Morocco’s rich history and varied geography create the opportunity to experience many delights from your first visit. We have highlighted as few here to help you envision your journey.
Founded in the 11th century, Marrakech was once the capital of an empire that stretched from Spain to Senegal. In days of old, Marrakech’s location on the crossroads of ancient caravan routes from Timbuktu made it a key destination for trade and reprieve for weary sub-Saharan traders carrying gold, salt and slaves bound for Europe. Today, Marrakesh is a reverberating collision of Africa and Europe, west and east, bohemia and high culture, Arab cities and Berber villages. Framed by the snow-capped Atlas mountains, thousand-year-old palm groves, and wrapped in faded red, ochre walls, Marrakech casts a magic spell. One’s senses are stimulated by the brilliantly colored spices, entrancing music, rich folds of carpets, delectable cuisine, whirling dervishes, intertwining tile geometries, perfumed gardens shimmering in still waters of reflecting pools.
At the center of the crossroads is the legendary Djemaa el Fna square. Now on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, the square hums and pulsates with mystery, magic, and possibility. By day, one feasts eyes and more on succulent dates, the freshest orange juice, alchemists, acrobats, plier-wielding “dentists.” At sunset, the carnival atmosphere comes alive, with food vendors setting up scrumptious specialties, while dancers, fortune-tellers, musicians, and snake charmers take over the rest of the space. Radiating from the Djemma el Fna are narrow lanes of the medina providing entrée to the labyrinthine medina, which hides sultans’ palaces, the ornate mansions, and a lively souk. The maze of alleyways leads to tiny shops flaunting Berber carpets, kilims and caftans, leather goods, silver jewelry, copperware, other handicrafts, stylish dresses, medicinal herbs, and gorgeous antiques.
In keeping with the city’s dynamic character, the vogue for all things Moroccan in the international fashion and design world has made Marrakesh the darling of international stars (and their stylists), who have descended in search of chic shopping and more. Many make second homes here, in small palace-style riads featuring traditional Moroccan craftsmanship combining simple Berber style with elaborate Moorish design. This attraction is nothing new; for centuries, artists and statesmen from Winston Churchhill to Yves Saint Laurent have been captivated by Marrakech. Marrakesh’s most magnificent garden, the Jardin Majorelle, was founded by the famous couturier in 1919. The city held its first International Film Festival in 2002, now an annual event showcasing Morocco’s increasing importance in film production and providing another excuse to take in Marrakech’s sensuous delights. Rejuvenate overnight in a charming riad (beautifully restored palaces from the 15th to the 19th centuries) or one of the city’s famous luxury hotels. Marrakech’s proximity also makes it an ideal base for excursions to beaches, the Atlas mountains, or the Sahara beyond.
A visit to Fez is at once an assault on the senses and stimulant to one’s spirit. Bustling with artisans and merchants, the city’s captivating sounds, fragrances, and colors mesmerize the visitor with a constant swirl of activity. The banging of metalworkers, the whirr of weavers, and the wailing of muezzins calling for prayers carries on today much as it did for hundreds of years. Founded at the beginning of the 9th century by Moulay Idriss II, great-great-grandson of the prophet Mohammed, and now Morocco’s third largest city, Fez is no longer the capital, but it still lays claim to being the country’s cultural, intellectual, and spiritual heart.
A cradle of religion, Fez boasts 785 mosques, numerous madrasas (religious schools), and some of the oldest and most important synagogues in North Africa. Fez scholars introduced astronomy and medicine to the West via Spain when it was under Moorish rule, and Al Qarawiyin University was one of the places responsible for keeping alive the light of knowledge during Europe’s dark ages. The extraordinary Al Qarawiyin Mosque, the oldest in Morocco, still has it original minaret, built in 956.
Overlooking the valley that embraces the city, the Merenid Tombs offer spectacular panoramic views. Behold Fez as it looked more than a thousand years ago, resplendent with magnificent palaces, green-roofed holy places, domes, and minarets, save the odd satellite dishes dotting the rooftops. The ancient city wall hems in the workshops and tenements, souks and squares, a mass of humanity and the ubiquitous donkeys. Fez is secretive and shadowy, but captivating and colorful at the same time.
