Situated at the foot of the Atlas Mountains in western Morocco lies the imperial city of Marrakesh, one of the most interesting, vibrant and popular cities in the country. And, it must be said, one of the most tourist-heavy. It’s famed for its ancient medina, with its maze of cobblestoned alleys and atmospheric souqs, where you can shop for aromatic spices, shisha pipes, colourful textiles, sparkling lamps and artisan jewellery. For a truly authentic Marrakesh experience, you need to stay in a beautiful riad – a traditional guest house – within the medina walls and be sure to get a scrub down in a local hammam (restorative steam bath).
The main plaza in the medina, Jemaa El-Fna, is full of history, insistent hawkers, fortune tellers, snake charmers, drummers, local girls wanting to decorate you with henna tattoos and myriad other sights, sounds and smells. And that’s just during the day. As soon as the sun goes down, many of these magically disappear and restaurants start firing up their grills. The nightly food bazaar then takes over in this central square. This is the place to sample authentic Moroccan cuisine and all manner of tantalising street food. It may not always be familiar, but it’s always cheap and tasty. As always when it comes to food, follow the lead of the locals.
In the heart of Marrakesh, towering over it all, is the Koutoubia Mosque with its striking, 70-metre-high minaret. Other historic sights in the city include the magnificent Saadian Tombs, and the ruined El Badi Palace. Bahia Palace is a vast masterpiece of Moroccan architecture that spreads across eight hectares, while Le Jardin Secret features ornate and exquisite courtyard gardens. Another garden, the Jardin Majorelle, is one of the most-visited sites in Morocco. This beautiful botanical garden was famously owned by Yves Saint-Laurent at one stage, and nearby you’ll also find the Yves Saint Laurent Museum. It’s just one of a handful of fantastic museums in Marrakesh, which also includes the Musée MACMA (or the Musée d’Art et de Culture à Marrakech) and the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (Macaal). Marrakesh is buzzing with amazing contemporary art, design, fashion and cuisine, and even beauty brands, luxury spas and yoga studios. It may be a city with a fascinating past, but it’s definitely looking towards the future, too.
Safari in the Sahara Desert
If you’ve ever dreamed of experiencing the romance of the Sahara Desert, there’s no better place to fulfil this dream than in Morocco. From Marrakesh you can book a tour to one of the gateway towns from where expeditions to the world’s largest desert set off – such as Zagora, Erfoud and the tiny and charming Merzouga.
From these towns you’ll head into the desert to savour quintessential Sahara experiences such as tearing across the sweeping sands in 4×4 off-road vehicles, dining under the stars on golden dunes, visiting traditional Bedouin camps, and going quad biking, sand-boarding and sand-skiing if you’re the adventurous type. The most authentic way to explore the towering sand dunes that stretch in every direction is on a camel safari, lasting for just a few hours or several days. In single file you’ll traverse the epic dunes, going at a slow pace that really lets you take in the stark and beautiful surroundings.
On a Sahara Desert safari you’ll watch the setting sun transform the sand dunes into a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, pinks and golds, and spend your evenings dining al fresco and gathering around remote campfires. While tents are available, many Sahara adventurers find the lure of sleeping outdoors beneath starry African skies is just too tempting.
It can take up to 10 hours to get to the heart of the Sahara, so make sure you allocate some proper time here – at least three days. After all, the desert is Morocco’s top attraction, so if you’ve come all this way, you’ll want to do it properly. The best time to enjoy a Sahara adventure like this is between October and April or early May, when the daytime temperatures are bearable (usually!). Just remember to pack for the cold as well as the heat, as temperatures can drop to near-freezing once the sun goes down, and below freezing during winter – December and January tend to be the coldest months. Sandstorms are also possible from January through May. Don’t even think about visiting from June to early September, it’s just too hot.
Medieval Fez was Morocco’s capital for more than 400 years. Today, it’s still an important religious and cultural centre that’s widely considered to be more authentic – and certainly less-touristy – than Marrakesh.
It may be Morocco’s second-largest city, but Fez still has all the character, charm and appeal of a much smaller town. At its heart is the Fes el-Bali medina, one of two ancient walled cities here, and the best-preserved old city in the entire Arab world. Founded way back in the 9th century, it’s a labyrinth of winding alleyways and narrow streets, colourful souqs, quaint homes and exquisite tiled courtyards. You will get lost as you wander around this funky old medina, but you’ll love it. A highlight is the 11th-century Chaouwara (Chouara) Tannery, which still operates as it did a thousand years ago. A view of its colourful tanning and dyeing pits is unmissable. The medina is also home to the al-Quaraouiyine mosque and the world’s oldest university. Little wonder Fes el-Bali has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Elsewhere in the city, you’ll want to visit the Attarine Madrassa, the Moulay Idriss mausoleum and the Karaouine Mosque, as well as the Mellah, the designated Jewish quarter that dates back to the 15th century, and the 14th-century Merenid Tombs. They’ve definitely seen better days, but they boast a brilliant location, looking out over Fez and mountains to the north. Go at dusk to gaze at this incredible view as the lights flicker on in the valley below; the muezzin’s prayer calls will be the soundtrack to this unforgettable experience.
