Morocco lies just under nine miles (14.3km) from Spain across the Straight of Gibraltar, the only place where the Mediterranean Sea mixes with the Atlantic Ocean. The mixing of the two seas which lap Morocco's coast serves as a useful allegory for understanding the North African country's rich history. Morocco is an elaborate weave of Arabic, Berber, French and Spanish culture which has captivated the imaginations of travellers for the better part of the last millennium; it is this heady mix of old and new which sees contemporary Morocco thriving.
Hints of Morocco's turbulent history still pervade daily life, and serve to strengthen its allure. Since the days of the Phoenicians, Morocco has attracted foreign interest from the Romans, Vandals, Visigoths and ancient Greeks until the coming of the Arabs in the 7th century, who brought Islam and the Alaouite Dynasty. European powers have had their day, too: France and Spain battled for control until nationalism triumphed and the Kingdom of Morocco gained independence in 1956, and evolved into the Morocco travellers experience today.
For some, the main appeal for visitors to Morocco has always been its balance of the familiar with the exotic. Morocco's seaside cities like Tangiers offer Mediterranean charm; while inland Marrakech thrums with vibrant souks, markets where legendary fine Moroccan crafts are made and sold, and Moorish architectural wonders loom overhead; and Casablanca is the economic centre of Morocco, playing host to an energetic business culture and international trade.
However, travellers to Morocco would do well to venture beyond the cities. The Rif Mountains in the north, and the High Atlas Mountains in the heart of Morocco, offer scenes of life in Berber communities where their languages and culture are well preserved. Adventurers will find paradise in mountain ranges which offer skiing on snow-capped peaks, trekking through gorges and fertile valleys, and kayak trips down powerful streams. In the south, the vast, bleak power of the Western Sahara enthrals travellers who choose to journey by camel or 4x4.
No matter the particulars of travellers' time in Morocco, they are sure to be fascinated by visions of snake charmers weaving their magic while the call of the muezzins wafts from the ancient minarets. Visitors can expect aromas of mint tea, elaborate carpets and vibrant squares, but they can also expect much more from contemporary Morocco which acknowledges its past while keeping pace with global development and interconnectivity.
Steeped in history, spanning miles of Mediterranean and Atlantic coastline, and boasting exciting attractions, Morocco is a sightseer's paradise. Part of the appeal is the inviting climate but there is so much more to this diverse and historically rich country than meets the eye. Within the enchanting medieval medinas of Fez and Marrakech, where snake charmers blow their hypnotic melodies amid the smell of the tanners' yards and the hustle and bustle of the open-air markets, the fascinating and exotic soul of Morocco can really be glimpsed. With Phoenician, Hellenic, Carthaginian and Roman civilisations all having passed through Morocco, it's also worth revelling in the immensity of the country's past by exploring its countless museums, palaces, mosques, tombs and ruins.
Furthermore, adventurous travellers can head south to explore the hot desert sands of the Western Sahara, and see breathtaking landscapes which are a privilege to behold; or for a completely unexpected holiday experience, head deep into the High Atlas Mountains for a skiing holiday with a difference. There are exciting 4x4, horseback and camelback treks to enjoy as well as lovely coastlines to explore.
Many of the sights around the cities are best explored on foot, but for those planning on criss-crossing the country, trunk-line trains run through the heart of Morocco, connecting over one hundred stations spread out over 1,184 miles (1,907km) of track. Bus travel is also a popular mode of transport.
Towering over the labyrinthine streets and markets of Marrakech is the city's principal landmark, the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, known as the 'mosque of the booksellers' because of the bazaar of book traders that used to be nearby.
The red stone mosque was first built in 1147, but demolished and rebuilt in 1199 because it was not correctly aligned with Mecca. The mosque has 17 aisles and 112 columns, and room for thousands to pray within. The ornately carved minbar (pulpit) is believed to have been a gift from the Almoravid Sultan Ali Ben Youssef. The minaret is 221ft (69m) high and consists of six chambers one atop the other, ascended by a ramp through which the muezzin rises to the top balcony.
The mosque, as a sacred place of worship, is unfortunately closed to non-Muslims, but the gardens and the general area around it is a wonderful place for an evening stroll. The minaret is perhaps at its most beautiful when lit up at night, but is best for photographs at sunset, when the red stone glows. Hearing the call to prayer of this ancient mosque is a particularly special experience.
What it lacks in beauty, the large town square of Marrakech, Djemaa el-Fna (Square of the Dead), makes up for with a pulsating liveliness that belies its name.
Every day the square is a colourful circus of performing artists including snake charmers, musicians, storytellers and healers who vie with each other to be noticed by the milling crowds. Every evening food stalls take over and the competition is fierce among them for the passing trade, with everything from boiled snails and sheep's heads to thick vegetable soup, kebabs or fresh salads on offer. Freshly squeezed orange juice stalls stand side by side encircling the market and offer a refreshing drink both day and night.
