A first-timer's travel guide to Morocco
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Editor’s note: This post was originally published on May 26, 2015. It was updated with details from a recent trip taken by TPG Credit Cards Editor Benét J. Wilson.
Morocco is filled with sandy deserts, lively souks and Berber culture. TPG International Contributor Lori Zaino and Credit Cards Editor Benét J. Wilson share some of the hottest spots for a visit to Morocco, plus some handy travel tips for your own North African getaway.
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A little background
Set in the northwest corner of Africa less than 10 miles from Spain, Morocco is a world apart from Europe. Just slightly larger than the state of California, the country features gorgeous coastline, the famous Sahara Desert and the jagged, usually snow-capped Atlas Mountains. Ruled at various times by Berbers, Arabs, Spanish conquistadors and the French — plus hundreds of years as home to Jews — Morocco represents a fascinating kaleidoscope of cultures.
There are myriad cool retreats and excursions around the country — from camel rides to fishing tours, 4x4 desert Sahara excursions and mountain hikes — but four Moroccan cities are the most popular destinations for Western tourists: Marrakech, Chefchaouen, Essaouira and Fes.
Related reading: 9 mistakes travelers often make in Morocco
Back in 2005, when The Points Guy and Lori Zaino headed to Marrakech for the first time, they found a dizzying combination of bustling, jam-packed souks and quiet, tranquil spots hidden among the winding market streets.
Fast forward to 2020, Wilson and her group experienced the same. With the steady emergence of boutique riads (the Moroccan version of a bed-and-breakfast), trendy retreats for surfing and/or yoga (check out Surf Maroc), glamping (consider the Dunes Luxury Camp in Merzouga) and a booming food scene that attracts chefs from Australia and Europe, Marrakech is now sexier and safer than ever and a hot spot for celebrities such as the Beckhams, Eva Longoria and Madonna.
Though a dazzling experience of sights, sounds and colors, it can at times be overwhelming. Strolls around town might entail running across streets with no stoplights or crosswalks, being hassled by vendors, offered drugs or even tiptoeing across wooden planks to avoid huge holes in the roads.
On her second trip to Marrakech, Zaino found it as busy as ever. But she also easily found respite in the Heritage Spa — where she had a relaxing, cleansing hamman treatment — and in the delightful Jardines Le Majorelle, an exotic garden, created by designer Yves Saint Laurent and his business/life partner Pierre Bergé, full of graceful architecture that blends Moroccan and Art Deco details. It is worth a visit. Spring for admission to the site's Berber Museum — it's well worth it.
Don't miss the vibrant Jemaa El Fna main square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can soak up a busy market scene as you sip a delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice and catch a view of the Koutoubia Mosque towering in the distance. For an extra dose of history and culture, check out the intricately detailed Mederesa Ben-Youseff, a 16th-century Islamic college.
High above the Jemaa El Fna, rooftop restaurants such as the casual Chez Cafe ZaZa and the swanky Nomad provide great opportunities to kick back over a strong drink or an expansive Moroccan-French meal while overlooking the crowded square below.
Where to stay in Marrakech
We're big fans of cozy, romantic riads, and would recommend the laid-back Riad Ka or Palacio de Las Especias, where you'll find traditional Moroccan décor, trendy European design touches and yummy, fresh-baked breakfast treats. However, La Mamounia and Peacock Pavilion are the chic design hotels everyone's whispering about, so you might want to give them a glance as well. The Riad l'Oriental is a gem hidden inside Marrakech's Medina that's worth a stay, especially since you can arrange your stay to include a Moroccan breakfast and dinner.
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Located 80 miles north of Fes is the Blue City. It feels like Santorini without the water and nestled among the hills. It's known for its colorful buildings, along with local crafts including intricate woven blankets and wool clothing. It also makes a goat cheese that is some of the best you'll ever taste. When asked how the buildings got their blue color, a guide explained it kept mosquitoes away in the summer. The color blue is also seen as a representation of heaven and the skies.