Located on the west coast of Morocco, the Atlantic coast, the walled seaside town of Essaouira is a charming, laid-back alternative to the frenetic energy of some of the country’s larger cities. A designated UNESCO World Heritage site, Essaouira (which means “little picture” in Arabic) is famed for its bustling streets and beautiful beaches. Thanks to the alizee, the coastal wind (Essaouira is known as the “Wind City of Africa”), it’s also a well-known kitesurfing hotspot.
Overlooking the bustling harbour filled with colourful boats are the golden-stone city walls. They embrace a town where winding alleyways are lined with white-washed houses accented with shutters and doors all painted blue. The spice-scented medina, the old historic part of town, is a maze of alleys and narrow streets filled with colourful souqs, street vendors and endless galleries and boutiques.
There’s a strong art community in this small city of roughly 78,000 people, and street art everywhere. This bohemian town has been a popular hangout for musicians since the 1960s – even Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley were fans. These days it hosts one of the largest world-music festivals on the planet, the annual Gnaoua Festival in June. Which, incidentally, is a lovely time to visit, before temperatures soar.
Make sure you come here with an appetite: Essaouira is famous for its incredibly fresh fish which you can eat in fantastic seafood restaurants and tiny roadside grills.
Located in the Rif mountains in the north of Morocco, the small town of Chefchaouen is famous for its striking blue-washed homes. It cascades down the mountainside in a picturesque tumble of unique blue-painted houses, red-tiled roofs, exquisitely carved wooden doors, colourful plants providing pops of contrasting colours and tiled passages winding through the city. It’s a photographer’s dream and ready-made for Instagram.
Chefchaouen has also become a centre for creativity, attracting painters, photographers and craftspeople. Browse their works in local arts and crafts in the quaint shops of the medina. A locally made pillowcase in vibrant regional colours is a brilliant, lightweight souvenir to take home. At the heart of the medina is the cobbled Plaza Uta El Hammam, where you’ll find cafes and restaurants, the 15th-century Grand Mosquée with its unusual octagonal minaret, and Chefchaouen’s small but charming kasbah 15th-century kasbah, which contains a lovely Andalusian-style garden.
The surrounding countryside is full of beautiful hiking trails and Chefchaouen is a great base from which to explore the Rif Mountains. The locals call the town simply “Chaouen” (sha-wen) which, very appropriately, means “peaks.” Nearby places of interest include the sprawling, jagged limestone rocks of Sfiha Telj and the natural spring at Ain Tissimlane.
This beautiful blue painted town also has the reputation as the cannabis capital of Morocco, so do with that what you will!
The highest peak in North Africa
Morocco’s Atlas Mountains are a fantastic destination for trekking, as well as encounters with welcoming Berber people in remote mountain villages. There are routes to suit all sorts of capabilities, but for hardcore hikers, there’s nothing like the challenge of climbing Jebel Toubkal, a.k.a Mount Toubkal, situated in the High Atlas Mountains. At 4,167 metres, this is North Africa’s highest peak. The trek to the summit is hard work, but the jaw-dropping views make it all worthwhile. While it’s possible to get to the top of the mountain and then back down to the town of Imlil in a single day, it’s a good idea to allow three days or more to acclimatise to the effects of altitude – and enjoy the amazing scenery along the way. When winter comes around this undertaking is strictly for serious trekkers only – ones decked out with crampons, ice picks and a proper sense of adventure. During winter skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts will also want to head to Ouikaimeden (about 80 kilometres away, one of the only ski resorts in Africa.
No trip to Morocco would be complete without a visit to at least one of its four imperial cities (a.k.a the country’s historical capital cities): Fez, Marrakesh, Rabat (the current capital) and Meknes. Located about 45 minutes west of Fez, in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains, the historic city of Meknes is one of Morocco’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It was given the honour thanks to its well-preserved heritage, distinct blend of architectural styles and breathtaking monuments. Fortified walls surround the city, with nine ornately decorated gates providing entry to the city. One such gate, the spectacular Bab el-Mansour gate, is one of the most impressive sets of doors on the planet, and a don’t-miss attraction in Meknes. Others include the Royal Stables, the old Habs Qara underground prison, the Jewish quarter and the Museum of Moroccan Art (or Dar Jamaï Museum). There’s also a bustling medina and numerous mosques, hammams and gardens in this beautiful city, where Islamic and European-inspired architecture sit side-by-side with Spanish-Moorish styles. The Roman ruins at nearby Volubilis are also well worth a visit.