By Jim Ferri
I’m an incredibly lucky person, having a daughter like mine.
An example: a few months ago, I got a call from her asking if I’d be in Europe anytime soon. It turned out she had an airline pass for herself that she needed to use within two months. The problem was she could only fly into a half dozen European cities.
I had been traveling and was Europe-weary. But I wanted to grab this daughter-father travel opportunity.
“Instead of Europe, how about Morocco?” I replied. “You can fly into Europe and get an inexpensive connection to Marrakesh or Casablanca. And I haven’t been back there in years.”
She loved the idea.
Since she is a travel advisor, it all came together quickly with her doing the planning, etc. It was a phenomenal two weeks and not very expensive. We even squeezed in two days in Lisbon on the way back.
I chose Morocco because of its lost-in-time atmosphere. It’s also geographically varied – ranging from sands of the Sahara to the sands of Atlantic and Mediterranean beaches. In between are mountains and colorful cities, ancient medinas and Alibaba souks, a perfect blend of the exotic and familiar.
If you want to experience Morocco by car (recommended) you’ll find driver/guides quite affordable. Food is also relatively inexpensive, as are the comfortable Moroccan-style hotels called riads, converted mansions constructed around a central courtyard. And you’ll need guides in cities – souks and medinas are easily walkable, but without a guide, you’ll get hopelessly lost.
You can see most of the country in two weeks, a significant part in just 10 days. Here are the 10 best things to do in Morocco during a 10-14-day trip.
Visit the Blue City
Chefchaouen is a small, charming town in northern Morocco where many of the buildings are painted blue. In fact, it’s known as the “Blue City” of Morocco.
There are many theories for the color. Some contend it was painted by Jews escaping the Spanish inquisition (another suggesting they were escaping Hitler in the 1930s). Additional arguments say it symbolizes the blue sky and heaven, or the color blue keeps mosquitoes away. The most plausible reason given by present residents, however, contends it was just painted blue about 50 years ago to attract tourists.
Whatever the reason, put Chefchaouen on your list of things to do in Morocco. You’ll find its medina (the old town) a mélange of Moroccan and Andalusian style, not surprising given its proximity to Spain. There are shops, cafes, and restaurants galore to keep you occupied.
Give yourself a day just to wander about aimlessly and absorb its charm. It’s one of the prettiest towns in the country. (A tip: if a street is painted blue it means it’s a dead end.)
Fez (or Fes)
Once the home of Morocco’s cultural and intellectual elite, Fez is considered by some to have the best food in Morocco. Naturally, you’ll find plenty of restaurants and cafes to while away an afternoon.
Fez also has one of the best-preserved medinas in the Muslim world. A good place to enter it is through the colorful Bab Boujloud gate, built by the French. Inside the pungent souk, you’ll find a maze of markets and mosques on its alleyways.
Its colorful 11th-century Chouara Tannery has long been considered by travelers as one of the best places to visit in Morocco. It’s great to view but arrive as early in the morning as possible to avoid the stench that rises with the temperature.
At the entrance to the spice and perfume market, you’ll find the al-Attarine Madrasa. Built as a center of religious learning, it has an exquisitely decorated courtyard that’s incredibly beautiful.
Visit Casablanca and Casablanca
Casablanca is the economic and business center of Morocco. As one might expect of such a city, there’s not a lot to do here – with two notable exceptions.
The first is the incredible Mosque of Hassan II, one of the largest in the world. Sitting right on the ocean shore, it’s amazingly beautiful. Spend a half-hour or so admiring the building and its setting.
Thank Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and the classic 1942 film Casablanca for the second exception – Rick’s Café. As in the movie, there is a Rick’s Café in Casablanca, which one would expect to be touristy with mediocre food. But although its kitschy layout follows the film’s motif, it serves reasonably good food and drinks.
Interestingly, according to the manager, many people who dine there don’t realize the connection with the film. If you’re a Casablanca fan plan to have dinner there (reservations recommended).
Enjoy An Incredible Experience
You’ll likely be shocked to learn this: all those images of great Sahara sand-dunes you see in movies and photos were all taken in Morocco. The real location is the Erg Chebbi Desert, an area of about 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) near the city of Merzouga. It’s an incredible place to go camel trekking across the vast dunes, some of which are 450+ feet tall. The rest of the huge Sahara is relatively flat hardscrabble with few, if any, dunes.
To tell the truth, I had been a bit nervous about riding a camel. But I found it is much easier than riding a horse, especially mounting and dismounting, and there’s minimal sway. And it’s a lot of fun – both of us found it the high point of our trip.
After you set out with a guide leading your camels, you’ll stop an hour or so out, and dismount to watch the (spectacular) sunset. Your camp is close by, and you’ll soon realize that glamping Bedouin style is the only way to experience the desert. And listening to Berber music around the campfire at night after dinner is an excellent way to end the day.
A camel trek in the Sahara brings out the Lawrence in Arabia in everyone. Put it at the top of your list of places to visit in Morocco. You’ll likely never have an experience like it again.
