Steeped in culture and mystic, Morocco holds an immediate and enduring fascination for many Western travellers. Though it’s located not too far from Europe it seems a world away in both tradition and scenery and is a land with an extremely strong identify, a place where there’s a piece of history in every tile of every mosaic, a story at every souk and a culture that envelopes the country so tightly that it inspired the UNESCO Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity Masterpiece project, a project which celebrates the expression of centuries-old heritage. As a backdrop to all this, the country’s physical make-up is extraordinary; from the Mediterranean coast, through sprawling mountain ranges, to the seemingly endless sands of the Sahara. We were lucky enough to spend a week exploring the highlights of this incredible country and from Marrakech to beyond here is our list of amazing things to do in Morocco.
Stay in a traditional Riad
A Riad is a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden or courtyard, the concept of the inward focus is to support the Islamic notion of privacy, therefore the courtyard and garden is surrounded by walls. The transitional experience of leaving the garden and moving inside is to encourage reflection. It is common to find lemon and orange trees growing, a fountain and the walls of the Riad to be decorated with quotes from the Quran in calligraphy as well as the traditional mosaic tiling. Their beauty is extraordinary and a stay in one most definitely adds to the Moroccan experience as well as offering a peaceful respite from the cacophony of city noise outside.
Marvel at the beautiful mosaic architecture
The mosaic architecture in Marrakech is truly beautiful with swirling colours and images which emboss porticos, window arches and pathways, like the calligraphy of a nation. The bright colours and expressive depictions are indicative of the vibrant Arabian culture that this is city is home to. The craft itself is both time-consuming and laborious, handed down through generations and known as ‘Kelliji’, it is a mash-up of mathematics, art and history, blended together to display the most important facets of Moroccan culture in its most complex form. Walk around the city with your camera in hand and it won’t be long until you stumble across an awe-inspring subject.
Haggle at the Souks
It is easy to get overwhelmed in the souks of Marrakech with the cries of hawkers, the smell of spice and fruit, the odd snake coiling in your direction from a charmers basket and the rough and tumble of people going about their business, but it’s an essential part to visit to Morocco. This is not a tourist market, while it sells everything from saffron to kohl, it predominantly serves the people of the city. Keep your dirhams close to your chest when it comes to the haggling, these are the masters! It is impossible to leave this sprawling, Aladdins Cave of wonder without bagging yourself a bargain of some description, be it a brightly coloured scarf, a copper lantern or a handmade bag. In some parts of the market an English-speaking guide can give you the low down on the different spices and their best uses as natural remedies, it’s always worth swinging by him for some advice. The best tip I can offer? Absorb the chaos and go with the flow. Literally!
Visit a mosque
Life in Morocco is influenced by the heady call to prayer by the Muezzin five times a day and the mosques that dot the country are beautiful. The Hassan II mosque in Casablanca is the largest in Northern Africa and the seventh largest in the world. It stands on a promontory looking out to the Atlantic Ocean with its glass floor and handcrafted marble walls, it is a feat of architecture. The Koutoubia Mosque, located in Marrakesh’s Djemaa el Fna Square, is a landmark and the largest mosque in Marrakesh. Whiile Islam dictates that mosques are not to allow non-Muslim visitors, three exceptions are the mosques of Casablanca, Meknes and Fes. If you decide to enter these mosques, remember that it is a house of prayer- obey the traditions of removing your shoes and washing your face and hands, also refrain from excessive photo taking, talking and videoing as a mark of respect.
Experience the Medina Square, Marrackech at night
During the day the Medina Square is predominantly occupied by stalls – especially preveyors of the most gorgeous orange juice. However, at night this bustling market stall is transformed into a UNESCO Heritage Site or more accurately a UNESCO Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity Masterpiece site and once you go there you will understand why. The square comes alive with traditional music, Chleuh dancing boys, snake charmers and Berber storytellers. As darkness falls, the shutters on the stalls begin to lift and the square is filled with the aroma of spices as traditional dishes are served to the mingling locals and tourists.
Spend an afternoon at Jardina Majorelle
By some feat of engineering, 300 different species of flora inhabit one hectare of Marrakech in the Jardin Majorelle along with a museum of Berber culture. It was bought by Yves Saint Laurent (of Paris fashion fame) in 1980, when he died his ashes were scattered here in 2008 and some his sketches and illustrations can be seen there still. Saint Laurent amassed a vast collection of North African textiles and artefacts which, are exhibited in the museum there. The gardens offer a tranquil oasis away from the craziness of the city and if you are visit ensure you spend plenty of time meandering along the wooden pathways, listening to the call of the birds, the rustle of the breeze and of course savour the smell the of the fragrant flowers.
Try the food
Morocco’s diversity is reflected in its cuisine which draws influences from its Arabic culture, Mediterranean location and Berber history. Although spices have been imported for centuries, the home-grown saffron, mint and olive make up the foundation of most dishes, with zesty hints from lemons and oranges. The old national delicacy is couscous which, is served with most dishes (and courses!) but it is the tagine that is the country’s most popular dish. The food in Morocco is so good, that you’ll want to bring the recipes home with you- the spice ingredients you can pick up at the souk, you can even get your own tagine but to learn the skill, head to the wonderful Lalla Fatima Cooking School. This is a lesson in traditional cooking, stoking the fires of your tagine as well as your culinary imagination.
Explore the Atlas Mountains
Without a doubt the Atlas Mountains contain some of the most beautiful and intriguing places of Morocco. The views from their summit are spectacular enough to take your breath away. The peaks and valleys are some of the most remote areas of the country and seem a world away from bustling Marrakech, Casbalanca and Fes. For the non-experienced hiker or mountaineer there are well trodden paths, quaint traditional villages to meet the Berber locals and of course, the Toubkal National Park which is home to stunning views, ancient petroglyphs and intriguing wildlife. If you find that the Riad is not enough of an escape from the city, well then a trip to Atlas Mountains is just what you need.
Visit an ancient fortress town
Morocco has a wide and diverse history and this is no more evident that in the incredible fortress towns of Kasbah of Taourirt, Quarzazate and Ait Benhaddou to name but a few. Their inspiring locations and buildings have been used as sets for Game of Thrones and visitors often feel like they have stepped onto the set the set of Laurence of Arabia. Quarzazate is nicknamed the door to the desert and the sand-dashed walls and terracotta leave you under no illusion that the Sahara is nearby while it is stunningly beautiful and unlike most sites you’ll have visited, Ait Benhaddou is the big daddy. It has graced our screens in Gladiator and Babel but to see it in the flesh is another experience entirely. Practically uninhabited bar four families, it gives visitors the sense of being in a ghost town but the buildings, etched into the mountain side are almost otherworldly.
Stay overnight in the Sahara Desert
In order to have a true experience of Morocco, embrace the Sahara like the locals and take the Sahara Desert Experience. Swap your tour bus for a camel and trek through the golden sand dunes to watch a sunset like no other. Listen to the gentle snorting of camels from under the colourful canopy of your Bedouin tent as the sun slips behind the dunes, casting a red glows across the panorama. Everything will be provided for you on the tour, traditional dining courtesy of the knowledgeable guides and a blissful night under the clear night sky.