The scents of cumin, cinnamon, and fresh bread seem to always waft through the air in Morocco, where cosmopolitan flair and cultural history come together in cities with mazes of narrow alleys and streets, calming courtyards, stunning mosques and palaces, and modern bars and restaurants. A visit to Morocco never stops engaging the senses. From the imperial cities of Marrakech and Fes to the Atlas Mountains, Sahara Desert, and flora-filled Ourika Valley, Morocco offers numerous distinct and unforgettable experiences.
"Morocco is of two worlds," says Fabrice Orlando, founder of Cocoon Events, a luxury event and wedding planning company based in Marrakech. "You can go into the old city, the medina, and pass by donkeys and see people making handcrafts. At night, you'll see fancy cars and places like in New York City. Even in modern cities, we have traditions from years ago."
Think of Morocco as four distinct environments: the mountains, the valleys, the desert, and the coast. At a little more than 172 square miles, the country is slightly larger than the state of California, making it a challenge to see all the sights in a single trip. Choose the most appealing destinations, and get ready to relax Moroccan style.
Marrakech is home to one of the country's most interesting medinas (old cities) as well as mosques, palaces, gardens, and souks (open markets). With a population of almost 1 million people, the city is also a busy economic center.
Tracy Stevens, a team leader and Moroccan expert for vacation planning company Scott Dunn Ltd., says you can hear the calls to prayer from mosques throughout the day, but most people continue on with the activities of daily life.
In the medina, you'll find crowded souks filled with artisans selling everything from carpets to street food. "Get lost in the medina," says Orlando. "It's part of the experience. It's a new and different world and 200 percent safe." When the sun goes down, the medina becomes a carnival, with acrobats, musicians, acting troupes, and other acts performing throughout the night.
Get plenty of rest before visiting Musée de Mouassine, Musée de Marrakech, the Saadian tombs, and Bahia Palace. Musée de Mouassine is located in a restored riad (traditional Moroccan house with a courtyard) and features a stunning display of Saadian architecture, circa 1560. Musée de Marrakech exhibits a collection of Moroccan art inside the decadent Mnebhi Palace — a work of art in its own right. Bahia Palace and its gardens were built in the late 1800s with the goal of being the greatest palace of all time.
Before you leave Marrakech, visit Jardin Majorelle, created more than 40 years ago by French painter Jacques Majorelle. Shaded lanes pass by exotic plants, streams, water lily-filled ponds, and bubbling fountains. In the heart of the garden, the Berber Museum chronicles the history of the Berbers, the early inhabitants of North Africa.
Mountains and Valleys
Just an hour outside of Marrakech, take a day or weekend trip to the Atlas Mountains, North Africa's greatest mountain range. The easiest access point is Toubkal National Park, home to Jbel Toubkal, the highest mountain in Morocco (13,671 feet). Various trails are suitable for day hikers as well as serious mountaineers, or you could make the trek on a donkey.
Ourika Valley is less than an hour from Marrakech on the way to the mountains. The valley also offers scenic hiking opportunities alongside cascading waterfalls. A little farther out of Marrakech, Oukaimeden Valley features adobe-built Berber villages.
From the iconic — and extremely popular — city of Casablanca, take the 2.5-hour drive to Fes, the second largest city in Morocco. The outer ring resembles many other cosmopolitan cities, but the larger of the two interior medinas, Fes el Bali, is a sight to behold. Listed as a World Heritage Site, Fes is one of the world's largest car-free urban zones because its thousands of alleys are too narrow for four wheeled vehicles. Walk the narrow streets and browse the medina’s shops, stocked floor to ceiling with goods and food.
"You'll find a tannery that's been active for hundreds of years," Stevens says. "You'll find stands with 40 different kinds of dates, a honey shop with 30 different kinds of honey…it's fantastic."
From Fes, it's a scenic three-hour trip to Chefchaouen (or Chaouen), known as the "blue city." Indigo paint coats the mosques, houses, government buildings, lamp posts, and other elements around the city to create a visually stunning effect. The blue hue symbolizes protection. In the 15th century, Jewish refugees who fled the Spanish Inquisition settled in Chefchaouen. They painted everything blue to mirror the sky and remind them of God, and the practice has lived on.
From Chefchaouen, drive about four hours north to Tangier, located on the Strait of Gibraltar near Spain. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the port city was popular with writers and celebrities from around the world. After revitalization efforts spurred by King Mohammed VI, the city made a comeback in recent years.
Explore the cafes and clothing shops and take in breathtaking Mediterranean views along Boulevard Pasteur. Listen to the melodies of Morocco and Spain at Casbah Social Club. Orlando says that many artists priced out of Marrakech have moved to Tangier, and it's considered the hip city of Morocco.
Food and More
If you still have time to spare, visit one of Morocco's exotic beaches, or cross the Sahara on a camel and stay in communal Berber encampments. Sample all the local cuisine, such as lamb tagine (a sweet-savory stew simmered in a clay pot), couscous with meats and vegetables, and Bastilla (a pie made from phyllo dough stuffed with chicken or fish and spices and topped with almonds, cinnamon, and sugar). After all, you'll need plenty of energy to explore the cities, mountains, valleys, and deserts of this culture-rich country.
When you're ready for an exotic vacation, Morocco offers a broad range of exciting possibilities. Visit our Facebook page for travel tips and inspiration.