The City That Taught YSL Color
Decades ago, Marrakesh was the epicenter of Moroccan tourism. It was the top place to visit in Morocco. For some, the only place.
Although the entire country now attracts travelers, Marrakesh still remains high on the list of places to visit in Morocco. Part of the reason is its kaleidoscope of color everywhere you look. As the designer, Yves Saint Laurent once said: “A visit to Marrakech was a great shock to me. This city taught me color.”
As in many Moroccan cities, Marrakesh can be chaotic. Djellaba-clad crowds fill its souks, and camel- and donkey-carts vie with Peugeots and Toyotas everywhere you turn.
Jump right into the chaos at the Djemma El Fna. This 1,000-year-old marketplace is still filled with snake charmers, food stalls, and all sorts of street performers, just as it has been for centuries. Interestingly, it’s these performers – not the square itself – that have attained UNESCO Cultural Heritage status.
There’s a lot to see and experience here. Be sure to experience the Djemma El Fna, the beautiful Bahia Palace with its Filigreed plasterwork, and Jardin Majorelle. You can spend an entire day wandering through its fascinating souks.
Some claim it’s the most beautiful town in Morocco. It’s well-known for its fresh fish tangines, the famous Moroccan dish.
On the Atlantic coast south of Casablanca, Essaouira has retained its traditional character. It’s a great place to visit in Morocco, due to the coastal winds that keep the beach crowd away by making a beach vacation uncomfortable. Most people visit in the spring and fall, leaving it to windsurfers the rest of the year.
A French architect designed the city in the mid-18th century, giving it a mélange of Moroccan and European style. Its beautiful fortified medina has retained its ancient character although you don’t find a lot of sights here. It’s more of a laid-back city just made for strolling through its souks, along its ramparts, and port area.
An Imperial City, Overshadowed By Its Neighbor
Meknes is the former capital of Morocco but is overshadowed by its neighbor Fez. But that’s what makes Meknes so attractive to those who want to avoid the crowds in “big name” cities such as Marrakesh and Fes.
Today, though, it’s coming into its own: Lonely Planet, in fact, named it one of the top places to visit in 2019.
Meknes was made Morocco’s capital in the 17th century by Sultan Moulay Ismail, who among other things, built the beautiful Bab El Mansour gate. At the entrance to the medina, it’s covered with a mosaic of tiles and is the finest of all imperial gateways throughout Morocco.
Across from it is Place el Hedim, the city’s main square and marketplace, often compared to Marrakesh’s Djemma El Fna. It’s an excellent place to wander among the kaftan-clad locals.
The historic Roman village of Volubilis is only an hour away.
See Wadi and Oases
Drive through the Dades Valley and Todra Gorges, and you’ll see some of Morocco’s most spectacular scenery. Both are wadi, or river canyons, with colorful cliffs and verdant oases. That alone is enough to make it a place to visit in Morocco. Along these wadi you’ll find traditional forts, or kasbahs, and Berber villages. Their ocher-colored canyon walls are dramatic in the changing light, turning red with the setting sun.
The Dades originates in the Atlas Mountains and flows to the edge of the Sahara. One of its most accessible areas is near the village of Boumalne Dades, a six-hour drive east of Marrakesh.
The Todra Gorge is about an hour’s drive further on, near the town of Tinghir. There are good hotels, many in renovated kasbahs, along the way.
Visit a Distant Outpost of the Roman Empire
About 20 miles north of Meknes, the old Roman city of Volubilis is the best-preserved archaeological site in Morocco. Once a distant outpost of the Roman empire, its population peaked around 20,000. It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.
Most of the town’s buildings were built in 200-300AD when the area was part of Mauretania. Today it’s a beautiful site. Storks have built large nests atop some of the Corinthian columns, and the remains of a basilica, Forum, Triumphal Arch, houses, etc. are all around to explore. There’s also a Visitor Center and Museum.
Thankfully, during its excavation, the ancient mosaics were left in situ. Although the site is about 100 acres in all, only half of it has been excavated.
Visit the King’s Mausoleum
Although Rabat is the political and administrative capital of the country, it doesn’t have the appeal of other world capitals. It does have charm and atmosphere, however, and is worth a stop on a drive between Casablanca and Chefchaouen.
You should include two special places in the city in your list of things to do in Morocco.
One is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the final resting place of the father and grandfather of the present king. The plain white walls and green-tiled roof of its exterior are deceiving, however. Enter past the brightly dressed guards, and you’ll discover an incredible interior of hand-carved cedarwood, mosaics and marble, and a ceiling of gold leaf. On the floor below sits the white onyx tomb of the Moroccan king.
Across the way is the Hassan Tower, the remains of the minaret of the large mosque flattened by an earthquake in 1755. The rows of reconstructed columns outside provide a sense of its original size.
The second is the Kasbah les Oudaias, the ribat or fort that gave the city its name. It’s a quiet and interesting place to wander about on the hills above the Atlantic. If conditions are right, you’ll see plenty of surfers on the ocean swells below.