Morocco: Lively markets, desert treks, hiking to remote waterfalls, and beach days are just some of the wonders Morocco has in store. You can surf on the coast, sip some mint tea in the medina, and explore the ruins scattered throughout its many cities. This majestic country is filled with ancient history, and it’s waiting for you to answer the call to adventure.
Morocco has a varied geography, which means the climate is dependent upon your destination. Generally, there is never a bad time to travel to this incredible country, although the spring and fall tend to bring the most travelers with temperatures averaging anywhere from 18 to 23°C. The summer months from June through August face high temperatures reaching up to 45°C in the Sahara. However, cities such as Marrakech and Fez average about 32°C, which is great for spending time at your riad’s pool. November through February are the winter months and typically bring cooler, chilly weather with rain, but the cities will always be bustling, as warmer temps remain throughout the day in the northern part of the country.
Peak seasons are in the spring from March through May and in the fall from September through October. These months bring consistent warm, dry weather and many European travelers who are looking to take their annual vacation. The bigger cities and more popular beaches will be busy during these times, but there is always a less-traveled option and a small beach town to explore.
While Morocco has four seasons, the days are generally warm and allow for exploring the cities and the coastline throughout the year. If you’re looking to explore the cities and avoid the crowds, waiting until the winter months will get you the best deals and fewer tourists.
The low season between June and August brings hot and humid weather to the cities, but the prices drop significantly when it comes to hotels and flights. If you don’t mind the heat, you can find some stellar travel deals.
If you’re coming to Morocco to trek in the gorge or explore the mountains, the winter months bring significant rainfall that can make roads and mountain trails impassible. Focus on the shoulder season months of February and November to avoid the crowds and temperamental weather.
For Sahara trips, it’s best to avoid the summer months, as temperatures can become stifling. The shoulder seasons offer the best times to enjoy the desert experience without discomfort.
Maroc : Marchés animés, randonnées dans le désert, randonnées vers des cascades isolées et journées à la plage ne sont que quelques-unes des merveilles que le Maroc a en réserve. Vous pouvez surfer sur la côte, siroter un thé à la menthe dans la médina et explorer les ruines disséminées dans ses nombreuses villes. Ce pays majestueux regorge d’histoire ancienne et n’attend que vous pour répondre à l’appel de l’aventure.
Le Maroc a une géographie variée, ce qui signifie que le climat dépend de votre destination. Généralement, il n’y a jamais de mauvais moment pour voyager dans ce pays incroyable, bien que le printemps et l’automne aient tendance à attirer le plus de voyageurs avec des températures moyennes allant de 18 à 23 °C. Les mois d’été de juin à août sont confrontés à des températures élevées atteignant jusqu’à 45°C dans le Sahara. Cependant, des villes comme Marrakech et Fès ont une température moyenne d’environ 32°C, ce qui est idéal pour passer du temps à la piscine de votre riad. Novembre à février sont les mois d’hiver et apportent généralement un temps plus frais et frais avec de la pluie, mais les villes seront toujours animées, car les températures plus chaudes restent tout au long de la journée dans la partie nord du pays.
Les hautes saisons sont au printemps de mars à mai et à l’automne de septembre à octobre. Ces mois apportent un temps chaud et sec constant et de nombreux voyageurs européens qui cherchent à prendre leurs vacances annuelles. Les grandes villes et les plages les plus populaires seront occupées pendant ces périodes, mais il y a toujours une option moins fréquentée et une petite ville balnéaire à explorer.
Alors que le Maroc a quatre saisons, les journées sont généralement chaudes et permettent d’explorer les villes et le littoral tout au long de l’année. Si vous cherchez à explorer les villes et à éviter les foules, attendre les mois d’hiver vous permettra d’obtenir les meilleures offres et moins de touristes.
La basse saison entre juin et août apporte un temps chaud et humide dans les villes, mais les prix baissent considérablement en ce qui concerne les hôtels et les vols. Si la chaleur ne vous dérange pas, vous pouvez trouver des offres de voyage exceptionnelles.
Si vous venez au Maroc pour faire de la randonnée dans les gorges ou explorer les montagnes, les mois d’hiver apportent des précipitations importantes qui peuvent rendre les routes et les sentiers de montagne impraticables. Concentrez-vous sur les mois d’intersaison de février et novembre pour éviter les foules et le temps capricieux.
Pour les voyages au Sahara, il est préférable d’éviter les mois d’été, car les températures peuvent devenir étouffantes. Les saisons intermédiaires offrent les meilleurs moments pour profiter de l’expérience du désert sans inconfort.