The city’s medina has been continuously inhabited since the 10th century and still bustles with a bewildering throng of colorful people, from olive-dealers and veiled women on their way to the baths, to industrious merchants and traditional bell-ringing water-sellers. Labyrinthine streets and crumbling grandeur add to the intrigue. The medina of Fez is the most complete medieval city in the world still in existence, and it forms a working model of a traditional way of life. The maze of winding streets and covered bazaars offers up magnificent examples of Andalusian-Arabic architecture as well as the activities of numerous craftsmen at work. Exotic delicacies, brightly colored carpets, and fine artisan goods burst from endless stalls. The buzz of buying and selling often is interrupted by the urgent cries of mule drivers delivering heavy carts while warning shoppers to flatten themselves against the walls or be flattened themselves. Gnaoua musicians dance, tassels spinning, through the streets, contributing to the animated atmosphere. Arched gateways lead to brilliant courtyards, created of lavish and pristine marble, carved cedar wood, colorful intricate tile (zellij) and carved plaster, which are oases of calm within mosques, riads (traditional mansions), inns, and madrasas. So precious are Fez’s history, architecture, and culture, that the entire city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Many of Morocco’s rich crafts are made by Fez’s artisans. For hundreds of years such work has been regulated by traditional guilds, ensuring the highest quality. Each district has its own specialty: silver-enameled pottery, hand-woven carpets, wrought iron, woodcarving, weaving, embroidery, calligraphy. One can look on as the dyer stirs his yarns, the weaver creates delicate tapestries, or the ceramics worker lays intricate mosaics. No visit to Morocco would be complete without a visit to the famous leather tanneries that produce high quality soft leather that has been sought for centuries. Visitors ascend to any one of the terraces belonging to the surrounding leather shops that overlook the fascinating tanners’ yard, honeycombed with vats of dye and piled with skins. Of equal delight are the ceramic workshops that let you follow the delicate process from clay to wheel to glazing to kiln. Fez’s spiritual artistry is showcased at the annual Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, where musicians from around the world gather to celebrate and inspire. Welcoming of visitors, but still more traditional and conservative than cosmopolitan Casablanca or trendy Marrakesh, Fez features some of the loveliest accommodations in Morocco. Pamper yourself in luxurious palaces-turned-hotels or in treasured restored riads as you revitalize for another day of Moroccan adventure.
The name “Casablanca” conjures up images of the classic studio film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as star-crossed lovers. Although memories of the past remain - bazaars, souks, ramparts around the Old Medina, and neighborhood mosques - these days, Casablanca reflects a nation making rapid progress into the modern world. Today’s Casablanca is Morocco’s largest, most cosmopolitan city and a fast-growing industrial and commercial center. Development historically has centered around the port, which since the 12th century has connected neighboring regions to Europe and beyond. A business capital of increasing importance, Casablanca has a history of importance in world affairs. It was in Casablanca, in 1943, that His late Majesty Mohammed V, along with His Majesty Hassan II, then the Crown Prince, welcomed the three great Heads of State, Churchill, Roosevelt, and De Gaulle, on the occasion of the Anfa Conference.
For lovers of architecture, Casablanca offers fine work by French architects who built their careers in Morocco. They created an architecture known as "Mooresque," or Arabo-Andalucian architecture, which fused Moroccan design with the latest French styles. The most compelling examples are the public buildings that surround Place Mohamed V. Equally fascinating is the New Medina, also known as the Habous Quarter, an attempt by French architects to create a 20th century casbah. Casablanca also contains some outstanding examples of International Style (high modern) and Art Deco architecture, including beautiful villas in the neighborhood of Moulay Youssef near the American Consulate.
The modern city center evokes a European character, with impressive wide avenues and skyscrapers in the characteristic white color of the city. Given the volume of construction in recent years, people visiting Casablanca as their first Moroccan city could easily end up confused: There are few things here confirming a visitor’s conception of traditional, exotic, “authentic” Morocco. If anything in Casablanca fits the Casablanca of Bergman and Bogart, it is the old city or medina. The old city area is small, but like the medina of all Moroccan cities, it serves as a market for local daily wares. The shrewd shopkeepers ensure that there are few bargains to be had here.
In this industrial metropolis, the people too are modern. Cell phones are ubiquitous and traditional Moroccan garb seems out of place among the natty suits and designer sunglasses. Modern locals prefer shopping in the malls and hypermarkets springing up in and around town and dining in the outstanding restaurants offering international cuisine or in the global faster food chains infiltrating the city. The Corniche district, skirting the shores of the Atlantic, is the place for those who need a thirst-quencher, a dip in the sea, or an evening of hot music at one of its top-class nightclubs.
