The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca (Photo: Adobe Stock)
The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Discovering Morocco


Morocco—with its African, Middle Eastern, and European influences—may be a little rough around the edges, but its unusual and mystical charms will captivate you. Whether you ride a camel to a Berber camp in the desert, explore Roman ruins, or watch craftspeople cut and design ceramic tiles, you’ll discover what makes Morocco such an enchanting destination.

When planning your trip, start by deciding whether you want to visit only the historic cities or also see the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert. Making a complete circuit of the country takes longer, of course, but it exposes you to the beauty and daily life in rural areas. 

Exploring South Africa in a 4X4

Related Article

Exploring South Africa in a 4X4

Hitting the highway in one of the world’s most culturally diverse countries.

Casablanca isn’t as appealing as it is well-known—you’ll find traffic jams, high-rise buildings, and pollution—but it’s worth a stop, if only to see King Hassan II Mosque, the world’s third-largest mosque. Allow for a longer visit to Rabat, the nation’s capital and political center. In stark contrast to Casablanca, it is clean, with wide boulevards and little traffic. 

Kasbah of the Udayas in Rabat (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Kasbah of the Udayas in Rabat (Photo: Adobe Stock)

One attraction in Rabat is Kasbah of the Udayas, an 11th century fortress. Inside its walls is a quiet little neighborhood of twisting white-and-blue lanes and the Kasbah Mosque, which was built in 1150. It’s easy to get disoriented as you meander. Plenty of locals will be willing to take you on a tour for a tip. They can point out many interesting medieval features, such as doorknockers that represent the craft of the original owners. There also is a lovely café with a view of the Bou Regreg River as it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

You may also want to visit the Tower of Hassan and its never-completed mosque (see box).

From Rabat, head for Meknes. One of the four imperial cities (along with Rabat, Fez, and Marrakesh), it became the country’s capital in 1673 under the Sultan of Morocco, Moulay Ismail. The sultan built palaces and mosques that earned Meknes the moniker “Versailles of Morocco.” 

 (Photo: Adobe Stock)
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

The original city wall surrounds the old quarter. There are 27 gates, including Bab Mansour, the largest and most striking. It is directly across from Place Hedim, the medina's main square.

Visit the Moulay Ismail granaries, which were built to store food and grain for up to 20 years, and the palace stables, which housed 12,000 horses. Each horse had its own groom and a slave who made sure that all of its needs were met.

Close to Meknes are the ruins of Volubilis, a once-thriving Roman city dating to the first century. The ruins are on the way to Fez, your next stop.

Bab Mansour, the largest of 27 gates to the original city of Meknes (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Bab Mansour, the largest of 27 gates to the original city of Meknes (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Fez is famous for Fez el-Bali, where you can explore 1,300 years of Moroccan history. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is the world’s largest car-free urban area. There are more than 9,400 streets and alleys, and 90,000 residents. With no rhyme or reason to this medieval street plan, you will find it particularly helpful to have a guide here. 

Donkeys cart goods down alleyways lined with houses and with businesses selling everything from camel meat and olives to handcrafted copper pots. 

The Chaouwara tanneries are one of the medina’s most iconic sights. Entering one of the stores selling leather, you’ll be handed a sprig of mint; the tannery smell can be overwhelming. Merchants are happy to explain the process as they lead you through their shops to a viewing terrace where you can look out over the tannery, which produces world-class leather using methods that have changed little over the centuries. Salespeople expect a small tip for their tours, or even better, a sale. But you probably won’t find a better selection of leather—or better prices—anywhere else in Morocco. 

Volubilis, a partly excavated Roman city near Meknes (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Volubilis, a partly excavated Roman city near Meknes (Photo: Adobe Stock)

You’ll want to see at least one of the seven golden gates that mark the entrance to the Royal Palace. Although there is no access to the palace, you can imagine its grandeur when you see the gates. Intricate patterns cover the famous brass doors, which are surrounded by tile work, or zellij, and carved cedar wood.