Morocco is a large country, with towns and cities from north to south that are worth exploring. If you’re travelling solo, you may want to add some of these popular destinations in Morocco to your itinerary.
From the frenetic narrow streets of the old medina and the eclectic evening activities at the Jemaa el-Fna to the bars and clubs in the colonial area of Gueliz, Marrakech offers a whirlwind of excitement. There are lush gardens where you can sit and gather your thoughts, and charming cafes where you can indulge in a cup of mint tea; or you might prefer to do some haggling at the souks. If you’re travelling solo, then a licensed local guide could prove invaluable to help you navigate the medina.
Many of the main attractions in Essaouira, which sits on the Atlantic coast due west of Marrakech, are easy to reach on foot. Less chaotic than Marrakech and a favourite destination for independent travellers, the city comprises a laid-back medina, a wide sandy beach popular with wind- and kitesurfers, quirky cafes and art galleries – as well as a working harbour and old walls. Check out our pick of the best places to stay in Essaouira here.
Solo sunseekers can spend their days blissfully relaxed on Agadir’s sandy beaches, or surfing the Atlantic swells. Alternatively, you can visit Vallée des Oiseaux, admire the views from the ruined kasbah of Oufella, shop in the markets and unwind in one of the many relaxed beachside bars.
Tangier, in the far north of Morocco, offers a blend of beach life and culture. Uncover local legends at the Caves of Hercules, soak up the vistas from Cape Malabata, shop in the souks and visit local museums. Or do as the Moroccans do, and book yourself a hammam scrub at one of these top-rated hammam spas. Many solo travellers manage to discover the city’s gems without the need for a tour guide.
Teeming with life, all packed cheek by jowl into a tiny space of medieval buildings and alleyways, Fez – ancient capital of the kingdom of Morocco – is a veritable assault on the senses, and a guide is essential to help you work your way around the medina. Otherwise it’s easy to get disorientated in the narrow labyrinth-like alleys of this Unesco World Heritage siteWhile here, make time for a visit the tanneries. Other places of interest include the University of Al Quaraouiyine (founded in the ninth century and thought to be the longest functioning teaching institution in the world), Al-Attarine Madrasa, the Merenid tombs and the historic Jewish Quarter.
One of the most beguiling cities in Morocco, Chefchaouen, known as the Blue City after the painted walls in the medina, is a terrific place for solo adventurers. The friendly locals, compact medina and charming atmosphere add to Chefchaouen’s appeal. Other activities include visiting the small but interesting kasbah, seeing the Grand Mosque and watching locals wash their rugs at Ras el-Ma.
Where to Sleep, Eat and Drink in Morocco
There are numerous accommodation options across Morocco’s major towns and cities, catering to all tastes and budgets. Solo travellers would probably prefer to stay in a sociable backpacker hostel or hotel that attracts other lone travellers – all of which are bookable on Culture Trip.
Visitors will find an abundance of restaurants, cafés and bars around Morocco. Many riads and hotels have their own restaurants, which makes it ideal if you’re a solo traveller who prefers not to venture too far from your room for dinner.
What to Do in Morocco
Trek in the Mountains
Morocco’s mountain ranges offer excellent opportunities for trekking. Visit Berber villages, see native flora and fauna and admire splendid views. Guided treks are recommended for solo travellers; you can either join a group trip or engage the services of a local licensed guide.
Shop in the Souks
The lively souks are ideal for browsing or picking up traditional goods and souvenirs, and they’re not just for tourists – you can get a flavour here of how the locals shop. Walking around the souks alone can make you more of a target for the relentless vendors – though generally harmless, they can be persistent.
Marvel at the Desert
A guided trip is the most common way of visiting the desert, whether you’re travelling in a group or alone. Numerous operators organise desert trips of varying lengths – Merzouga and Zagora are two of the most popular desert destinations.
Practical Tips for Travelling Alone in Morocco
Smaller taxis charge according to the fare on the meter, but you will need to negotiate prices for a larger Grand taxi. While the small taxis generally only carry passengers to local destinations, the larger taxis can often be chartered for longer inter-city journeys.
An extensive system of buses operates between most of Morocco’s major towns and cities. Minivans may cost a bit more than a regular public bus; however, they do offer a much faster mode of travel.
Trains are a great way of getting between major cities; services are generally punctual and reliable and carriages are usually clean and tidy.
English is often spoken in major tourist areas. Knowing at least a few basic phrases in French or Spanish can help out, too. The farther away you venture from the tried-and-trodden track, the more difficult it can be to find people who speak European languages. Although most people in Morocco speak Arabic, Amazigh is the primary language spoken in predominantly Berber areas.