Casablanca’s most impressive sight is also its most recent: the Hassan II Mosque. Completed by the late King Hassan II in the final years of his reign, the structure is visible from all over the city and is symbolically located at the westernmost point in the Muslim world. Dramatically perched over the Atlantic Ocean, it is a gem of religious architecture, subtly mixing Moroccan tradition with state-of-the-art technology like a sliding roof and under-floor heating. A team of international engineers led the construction, while the finest mosaic workers and other artisans contributed to the decoration. The largest mosque in the world outside of Mecca and the third largest religious monument in the world, its statistics are overwhelming: its minaret is over 60 stories high and The Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome can fit inside its handcrafted marble walls. The mosque holds 20,000 worshipers and a staggering 100,000 when the courtyard is used for prayer. Despite the massive size, visitors to the mosque experience a great sense of tranquility.
The fourth of the Imperial cities and the capital of the Kingdom of Morocco, Rabat is a curious mix of a proud history and a modern present. A haven for Muslims driven out of Spain in the early 17th century and a capital city only since the days of French occupation, Rabat’s ambience comes from Islam and Europe in equal proportions. The city’s sights are rich and varied, from 12th century ruins of the kasbah (citadel), to magnificent 20th century buildings including the Mausoleum of King Mohamed V, who brought independence to Morocco and is credited with saving the Jews of Morocco from deportation by the occupying Vichy government during World War II. The mausoleum offers a fine example of Islamic architecture while engendering solemn respect and serene contemplation. The King of Morocco, His Majesty King Hassan II, makes his principal palace residence in Rabat amid the trees and flowers of the fabulous Royal Gardens. Several other gardens throughout the city delight residents and visitors seeking tranquil beauty and notable flora from all corners of the world. Rabat also has a rich collection of small museums, including one housing artifacts found among the various Roman ruins all over Morocco. Recreational opportunities abound too, with lovely beaches and the world-renowned Dar-Es Salam Royal Golf Club.
Meknes and Volubilis
Like its neighbor Fez to the east, Meknes served as the capital of Morocco during the long dynastic struggles of its Arabic and Berber leaders. Founded in the 11th century, the Imperial city and its surroundings have remained unchanged for centuries. A great system of triple walls encircles the city. Set within the walls are exquisite gates (“Bab” in Arabic), considered among the best preserved in the Islamic world, including the Bab Mansour, widely considered to be the most beautiful gate in all of North Africa. Other highlights include the Dar El Makhzen royal palace and the Tomb of Moulay Ismail (the sultan responsible for turning Meknes into a Royal City), an active shrine to which women flock from all over Morocco to ask for his blessing or baraka.
The city’s charm is enhanced still further by the beauty of the surrounding countryside. Not far from Meknes, the ancient Roman city of Volubilis is an unforgettable treat. Once the capital of the Roman province of Mauritania, as the region was then known, and a thriving settlement until the 4th century, the ruins of Volubilis are near-perfectly preserved, providing a clear window into Roman urban planning and design. The site was undisturbed for thousands of years, until some of the marble was removed to build nearby Meknes. What remains are some of the most stunning Roman ruins outside of Rome, with exquisitely impressive mosaics preserved, literally where they were built.
Just beyond Volubilis lies the holy city of Moulay Idriss, a small whitewashed town scenically nestled in a fold of the Rif Mountains. Named after the man who brought Islam to Morocco, Moulay Idriss was the great-grandson of the prophet Mohamed. He fled to Morocco in 787 and founded the first Arab dynasty, making this town his capital. Later, he founded nearby Fez, which would become the capital of his son Moulay Idriss II. Considered the holiest town in Morocco, Moulay Idriss was forbidden to non-Muslims until 1916.
“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs and gleams…” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince.
The name “Sahara” conjures up visions of Lawrence of Arabia, veiled horsemen, caravans to Timbuktu. Long a passageway for those journeying in search of conquests and riches, the Sahara today justifies a destination unto itself for those seeking adventure, tranquility, an otherworld experience. The largest desert in the world, draped across the width of the African continent and dividing it in two, the Sahara remains intensely a part of and apart from nature, at least any you have known. Shapes shift with airstreams, color shifts with light, life flourishes in unexpected forms, constellations are obliterated in the night sky by innumerable points of light. One cannot fathom the stars, the peace, the serenity.