The square is a fascinating place to be a while relaxing at of the surrounding cafes and watching the swirling parade. The square is also the gateway to the souks (bazaars) of Marrakech, tucked away in the surrounding labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys. It is easy to lose your way, but well worth exploring. Bargain for anything from water mugs and dates to famous Moroccan carpets. Mercifully, the souks are also well shaded from the searing Moroccan sun and offer respite from the heat.
The beautiful necropolis was built by the Saadian Sultan Ahmed el Mansour in the late 16th century as a final resting place for he and his successors. The tombs were discovered in 1917 and carefully restored to their former splendour.
There are 66 indoor tombs, lavishly decorated with colourful, intricate mosaics. The central mausoleum, the Hall of the Twelve Columns, is exceptionally ornate with a high, vaulted roof, furnished with stunning carved cedar panels and columns of grey Italian marble. The tombs are spread through three rooms and there are gardens outside the building where the graves of soldiers and servants can be seen.
The Saadian Tombs are a remarkable tourist attraction but they don't require much time and can be fully appreciated in under an hour. The tombs are a stop on many sightseeing tours. Photographs are permitted inside the building, which is fantastic because the minute details and mosaics are the highlight.
The al-Karaouine Mosque, located in the heart of the Fes El Bali (Medina), was founded in 859 with an associated madrassa (school) that subsequently grew to become one of the leading educational and spiritual centres in the Islamic world and is now called the University of al-Karaouine and incorporated into the modern university system of the country. According to UNESCO it is the oldest continually operating educational institution in the world.
The mosque itself is enormous (one of the largest in Morocco) and beautiful, although austere, with many striking features. It is considered the most sacred mosque in the country and the timing of Islamic festivals across Morocco are determined here. Unfortunately for tourists non-Muslims may not enter it, but often the doors stand open and it is certainly worth taking a peek inside to get a sense of the place. The mosque is still surrounded by numerous madrasas, many of which are open to the public, and these are certainly worth exploring. The most famous of these is the Attarin Madrasa, built in the early 14th century, which features a beautiful bronze door and elegant courtyard with some impressive marble, alabaster and cedar wood decoration.
The Kasbah des Oudaias was recently added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites and is a pleasant place to take a stroll and admire some interesting architecture.
The Kasbah was the Alhomad citadel of medieval Rabat, and is guarded by an impressive arched gate built around 1195. Inside the Kasbah is the palace and Andalucian gardens, as well as a broad terrace, which gives beautiful views of the river and sea close to the city's oldest mosque, the Kasbah Mosque, founded in 1050. Below the terrace are several fortifications with gun emplacements guarding the estuary, and even further below is a beach, usually crowded with locals.
The views from this ancient stronghold are marvellous, and a little café sits beside the palace, where visitors can have traditional mint tea and almond cookies while admiring the view. The winding alleys and characteristic blue and white buildings give the area a cool and peaceful allure.
Emerging from the boulevards of the Ville Nouvelle (New Town) of Rabat, one comes across the ruins of Chellah, once the thriving walled Roman port city of Sala Colonia, abandoned in 1154 in favour of Salé across the river mouth.
In the time of the Almohads the site was used as a royal burial ground, and following this, the Merenid sultan, Abou El Hassan, added some monuments and the striking main gate in the mid-14th century. Just inside the gate are Roman ruins dating from 200 BC, which include a forum, a temple and a craftsmen's quarter.
The citadel is now part of a garden and in spring the ruins are surrounded by a beautiful variety of flowers. The Chellah Gardens are entered through an ancient gateway created by the Almohads and notable ruins inside, apart from the Roman remains, include what is left of the small mosque dedicated to Abou Youssef, several elaborate tombs, and a stone minaret in the centre of the grounds. Visitors are welcome to wander freely and none of the ruins are off limits. The garden is a lovely place to spend some time and since 2005 has been the venue of an annual international jazz festival, Jazz au Chellah.
The massive Hassan Tower, which dates to 1195, is the minaret of a mosque and towers over the capital, Rabat. However, the huge Rabat Mosque itself was never completed and was largely destroyed in an earthquake in 1755.
The mosque and the minaret were intended by the builders to be the largest in the world but today all that is left of the mosque is several walls in various states of ruin and 200 columns. Also, the minaret, made from striking red sandstone, is unusually situated at the centre of the mosque building, and was intended to be 262ft (80m) high, though it stands at 164ft (50m) today. Each façade of the minaret is intricately patterned with different motifs on each face.
Opposite the mosque is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, one of the great monuments of modern Morocco, inaugurated in 1967. The deceased king, Mohammed, lies entombed in white onyx, surrounded by royal guards, and hundreds of Moroccans pay homage by filing through the mausoleum each day. The tower, what remains of the mosque, and the modern mausoleum form an important historical and cultural complex which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a popular tourist attraction.
Volubilis, near the Moroccan town of Meknes, situated between Rabat and Fez, was a central Roman administrative city in Africa from around the third century BC, built atop a previous Carthaginian city. Volubilis was unique in that it was not abandoned after the Romans lost North Africa to the Arabs, with even the Latin language living on in the area for several centuries.