It’s also relatively easy to stay online and connected in Morocco, which is great for digital nomads.
Health and Safety
Tap water is safe to drink in most parts of the country. When buying a glass of juice from stalls, however, ensure that clean glasses are given to each customer.
As with almost anywhere in the world, pickpockets operate in many of the larger cities, so you should be especially cautious in busy souks and medinas. Opportunists on scooters may try and snatch your bag. If you’re riding a bicycle, don’t leave anything of value in the basket. In addition, do be sensible and avoid walking alone at night in dimly lit and quiet areas.
Solo Female Travel in Morocco
It is generally very safe for women to travel alone in Morocco, but do remember this is a patriarchal society, and you may find the lack of local women on the streets or in cafes a little offputting. You may also attract the unwanted attention of local men – though generally harmless, the stares, catcalls, questions and propositions can become tiresome.
Don’t forget, either, that this is an Islamic nation, so you should make an effort to dress modestly. While covering your head is not required, it can help to avoid attention in more remote destinations. As a general rule, make sure you cover your knees and elbows and avoid tight-fitting or see-through garments.
With more than 90 percent of the population identifying as Muslim, Islam is the state religion of Morocco. Many citizens follow the Sunni branch of Islam, though a significant number subscribe to various Sufi ideals. Disrespecting Islam in Morocco can offend locals and, although Morocco is among the more liberal of the Islamic nations, no guest should seek to upset their host. Asking questions to learn more about the religion is fine, but limit discussions about Islam to factual matters, rather than offering opinions that may be controversial. Respect rules that forbid non-Muslims from entering certain areas – such as mosques and shrines – and dress modestly, in keeping with local customs.
Disrespect the monarchy
The lèse-majesté of Morocco makes mocking, criticising or otherwise speaking badly about the Moroccan king a criminal offence. A few misguided mutterings may offend, but going too far could actually lead to a jail sentence of up to three years. Defacing anything with the king’s image is a major no-no. Respect these Moroccan laws for a trouble-free trip.
Use your left hand to eat with
Many meals in Morocco are traditionally eaten with the hands. Be careful to use only your right hand to eat with, though; the left hand is considered unclean, as it is typically the hand used when going to the toilet. While unwittingly using your left hand to eat with is unlikely to cause any drama, it might raise a few eyebrows, or induce a few snickers or scowls.
Walk around in beachwear (away from the beach)
In keeping with religious and cultural norms, general standards of dress in Morocco are fairly conservative. Beachwear is certainly not appropriate attire for exploring Moroccan cities, towns and villages – no matter how hot the temperatures. Keep bikinis and bathing suits for the beach, making sure to cover up when leaving for your hotel, restaurant or anywhere else.
Expect everyone to speak English
While there generally isn’t a problem with finding English-speaking locals in major tourist and commercial areas such as Marrakech, Fez, Rabat, Tangier and Casablanca, don’t expect this in less-visited parts of the country and remote areas. Due to past colonialism, knowing a few Spanish words (in the north) or French words (in central areas) can help immensely. Those who can speak basic Arabic, however, will be able to communicate with people almost all over the country. Most Amazigh-speaking Berbers speak Arabic as well.
Limit your stay to Marrakech
Marrakech is one of the most popular destinations for a holiday in Morocco. With energetic souks, historical attractions, art galleries aplenty, stunning gardens and the more modern area of Gueliz offering high-class bars, shops and restaurants, it can be easy to think you’ve found the best of Morocco in this one city. However, there is so much more to this diverse nation than the Red City. Glorious beaches, soaring mountains and various charming cities and towns await elsewhere. If time is limited, perhaps consider taking at least a couple of excursions to places such as Essaouira, Ouarzazate, Ouzoud Waterfalls or the Ourika Valley.
Expect Casablanca to be like the movie
The classic movie Casablanca (1942) and Morocco’s modern-day economic capital have one main thing in common: their name. Don’t expect to visit Casablanca and enter a world of romance and allure. The film was shot in Hollywood, shows no scenes of Morocco and features no Moroccan actors or actresses. The closest visitors will get to experience the movie is by visiting the themed restaurant Rick’s Cafe. The rest of the city is a bustling business powerhouse that includes attractions such as the Casablanca Twin Centre complex; one of the largest shopping centres in Africa, the Morocco Mall; and the stunning Hassan II Mosque, one of the biggest in the world.
