As the crow flies, Morocco is just 32 kilometres across the Strait of Gibraltar from southern Spain, but the transition from Europe to North Africa is distinct and immediate. From busy cities with bustling souks to rugged mountains and vast deserts, this is your essential guide to the most marvellous things to see and do in magical Morocco.
Morocco’s second-largest city was its capital city until 1925, and it’s something of a crossroads for the region. With Tangier to the north, Casablanca and Rabat to the west and Marrakesh to the southwest, this ancient city serves as a gateway to the once vital trans-Saharan trade route. Its famous medina (or old town) is a World Heritage-listed maze of colourful, narrow streets that are full of life. You could spend hours browsing for hand-made homewares, rugs, and leather goods, and if you’re keen enough to deal with the intense olfactory experience, you can even pay a visit to one of the traditional working leather tanneries.
Nicknamed the ‘Red City’ for the red sandstone from which the city walls and many of its ancient buildings are constructed, Marrakesh has stood proudly near the foothills of the Atlas Mountains since the eleventh century. Its ancient walled medina is filled with intricate laneways just begging to be explored, and at night its main square – Djemaa el Fna – is packed with market stalls that offer everything from hand-painted tagines to fortune-telling. If you’re craving an escape from the crowds and heat, venture out of the city and into the mountains of nearby Toubkal National Park.
No visit to Morocco would be complete without experiencing the vast splendour of the Sahara Desert, and the tiny town of Merzouga is the ideal base from which to do this. Located just a stone’s throw from the Algerian border and the Saharan Desert, it’s also right on the edge of an area known as Erg Chebbi – a sea of vast sand dunes where you can take a camel ride, 4WD safari or try out the traditional treatment for rheumatism: being buried up to your neck in hot sand. You can camp under the stars, visit the traditional Berber people who live here and soak up the incredible scenery.
Between Merzouga and Marrakech, the Todra River cuts through the High Atlas Mountains to form one of the world’s most beautiful canyons. Hike the trail which leads between 300-metre high pink rock canyon walls which soar straight up from the floor of the narrow gorge, then cool off in the crystal-clear river and refuel with locally-grown olives, almonds and pomegranates.
Spring and autumn (mid-March to May and September to October) are great times to visit Morocco, particularly in the Atlas Mountains where summers can be scorchingly hot and winters can be cold and snowy. Ramadan is a month-long Islamic holiday which is celebrated at a different time each year, and although shop opening hours, transport and meal times can be affected, it’s also a chance to be part of a very special time, particularly at sunset when the daily fast is broken by worship and feasting.
From beautifully made leather shoes, bags and cushions to ornate ceramics and mouth-watering spices, Morocco is heaven for retail therapy. If you’re planning to spend any time in the medinas (old towns), come prepared to do a little haggling – it’s practically a national sport. If you’re shopping for bigger ticket items such as carpets, be sure to do your research before you start so that you have a clear idea of how much you want to pay. Above all, be respectful of the process and be prepared to say, “no thank you”, and walk away if the price is not right for you.
As Morocco is a predominately Muslim nation, you are expected to dress conservatively. Women may find it useful to carry a lightweight scarf or shawl to provide extra coverage when it’s needed, but lightweight, cotton clothing is also a sensible choice as protection from the hot, North African sun.
Moroccans speak a mixture of Arabic, Berber, English and French, depending on where you are. As with every non-English speaking destination, we think it’s a good idea to learn a few basic phrases: in Moroccan Arabic, hello is Saalam uwaleekum (literally “peace be upon you” and traditionally answered with Wa’aleekum salaam – “and also on you”) and thank you is Choukran. If you are not Muslim, you may not be allowed to enter many mosques, but you can content yourself with admiring their ornate exteriors. Check with your doctor whether any vaccinations are recommended.
With an intriguing blend of European and Moorish influences, Morocco is a vast and varied country that delivers stunning landscapes and vibrant cities.