies all around. These lead you past countless cosy cafes, traditional restaurants, and little hotels to its centuries-old kabash and lively souk, where you can buy local handicrafts and leatherwares.
While the medina is undoubtedly Chefchaouen’s highlight, the surrounding mountains and hills are also wonderful to explore; they are home to some amazing scenery, waterfalls, and viewpoints. In the nearby Talasemtane National Park, for instance, there are loads of scenic trails to hike along, taking you past cliffs and towering mountains with fabulous views wherever you look.
See also: Blue City
Now a popular seaside resort town, Asilah has a glorious history that dates back to when it was a trade center for the Phoenicians in 1500 BC. In the 19th and 20th centuries, pirates used it as a base of operations. Fortifications from these bygone eras remain, surrounding the restored medina. Asilah is located on Morocco’s north coast about 30 km (20 miles) from Tangier.
It’s a hot summer spot for Moroccans; travelers who want to avoid crowds had best visit in spring or fall. Whitewashed buildings complete the picturesque scene. It has a good selection of budget hotels and restaurants, and a growing art scene. About 2.5 km (1.5 miles) south of Asilah lies Paradise beach, a wonderful wide stretch of sand, popular with locals and tourists.
An 18th-century town on Morocco’s Atlantic coastline, Essaouira is one of the nation’s most popular beach destinations. White-washed homes sporting cobalt blue shutters provide a scenic backdrop for breezy seaside adventures, which include kitesurfing and windsurfing. The city’s medina features crafts made using centuries-old techniques, including thuya wood carving and cabinet making. The argan oil trade is well established here as well, and the women cooperatives responsible for processing the argan nuts are instantly recognizable from their long white robes.
Essaouira, formerly called Mogador, is a natural port. It’s been prized as such since the 1st century, when the protected bay provided anchorage for Romans trading for the purpura shells they used to make purple dye. Roman artifacts from the period are on display at the city’s Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah Museum. Fortress walls originally circled the city’s borders, and many sections of the walls remain standing today. Built by the Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah, the fortifications combine European military architecture with African aesthetics.
Today, the harbor is one of the major fishing locations in Morocco, and the city’s restaurants and seaside stalls offer an array of fresh seafood, from lobster dishes to grilled sardines.
In recent years, Essaouira has begun to gain a reputation as a cultural center too. Art galleries are appearing all over town, and each year, the city plays host to the Gnaoua Festival of World Music, a four-day event that includes multiple genres of music as well as the traditional Gnaoua African music. Whether riding a camel along the beach or touring the bird sanctuary at nearby Falcon Island, Essaouira offers a range of great travel experiences.
Founded in 789, Fes (or Fez) served as Morocco’s capital for hundreds of years. Today, the nation’s third-largest city is better known as Morocco’s handicraft center. Fes is the ideal destination for visitors who want to experience the heady and bustling ambiance of a Moroccan marketplace.
The government is taking great pains to return the historic old town, the medina Fes el Bali, to its original glory. With a population of about 150,000 inhabitants, the medina is the largest carfree urban area in the world by population. Traditional adobe homes and courtyards ornamented with mosaic tiles line a maze of narrow streets and alleys filled with souqs and shops.
Much of the fun of a visit to Fes comes through wandering through the old medina for up-close encounters with craftsmen making and selling their wares. Almost all of the traffic is pedestrian, although donkeys are sometimes used for transportation. The medina is where most of Morocco’s famous cobalt blue Moroccan ceramic tiles are made. Located in an 18th-century Moorish palace, the Dar Batha Museum houses a fine collection of ceramic tiles as well as other traditional Fes crafts, including woodcarving, copperware and sculpted plaster.
Fes is also home to the Karaouiyine mosque, which houses a medersa that is considered the oldest university in the world. With its splendid copper doors, minaret and stalactite-domed entrance chamber, the Bou Inania medersa is worth a visit as well. Like many cities in modern Morocco, Fes also has a Ville Nouvelle, or New City, that offers modern and comfortable accommodations for visitors to the ancient imperial capital.
The High Atlas is a mountain range that runs from the coast of Morocco towards Alergia. The range includes Toubkal National Park, which contains the Morocco’s highest peak, Jbel Toubkal (4,160 meters/13,670 feet). The Berber village Imlil is a good place to start the climb of Toubkal. The tallest mountain range in North Africa, the High Atlas offers outdoor recreation opportunities year round, from snow sports in the winter to hiking in the summer.
One of the most popular places to visit in Morocco is the Todra Gorge in the eastern part of the High Atlas, near the town of Tinerhir. Both the Todra and neighboring Dades rivers have carved out steep cliff-sided canyons through the mountains.
The last 600 meters (2,000 feet) of the Todra gorge are the most spectacular. On the edge of the High Atlas Mountains is Aït-Benhaddou, a traditional Mud Brick city that has appeared in many movies including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator.
Set in a secluded spot not far from the Algerian border, the small village of Merzouga now makes for a popular base from which to explore the delights of the Sahara Desert. Towering over it are the enormous dunes of Erg Chebbi, which in some places reach over 300 meters in height.
It is these colossal sandscapes that most people come for, with hiking, quad biking, and camel safaris all popular ways to explore the dunes. Many visitors also camp in the desert overnight so that they can watch the stunning sunrises and sunsets that paint the dunes a myriad of beautiful colors.
Once merely a short stop and transit point for Arab and Berber merchants on their way to Timbuktu, Merzouga now has an increasing number of hotels for visitors to choose from. These cater to all budgets, with all of them offering excursions to the sights and sands of the desert all around you.
Formerly one of the country’s imperial cities, Marrakech is sometimes referred to as the Red City because of its sandstone buildings. Marrakech was founded in the 11th century by the Almoravides, a Berber dynasty who turned the city into an important center of commerce, religion, philosophy and culture. Under Almoravide rule, red sandstone walls, lavish palaces and Koranic schools were built of which much can still be seen today.
During the 1960s, Marrakech was known as a “hippie mecca,” attracting famous celebrities such as The Beatles, Yves Saint Laurent and the Rolling Stones. Comprised of beautiful old architecture and courtyards of orange, palm, apricot and olive trees, Marrakech today is still one of Africa’s most popular tourist destinations.
At the heart of the Marrakesh is the Medina, a labyrinth of old walls and narrow passageways packed with historic sites, museums, enticing food stalls and colorful souks, or markets. The focal point of the Medina is Djemaa El-Fna, the main square, buzzing with snake charmers, musicians, acrobats, storytellers, magicians and stalls selling the likes of carpets, leather, pottery, hookahs and spices. Other must-see sites in Marrakesh are the 12th century Koutoubia Mosque, the Saadian Tombs, Bahia Palace and the Jardin Majorelle, a botanical garden that blends art deco and Moorish features
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Marrakech
See also: Marrakech Attractions