I have always insisted that Morocco represents the closest journey to a distant destination. Just one step away awaits one of the most exotic and unforgettable experiences we can imagine. On the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar, there is a collection of medinas that have become veritable labyrinths where you can lose yourself in time, sumptuous palaces that seem to have been written off in the pages of the Arabian Nights, and landscapes that are lost beyond the Atlas Mountains to become palm groves and vast deserts with perfect dunes on which to silently watch the sunset. With squares that do not go out for a single minute and waves hitting a fort of white houses that smell of grilled fish. With postcard beaches that embrace the best light in Africa and mud staircases for a film kasbah.
Morocco is full of fascinating places where you can enjoy a good mint tea and forget about the routine. Today I would like to share what I consider my essential corners to see in Morocco and which deserve not one but many trips.
Morocco, scene of a thousand and one adventures :
I remember that it was a decade ago that I finally decided to travel to Morocco and answer all those questions I was asking about the neighboring country. And I did it alone, renting an old Renault Kangoo and reaching the dunes of Merzouga to celebrate the new year by sitting on the sand and counting stars. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the endless bustle of Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fna Square, to kick up dust on the kasbah route, to drink mint tea in Essaouira or to drive aimlessly through the lost Berber villages in the Moroccan Middle Atlas. And of course, I returned to Morocco right away. I did so year after year, in some of them several times, to continue enjoying those places that would allow me to break away from routine completely. That’s how Fes, Meknes, and Casablanca were, then Rabat, Asilah, Chaouen, and many other fantastic places where you can put an exotic break on bland weeks. Traveling to Morocco became for a long time my best medicine.
What to see in Morocco? Selection of highly recommended places for more than one trip :
Throughout these years I have been telling things about what I have always considered and will always consider one of my favorite countries (here I give you the reasons). But this time I wanted to bring together some places (twenty specifically) of the many that are to be seen in Morocco and which, in one way or another, will stay with me forever. Obviously, it’s difficult to do all of them in one trip and I always recommend separating them into several escapes so that you have very reasonable excuses for returning to this country that leaves its mark on those who visit it.
Imperial Cities :
1. Marrakech, the red city:
It is usually the city through which many of the travelers who come to Morocco for the first time enter. In the walled city of Marrakech, all the roads in the medina lead to one place, the Jemaa el-Fna Square, which is being transformed every minute to become one of the greatest spectacles in the world. The life of this place, illuminated by the splendid Koutoubia mosque (sister of the Giralda of Seville) facilitates a safe encounter with tooth extractors, card casters, snake charmers (and what are not snakes), Barbary monkeys, three-to-four salesmen, preachers, card casters, bohemians and a large collection of jaw-dropping tourists who do not believe what goes on there. Either you can watch it all from the barrier of the Café de France over a delicious mint tea or you can enter a truly charged show that was named a UNESCO Intangible Heritage Site and is repeated each and every day.
Marrakech is an excellent base for a multi-day excursion into the desert and many of the routes that can be taken from this city. The most popular is the 3 days desert tour from Marrakech to Merzouga desert.
2. Fes, the medina that was the largest labyrinth in the world :
Fes is the perfect city for those who want to be lost in the maze of the narrow streets. Because the Fes medina is not only considered the largest in the Muslim world but one of the most authentic. From the ancient Benedictine tombs, one can understand from the outside what this network of streets and alleys that end nowhere and seem to have been stranded in a distant time is like. The call to prayer slips into impromptu bazaars and clashes with the doors of authentic palaces and luxurious riads where only Aladdin with his marvelous lamp is missing.
If you have to choose one of the many incredible cities Morocco has, I have no doubt that I would stay with Fes. Because there are places where the best luck is to get lost…
3. Merzouga, The Sahara desert :
After kilometres and kilometres of hammada, an uncountable extension of stony and flat desert appears one of the great objectives of every traveller who visits Morocco. Merzouga is the embodiment of the desert of our dreams, of an infinite sea of dunes that change colour every minute to become incandescent red at sunset. It is the Sahara at its best, a hustle and bustle of camel drivers and skies that make it possible to read the stars clearly every night. The possibility of plunging through perfect mountains of sand and feeling small in one of the most beautiful deserts on this planet becomes very appealing.
From Er-Rachidia to Rissani, and from Rissani to one of the small hostels at the foot of the dunes where, at last, you can completely disconnect from the world. It is possible to make a long camel ride across the dunes of Merzouga and sleep in an improvised camp in a tiny oasis in the middle of Erg Chebbi.
4. Volubilis, a journey to ancient Rome :
There is no better Roman site in all of Morocco than Volubilis. This city founded by the Carthaginians in the 3rd century BC reached its peak of prosperity when it passed into Roman hands and the main monuments were erected that can be seen today within an immense complex of ruins also protected by UNESCO. Later in the 7th century, after a period of decline, Idris I was proclaimed emir, claiming to be the great-grandson of Mohammed, and Volubilis became the Islamic heart of this area of the Maghreb. Although it was destroyed in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and many of its buildings were sacked to build a new Meknès, it has remains of great importance such as the Basilica and the Temple of Jupiter, the Forum that completely structured the city, some ancient baths, an arch dedicated to Emperor Caracalla (the famous Roman baths) and a splendid collection of mosaics that become the target of travelers visiting the city.
5. Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou, the Kingdom of Heaven :
Ksars, or Ksours, are Berber fortified cities, most of them with adobe walls, many of which are in southern Morocco (although there are also Ksours in other Maghreb countries). It is easy to confuse and exchange this concept with that of Kasbah, but by Kasbah, we mean a type of fortification that could be compared more closely to a castle. The best and most beautiful example in Morocco of what a ksar is is in Ait Ben Haddou, just 20 kilometers west of Ouarzazate.
Ait Ben Haddou’s ksar, which appears in films such as Gladiator, Prince of Persia, The Kingdom of Heaven, and even in several episodes of the Game of Thrones series, is notable for its strong defensive design. People still live in the adobe houses of this walled complex, although most have moved to a new village just across the river. Great and spectacular as few corners in Morocco provide the traveler with a journey to another time and another space much further away. In fact, this marvel was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 because it is considered “a remarkable example of the architecture of southern Morocco”. The ruins of an ancient kasbah would crown this ksar, which has become one of the most sought-after postcards in the African country.
COLONIAL AND CHARMING FLAVOURS :
6. Essaouira, the antigua Mogador :
Port city less than three hours drive from Marrakech (180 km). The Portuguese, who inhabited it and fortified it with thick walls, called it Mogador. It is in fact one of the strongest and most important Portuguese defensive posts on the East African coast, a necessary step for their sea route to the East Indies. However, their stay was more ephemeral than expected (15th and 16th centuries) and it was the Alaouite Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdel-Yahya who, at the end of the 18th century, ordered the construction of the city that can be visited today in order to compete with Agadir, a rising port that had taken over a large part of European trade in this part of the Maghreb. He did not succeed and the influence of Essaouira died out, but its beauty and good state of conservation make it another World Heritage site.
7. Chaouen, the blue kingdom in the Rif valley :
Situated in the Rif Mountains, Chaouen is so outstanding that it is by far the most beautiful village in Morocco. And those of us who assure us of this, I believe that we are not too far off track. The old Chaouen, Chefchauen, or Xauen, one of the last Spanish squares in the times of the protectorate, is made up of a labyrinthine medina in which the colour blue predominates. And not only indoors, windows or decorations. It is in absolutely everything, even in the walls of the houses. You only have to kick the city of the cats and admire it from a more distant point of view like Ras el-Maa (where the women go to wash their clothes in the waters of the river) to see that Chaouen is the Kingdom of the blue.
A perfect trip from the cities of Tangier (in the day) or Tetouan, which are closer. Although there are also those who arrive at Chaouen with a day tour from Fez, although this is the farthest option.
8. Tangier :
Tangier is one of the most common ports of entry to Morocco from Spain, both by ferry and by plane (from Madrid it is a maximum journey of one hour). It represents the decline and nostalgia of a city that was an “international zone” in the 1920s and where important figures in art and culture from all over the world settled. Tangier at that time was considered a modern, open and multicultural city, a real example of communion between three religions such as the Muslim, the Christian, and the Jewish.
The influence of the Spaniards who lived there until the beginning of the sixties can be seen in nooks and crannies, businesses, and posters. Although its white-colored medina has been left to fade over time and a certain carelessness has chipped away at the walls, it still has some of what made it the spies city of the early 20th century. A visit to the Dar El Mandoub Museum, the old Kasbah that served as the Sultan of Tangier’s palace, and a drink in the large 9 April square are recommended. A very close excursion that is not bad at all is the one to the Hercules caves of Cape Spartel.
9. The Todra Gorges :
About twenty kilometres north of the city of Tinghir, one of the most impressive rocky canyons in North Africa suddenly appears. The river chiselled out a whole canyon of vertical walls over a period of millions of years, which became narrower and narrower until a magical moment when the walker (or driver) came across cliffs over 300 metres high and a width of just over 10 metres between the two walls.
To reach the narrowest heart of the gorge you have to touch with your fingertips succulent landscapes with palm groves, old kasbahs and Berber villages that maintain their essence and silence.
10. Casablanca, the economical city :
Unfortunately, nothing remains of the Casablanca to which Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart moved us cinematographically except an excellent reproduction of the Rick’s Cafe by the wall where we can go for a drink while the piano plays. But in the same place that just by pronouncing it we can recreate the romanticism in black and white, there is today more than a reasonable reason to visit this city. It is the Mosque of Hassan II which, although it dates from the end of the 20th century, is one of the most beautiful Islamic complexes of all those that populate the African continent. It is built on the sea in an artificial peninsula, has a gigantic minaret of 172 meters high, and is only exceeded in size by the sacred sanctuary of Mecca. In fact, there is room for no less than 100,000 faithful if we add the interior of the building and the main courtyard. A marvel in which more than 10,000 craftsmen from the country took part to work on the ceilings, walls, and columns with top quality materials.
Casablanca is also a classic entry point to Morocco by both air and sea, as its port is prepared for the arrival of cruise ships. And very well communicated by train with cities such as Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, or Rabat. And you can get to Marrakech itself by motorway in just 2 hours, being one of the favorite excursions for those who are going to spend a few hours in the city in an organized way (especially cruisers).