A First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Morocco
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One of our must-visit destinations for 2015, Morocco is filled with sandy deserts, lively souks and Berber culture. TPG International Contributor Lori Zaino guides us through some of the hottest spots for a visit to Morocco, including Marrakech, Fez and Essaouira, plus some handy travel tips for your North African getaway. (Except where noted, all photos are by the author.)
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, Morocco represents a fascinating kaleidoscope of cultures.
There is a myriad of cool retreats and excursions all over the country, from camel rides to fishing tours, 4×4 desert Sahara excursions and mountain hikes, but three Moroccan cities are the most popular destinations for Western tourists: Marrakech, Essaouira and Fez.
Back in 2005, when The Points Guy and I headed to Marrakech for the first time, we found a dizzying combination of bustling, jam-packed souks and quiet, tranquil spots hidden among the winding market streets. Though a dazzling experience of sights, sounds and colors, it was at times overwhelming. Strolls around town might entail running across streets with no stoplights or crosswalks, being hassled by vendors and beggars or offered drugs or even tiptoeing across wooden planks to avoid huge holes in the roads.
However, 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 Erg Chigaga Luxury Desert Camp) and a booming food scene that attracts chefs from Australia and Europe, Marrakech is now sexier and safer than ever, a hotspot for celebrities such as the Beckhams, Eva Longoria and Madonna.
A few weeks ago I returned from my second trip to Marrakech, and while it was as busy as ever, I easily found respite in the Heritage Spa — where I had a relaxing, cleansing hamman treatment — and in the delightful Jardines Le Majorelle, an exotic garden full of graceful architecture that blends Moroccan and Art Deco details.
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: I’m a big fan of cozy, romantic riads, and would recommend the laid-back Riad Ka or Palacio de Las Especias, where you’ll find traditional Moroccan decor, 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 Platinum cardholders can get perks such as room upgrades, free Internet and breakfast at four Amex FHR properties, and Visa Signature cardholders (e.g., Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and the Southwest Premier, Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, etc.), can get similar benefits at four Visa Signature Hotel properties.
A strong option for SPG members, the 266-room, 11-suite Le Meridien N’Fis (where The Points Guy and I stayed back in 2005) is set amidst roughly 14 acres of Andalusian gardens, and rates start at 1,400 dirhams (MAD)/$143 USD or 3,000 Starpoints per night.
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 sleek, modern Riad Lotus or the luxurious Dar Liouba offer refreshingly bright and well-priced rooms close to both the beach and city markets. For those preferring a Western brand, the Sofitel Mogador 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 two cities, but its labyrinthine medina (market) 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.
When you get hungry, be sure to dine at the fashionable Restaurant Numero 7, where signature black-and-white decor, a revolving global roster of chefs-in-residence and creative seasonal menus make this place very popular.
Where to stay in Fez: 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 Fez (FEZ) [generally routing through Casablanca (CMN)] from a handful of American cities, including New York-JFK, Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago (ORD) and Atlanta (ATL). However, it can save you a few hundred dollars to route through major European cities such as Madrid (a two-hour flight), Paris-Charles de Gaulle (three hours) and London-Heathrow (four hours) on Royal Air Maroc, British Airways or Emirates, as well as on low-cost carriers Easy Jet 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.
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 I felt more comfortable in long skirts with my shoulders covered, and kept a headscarf on hand at all times.
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.
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.
In my experience, non-Muslim foreigners are permitted to photograph the exterior of mosques but are rarely allowed inside.
There are several credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees (including the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, Chase Sapphire Preferred and Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card) and therefore make sense to use on overseas vacations. However, also be sure to have Morrocan dirhams on hand for souk purchases, and don’t be afraid to barter.
Have you visited Morocco — or do you plant to visit this year? Please share your experiences, tips or plans in the comments below!