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Awash in color, sound, fragrance and energy, Morocco is a feast for the senses. Rich landscapes of mountains, desert and coastline are threaded with mosques, souks, kasbahs and medinas woven with Berber, Arabic and European influence and intrigue. Travel along as we unearth the glimmering stones of this brilliant cultural mosaic.

Moroccan Bazaars – Exchanges of Eternal Energy

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One of the most fascinating elements of Moroccan culture are the souks—traditional outdoor marketplaces packed with merchants, people and goods. An ancient part of Morocco’s history, they continue to thrive in every city and town. Closed to vehicle traffic, souks are made for walking so it’s easy to see all the wares on display and wander at your own pace among the hundreds of shops and stalls. Souks are grouped according to specialty—food, woodwork, metalwork, leather goods, pottery, perfume, soap, fabric, tailoring, clothing and more. Certain cities also specialize in certain crafts such as leather in Fez and silver in Tiznit and Taroudannt. You can find virtually anything in a souk, except perhaps the way out. Getting lost in the labyrinthine souks of Fez and Marrakesh (the country’s largest), is part of the adventure. Bargaining is a way of life here, so expect to haggle for anything you buy.

Riads & Kasbahs – Traditional Places to Stay

The Vanilla Islands

From desert camps to sumptuous palaces, you can live like a Berber (indigenous local) or a sultan (Islamic ruler). For a glimpse of the real Morocco, stay at a riad—a traditional Moroccan house. Marrakesh has hundreds to choose from and Fez is not far behind. Riads are usually small (six rooms or less), clean and loaded with charm. As protection from the intense heat and to ensure family privacy, riads were designed to be inward-focused with front gates, central courtyards and interior gardens. Some of the grander riads feature large opulent rooms, splendid architecture and small plunge pools that reveal the former owner’s success. Similar to B&Bs, most breakfasts are included in the cost and are communal, served on inner patios or rooftop terraces.

Adventurers can try staying in a kasbah—a walled Islamic city or fortress forged out of mud clay. In the past, the Berbers built hundreds of these fortified tribal villages to protect themselves from invaders. Ramparts, parapets, towers and ancient wall carvings create scenes from a Berber fairytale. You can stay in one like Kasbah Tebi along the former Saharan caravan route east of Marrakesh. Upheld by the Aït Ougram family for 300 years, this 11th-century renovated jewel still operates without electricity, so you’re guaranteed to have an authentic Moroccan dinner by candlelight. The family’s wizened donkey will transport your bags across the river.

Chefchaouen – Moroccan Mountain Treasure

The Vanilla Islands

Tucked in a fold against the dramatic Rif Mountain peaks south of Tangier, the quintessential town of Chefchaouen embodies Morocco’s enchanting allure. Spanish-Andalusian exiles fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Reconquest (1095–1492) founded this mountain village in 1471. Its remote location made it a perfect haven and stronghold against invasions. Chefchaouen proudly served as a bastion of tradition and Islam, prohibiting non-Muslims from entry until 1920. Fortunately, anyone can now wander freely past the attractive whitewashed Andalusian-style homes, with their large carved doors and wrought-iron balconies. Topped with red tile roofs and accented with powder blue-tinged walls, the dazzling white medina (old city quarter) sets the stage for visitors to amble narrow alleys and shop for locally made wool clothes, woven blankets, goat cheese and olives. Take a seat at a café on Place Outa al-Hammam—the tree-lined heart of town—and watch people pass as you breathe in fresh mountain air and hear prayer calls emanating from local mosques. If you want to stay over, consider renting an apartment in a fastidiously rebuilt traditional house like Dar el Moualim.

Fez – The Elegant Cultural Crown

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Morocco’s oldest imperial city got its start in the 9th century and rose to greatness in the 13th and 14th centuries as the capital of the Marinid kingdom (1269–1420). Today, Fez still stands as the country’s cultural center. Behind this city’s marvelous tiled gates lies an exquisite medieval marvel of labyrinthine streets, hidden souks, madrassas (Koranic schools), tombs and palaces decorated with bronze works, columns and courtyards. Islamic architectural treasures like the Bou Inania Madrasa feature splendid pieces of calligraphic art, marble, alabaster, glass, wood and onyx. As the largest medieval city in the world, the massive Fez al-Bali medina (old quarter) is a pulsing beehive of intrigue and commerce, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Wandering through the maze of narrow streets is part of the Fez experience. In addition to traditional carpets, yarns and precious metals, you’ll also find stockpiles of leather—the country’s main export. The ancient art of leather tanning and dyeing are a specialty in Fez. Of the city’s 58 tanneries, three are located in the old medina. Still in operation, the 1,000-year-old Chouara Tannery is the largest and is well worth a visit.

If you haven’t booked a local riad, opt for an oasis like the Palais Amani. This exquisite riad invites guests and non-guests to dine in its lovely garden-courtyard restaurant, or take in views of Fez from the rooftop bar. If time allows, seek out Kassr Annoujoum. Out of the pages of 1001 Arabian Nights, this 19th-century residential marvel was built by an aristocratic family and exquisitely renovated by the Italian Ducci Foundation, which promotes cultural exchange. It is now hosts culinary sessions, concerts, art exhibits and more. Inquire via email in advance to get a peek inside this hidden wonder.

Marrakesh – Finding Tranquil Trails in Morocco’s Vibrant Rose

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Coined the “Red City” for its carpet of pink-hued sandstone buildings that sweep across the dry terrain, Marrakesh has bewitched legions of philosophers, scholars, holy men, artists, merchants and kings throughout the centuries. From its roots as an oasis for nomadic Berbers (indigenous locals), the city has witnessed the rise and fall of empires since the 11th century. Positioned on former caravan crossroads in the center of the country, Marrakesh proudly retains its Islamic heritage, but also showcases Berber, Andalusian and French influences. Palaces, mosques, tombs, museums, a madrassa and the rail station all display splendid architecture, while the ancient medina (old Arab quarter) and Djamaa el Fna—the city’s emblematic central square—are great spots to soak people-watch.