Volubilis remained inhabited until the 18th century, when it was demolished to provide building materials for the palaces of Moulay Ismail in nearby Meknes, which meant that a great deal of the Roman architectural heritage was lost.
Today the ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and consist of some well-preserved columns, a basilica, a triumphal arch and about 30 magnificent mosaics. It is recommended that you have a knowledgeable guide for this site, as it is greatly enriched by knowing the background and context of what you are seeing. It takes a few hours to stroll around all the ruins and visitors should be sure to come prepared for the baking sun as there is little shade - drinking water, sunscreen and a hat will make all the difference, and comfortable walking shoes are also essential.
The word socco is the Spanish version of souk, meaning market, and has stuck to this square in the heart of Tangier because of its Spanish heritage.
The square is, however, no longer a marketplace, but rather a city crossroads and huge taxi rank, fronted by cafés, outside the fortified old part of the city. The Grand Socco has developed something of a reputation for being a meeting place for criminals and drug dealers, but it is still an interesting spot to spend time watching the passing parade, particularly the Rif women in colourful traditional costume touting vegetables and fresh mint. It is also the hop off point for entry to the medina, for admiring the luxurious Mendoubia Gardens on the north side, and the mosaic-studded minaret of the Sidi Bou Abid Mosque to the west.
The Grand Socco is particularly active at night, when food stalls and second-hand goods stores pop up and the square takes on some of its traditional function as a market, and tourists should be vigilant and should not openly display wealth; however, the crime in the Grand Socco is generally petty and opportunistic.
In the midst of the old medina in Tangier, the US has provided a thriving cultural centre, museum, conference venue and library in the only historic landmark of the United States that is located abroad.
The American Legation Museum is housed in the American Embassy, established in Tangier soon after Morocco became the first power to recognise the United States of America as an independent country in 1777; the Moroccan ruler, Sid Suleiman, gifted the US this building in 1821. Although the sultan presented such buildings to a number of countries, the US is the only one to have held onto the property until the present day. The museum houses art collections, restored historic rooms, and a number of permanent exhibitions.
The American Legation Museum is one of the most popular attractions in Tangier and well worth a visit, particularly as entrance is free, but it should not demand too much time - an hour or two is sufficient for most visitors. For many American tourists it is fascinating to explore the first official representation of their country overseas. Guided tours are offered and the curator/tour guide is a font of knowledge, but it is possible to explore on your own.
A collection of art from all over Morocco is housed in the imposing Dar el Makhzen, a former sultan's palace dating from the 17th century.
The art collections are housed in the prince's apartments, which are breathtaking with frescoed ceilings, sculptured plasterwork and intricate mosaics. The art on display has been assembled from all regions of Morocco, and includes firearms decorated with marquetry, pottery, carpets from Rabat, silks, and bound manuscripts from Fez. The Dar el Makhzen palace is home, too, to a fascinating museum of antiquities relating to Morocco's pre-history, gathered from archaeological sites such as Lixus, Cotta and Volubilis. The museum includes a lifesized model of a Carthaginian tomb, and a reproduction of an ancient necropolis, which is situated in a peaceful Andalusian garden.
This palace is not to be confused with the Dar el Makhzen in Fez, which is famous for its stunning golden doors and intricately carved and tiled gateway, but is not open to the public. The Sultan's Palace in Tangier is situated on one of the highest points of the city and therefore affords visitors some glorious views and excellent photographic opportunities.
Chefchouen is a magical little town up in the Rif Mountains, just a short drive from Tangier. The town as an interesting heritage, as it was a home to Spanish refugees in the middle ages, and took in Christian and Jewish refugees alike as the centuries progressed - all of these influences come to bear on visitors' experience of Chefchouen today.
The medina of Chefcouen isrenowned as one of the most charming in Morocco, with whitewashed, gabled houses and blue-rinsed buildings where craftsmen sit in their shops sewing caftans and embroidering jellabahs. The medina is dominated by the 17th century Great Mosque, which fronts a picturesque square dotted with mulberry trees and inviting restaurants. The square is also surrounded by souks selling carpets, leather goods, pottery and copper ware. While Chefchaouen has enough picturesque Moroccan charm to attract droves of tourists, another aspect of its popularity is its reputation for recreational drug use (it is the centre of a marijuana and hashish producing region).
Probably the best thing to do here is hike. One of the best places to trek to is the tiny, traditional village of Kalaa, hiding in the hills outside Chefchaouen. Here one can relax in the remote serenity of rural Moroccan life that has changed little over the centuries. The village is also a wonderful base for exploring the Rif Mountains and hikes can be arranged to other local villages in the area and all the way to the Mediterranean. As tourism increases more villagers are opening their doors to the trade and new guest houses are springing up in the area.
The fishing village of Asilah, south of Tangier, has become a popular seaside resort because of its nearby Paradise Beach, relaxing ambience, and picturesque, 15th-century, Andalusian medina, which extends to the sea wall. Asilah is characterised by picturesque white buildings reminiscent of Santorini, but with a dash of Moroccan flavour.