Essaouira (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Essaouira (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The Sahara Desert is a magical place to spend a few nights. Hotels are at the very edge of the dunes. From here you can ride a camel into the desert to a Berber camp where you can spend the night. Sunrise and sunset are extraordinary as the sun paints the sand a vivid rose and tangerine. After dark, the sky is ablaze with starlight.

The Atlas Mountains, stretching more than 1,500 miles from the west coast of Morocco to Tunisia, include North Africa's highest peak, Jebel Toubkal, which rises 13,671 feet above sea level. You don’t have to hike to the summit to experience its rugged beauty. 

Todra Gorge is a 1,000-foot-deep fault that splits the orange limestone into a deep ravine. Hotels are located along the river that flows through the gorge. You can hike here for spectacular views or meander along the highway past villagers, shepherds, and children offering handmade palm tree leaf camels for few coins.

Located along the former caravan route between the Sahara Desert and Marrakesh, Kasbah Ait Benhaddou contains houses dating from the 17th century. Every day, a steady stream of tourists wanting to see this historic example of southern Moroccan earthen clay architecture make their way here. 

Hollywood buffs seek out the Kasbah as well. Television programs and movies, including Game of ThronesGladiator, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, were filmed at this UNESCO site. 

You might also want to experience a home stay for a real feel for life in the mountains. In the village of Warwichkt in the Tighza Valley, you walk or ride a mule an hour and a half to reach the newly built Riad Kasbah Oliver, which serves as a couple’s home as well as a guest house. 

The road is narrow as it passes through the terra-cotta-tinted mountain pass, which is speckled with vegetation. Village houses are made of mud bricks. You will be greeted by school children and women dressed traditionally in long, colorful djellabas.

While staying in the village, you can use the local hammam. A hammam is a Middle Eastern type of steam-bath experience. It involves extremely hot temperatures, a wet steam bath followed by exfoliation, and sometimes massage. Women perform hammam on women and men on men. In Morocco, hammam is a social gathering especially for women.

Sand dunes in the Sahara desert (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Sand dunes in the Sahara desert (Photo: Adobe Stock)

You can also hike into the mountains or explore the village.

Essaouira, a charming seaside city, is on the Atlantic coast, an eight-hour drive southwest from the Tighza Valley. Stay in one of the many riads, which are traditional Moroccan homes that have been converted into luxurious hotels that feature intricate mosaic work, tiled floors, and often water features in the center of a courtyard.

You’ll be in the heart of the medina, which is well preserved and easy to navigate. Built between the 18th and 19th centuries, the oldest area is the fortified Kasbah, where dignitaries once lived. Walk along spice-scented lanes and stop to admire pottery, brightly colored clothing, woodworking, and art. There are also small craft workshops in the medina. As in all of Morocco, merchants are friendly whether or not you make a purchase.

The fish market is divided from the medina by an 18th century fort and ramparts. Visit in early morning to see the fishermen returning with their catches or at midday, when some peddle their fish while others repair their nets. Overhead are flocks of seagulls and underfoot cats meander between makeshift booths or sleep in the sunshine.

Kasbah Ait Benhaddou (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Kasbah Ait Benhaddou (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The medina in Marrakesh is a blur of snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, spice sellers, and rug merchants. The city has the energy and animation of people, color, and motion. 

The ancient section of Marrakesh was founded in the mid 11th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At its center is Jamaa el-Fna square. You can easily spend several days in the medina. Fanning out from the square are buildings that contain a labyrinth of tunnel-like aisles. Two excellent historic attractions in the old city are Saadian Tombs and the Palace of Bahia. Ideally, stay in the old city in one of the riads near the square. This puts you within walking distance of the tombs, palace, square, and marketplace, any of which would make fo0r a memorable last stop on your tour of Morocco. 

Leather dyeing in a tannery in Fez (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Leather dyeing in a tannery in Fez (Photo: Adobe Stock)


5 Must-See Historic Attractions

1. King Hassan IIMosque. Morocco’s largest mosque is also one of only two open to non-Muslims (the other is Tin Mal Mosque in Tin Mal). It can accommodate 25,000 worshippers inside and 80,000 in surrounding courtyards.