Think fez hats come from the city of Fez
The city of Fez, sometimes spelt Fes, is one of the old imperial cities of Morocco. It is home to leather tanneries, bustling souks and one of the oldest universities in the world. It is a popular tourist destination with plenty of appeal. Don’t, however, expect to find fez hats in abundance. The round, red hats with a black tassel on top actually originated elsewhere. The exact origins are disputed, but the possibilities include Greece, Turkey or the Balkan region. One thing is for sure, the hats definitely weren’t born in Fez. Indeed, the Moroccan name for the hat has no relation to the city, and it is known locally as a tarboosh.
Be disappointed if couscous isn’t on the menu every day
Couscous is the national dish of Morocco, and many visitors are keen to try it. Although the popular dish is often widely available in restaurants that cater to tourists, visit a more locally oriented establishment and there’s a high chance that patrons will find couscous only available on Fridays. There is a strong tradition throughout Morocco of eating the dish on the Islamic holy day. The time-consuming preparation and local customs mean that many restaurants do not serve couscous on other days. There are still plenty of other delicious options to enjoy, though, such as tagine, tangia (a slow-cooked specialty from Marrakech), and pastilla (meat pie).
Leave Morocco without trying mint tea
If couscous is the national dish of Morocco, mint tea is the national drink. Loaded with sugar and sprigs of fresh mint, the refreshing drink is a great way to experience a part of local life. Head to one of the many cafes, order a pot, relax and savour the taste while watching the world go by.
Forget to haggle in the souks
Morocco is famous for its colourful souks (traditional markets) that sell an assortment of items. From traditional clothing and footwear to spices, shisha pipes, lamps, tea sets and leather goods, a treasure trove of delights can be found in the souks of Morocco. It’s difficult to resist loading up on gifts and souvenirs to take home. Prices are generally reasonable, but only for those who remember to haggle. Haggling is a huge part of trade in Morocco and vendors provide an inflated starting price, knowing that the end figure will be lower. There’s no hard and fast rule about how much to pay, but negotiating any price is a must.
Morocco’s Atlas mountains are a short hop from Marrakech – but a world away from frenetic city life
My daughter spots them first, glinting like diamonds in the midday heat of the Moroccan sun, irresistible for small fingers to pick at. “Treasure!” she exclaims, kneeling down to pick clusters of tiny crystals out of the earth, some of them clear, others in ochres, oranges and yellows. From gold and silver to cobalt, nickel and zinc, the Atlas mountains are a mineral paradise, as well as an ancient and lucrative industry.
Centuries ago, explains our walking guide Abdelkarim, the original silk route would have passed through these mountains en route to Timbuktu, transporting gold and silver from the area. Mining is big business in Morocco, its applications ranging from cobalt for phone batteries to quartz crystals in watches and zinc oxide in agriculture.
Rich with ravines and canyons, waterfalls and wild flowers, the Atlas mountains stretch 2,500km, spanning Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and separating the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines from the Sahara desert.
Today, the main jewel in this part of Morocco is Marrakech, attracting ever larger numbers to the markets and souks, or for trips into the Sahara desert for promised peace and tranquillity under the stars. But it is difficult to see why these mountains – remote, vast, empty, yet only 40 minutes away from the chaos and crowds of Marrakech – are not the star attraction. You could be in the Himalayas, but you’re just a three-hour flight from London.
During our three-hour hike all we can see from every vantage point are endless craggy peaks dotted with pretty Berber villages carved out of the dusty landscape. To get here, we stop at one village, perched across the valley from where we’re staying. In the square, a group of children start to follow us and Abdelkarim stops, pulls out some pens and exercise books from his bag and hands them out. School resources are stretched here, he explains, but education is highly prized. He points to a large new building in the middle of the village, the school house where pupils are taught in Arabic and Berber.
Up here in the hills, we meet no one. It’s just us – my husband and two daughters – the epic silence of the landscape, and the odd mule, known locally as the 4×4 of the mountains, tethered to a tree.
Back at Kasbah Angour, where we’re staying, it’s so comfortable and pretty, it would be easy to succumb to languor, never venturing beyond the hotel’s swimming pool. The lush manicured lawns, terracotta pots and rows of Cyprus trees lend the place a Tuscan feel, yet the scorched red and pink rocky landscape couldn’t be anywhere else but north Africa. But explore we must. British owner Paul Foulsham encourages his guests to immerse themselves in the area and appreciate the local Berber culture.
Back in the early 1990s, Foulsham worked as a financial analyst for various oil companies but when he came to Morocco, to mine baryte for the oil industry, he decided to stay put. He found the site within two weeks, and set about building the 23-room Berber-style castle from scratch with the help of local architects. The project has been a labour of love.
