30 May 2022
Morocco truly has it all
Located in the northwestern corner of Africa and bordered by the North Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, Morocco is about the same size as California at 710,850 km². Home to a whopping 36.91 million people, Morocco is something of a mixed bag: the hectic fun of densely populated cities offers a stark contrast to the country’s more rural regions, where you’ll find the locals to be extremely laid back. But that’s the beauty of this place. From verdant mountain ranges to arid deserts, Morocco truly has it all. This is a country that experiences mild, wet winters that make for beautiful hikes and hot, dry summers that are perfect for relaxing on the beach. This is a country whose allure is all-encompassing. Whether you’re looking for a warm-weather holiday or to explore a culture that is worlds away from anything you’ve known before, look no further because Morocco has it all.
What makes Morocco, Morocco?
1. Four imperial cities bursting with culture
Morocco is home to an abundance of imperial cities, with the four that stand out most being its historical capitals: Fes, Marrakesh, Meknes and Rabat. Built for the king and his retinue, these metropolises are home to impressive palaces and stunning architecture that reflects the rulers’ grand ambitions.
Fes: the first and most evocative of Morocco’s imperial capitals, was founded in 789 by Idriss I, who established the Kingdom of Morocco. Serving as the capital three times, even as multiple dynasties rose and fell, Fes has clung onto its ancient past with considerable ease. Fes is home to the University of Al-Qarawiyyin - recognised by UNESCO and the Guinness Book of World Records to be the oldest continually operating university in the world. This is a city whose grandeur is seen in towering minarets, dazzling domes and immense ancient tanneries like the Chouara Tannery and whose walls are home to one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in the world.
Rabat: the current capital of Morocco, Rabat is a surprisingly tranquil oasis away from the country’s hectic other cities. Although modern at first glance, this is a city with a rich Moroccan history - from the Kasbah of the Oudaias to the Hassan Tower. Perhaps the most appealing thing about Rabat is its incredible range of international restaurants - offering a tasty alternative to Morocco’s endless tagines. And yet, somehow, the capital city of Morocco remains something of a hidden gem, relatively undisturbed by tourists; a fact that may be about to change with the opening of the monumental Grand Théâtre de Rabat. The largest performing arts complex in Africa, this sculptural wave-form of a building perfectly blends together ancient Islamic architectural elements with the futuristic. Its fluid shape and waterfront setting invite comparisons with the Sydney Opera House and Guggenheim Bilbao, while its high-tech, futuristic interior has a deliberately Moroccan feel, with geometry inspired by muqarnas, the traditional, honeycomb vaulting typical of Islamic design. This iconic symbol of Rabat’s cultural rebirth is a gleaming addition to a city that’s already UNESCO World Heritage-listed for its unique blend of historic and modern architecture.
Marrakech: Known as the Red City, Marrakech was founded in 1071, serving as Morocco’s capital for the next two centuries, as well as in the 16th and 17th centuries. Acting as a symbol of Morocco, Marrakech stands in tribute to the country’s powerful Almoravid and Almohad dynasties, as well as to its Berber (rather than Arab) heritage. Best known for its medina (old town) and endless souks, Marrakech isn’t the kind of place you plan for; this is a place whose appeal lies in the hidden gems you stumble upon while completely lost in its labyrinth of narrow streets. Keeping your bearings in the medina is practically impossible. So just go ahead and see where your path leads you - whether that be to ornate teapots and lamps, intricately woven carpets, or deliciously aromatic spices.
Meknes: This scenic hilltop city is seriously underrated… Home to a UNESCO-stamped medina, you’ll find everything from intricately patterned gates to incredible museums and mausoleums in Meknes. Admire Bab-el-Mansour, one of the most impressive monumental gates in all of Morocco. Completed in 1732, the original green and white zellij tiles, marble columns and Arabic inscriptions pulled straight from the Qur’an make this gate an incredible insight into Arab influence in Morocco. Explore the Dar Jamai Museum - a place worth visiting for its interiors alone. Once a nineteenth century palace, the musleum is now home to a dazzling display of ornate rooms and doorways; incredible tile work and domed ceilings, and traditional crafts including ceramics, jewellery, costumes and brass work. Pay tribute to the man behind Meknes’ imperial status at the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail - an architectural masterpiece that leaves no question about his significance in Meknes today.