Where to stay in Chefchaouen
If you get a chance to stay overnight in the Blue City, do it at the Riad Zaitouna Chaouen in the outskirt of the city. All rooms are air-conditioned, have a private bathroom and equipped with a flat-screen TV with satellite channels. Ask for a room with a view of the city, and enjoy your traditional Moroccan breakfast on the roof for great views of the city.
After the dusty desert of Marrakech, a visit to the unspoiled beaches of Essaouira is in order. Designed by the same Frenchman behind several of the Brittany region's port towns, this charming fishing town has a distinct French feel. However, once you enter the city center's fortified, whitewashed walls, the vibe switches back to Moroccan, with an energetic market scene. Thanks to strong seaside winds, both surfing and wind surfing are common pursuits out on the water. The best place to enjoy a relaxing evening after a long day of wandering the markets or being tossed by waves is Taros Cafe, a rooftop restaurant with traditional Moroccan tagines and couscous, as well as sparkling sea views.
Where to stay in Essaouira
The luxurious Dar Liouba offers refreshingly bright and well-priced rooms close to both the beach and city markets. For those preferring a Western brand, the Sofitel Essaouira Mogador Golf & Spa is set on a golf course overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
The tourism infrastructure in Morocco's medieval-era capital isn't as strong as those in the other cities, but its labyrinthine Medina and leather tanneries still serve as tourist draws. The old city center of Fes el-Bali (also a UNESCO World Heritage site) is the world's largest urban car-free zone, so go for a slow wander and prepare to get lost immediately, and to find your way eventually. The old Berber pharmacy offers endless jars of spices and remedies, but be careful when sampling these often exotic herbs; it can be hard to know how they'll affect you. If you want to visit the working leather tanneries, enlist a guide to take you in and plan to tip them a few dirhams. Also, take fresh mint or marjoram to mask the strong smell.
Where to stay in Fes
The impeccably decorated and British expat-owned Riad Idrissy strikes the balance between relaxed and upscale with whitewashed walls, intricate tiles and wood-burning fireplaces, and the intimate courtyard restaurant, the Ruined Garden, is famous for its fresh, home-cooked specialties.
Getting to Morocco
Morocco's own Royal Air Maroc offers nonstop flights to Marrakech (RAK), Essaouira (ESU) and Fes (FEZ) (generally routing through Casablanca (CMN)) from the North American cities of Montreal (YUL), New York (JFK), Washington Dulles (IAD) and Miami (MIA). And the country's flag carrier is joining the Oneworld alliance on April 1, 2020.
However, it can save you a few hundred dollars to route through major European cities such as Madrid (MAD) (a two-hour flight), Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG) (three hours) and London Heathrow (LHR) (four hours) on Royal Air Maroc, British Airways or Emirates, as well as on low-cost carriers EasyJet and Ryanair.
A few travel tips for Morocco
Many Moroccan locals are more likely to speak French than English, so be sure to brush up on your parlez-vous. We also encountered residents that spoke Spanish.
Temperatures are at their most mild from April to June, and September to November, while summer temps can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Be sure to dress modestly — especially women. In tourist areas, you're sure to see ladies in tank tops and shorts, but you might feel more comfortable in long skirts with shoulders covered, and keep a headscarf on hand at all times.
Related reading: 8 tips for not just surviving but thriving on a group trip
Be wary of random locals offering to serve as your guides. They'll eventually ask for money, so be prepared to offer some, or to politely but assertively refuse their help in the first place. Instead, consider hiring a guide — Wilson used Trips To Morocco — to create a custom itinerary, including transportation and lodging, to take you to the places you want to see around the country
Watch who and what you photograph. Some people will get angry if you take pictures of them or their place of business, and some will insist that you either delete your photo(s) or offer them payment.
Typically, non-Muslim foreigners are permitted to photograph the exterior of mosques but are rarely allowed inside. A rare exception is Casablanca's Hassan II Mosque, the second-largest in the world. Between its interior and outdoor spaces, it can hold more than 100,000 worshippers.
There are several cards that don't charge foreign transaction fees — including the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and The Platinum Card® from American Express (see rates & fees) — and therefore make sense to use on overseas vacations. However, also be sure to have Moroccan dirhams on hand for souk purchases, and don't be afraid to barter.
Additional reporting by Benét J. Wilson
For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum card, click here.