Every detail has been crafted from locally sourced materials, from the traditional tiled floors to the carved shutters, Berber rugs, ornate mirrors and handmade furniture in the restaurant. The overall feel is luxurious but authentic, too. Our two-bedroom suite is extremely spacious with a comfortable sitting room, and kitchen area perfect for mixing a G&T to drink out on the terrace, with yet more wraparound views. Every evening we sit and play cards and watch the sun dip below the mountains before we head for the hotel restaurant below us.
The real joy of Angour is exploring its gardens, which are large and sprawling, full of formal rose beds and wild flowers, and fringed with fir, olive, fig and pomegranate trees. Most of the fresh fruit and vegetables grown here are used by the chefs in Angour’s kitchens to create traditional Moroccan meals, from tagines with preserved lemons to stuffed peppers, and simply prepared fresh artichokes.
We quickly fall into a morning routine, whiling the early hours away by the pool and enjoying yet more 360-degree views of the mountains from the vantage point of a sun lounger.
Each morning, over breakfast of fresh bread, honey, olives and figs, Foulsham chats to the guests about their plans for the day – often excursions on offer through the hotel. There are camel rides, 4×4 off-roading trips or guided treks up Mount Toubkal – 4,167m-high, with views of the Sahara over the other side. We opt for a day in Marrakech, which is easily accessible by local cab, and find ourselves joining a long queue of (mainly French) tourists outside the Yves Saint Laurent Museum.
Inside, it’s dark and mirrored, a beautifully designed space that’s well worth the wait. The original YSL tuxedo takes pride of place.
A few minutes away is the Jardin Majorelle, the garden that Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé bought to preserve the work of its original owner, the French landscape painter Jacques Majorelle. We switch into a surreal desert landscape with towering cacti, ornamental ponds, and every surface painted an iridescent Yves Klein blue.
No day trip to Marrakech is complete without lunch on a rooftop terrace, so we head for Café Arabe, with a modern Med menu, curvaceous cream sofas and views across the medina rooftops. Best of all are fine water jets above each table that release a misty vapour that makes the city’s 40C heat almost bearable. The lunch is perfect: the vegetable couscous is buttery and meltingly tender, and the Casablanca beer beautifully icy.
A lightning glimpse of Djemaa el-Fna, the main square in Marrakech, is just long enough to see the crowds arriving and the snake charmers setting up. I vow to come back to Marrakech for a longer stay but for now we can’t wait to scuttle back to our waiting cab and the oasis of Kasbah Angour.
Morocco’s coastline runs along both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, meaning it has a huge array of beaches that are just begging to be visited. With some fantastic spots for keen surfers and water sports enthusiasts, there’s no shortage of waves along much of the country’s sprawling, sand-dune sea sides.
If spending your holiday sleepily lazing in the sun on golden sand sounds like your thing, the beautiful bays and picturesque lagoons in Morocco will be ideal for you. During the summer months, Morocco’s best beaches get busy with locals enjoying vacations by the sea – but out of season, many of the beaches are deserted, so you’ll have these slices of paradise all to yourself.
10. Las Cuevas Beach, Asilah
Just six-kilometers south of the old fortified town of Asilah, Las Cuevas Beach lies at the bottom of the rounded, dusty cliffs that give it protection. It’s not the easiest route along the steep and dusty track from the road down to the sand, but there are some alternative modes of transport on offer from the road above – you can even travel down on a horse and cart if you wish!
A selection of beach restaurants have been set up on the shore, serving freshly caught fish with sides of salads and potatoes. Beachgoers who decided to grab a leisurely bite to eat at one of the cafes can use their sunbeds and umbrellas free of charge. The waves here crash in crescendos on the golden sand, making it a great spot for surfing. In the summer months, things can get busy with local families, lines of vendors and camel rides.
9. Martil Beach
Set in a small but attractive town, Maril beach is a favorite with Moroccan holidaymakers, who arrive here in the summer months to spend time cooling off in the waters of the Mediterranean sea. Bright green mountains hug the headlands and a pleasant beachside promenade makes for a relaxing walk along the coast. Stop off and grab an iced coffee and watch as the pale blue warm waters crash into the milky-white of the sand.
If you’re into golf, Maril is close to some excellent golf courses at Cabo Negro. Not just a beach for the heat of the summer, Martil is a sweetly charming town that hums with activity in high season, but otherwise has a slow and pleasant place. Many of the visitors travel from nearby Tangier and spend the night in the numerous hotels around town.