Good to know: The University of Al-Qarawiyyin was once the leading educational and spiritual hub of the Arab Muslim world. Islamic legal and religious studies are its main focus, and many renowned Arabic scholars have taught there.
2. The incredible Sahara Desert
There are several places in Morocco from where you can begin your expedition into the vast Sahara Desert. Whether you’re trekking on foot, riding on the back of a camel or horse, or sailing across the desert’s flowing sands in a 4x4, exploring the Sahara is an experience you don’t want to miss out on. Gaze out on endless layers of soft sand and golden dunes on the horizon as you climb up massive dunes, or camp under night skies so clear you can see entire constellations and galaxies painted against the heavens. Take in the surreal sight of a sunset or sunrise over the desert; whatever you choose to do, exploring the world’s largest hot desert in Morocco will be an unforgettable experience.
Fun fact: The Sahara Desert is the largest hot desert in the world, and the third largest desert overall, after the Antarctica and the Arctic.
3. The most beautiful mountain ranges
Morocco is the king of geographical diversity. From arid deserts to verdant mountain ranges, this country truly has it all. Home to two major mountain ranges - the Rif Mountains in the north and the Atlas Mountains stretching through the middle of the country - this is the place to go if you love a scenic road trip. With rugged cliffs, vibrant natural colours and small hilltop villages, driving through Morocco’s mountain ranges is insanely beautiful - though the winding cliffside roads and speedy Moroccan drivers make for a rollercoaster ride of sorts that may not be ideal for the carsick traveller.
If driving’s not your thing though, have no fear! You can still experience the unparalleled beauty of these soaring giants on a series of incredible hiking trails. Hike your way up Mount Toubkal - the highest mountain in Northern Africa and loved by outdoor enthusiasts all year round. Home to local villages like Imlil in the Atlas Mountains and Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains, the mountains of Morocco are more than just an adventure; they offer a serene place to explore the local culture while surrounded by nature. Visit the Berber Villages and communities of the indigenous people of Northern Africa; listen to the Berber language and learn about their way of life - a beautifully enriching insight into the ancient cultures of Morocco.
Fun fact: Africa’s highest ski resort is located in Morocco: Oukaïmeden is it’s name, and it’s about 80km from Marrakech! It's located in the Atlas Mountains at an altitude of between 8,500 ft and 10,500 ft.
4. The influence of Islam
As the majority religion in Morocco, Islam’s influence is undeniable; religious traditions reveal themselves in daily life - from the call to prayer that can be heard five times a day, to the modest way that the locals dress. Morocco is one place where the beauty of people so united in their beliefs shines through, with mosques from the magnificent to the modest dotted all over the country. In particular, the Mosque Hassan II in Casablanca - the largest mosque in Africa and the fifth largest in the world - is a must-see.
Whether you’re around to observe the cultural festivities of Ramadan or Eid; seeing Muslims flock to the mosque in their white prayer clothes, or exploring the abundance of mosques that call Morocco home, this is a country where unique cultural experiences are abundant.
Good to know: It is believed that Idris I, the founder of the country, was the holy Prophet Muhammad’s great-great-great grandson - which explains why Islam is so prevalent in Morocco!
5. Unique Moroccan architecture
Morocco’s unique location makes for a country with layers upon layers of culture. For centuries, the country has seen the influence of African tribes on the other side of the Sahara Desert; Islamic traditions from its Arab neighbours, and European customs brought over by colonisers. Nowhere is Morocco’s diverse background clearer than in its unique architectural style. This is a country whose cultural diversity is reflected in its varied architectural beauties. From majestic mosques to traditional riads; brilliant palaces to divine centres of religious study, Morocco has an abundance of admirable architecture.
