Morocco is a country of dazzling diversity, from its ancient cities and craggy mountain ranges to rolling deserts and deserted beaches.
One day you could be scaling Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak, the next you could be meeting designers in Marrakesh, riding the Atlantic rollers in Essaouira, strolling through the twisting blue alleyways of Chefchaouen, or savoring street food in the medieval medina of Fez. There’s certainly no shortage of things to do – here are some of the best.
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Lose yourself in the medinas of Marrakesh, Fez, and Chefchaouen
The fabled Red City of Marrakesh is a sensory overload of sights, sounds, and smells. Its ancient medina is a maze of narrow streets with the Djemaa El Fna – arguably Africa’s most famous square – at its heart, and its nightly circus of storytellers, snake charmers, and musicians.
In Fez, Morocco’s oldest imperial city, time appears to have stopped. Dating back to the 8th century, Fez El Bali – the world’s largest living medieval medina – is a jumble of souqs, workshops, and mosques, with a tangle of more than 9,000 narrow alleyways to explore.
Tucked into the green folds of the Rif Mountains, charming Chefchaouen is famed for its blue-hued medina. Soak up its relaxed pace of life exploring its cobbled streets and sipping a mint tea in an open square, then hike the trails of Talassemtane National Park with its luminous waterfalls and forests of fir trees.
Planning tip:The best time to explore Morocco’s medinas is spring and autumn. Summers are hot – temperatures can reach over 40°C (104°F) in July and August – and winters can be cold.
Spices and herbs for sale in the Fez medina © iStockphoto / Getty Images
Take a foodie tour of Fez medina
Moroccan cuisine is a genuine melting pot – alongside Amazigh (Berber) influences, Arabs, Moors, Ottoman Turks, and French all left their culinary mark. One of the best ways to discover it is on a street-food tour with Plan-it Morocco, where fearless foodies can sample snail soup or boiled sheep’s head, or more tempting sweet treats, such as chebakia (deep-fried dough coated in sesame seeds) and wild honey.
Head to the Clock Kitchen at the legendary Café Clock to learn how to rustle up three traditional dishes after souq shopping for super-fresh ingredients. Or get busy at The Ruined Garden where you’ll bake five kinds of typical bread, including baghrir or “thousand-holes” pancake.
Detour: Venture further into the Middle Atlas with Plan-it Morocco and you’ll visit a boutique fromagerie, discover the age-old process of hand-rolling couscous, and taste new Moroccan wine from a French enologist.
Trekking in the Ourika valley in the High Altas Mountains © iStockphoto / Getty Images
Hike the Atlas mountains
The High Atlas is a hiker’s paradise, running diagonally across the country for around 1000km (620 miles), from the Atlantic coast to northern Algeria. Imlil, sitting in the foothills of the High Atlas 90 minutes from Marrakesh, is the jumping-off point for scaling Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak at 4167m (13670ft), a two-day ascent.
If you have more time, the week-long Toubkal circuit follow centuries-old trails between remote Amazigh villages, crossing fertile valleys, rugged massifs, and panoramic passes.
For even less-trodden trails, the region around Tafraoute is Morocco’s Amazigh heartland, where tribes and traditions hold firm. Surrounded by lush palm groves and hilltop kasbahs, the Anti Atlas makes the perfect base for hikers – at 2359m (7740ft), Jebel El Kest is the region’s highest peak, but there are more gentle hiking and cycling routes passed the picturesque villages of the Ameln Valley.
Catch the wind and waves on Morocco’s Atlantic coast
Dubbed the “Wind City of Africa” for its coastal breezes, Essaouira is the perfect spot to take to the water, whatever your ability. Explora is a longstanding, family-run outfit that knows the city’s waters inside out and offers windsurfing, kitesurfing and surfing classes, paddleboarding, and gear rentals.
Or head 30 minutes south to sleepy Sidi Kaouki with its consistent waves, wild beaches, and wallet-friendly accommodation.
Further down the coast, quiet Mirleft, 130km (80 miles) south of Agadir, is home to some of Morocco’s best surfing spots, where Spot-M takes out experienced and novice surfers for group and individual lessons, and runs week-long surf camps with yoga thrown in, all at bargain prices.
Detour: Far-flung Dakhla is as south as it gets but with reliable year-round wind conditions and calm lagoon waters, it’s being hailed as Morocco’s kitesurfing capital.
The iconic Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca is the second largest religious building in the world © iStockphoto / Getty Images
Check out Casablanca’s showstopping architecture
The city’s most iconic landmark is the Hassan II Mosque, one of the world’s largest mosques and open to non-Muslims on guided tours. The monumental prayer hall can hold 25,000 worshippers – another 80,000 can fit in the courtyards outside – and it showcases the finest Moroccan crafts, with hand-carved stucco, painted wood, and stunning zellige (mosaic tilework).
Downtown Casa is an al fresco museum of architecture, from the neo-Moorish tiled façade of La Grande Poste to art deco apartment blocks, and Place Mohammed V’s uber-modern Grand Théâtre de Casablanca designed by French starchitect, Christian de Portzamparc.
Planning tip: Book a guided walking tour with Casamémoire, a group of architects on a mission to preserve the White City’s 20th-century buildings.