8. Dragon Beach, Dakhla Peninsula
Located in the disputed Western Sahara in the Dakhla Peninsula, Dragon Beach protrudes out into the Atlantic Ocean alongside the African coast and boasts crystal-clear waters and white sand dunes. Great for water sports enthusiasts and nature-lovers alike, Dragon Beach is a small island in the middle of a blue lagoon.
A little slice of desert-like paradise, the sand here is so white it’s dazzling. Small birds flit and dive along the coast while you kick back and relax in a beachside hammock at the beach bar. Let the hours slip by as you catch a breeze on the rustic beach swings have set up here, and wait until sunset, when the mesmerizing beauty of this beach really reveals itself. The acclaimed Kitesurfing World Championships is held here annually, so if you’re in the area at the right time of year, you could really be in for a treat.
If you are looking for somewhere under the radar and unaffected by development, you should head to Sidi Kaouki beach, where tranquility and traditional ways of life combine. This natural beach remains mainly wild, with sand-dunes and plants creating a sort of desert oasis by the sea – without the high winds of neighboring Essaouira beach. This may be one of those beaches that is best kept secret, because it’s Sidi Kaouki’s idyllic seclusion that adds to its allure.
Located close to Berber village, life in the surrounding area is simple and uncomplicated. Surfers enjoy the big waves here and chill out in the no-frills cafes and restaurants. There are a scattering of sunbeds for beachgoers who like to soak up the sun, or, if you like to try something a little different, you can even take a camel ride around the dunes.
Casablanca’s city beach, Ain Diab is a playground for wealthy city-dwellers who want to enjoy time out of their busy lives. The sandy stretch of beach lies between two rocky cliffs and is a trendy hangout for holidaymakers, local teenagers and families. During the summer, the swimming pools and surf schools along the beach fill up with people trying to cool down in the sweltering heat.
Things can get expensive here, however, with chic restaurants and nightclubs sprawling out onto the sand. The best time to visit this fun and frenetic city’s seaside is during the week, when things are a little quieter, or early in the morning at the weekend. Sit in one of the beachside cafes, sip on a cold drink, and spend some hours watching the people of the city as they jog, walk, meet friends and play in the surf and sand.
Positioned between the wilds of the Atlantic Ocean and the foothills of the magnificent Atlas mountains, Agadir Beach is a vibrant part of the bustling Berber city. Drenched in sunshine, the beach’s undulating sand dunes roll out of the barrenness of the Sahara desert into the calm of the sea.
Agadir beach is particularly pretty, the mild climate means you can swim all year round – kayaking, surfing and windsurfing are popular here. Once a little fishing town, busy and buzzing Agadir is a popular resort city and a fun place to spend some days strolling along the seafront boulevard, past the cafe and children’s playgrounds, to lounge on the soft sands of Agadir beach.
The ancient and historic city of Essaouira was once a trendy destination on the hippie trail of the 1960’s, with many famous creatives stopping off to spend some time indulging in the surrounding nature and lapping up the culture. Nowadays, Essaouira has developed into an influential port city, attracting tourists with its stylish beachfront, but still has its roots firmly in tradition.
Known for its relaxed atmosphere and glimmering sands, Essaouira beach remains a magnet for hippies to hang out – now featuring some fantastically indulgent dining options. Enjoy delicious dinner along the beach in one of the many restaurants that serve world-class dishes in the beautiful beachfront setting. This beach isn’t really one for sunbathing – due to high winds that are strong for much of the year, Essaouira has been labeler the ‘Wind City of Africa.’ As such, it is extremely popular with windsurfers.
Small and traditional, Taghazout is a little fishing village just north of Agadir. Tourism is on the rise in the area, with the Moroccan government focusing on the development of Taghazout as a resort town, but for now, most of the tourists here are backpackers and surfers. This chilled-out town is truly a surfers’ paradise and a magnet for those who want to spend summers riding the waves.
Taghazout has a distinctly laid-back vibe. Surfers hang out in the town’s bars and guesthouses and there are plenty of surf shops and schools for those who are keen to try out the waves. The beach’s rugged rocks and gloriously golden sand have some places to hire a sun lounger and umbrella and chill out to the sound of the crashing waves. Evenings on the beach are gorgeously warm and it’s the perfect place for a spot of yoga as the sun sets and turns the waves into splashes of pinks and orange.
Popular with Moroccan holidaymakers but not so well known to international tourists, Oualidia Lagoon is a charming village with a colorful beach. A few hours’ drive away from Marrakech, Oualidia’s wild and natural coastline is softened by the deep blue of its languid lagoon – sheltered from the ruggedness of the Atlantic by chunks of red cliffs.