The town has a long and fascinating history, dating back to 1500BC, and it was not always as peaceful as it is now: in the 19th and 20th centuries Asilah was a notorious base for pirates, and from 1912 to 1956 it was occupied by the Spanish. The ramparts and gateworks designed to fortify the old town against invaders of old are still intact.
Getting around Asilah is easy enough, with feet being the best mode of transport, although donkey carts are also a fun option. Asilah is accessible from Tangier by train and coastal road. Asilah is fairly quiet for most of the year, except when artists and performers descend for the Asilah Arts Festival each August. The resort town hosts several other arts and music festivals, including a mural-painting festival which ensures that the town's walls remain covered in striking paintings all year.
The Ben Youssef Madrassa was once an Islamic college in Marrakech named after Sultan Ali ibn Yusuf, who expanded the city considerably. This madrassa was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa and may have housed as many as 900 students.
After being closed down in 1960, it was refurbished and reopened in 1982, an interesting attraction for the value of its educational influence, but mostly thrilling for tourists because of the stunning architecture and mosaics. The courtyards and patios are richly carved in marble, cedar and stucco, with intricate geometric patterns and Islamic inscriptions. The Ben Youssef Madrassa is often ranked as one of the best attractions of Marrakech. Visitors can explore the student study rooms and dormitories. Luckily, photography is permitted, because it is one of the most spectacular buildings in Morocco.
Although centrally located, the madrassa can be difficult to find, partly because various touts sometimes mislead tourists for reasons of their own, often trying to redirect them to family-owned stores and the like. It is better to rely on a good map and take directions from locals with a pinch of salt.
The Museum of Marrakech is located in the Dar Menebhi Palace, built at the end of the 19th century by legendary Mehdi Menebhi, in the old centre of Marrakech. The palace was restored by the Omar Benjelloun Foundation and converted into a museum in 1997. The house itself is representative of classical Andalusian architecture, with fountains in the central courtyard, numerous carvings and beautiful tiles. The museum holds exhibits of both modern and traditional Moroccan art, as well as historical books, coins, pottery and other Berber artefacts.
The convenient location and interesting building make this a worthwhile stop even for the museum-phobic and it is one of the most popular attractions in the city; in fact, the exhibitions may not overly impress, but the intricate mosaics and other interior features should. Regrettably, for genuine art lovers, and those interested in the historical artefacts, there is little information provided in English, so the appreciation must be largely visual. There is a gift shop selling prints of some of the art and photographs on display in addition to a little café for refreshments. Photographs are permitted inside the museum.
Bab Agnaou is one of the 19 gates of Marrakech and was built in the 12th century, in the time of the Almohad Dynasty, and stands the innermost and most ornate of the city's gates and was one of the first stone monuments built in Marrakech.
The colour of the stone seems to change drastically depending on the light, weather and time of day, and the bas-relief is sophisticated and still impressive to this day. Experts believe that the function of the gate may have been nationally symbolic, as suggested by the corner-pieces which are decorated with floral designs, framed by three panels with inscriptions from the Quran.
Bab Agnaou is also a geographically convenient sight for tourists exploring the city as it forms the entrance to the royal kasbah in southern Marrakech. The kasbah, built by the Almohad sultan Yaqub al-Mansour, is home to the El Mansouria Mosque, the El Badi Palace and the Saadian Tombs, all magnificent tourist attractions, making this a part of the city that seldom goes unexplored for visitors. Of all Marrakech's gates Bab Agnaou is generally acknowledged as the most picturesque and it is included in almost all the walking and sightseeing tours of the area.
The Majorelle Garden is a botanical garden designed by the French artist, Jacques Majorelle, in 1924. Previous owners have included Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint-Laurent (whose ashes were scattered there when he died in 2008). The garden is also home to the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech, which houses an exhibit of North African textiles from Saint-Laurent's personal collection, and paintings by Majorelle.
The garden is home to more than 15 bird species endemic to North Africa, and full of ponds and water features. The garden took 40 years to create. It is one of the most popular tourist sites in Morocco and a must for all visitors. The villa in the centre of the garden, which houses the museum, is a stunning blue, accented with other bright colours, a mixture of classic Moroccan features and art deco creativity. This is a particularly good attraction for a hot day as the gardens are shaded and always seem much cooler than the rest of the city. There is a lovely café in a shaded courtyard for refreshments and a gift shop selling YSL products, among other things. Although the gardens can be explored quickly in under an hour, this is a place best enjoyed for at least a few hours.
Marrakech is home to a labyrinth of bustling (workshops and markets) offering the city's most fascinating wares. Whether shopping or simply exploring, they are a must for any visitor.
At the northern end of the souks, best accessed from the Ben Youssef Mosque, there are blacksmiths making wrought-iron goods and the distinct odour of leather workshops wafts down the alleys. The stalls emerge further south and are met by the Rahba Kedima, a market famous for its bizarre offerings of animals and eccentric potions for spells. The market is colourful and crowded with plenty of fodder for keen photographers.