Get steamed and scrubbed at a hammam
After a hard day’s sightseeing, head to a hamman to be steamed, soaped, scrubbed, and massaged into a state of total relaxation. Every neighborhood has one and they come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of luxury, from a simple steam and scrub at a no-frills public bathhouse to a higher-price private hammam at a swanky hotel with more elaborate wraps and massages on offer. Wherever you go, you’ll emerge squeaky clean with baby-soft skin.
Planning tip: Pick up traditional hammam gear at the souq, including savon beldi (black soap), a kessa (course scrubbing mitt), and ghassoul (cleansing clay).
Shoppers wandering the labyrinthine passageways of the Marrakesh souq © iStockphoto / Getty Images
Shop-til-you-drop in Marrakesh
Marrakesh will satisfy the most insatiable shopaholic. The labyrinthine passageways of the souq are devoted to everything from aromatic spices to leather babouches (slippers) and shaggy wool rugs, with artisans weaving, hammering, and carving out their wares as they’ve done for centuries. And now homegrown and expat designers are working alongside them, giving age-old crafts a contemporary twist.
The fixed-price boutiques of Gueliz (the French-built Ville Nouvelle) take away the hassle of haggling. Along the rue de la Liberté, Atika sells top-quality leather shoes for a fraction of the price of designer brands. And opposite the must-see Jardin Majorelle (the former home of Yves Saint Laurent), concept store 33 rue Majorelle stocks clothes, accessories, and jewelry from top Moroccan designers, including fair trade cooperatives.
Star gaze from a shape shifting Saharan dune
Scramble to the summit of a sky-high dune at sunset and savor the silence and the stellar views, as you watch the desert turn gold, pink and purple. Camp overnight Bedouin style and sleep under a blanket of stars. You might spot the arc of the Milky Way: at Erg Chigaga, you’re not only off the grid but also several hours’ camel trek from the nearest street lights. Desert Candles run good-value tours from M’Hamid.
Detour: If you’re short on time, in around an hour you can swap the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh for the Agafay Desert, a barren landscape of sculpted sand dunes that you can explore by camel or quad-bike.
Catch a performance during the annual Jazzablanca music festival © Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images
Move to the rhythms at one of Morocco’s many music festivals
Morocco’s rich musical culture boasts influences from Amazigh to Andalusian, Arabian to sub-Saharan and it’s fast becoming a top spot for music festivals showcasing eclectic rhythms.
One of the most popular is the Gnaoua World Music Festival, which draws festival-goers to the laid-back coastal city of Essaouira for four days of open-air concerts featuring the hypnotic rhythms of gnaoua, a musical and spiritual tradition brought north by sub-Saharan slaves in the 16th century. Casablanca plays host to Jazzablanca, which mixes up well-known and up-and-coming artists from Morocco and around the globe.
From Sufi chanters, African-American jazz saxophonists, and Colombian harpists to international headliners such as Björk, musicians flock to Fez for its annual Festival of World Sacred Music.
While Mawazine is said to be the world’s largest music festival attracting a staggering 2.75 million people and turning Rabat into a gigantic open-air stage.
Planning tip: If you’re heading to a festival, book your accommodation as far in advance as possible and be prepared for higher prices.
Follow in the footsteps of literary giants in Tangier
For the first half of the 20th century, Tangier was one of the Mediterranean’s most cosmopolitan resorts, an International Zone with a bohemian vibe beloved by the Beat Generation in the 1950s.
A host of literary figures have taken their inspiration from this legendary port city over the years. William S. Burroughs penned Naked Lunch at the Hotel El-Muniria where you can still take a mint tea on the terrace overlooking the Mediterranean. And Paul Bowles made Tangier his home for more than 50 years, using it as both subject and setting for The Sheltering Sky. Visit his exhibiton at the Tangier American Legation Museum, then follow in his footsteps to Café Hafa overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar.
Detour: You can find these authors and more in the historic bookstore Librarie des Colonnes, which opened its doors in 1949 and was frequented by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote.
Ride the rails on Africa’s first high-speed train
The launch of Al Boraq – Africa’s first high-speed rail link named after a mythical winged steed –means that you can visit Tangier in a day trip from Casablanca, or combine the two very different coastal cities on a mini-break. The slick silver train will whizz you to your destination in just over two hours, hitting speeds of up to 320kmh (200mph), with stops in Rabat and Kenitra. And it’s eco-friendly, getting 25 percent of its power from renewable energy, with plans to extend this to 50 percent by 2023.
Planning tip: The ONCF website only takes Moroccan credit cards so buy tickets at the station or use Marrakech Tickets and get your tickets forwarded electronically for a small fee, some of which goes towards supporting local vulnerable children.
Step back in time in Skoura’s palm oases
Like a green carpet spread on top of the red-tinged rocky landscape, Skoura’s idyllic palmeraie rustles with dates palms. With stylish guesthouses and farm-to-fork restaurants, it makes the perfect place to linger and enjoy the slower pace of oasis life.
The region is dotted with labyrinthine ksar (fortified villages), including Ait Ben Haddou – a Unesco World Heritage Site and star of many a film, including Gladiator, and imposing mud-brick kasbahs, such as the magical ruins of Kasbah Amridil. Rural souqs showcase the oases’ bountiful produce, including pomegranates, apricots, figs, and almonds, and it makes a great base to explore the scenic Dadès Gorge and Todra Gorge to the northeast, and the Draa Valley to the southeast.