The shores of the lagoon are scattered with the brightly colored boats of local fishermen, and tour guides who take visitors out onto the lagoon to experience the stillness of the surrounding landscape. When you get back, you can also enjoy the fisherman’s catch of the day in the quaint restaurants around the town. This is a shoreline to spend time relaxing in – unwind from the troubles of everyday life and be seduced by the serenity of the lagoon.
An iconic sight – and one that has garnered much attention around the world – is the natural rock formations at Legzira Beach. What used to set it aside from other beaches in terms of remarkable natural beauty were two sandstone arches jutting out from the cliffs. Unfortunately, the larger of the two collapsed in 2016 after thousands of years of erosion. The smaller one, however, is still an impressive sight – and very well known as a backdrop to countless sunset selfies.
The beach still remains a remarkable place to take in the strange rock formations, and is famous for sunsets that span the sky and highlight the array of reds in the rocks. Legzira, with its windy weather, is an extremely popular spot for paragliders and surfers, as well as sunset chasers.
I learned a lot in a fortnight in Morocco – an overland odyssey that took in the ancient city of Fez, the blue city of Chefchaouen and Tangier, a port city on the Strait of Gibraltar.
Hollywood inspired me to go to Morocco. Tense psychological dramas like Babel and Allied, the 1942 classic Casablanca and action epics like Troy and Gladiator. Those who are old enough won’t easily forget footage of The Rolling Stones galivanting around Morocco in the 1960s or that riotous episode of Absolutely Fabulous when Edina and Patsy fly to Morocco and nearly get arrested at the airport.
Yet these films can’t tell you what it’s like to travel in Morocco. To begin with, it’s an Islamic country so the laws and social norms are very different from the West. Alcohol, while not illegal, is hard to come by outside touristy areas and can only be consumed inconspicuously. Showing too much skin outside a beach or hotel pool is definitely not a good idea, and under no circumstances should a non-Muslim ever enter a mosque. Half the country shuts down on Fridays, the day of the Muslim sabbath, while restaurants only open late at night during the holy month of Ramadan when observant Muslims fast from sunup to sundown.
Here are six other things I learned while traveling through Morocco.
1. Marrakesh is Overrated, Head to Fez Instead
Over the past few years, many of the biggest travel guides and websites have named the desert oasis city of Marrakesh, and the labyrinthine alleyways of its medina (or old city), the world’s best destination.
But Marrakesh has become a victim of its own success and is suffering from over-tourism. A record two million people visited in 2017 – outnumbering locals by nearly two to one and taking away from the medina’s authenticity.
Fez, 185mi (297km) east of Casablanca, is as authentic as they come; its 1,200-year-old medina is said to be the best-preserved old city of the Arab world. Cars can’t possibly fit through the tall narrow archways of the medina’s fortified walls, so locals use handcarts and donkeys to carry stuff around instead.
You’ll probably get lost while exploring Fez medina’s 9,500 cobblestone alleyways and dimly lit pedestrian tunnels. But getting lost is part of the experience; a road to discover a handmade leather bag you must have or a hole-in-the-wall pastry shop crammed with exotic sweets and pastries. And, with the World Heritage-listed city now bearing the fruits of a decades-long restoration program, Fez has to be Morocco’s best-kept open secret.
2. Moroccans Don’t Like to be Photographed
With mosques, houses, police stations and even lampposts and bins painted in an electric shade of blue, the blue city of Chefchaouen, 125mi (200km) north of Fez on the foothills of the Rif Mountains is a photographer’s wet dream. I gave myself three days to photograph Chefchaouen and its 500-year-old medina, but the job took more than twice as long because Moroccans really don’t like to be photographed.
I’ll never forget the time a man who was just a smidge in my camera’s frame shouted ‘NO PHOTO!’ at me from a block away – from the other side of the road! Or the time a hawker dressed in colorful headscarves allowed me to take his portrait – simply because he was the first and only person in Morocco to do so.
There are, of course, ways around it. You can always photograph people from the back, from the side, from balconies and rooftops. Sitting patiently in a plaza or cafe and snapping a photo when the opportunity presents itself also yields good results, while wading into a situation with a selfie-stick doesn’t.
Due to the long history of tourism in Morocco, locals are used to being asked for photographs, and sometimes there is an expectation that they will receive a tip. Tipping a subject for a photo will help get their permission, however, once you pay for a photo the subject is no longer in situ; they are modeling and the photo will rarely feel authentic.