Moreover, there are real bargains to be found if you haggle hard: the first price given will invariably be more than double what would be a fair price as the merchants expect customers to bargain. The souks are a wonderful experience and many foreigners visit repeatedly during their stay, but although guides are absolutely not necessary in the market, it is advisable to stay vigilant and keep an eye out for pickpockets.
The ('the incomparable palace') consists of the remnants of a glorious palace built by the Saadian King Ahmad al-Mansur, in 1578. The original building is thought to have had about 360 rooms, a courtyard and a pool, and was decorated with Italian marble and large amounts of Sudanese gold. It also had a small, underground jail where the king kept his prisoners. The design of the palace was influenced by Granada's Alhambra, but the original palace was torn apart by Sultan Mawlay Ismail.
Today, the once luxurious palace is a ruin consisting of some intact rooms and numerous walls, terraces, gardens and foundations. The underground jail can still be explored and there are a number of beautiful mosaics surviving, but visitors have to use some imagination to conjure up the onetime grandeur of the place. The ruins still retain some their romance, but very little effort has gone into maintaining or preserving the site. Despite the ramshackle nature of the attraction anybody with an interest in history and archaeological sites should enjoy exploring the site. There is little or no shade so travellers should go prepared for the sun and should avoid the hottest part of the day. There is a small admission fee.
One of the largest mosques in the world, and the largest in Morocco, the King Hassan II Mosque was designed by French architect, Michel Pinseau. It is affectionately nicknamed the 'Casablanca Hajj'. Perched on the edge of the city of Casablanca, this picturesque structure looks out over the Atlantic Ocean and features one of the world's tallest minarets, towering at 689 feet (210m). The minaret is 60 storeys high and topped by a laser which points towards Mecca.
Almost half of the massive mosque lies over the Atlantic, and the water can be seen through a gigantic glass floor. This feature was inspired by a verse in the Qur'an: 'the throne of God was built on water'. The mosque can accommodate over 100,000 worshippers. The design is a mixture of classic Islamic architecture and Moroccan elements and it was worked on by hundreds of Morocco's best craftsmen, finally being inaugurated in 1993. The massive cost of building such an impressive mosque was a source of contention in the poor country, but it is now viewed with pride by locals and is a popular tourist attraction. Thankfully, the Hassan II mosque is open to non-Muslims, but to explore the magnificent interior you must take a guided tour which can be conducted in several languages. Visitors will be expected to dress appropriately and will have to remove their shoes.
Located past the ocean-side neighbourhood of the Corniche, the Shrine of Sidi Abderrahman is built on a rock out at sea and is only accessible at low tide. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the shrine, but travellers wishing to explore the tiny neighbourhood around it are permitted to do so. Most visitors just opt to admire it from a distance, catching a glimpse of the shrine and its breathtaking white walls while walking along the beach. Traditionally, people visit this shrine to heal mental illness and it is one of Morocco's most famous coastal shrines.
The Corniche was once a thriving resort area and there are still many hotels, nightclubs and restaurants lining the coastal boulevard (Boulevard de la Corniche), but many of these now look somewhat rundown and there is a sense that the place is past its prime. The Boulevard de l'Ocean Atlantique is now the more glamourous street, where newer and more upmarket accommodation can be found. One thing the Corniche neighbourhood does have in abundance is international fast food chains and this in combination with the American-style movie theatre makes it a good place to visit for those needing a comforting taste of home.
Designed by a Spanish architect, the Casablanca Twin Centre features two skyscrapers which are 28-storeys tall and tower above the city at 377 feet (115m). Known as La Grande Casa, the buildings house offices, businesses, a five-storey shopping mall and a luxury, five star hotel. The towers are the tallest buildings in the city and are situated in the Maarif district, at the intersection between Zerktouni Boulevard and Al Massira Al Khadra Boulevard.
The two towers, named the East Tower and the West Tower, are joined at the lower levels by a large complex which contains the bulk of the shopping centre. Above this section, the East Tower contains the five-star Kenzi Tower Hotel, while the West Tower holds part of the shopping centre and offices. The spa, bar and restaurant facilities in the hotel are open to non-residents and the panoramic restaurant on the 27th floor is particularly popular. The locals are proud of the building because it represents the modernisation of Casablanca, and it is a great attraction for tourists looking to do some shopping, fine dining, or just to get some wonderful views of the city.
Meknes, located just 37 miles (60km) from Fez, is the least-visited of Morocco's Imperial Cities, and this is exactly what draws discerning travellers to discover its considerable charms. A city brimming with history but mercifully short on chaos, Meknes is the ideal destination for those looking to explore Morocco's rich, imperial past at a reasonable and measured pace.