SaadiHassan Tower (Photo: Adobe Stock)
SaadiHassan Tower (Photo: Adobe Stock)

2. Hassan Tower. Sultan Yaqoub al Mansour gave the order to build the tower that was to be the largest minaret in the world. His death stopped construction, and the mosque appears today as it did in 1199. The mausoleum of Mohammed V (grandfather of Morocco’s current king) and his two sons is here. 

3. Volubilis. The Romans lost control of Volubilis by the third century, but it remained inhabited until the 18th century. The ruins include tile floors, towering columns, and 2,000-year-old arches.

Saadian Tombs (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Saadian Tombs (Photo: Adobe Stock)

4. Saadian Tombs. Sealed for centuries until their rediscovery in 1917, these tombs are magnificently decorated with colorful tiles, Arabic script, and elaborate carvings. 

5. Palace of Bahia. Dating from the 19th century, this architectural masterpiece is spread out over 22 acres in the old city. The Moroccan royal family of King Mohammed VI stays on occasion in a private area here.


Traveler Fast Facts

WHAT IT IS: 

Morocco (population, 33 million) is in northwest Africa, bordered by the Sahara Desert, Algeria, Spain, and the Atlantic Ocean. It is slightly larger than California. 

CLIMATE:

Along the coasts, Morocco has a typical Mediterranean climate with mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. There is significantly more precipitation in the mountains. Snow is common in the High Atlas Mountains, and it lingers in the highest elevations until late spring or early summer. 

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:

Dollars and euros aren’t generally accepted. Credit cards are widely accepted in cities, but not in rural areas. Merchants aren’t aggressive, and shopping in city souks is an adventure not to be missed. Consider taking an organized tour of Morocco or hiring a tour guide. The main languages spoken are Berber, Arabic, and French, though in cities, merchants, restaurateurs, and most hotel employees speak English.

GETTING THERE:

About 22 international airports in Morocco—including those in Casablanca, Marrakesh, Fez, Rabat, and Essaouira—welcome private jets. Royal Air Maroc offers direct flights from New York and London to Casablanca. Other airlines serving Casablanca and Marrakesh include Alitalia, Iberia, American, and Air France.

GETTING AROUND:

Taxis are plentiful in Marrakesh, Casablanca, Fez, and Rabat. This is the easiest way to get from the new city to the medina and vice versa but beware of the common “meter is broken” scam. Accessibility is difficult in the medina, souks, and rural areas. A safe and comfortable state-run rail network connects most cities west of the Atlas Mountains. 

ACTIVITIES:

The most interesting part of any Moroccan city is its medina. The ones in Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes, Essaouira, and Tetouan are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Spend a day in a souk, where you can buy everything from shoes to spices to long, elegant gowns. 

(Photo: Adobe Stock)
(Photo: Adobe Stock)


Traveler Report Card

ACCOMMODATIONS:

Yasmina Auberge Hotel (B-) is at the edge of the desert in eastern Morocco and offers beautifully appointed rooms with excellent service. On the second day, you can opt to ride a camel into the desert and stay in a semi-permanent camp for the night. (The desert gets cold after dark, so dress appropriately.) Riad Kasbah Oliver (C+), in the High Atlas Mountains, is nicely appointed, but there is no heat. To get to the riad, you have to walk or ride a mule to the village. Riad Hamdane & Spa (C+) is a four-star establishment in the Marrakesh medina within easy walking distance of Jamaa el-Fna square. There is no elevator.

DINING:

Il Mare (B+) in Essaouira offers fresh seafood. The view from the terrace is especially memorable at sunset. Le Patio Bleu (B+) in Fez el-Bali serves excellent and authentic Moroccan food. Amal (A-) is a women's training center and restaurant dedicated to empowering disadvantaged women through training in traditional and modern Moroccan cuisine. TripAdvisor ranks it No. 7 of 987 restaurants in Marrakesh.


Editor's note: For her trip to Morocco, Marilyn Jones was a guest of Exodus Travels.

THANK YOU TO OUR BJTONLINE SPONSORS