3. The Magic Carpet Scam
In the Middle Eastern fable One Thousand and One Nights, the hero Prince Husain buys a magic carpet. Carpet sellers in Morocco will try to convince you their antique handwoven wool rugs are magical, too – that you should buy an expensive one as an investment to resell it at a huge markup back home.
As ridiculous as it may sound, visitors to Morocco fall for this trick all the time. It starts with a curious look inside one of 10,000 identical carpet stores, where you are ‘befriended’ by a local who offers to walk you to the only honest carpet dealer in town but in truth, it’s his brother, cousin or friend.
Once inside, you’ll be offered glass after glass of tea and a story about the hundreds of hours tribespeople in the small village of so and so spent weaving the pattern – the first of a well-practiced repartee of legitimate and underhanded tactics that will be dispatched like Exocet missiles until you crack.
Just say ”la shukran” (no thank you) and walk away. If you’re serious about buying a rug in Morocco, do your research first, find a few reputable dealers and be prepared to bargain hard because prices are inflated right off the bat.
Moroccan blogger and rug collector Amanda Mouttaki, who admits she paid “way too much” for her first rug in Fez, suggests buyers should drop the first offer “by as much as two thirds and work from there.
4. Don’t Bother With Planes, Get the Train Instead
With most attractions concentrated along the coast and in Morocco’s northeast, rail travel makes a lot of sense. Trains are safe, punctual, cheap, comfortable and a great way to see the county.
At Casablanca Airport, I paid US $17 for a first-class train ticket to Fez. The journey took five hours, the desert scenery was stunning and the train chugged within spitting distance of Roman ruins from the third century on the outskirts of the city Meknes.
A train journey from Marrakesh to Fez takes 10 hours and costs US $30 for a first-class ticket or US $20 for second class. You don’t have to book a ticket online; you can just buy one at a station and hop aboard the next service.
Grand taxis are another novel way to get around the country. Not to be confused with petit or regular taxis, grand taxis are big old Mercedes Benz saloons from the eighties – part of an ad-hoc national network that connects every city and town in Morocco. Grand taxis have four passenger seats in the back and two passenger seats in the front, and generally, they only leave after all six seats are taken.
But, why wait when you can hire the entire grand taxi for much less than it would cost you back home. You can buy all six seats in a grand taxi traveling between Chefchaouen and Fez – a distance of 125mi (200km) – for only US $50. When I did the trip I was traveling solo, so I hired the two front seats for US $16.
5. The Food is Bloody Amazing
Want to lose weight? Then forget about Morocco. Servings are huge and most meals are quite cheap. Morocco’s national dish is the tagine – a hearty North African stew combining lamb, chicken or fish with potatoes, peas, beans, nuts and spices like saffron, ginger as well as cinnamon and dried fruits that typically cost around $3 to $6.
I went to a restaurant set inside a 14th century villa in Fez where every meal begins with flatbread and 10 separate dips – zucchini marinade, rice with herbs, beans in garlic, sweet carrots, diced potatoes, Moroccan salad, olives, aubergine dip and scolymus (a herb like spinach). Then comes the main – meshwi – barbecued lamb with couscous – followed by dessert.
The best meal I had in Morocco was a grilled chicken sandwich from a shabby-looking food van parked outside the medina in Tangier overlooking the sea. Inside the van, behind a long grill, were three heavyset men. One cooked and chopped up a small mountain of chicken rubbed with salt and spices like paprika and cumin. The second chopped and cooked an equally large mountain of green olives. The third toasted baguettes, filled them with chicken and olives before drizzling garlic, tomato and chili sauces on top.
6. Get Used to the Smell of Hash
It’s hard to describe, but the moment a waft hits you there’s no mistaking the intensity of burning hashish, a marijuana byproduct that looks like black rubber. Hashish has been produced on a small scale in Morocco for centuries and a lot of Moroccans, both women, and men, take in public.
Figures on consumption are murky, but The Economist ranks Morocco as the world’s largest supplier of the drug. So, if you’re outright offended by marijuana or cannot tolerate any kind of second-hand smoke, you may want to go somewhere else or at least scratch Chefchaouen off your to-do list. The blue city is surrounded by the Rif Mountains, the epicenter of hash production in the country.
Dealers on the street will invariably try to sell you some, but buyer beware. Despite appearance and what some locals may tell you, hashish is still illegal in Morocco and Moroccan police are not known for their light-handed touch.
Who needs it anyway? Morocco is already one of the most colorful and psychedelic destinations on Earth.
What do you wish you’d known before going to Morocco?