Port Louis

Marrakesh can easily overwhelm the senses, but there are many ways to you take respite from its exotic energy. Wander in peaceful gardens like those at the Koutoubia mosque or Jardin Majorelle, the cactus gardens that inspired Yves Saint Laurent and his design artistry (he later purchased Jardin Majorelle as a residence and studio). Have a cool drink or a spa treatment at the landmark La Mamounia hotel or Beldi Country Club. The soothing alcoves and terraces of Dar Cherifa—a literary café and art gallery in a restored riad in the northern medina—provide an aesthetically pleasing background for lunch or a late-night snack. To enjoy the open vistas, play a round on immaculate greens amongst the palms at the new Assoufid Golf Club, or have lunch under the shady pines at the lovely Royal Golf Club—both feature superb views of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains.

Meknes – Imperial Beauty

Eureka Creole Mansion

As former capitals of Moroccan dynasties, the Imperial Cities (Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes and Rabat) all deserve a visit. Positioned between Rabat (the new capital) and Fez (the oldest) in northern Morocco, Meknes reigns as the quieter beauty. Often called the “Versailles of Morocco,” it is the imperial masterpiece of the Alaouite dynasty (1631–present), founded by Sultan Moulay Ismail (reigned 1672–1727), one of Morocco’s most ruthless rulers. Ringed by 25 miles of defensive walls and monumental entry gates, the old city center features a Spanish-Moorish architectural style with a blend of European and Islamic culture. Less traveled than the other Imperial Cities, Meknes is also less crowded and more affordable than the others. You can shop in the souks of the medina (old Arab quarter), which issmaller and less chaotic than its counterpart in Fez. Look for iron-forged articles (a local specialty), household goods, jewelry, traditional Moroccan rugs, bilgha (pointed slippers also called babouches) and more.

From the medina, head to the city’s former royal quarters to see the vestiges of its 17th-century glory. This complex includes several mosques, the amazing Royal Stables that housed 12,000 of the sultan’s prized horses, granaries large enough to store their feed for 20 years, a perfume distillery and Moulay Ismail’s mausoleum—an opulent creation of fountains, courtyards, intricate tilework and fine adornment. To recharge from sightseeing, escape to the Meknes Royal Golf Club. Entirely surrounded by palace walls, the course blossoms with flowers and apricot, olive, mandarin, orange, palm and plum trees. Book ahead to eat on the café terrace and contemplate your next adventure. The splendid Roman ruins of Volubilis (Oualili) lie just 18 miles away. Containing 30 original mosaics, this spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list is worth the drive.

Marrakesh to M’Hamid – Where the Paved Road Ends


The palm grove of M’Hamid is the gateway to the Erg Chegaga dunes in southeastern Morocco. Located on the edge of the Sahara desert, M’Hamid is a small, conservative settlement. Its main attraction is its proximity to the Saharan dunes, which are approx. 24 miles away. Tour companies and most hotels organize sunrise, sunset and overnight camel trips of the area, along with walking, 4-wheel drive (4x4) and quad bike excursions. Ride a camel or 4x4 to a tented desert camp, where guides will attend to meals, activities and evening Berber music under the stars. Lie in vast silence among the dunes observing immense night skies or venture out on foot to witness the incredible sunset and look for desert foxes and a variety of birds.

If you go overland to M’Hamid from Marrakesh (7–8 hours by car), plan for a minimum three-night excursion to see sights like the dramatic Tizi n’Tichka mountain pass along the way. Make a stop at the ancient kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou, a remarkable group of earthen dwellings built on a hillside within a defensive wall. This fantastic fortress served as the setting for movies like Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia and Jesus of Nazareth. Nearby film studios in Ouarzazate often use the site as a stand-in for ancient Jerusalem.

Essaouira – Traditional Morocco Flavored with Sand & Sea

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Europeans flock to Morocco for sun, sea and a dose of exotic culture. From Tangier in the north, you can easily hop over to the warmer Mediterranean waters, while the storied playgrounds of Agadir and Casablanca offer an urban-beach combination on the Atlantic side. For something more traditional, try the smaller enclave of Essaouira, just 2 1/2 hours west of Marrakesh. Although it has recently become a kite-surfing mecca, it hasn’t lost its laid-back, authentic ambience. First established by the Portuguese in the 16th century, this historic town has always attracted artists, including such luminaries as Orson Welles, who filmed Othello here. Wander through Essaouira’s art galleries, shops and jewelry souks, and look for thuya wood handicrafts—a centuries-old local specialty. Stroll on the medina’s cobbled streets past synagogues, mosques and stone ramparts left over from its past as the principal port of the caravan routes. Bask in the late-afternoon glow of the ancient, whitewashed medina walls that form the backdrop of the lively fishing port, or slip through a medina passageway onto Essaouira’s sweeping beach for a glowing sunset.

Port Louis

You can stay at a riad in town or get off the beaten path in nearby Berber villages. Just 15 minutes south, the quiet coastal village of Sidi Kaouki is home to fishermen and shepherds. The temperate microclimate and a vast, unspoiled beach make this a perfect place to relax. Check into Le Douar Des Arganiers, a tranquil eco-riad crafted entirely from traditional Moroccan materials. In addition to providing excellent meals and welcoming hospitality, your hosts can direct you to local treats and organize beach horseback outings, souk explorations or a visit to the nearby women’s cooperative that makes Moroccan argan oil.

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