The city of Meknes was the brainchild of Moulay Ismail (ruler of Morocco for an incredible 55 years, between 1672 and 1727), who sought to construct a city fine enough to rival any in Europe. Although not the most sympathetic of rulers - most of the construction was done by Christian slaves who were kidnapped by Moroccan pirates from as far afield as Iceland - Ismail's vision was impressively followed through, and modern-day visitors to Meknes can revel in the wonders of more than 50 palaces, 20 beautifully-carved gates, and a city wall that stretches for 28 miles (45km).
The city of Meknes has a wonderfully preserved medina area and a collection of great souks which can be navigated independently, without the need for a tour guide. Must-see sights include Bab Mansour, the grand gate of the imperial city, featuring splendid mosaics; and Dar El Makhzen, the historical palace of Moulay Ismail. Tourists to Morocco who want to experience its culture, but are wary of the frenetic nature of its cities, are strongly advised to make Meknes a feature of their travel itineraries.
Morocco's climate is moderate and subtropical, cooled by breezes off the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. The weather is unpredictable and can be changeable, swinging from extreme heat to unexpected cold. The climate is also highly variable according to region and terrain and travellers are advised to check the conditions for the exact destinations they will be visiting. The climate of the northern Moroccan coast and central areas is Mediterranean, with hot dry summers and mild wet winters.
In the interior the temperatures are more extreme: winters can be fairly cold and the summers very hot. Marrakech has an average winter temperature of 70ºF (21ºC) and an average summer temperature of 100°F (38°C). In the Atlas Mountains temperatures can drop below zero in any season and mountain peaks are snow-capped throughout most of the year. The winter, between December and February, is wet and rainy in the north of the country; while in the south, at the edge of the Moroccan Sahara, it is dry and bitterly cold. Summer is the driest season.
Weather-wise, the best time to visit Morocco is generally in the spring and early summer, between March and May. Alternatively, autumn, occurring between September and November, is also mild and pleasant.
One of Marrakech's most popular eateries with foreigners, this simply furnished Italian restaurant and pizzeria has a wood-burning oven in an open kitchen, filling the air with delicious Italian aromas. Order a Royal pizza, topped with ground beef, prawns, mushrooms and ham; or try pasta in a creamy tomato and vodka sauce, and feel truly aristocratic as a bow-tied waiter caters to your every wish. Save room for the excellent tiramisu, or perhaps the home-style apple crumble? Cantanzano is open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner (12pm to 2.30pm, and from 7.15pm to 11pm); reservations are recommended and they do serve alcohol.
This bookstore-cum-restaurant offers velvet chairs and comfortable loungers; a few strategically placed armchairs entice readers to sit down with coffee and cake, accompanied by free wifi for those who need to stay connected. An open kitchen serves salads, soups, sandwiches and burgers, or mushroom risotto and freshly baked cakes. Indulge in brunch-style breakfasts or an afternoon high tea with complimentary brownies. The tapas plates of hummus, tapenade, aubergine d'caviar and pâté are also good. Open Monday to Saturday, 9:30am to 9pm. Café du livre also serves alcohol.
This restored riad is a wonderful venue for a romantic dinner. The back garden is the best place to eat, its walls decorated in Majorelle Garden blue and encircling a central swimming pool. Candle-lit tables and rose petals accompany a set menu of nouvelle Moroccan cuisine; familiar meals with a fresh twist. Try the beef tagine with figs and walnuts, cooked with cinnamon and argan oil. Lively yet subtle Gnaoua and Andalusian music completes the ambient scene. Open Tuesday to Sunday 12pm to 3pm, 7:30pm to 11pm. Visitors should make reservations and alcohol is served.
Café des Épices is great for people-watching and the owner obligingly dishes out tasty sandwiches, salads, pastries along with helpful information. Spiced teas and coffees round it all off tastefully on the rooftop terrace at sunset, whil the first floor's chill-out lounge has become a popular spot for local youngsters. The atmosphere is new world, with music to match. Open daily, 8am to 8pm.
The unit of currency is the Moroccan Dirham (MAD), which is divided into 100 santimat. ATMs are available in the larger cities and towns, but can be unreliable; currency can be exchanged at banks or official bureaux de change, which are also widespread in major towns. Dirhams cannot be obtained or exchanged outside Morocco and receipts must be retained as proof of legal currency exchange, in addition to being the only way to re-exchange money when departing. Major credit cards are accepted in larger shops, hotels and restaurants.
Arabic is the official language, but eight other languages are also spoken including Berber, French and Spanish. English is generally understood in the tourist areas, but French is more widely spoken.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. Two-pin round plugs are in use.
US citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Morocco. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
British citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Morocco. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days for holders of British passports endorsed British Citizen, British National (Overseas), or British Subject (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom).
Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Morocco. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Morocco. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Morocco. A visa is required.
Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Morocco. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
US citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Morocco. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Morocco. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
Generally, travel to Morocco does not require a prior visa application; however, travellers should enquire about the specifics from their nearest Moroccan embassy. Also, all foreign passengers to Morocco must hold proof of sufficient funds to cover their expenses while in the country. All visitors who wish to stay for a longer period than their visa exemption allows, must report to the nearest police station within 21 days of their arrival in Morocco. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months' validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
No vaccinations are required to enter Morocco. Those who may be at risk of animal bites or who will be coming into contact with bats should consider a rabies vaccination, and all travellers are advised to consider vaccinations for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid.