Most obviously, Islam has had a huge impact on the design elements seen in buildings throughout Morocco. Elaborate geometric patterns; ornamental Islamic calligraphy of Quranic verses, and colourful zellij (a ceramic-tile mosaic) all come together to form awe-inspiring buildings that you’re unlikely to forget any time soon. Explore open courtyards with lavish gardens - found at the centre of most places; a design element intended to bring privacy and relaxation to any building.
Admire the Hispano-Moorish architectural elements that took root in Morocco during the Almoravid dynasty. From sharp white walls to stucco roofs among the arches, and even large domes - the beauty in Moroccan architecture is how well these elements blend together with Islamic-style buildings such as mosques and medersa (Qur’anic schools).
Good to know: Morocco has nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Each of these sites has exceptional historical, cultural, and architectural value that make them worthy of a visit.
6. Surf's up!
When most people picture Morocco, they conjure up an Aladdin-esque image. But Morocco is home to some of the most beautiful beaches - and the gnarliest surfing waves. Coastal towns like Essaouira, Taghazout, Agadir, Safi, and Mirleft feel a world away from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech or Fes. Without the swarms of tourists and pushy touts that can make other parts of the country seem overwhelming, these laid back surf towns are the perfect place to experience that famous Moroccan hospitality.
Essaouira, located just a few hours from Marrakech on the Atlantic coast, offers choice waves year-round. Enjoy surfing in the winter, or cool off in the fresh waters during the hot summer months. Make sure to visit the fish market in town, where you’ll find fishermen selling the day’s catch. You can even watch them grill fresh food just for you!
Taghazout is a tiny fishing village along Morocco’s Atlantic coast, just north of Agadir. But despite its diminutive size, this place has a big reputation for being a surfers’ paradise. Offering up powerful point breaks like Killer Point, barrel waves at Anchor Point and rocky waters in the south, Taghazout has something for everyone - whether it’s your first time on a board or you’re a seasoned surfer. If the water’s not your thing, fear not: Taghazout has its very own beach-front skatepark. Built by local pros, Taghazout Skatepark is one of the best in North Africa, drawing skate enthusiasts in from far and wide. Extreme sports and extremely beautiful views - who could say no to that?
Good to know
Non-Muslims usually cannot enter Mosques, so if you aren't Muslim you'll have to admire the buildings from outside.
You'll also notice the conservative way in which local women dress. They cover their body and hair, and sometimes their face. As a female traveller, try to embrace cultural differences by respecting their customs and covering up as well. You don't need to exactly copy their dress, just cover your shoulders, knees, and chest as much as you can. Even at the beach, women are usually fully dressed. Just use your judgement when dressing, based on how much you want to stand out.
Make sure you have the correct change when paying for things like taxis; most will rarely have change, so you’ll end up overpaying if you don’t carry smaller amounts of cash with you.
You should also keep some change for tipping. A good general rule of thumb is 1 DH at a local place and 3-5 DH at nicer places.
Bartering is an integral part of Moroccan culture, so don’t be afraid to haggle! A good rule of thumb is to aim for half of the original asking price.
Be wary of the local guides; though they may be useful in offering an inside perspective of Morocco, they will often encourage you to pay premium prices at stores they have partnerships with.
Stay away from anyone offering directions or free tours; they will usually end up pressing you to tip them afterwards.
Friday is a holy day in Islam, so expect most shops and restaurants to be closed. The same will be true during Ramadan - the holy month where Muslims fast.
Do not drink tap water! Instead, bring a filtered bottle or buy bottled water.
Bring toilet paper with you everywhere. In Morocco, it is customary to wash with water after using the toilet, so if that’s not your vibe, make sure you come prepared!
Something for everyone
Morocco is whatever you make of it - whether you’re looking to delve into a hectic maze of markets or to relax and enjoy the fresh sea air, there’s something for everyone. This is a place that is bursting with energy, and whose allure is seriously all-encompassing.