To arrive is integral to the experience. The Sahara is not easily reached, but richly rewarding for those who make the journey. The roads on which you travel are ancient caravan routes punctuated with a thousand kasbahs, mudbrick fortresses and towns that rise mysteriously out of the very earth, only to return, in time, like melting sandcastles. You venture, as did the legendary tradesmen of centuries before, from one oasis to the next - islands of comfort in the midst of nothingness with green valleys, rocky riverbeds, and golden sand. The pavement ends a few dozen miles before Merzouga, a small, baked hamlet squatting on the edge of the Sahara. Ride still farther into the sands on camelback, led by a Bedouin camel guide robed in the flowing blue garb of the Tuareg people. All around you soars undulating hills of sugar-fine sand as you are enveloped by a sense of timelessness, reflection, and clarity.
Some of the most interesting parts of Morocco begin where most tourists end. On a clear day in Marrakech, you first glimpse the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas mountains, whose 400-mile long range, crowned by Mount Toubkal at nearly 14,000 feet, represents the largest mountain chain in Africa and divides the fertile coastal regions of Morocco from the desert interior. Featuring stunning vistas, spectacular rock formations, and beautiful river valleys, the Atlas attract hikers and climbers from around the world, as well as those at a more leisurely pace in search of breathtaking natural beauty. Long the province of the Berber tribes that fiercely resisted all efforts at external governance, the High Atlas and its way of life remain for the most part undisturbed by modernity. The majority of the population still live in remote earthen villages, and their self-sufficient economies revolve around the weekly souks (markets) which travel from village to village. There are only two passes through the famed Atlas. One, Tizi’n’Tichka, winds its way east from Marrakech to the Sahara desert and lush oases and river valleys which once defined the great trans-Saharan trading routes. The other, known as Tizi’n’Test, snakes its way dramatically south from Marrakech, reaching an altitude of 6,800 feet before descending into the fertile Sousse Valley and the ochre-hued city of Taroudant. Along this road is the newly-restored 12th century mosque at Tinmal, a tiny mountain outpost from which a medieval Berber warrior tribe conquered Marrakech to found a new dynasty that went on to conquer all of North Africa and Spain. A treat for the senses, Condé Nast Traveler (April 1998) dubbed Tizi’n’Test “One of the most spectacular half-day drives in the world.” We recommend allowing a bit more time to absorb the region’s unspoiled wonders.
Situated along the Atlantic coast of Morocco, Essaouira is a beautiful, quiet town, founded in the 16th century as a trading post for the Portuguese. Fortified with ramparts and patina-bronze cannons, the city’s white-washed buildings are trimmed in the brilliant azure blue of its skies. It is the ideal place to relax and to stroll among woodshops and art galleries, boat builders and sardine fishermen. Among the souks worth visiting are the Marche d’Epices (spice market) and Souk des Bijoutiers (jewelers’ markets), which was once dominated by Essaouira’s Jewish community. After exploring the old city and artisan shops, head down to the port to indulge in the freshest seafood, or to the beach for camel rides or world-class wind surfing.
The town has always been a magnet for artists and musicians. Orson Wells was one of the first international personalities to be lured by Essaouria’s charm; in 1949, he spent several months here filming scenes for Othello. Two decades later, Essaouira became an important stop on the hippie trail; both Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix spent evenings strumming guitars along bonfires on the beach, an inspiration for Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand.” Since 1998, Essaouira has hosted the annual festival of Gnaoua Music, an enchanting tribal music popular throughout Morocco and beyond.
Whether you’re seeking sunshine or a salt-swept dose of history, Essaouira is an ideal destination for a relaxing day, overnight, or longer in one of the town’s charming boutique hotels. Be sure to keep an eye out en route for goats climbing trees in search of argan nuts.
Nestled in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco lies the delightfully picturesque town of Chefchaouen. Founded in 1492 by Moorish exiles from Spain, the town’s geographic isolation – until 1920 only three Europeans had visited even though it is less than 100 km from Europe! – allowed it to retain its medieval character and leisurely pace versus Morocco’s larger cities more frequented by tourists. The medina of the town has become renowned as one of the most charming in Morocco. You’ll wander entranced within the soft blue labyrinth created by the tinted whitewash of the town’s homes and streets. Local artisans contentedly show their skills in carpet weaving, leather goods, pottery, copperware, and woodworking. At the heart of the medina is a 17th-century mosque that fronts a picturesque square dotted with mulberry trees and inviting restaurants serving delicious cuisine fusing Moroccan and Spanish flavors. There are many family-run inns to delight with their hospitality and architecture and décor demonstrating area handiwork. The ambiance captures the free spirit of Morocco of 1960s fame. The effect of all this is dreamlike, making Chefchaouen an extremely tranquil and romantic place to rest for a night or longer.