It is advisable to drink bottled water and raw or uncooked meat. Avoid swimming, wading, or rafting in bodies of fresh water. The beaches around Casablanca are polluted and considered unsafe for swimming. Medical facilities are decent in all major cities but can be extremely limited in rural areas. Health insurance is essential. All required medications should be taken along, in their original packaging, and accompanied by a signed and dated letter from a doctor detailing what they are and why they are needed.
A tip of 10 to 15 percent is expected in the more expensive bars and restaurants, though some establishments do include a service charge. Most services are performed with the aim of getting a few dirham, but aggressive hustling shouldn't be rewarded. Nevertheless, visitors should note that tips are the only income for some porters and guides.
Violent crime is not a major problem in Morocco, but there have been some incidents of theft at knife point in major cities and on beaches. Sensible precautions such as avoiding badly lit streets at night should be adhered to. Guides offering their services should display an official badge from the local tourist authorities.
Historically, most visits to Morocco are trouble-free. The touts and merchants can get quite pushy and confrontational so visitors should be firm in refusing goods or services. There have been reports of female travellers struggling with unwanted attention from Moroccan men, and it is considered a difficult country to travel in alone as a woman.
Morocco is a Muslim country and it is best to keep the wearing of swimsuits, shorts and other revealing clothing to the beach or hotel poolside. Women travelling alone will generally be hassled less if dressed conservatively. The country has many smokers, and it is customary to offer cigarettes in social situations. Religious customs should be respected, particularly during the month of Ramadan when eating, drinking and smoking during daylight hours should be discreet as it is forbidden by the Muslim culture. Foreigners have been expelled in the past for alleged proselytising. The giving and receiving of things, and the eating of food, should only be done with the right hand, as the left is considered unclean. Homosexuality is a criminal offence, and sexual relations outside marriage are also punishable by law.
Business in Morocco has been influenced by France and therefore tends to be conducted formally, with an emphasis on politeness. Dress is formal, and women in particular should dress conservatively. Most business is conducted in French, although some English is spoken. It is best to ascertain beforehand what language the meeting will be in, and arrange an interpreter as needed. Visitors are expected to be punctual, though meetings may not start on time. Moroccans are friendly and enjoy socialising; trust and friendship are an important part of business dealings so be prepared to engage in small talk. A handshake is common when arriving and departing. Women may encounter some sexism in business, although this is starting to change. Most businesses are closed on Fridays, and some are also closed on Thursdays.
The international access code for Morocco is +212. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). City/area codes are in use. Hotels can add a hefty surcharge to their telephone bills so it is best to check before making long international calls. Public wifi is readily available in most major cities and 3G/4G networks offer widespread coverage throughout the country. Therefore, it is advisable that visitors purchase a local sim on arrival.
Travellers to Morocco over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 400g tobacco; 1 litre spirits and 1 litre wine; and perfume up to 5g.
Moroccan National Tourist Office, Rabat: www.visitmorocco.com.
Moroccan Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 462 7979.
Moroccan Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7724 0624.
Moroccan Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 236 7391.
Moroccan Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 343 0230.
Moroccan Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6290 0755.
Moroccan Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 660 9449.
United States Embassy, Rabat: +212 0537 637 200.
British Embassy, Rabat: +212 537 63 3333.
Canadian Embassy, Rabat (also responsible for Australia): +212 537 54 49 49.
Irish Consulate, Casablanca: +212 522 27 27 21.
New Zealand Embassy, Cairo, Egypt: +202-2461-6000.
A ski resort in the desert! Thick snow envelops the Jebal Oukaimeden mountain peak during the winter months (usually January and February), just a 46 mile (74km) drive from Marrakech. The town of Oukaimeden, which can be reached by taxi or car, is well-equipped with the basics for skiers, with restaurants, ski equipment to rent, comfortable hotels set in lush greenery and backed by blue mountains, as well as ski schools for beginners.
Skiers can ascend the mountain by donkey or camel, but there are also some modern ski lifts. Five ski runs traverse down from the dizzying heights of Jebel Attar and there are nursery slopes and some intermediate runs. The ski equipment for rent can be somewhat outdated and visitors should be wary of renting from unofficial shops. At the top of the chair lift young men typically vie for jobs as guides down the mountain and many visitors choose to hire them for at least one run because the routes are difficult to discern.
Oukaimeden is one of the best ski resorts on the African continent, although of course there is not much competition. The resort is tiny and the facilities very basic compared to European equivalents, but there is a lot of fun to be had at Oukaimeden. The resort is notably Moroccan in style and this gives it an eccentric feel for those used to European ski resorts. A lot of development is due to begin at Oukaimeden, which will no doubt make it more typical, and more convenient.
The village of Ouirgane, in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, about 90 minutes' drive from Marrakech, stands at the centre of a popular resort area, where summers are cooler and winters less harsh than those experienced in the city. The surrounding Berber countryside offers picturesque villages and hamlets to explore, set in pine forests full of wildlife and groves of fruit trees, alongside streams cascading down from the High Atlas Mountains and fields of wild flowers. The soil is a striking red, which emphasises the luxuriant greenery and makes the landscapes slightly otherworldly in some lights. The area is also known for its extraordinarily beautiful rose gardens.
The village is mainly just used as a peaceful place to relax, and as a hub for outdoor activities like hiking, mountain-biking and horseriding. There are a few attractions in town, however, including the Tin Mal Mosque, what remains of the somewhat ruined old kasbah, and a small souk (market) every Thursday, which is noted for its traditional Berber pottery. The mild climate is what makes Ouirgane a year-round attraction, the best time to visit the town and surrounding area is between March and May, or between mid-September and December.
The Todra Gorge, a canyon on the eastern side of the High Atlas Mountains, is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular natural attractions that Morocco has to offer. Nature lovers who feel starved in the choked streets of Morocco's cities can simply take the trip to the Todra Gorge (most easily accessed from the town of Tinerhir) where they will be rewarded by the experience of a lifetime. To put the grandeur of the gorge into perspective, consider that over its final 1,950 feet (600m), the canyon narrows to a rocky passage only 33 feet (10m) wide, while the sheer walls rise up 984 feet (300m) on either side.
Sunlight only reaches the bottom of the Todra Gorge, where an ice-cold river flows, for a few hours each morning, and night-time temperatures regularly fall below freezing. Although a place of awesome ruggedness, tourists need not worry about being too far 'off the beaten track' as a well-maintained hiking path runs through the gorge, and there are restaurants and even a hotel situated about halfway along. In fact, those in search of a tranquil wilderness may be disappointed as the gorge's popularity ensures that it is sometimes quite crowded. Climbing is a popular activity in the gorge and several adventure tour operators offer climbing trips and equipment.
Aït Benhaddou is an ancient fortified city (ksar) situated along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech. It is certainly one of the most breathtaking tourist attractions in Morocco. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Aït Benhaddou is not only a place of great historical significant that stands as a record of Maghreb architectural practices, but is so immediately evocative of the most romantic visions of ancient Arabia that visitors are may mistake it for a fanciful mirage.
The buildings, constructed against a mountain and surrounded by steep defensive walls, are all built from moulded earth and clay brick, and the sight of them, ornamented with decorative motifs and appearing blood-red in the evening light, is so stirring that Aït Benhaddou has been featured in numerous Hollywood films (from Lawrence of Arabia to Gladiator). Providing some picture-perfect examples of kasbahs and medinas, no trip to Morocco would be complete without a visit to Aït Benhaddou. The city is most picturesque at sunrise and sunset, so visitors should remember to pack their cameras.
The popular holiday resort town of Essaouira dates from the 18th century and is easily reached by bus from Marrakech. The town is encircled by a fortified wall and faces the sea, featuring a beautiful stretch of beach, some pretty whitewashed houses, boat-builders workshops and art galleries. What makes Essaouira popular is the laid-back holiday atmosphere, and the reliable coastal wind which makes it a perfect place for wind-reliant watersports like kite surfing; although the wind can make sunbathing and swimming more difficult. It is also famed for its woodcarving tradition, particularly due to the appeal of the local fragrant Thuya wood, which ensures that some gorgeous souvenirs can be found.
Other popular activities in Essaouira include horseback riding on the beach, visits to the Argan Woods and Thuya Forests, and excursions to nearby Diabat, which draws tourists mainly on the strength of Jimi Hendrix's presence there many years ago. The harbour of Essaouira is a hive of activity, with stalls and open air seafood restaurants, and is particularly busy during the daily fish auction that attracts as many seagulls as buyers, sellers and onlookers (there is no fish auction on Sundays). The area is thought to have been inhabited since prehistoric times and is dotted with archaeological remains: Mogador Island, just off the coast, boasts the ruins of a Roman villa.
The holiday destination of Agadir, south of Marrakech, is contemporary and fresh, fast developing into Morocco's major resort town. The reason? Agadier's magnificent sandy beaches.
Agadier was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1961 which wiped out most of its historic heritage as an important seaport and centre for caravans traversing the Sahara. The rebuilt city has been modelled as a tourist destination and fishing port, favoured by package tours, particularly as a starting point for excursions into the Western Sahara to the south. Agadir has a lovely promenade along the coast and a vibrant restaurant and café culture tailored towards tourists. The nightlife is also fast developing and the shopping scene shouldn't disappoint.
Conveniently, Agadir is the city in Morocco most tolerant of foreign customs which helps most tourists feel most comfortable, and helps to ease them into the their travels further into the country. The town is conveniently located near popular attractions such as the walled city of Taroudannt and the Massa Lagoon, and contains a number of luxury hotels and excellent golf courses. Agadier makes for either a comfortable start to a Moroccan journey, or useful respite for those who have already seen much of the country already.