Morocco is intoxicatingly exotic. Desert fortresses rise up from the Sahara. Turquoise waters lap at white sand beaches. Majestic peaks glitter with snow, and labyrinthine marketplaces twist through ancient city streets. It’s no wonder 15 million people trek to this North African nation every year. Experience all this breathtaking country has to offer yourself using our insider guide to Morocco to plan the perfect adventure.
Located in the western portion of North Africa, Morocco is bounded by the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean on the north and west. Spain lies on the other side of the Straight of Gibralter. Algeria is to the east and Mauritania is due south. It’s a large country, roughly the size of California.
Some 34 million people live in Morocco. Given the country’s location, the culture is influenced by many ethnicities, including Berber, Arab, West African and European. Morocco has traditionally experienced more independence than its neighbors in North Africa. Today, the country is governed by a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament.
Arabic is the official language of Morocco, but several other languages are spoken widely. Most Moroccans speak French, which is also the language used in government, business and diplomacy. You’ll also find a good number of Spanish speakers, especially in the north. Berber, an indigenous language, is spoken in the mountains. Fortunately for North America travelers , many Moroccans speak English, especially those who work in the service industry in larger cities. If you do want to learn some Arabic before your trip, make sure it’s Moroccan Arabic so you can understand native speakers.
Money and Tipping
The official currency of Morocco is the Dirham (Dh). it’s a restricted currency, meaning it can’t be taken out of the country and you can’t get it in advance of your trip. ATMs are widely available, even in small towns, but credit cards aren’t widely accepted. Midrange hotels and nice restaurants are more likely to accept credit cards. Use ATMs to get local currency; avoid street vendors who offer to exchange money as scams are common.
Haggling is a significant part of Moroccan culture. Merchants and shopkeepers expect you to negotiate a price. You may also be able to negotiate prices at riads or guesthouses. Tipping is also expected for services rendered in Morocco. Freely offering some dirham to porters, baggage handlers, servers and car park attendants will make your life much easier.
Culture and Etiquette
Morocco is quite tolerant compared to other majority Muslim nations, but you should be aware of some customs.
- Keep greetings formal.
- After you shake someone’s hand, lightly touch your heart with your right hand.
- Men should wait for a Moroccan woman to offer her hand before attempting to shake it.
- Both genders should keep shoulders covered and it’s a good idea to wear pants that come below the knee, especially outside of large cities.
- The left hand is considered unclean. Don’t eat using your left hand, especially if you’re dining from a communal dish like a tajine.
Food and Meals
You’ll probably eat a lot of couscous and tagine while in Morocco, but the cuisine offers much broader flavor profiles and variety. Fresh vegetable salads, slow-roasted meats, fresh fruits and flaky pastries flavored with orange water will tempt your palate. Meal times will probably vary somewhat from an American schedule. Al-ftour or breakfast is usually not served until after 9 a.m. and it’s usually very carb heavy. Lunch, or El-Ghda, is the largest meal of the day followed by a nap during the heat of the day. Many shops are closed from noon until around 4 p.m. If you get snacky, hit up a snak, or a street vendor serving lighter fare. L’Asha, or dinner, doesn’t start until after 8 p.m. Moroccans usually eat at home, but restaurants cater to tourists and usually put on elaborate evening meals complete with lavish food, belly dancers and live music.
When to Go
Spring and autumn are the most popular times to visit Morocco. You may need to book accommodations several months in advance if you’re planning to go during April, May, September or October. Christmas and Easter are also extremely busy, and popular riads may book six months out. March and late October and November offer good off-peak travel times when travel is less expensive and accommodations more readily available. January and February are usually quite cool and rainy with snow in the higher elevations.
Adventure and Exploration
For this insider guide to Morocco, we’ve divided the country into six regions to give you an idea of all the country has to offer.
Morocco’s oldest and most vibrant city, Marrakech is an eclectic city. In Jemaa el-Fnaa square, you’ll find thousands of people eating, shopping, getting henna tattoos and watching snake charmers and magicians. It’s busy, hectic and one of the best places in the world for people watching. While there, see the Bahia Palace, visit the Jardin Majorelle and see the Saadian Tombs.
The peaks of the Atlas Mountains separates Marrakech from the arid lands to the south. The mountains top 13,000 feet and remain snow covered in winter and spring. Numerous hiking paths and friendly Berber villages wait to be explored. Just remember that distances are usually measured in days, not miles. Skiing and mountain climbing are also popular with many visitors basing themselves in Imlil, where you can scale Toubkal, the highest peak in Morocco.
Essaouira and the Atlantic Coast
After spending time in the hot, dry desert, cool off by the glistening waters of the Atlantic Ocean. There are a handful of resorts along the 1,800 miles of coastline, but for the most part, the beaches are pristine. Spend time surfing or soaking up the sun. Visit Essaouira, a fishing port that was a favorite haunt of Jimi Hendrix, Orson Wells and Cat Stevens. You can see canons atop its ancient walls; inside, you’ll find whitewashed houses with blue shutters, appealing souks and lively town squares. Look out over the colorful boats in the harbor, bringing in the day’s catch.
Fes, sometimes spelled Fez, is the spiritual center of the country with some of the finest mosques and Islamic schools on the African continent. The medina in old Fes is much grittier than its counterpart in Marrakech. The bewildering maze of alleyways in the walled medina will leave you lost, the best of ways. Also make time to see the Royal Palace and Jewish quarter in the Fès el-Jdid district.
Tangier and the North
Directly across the Straight of Gibralter from Spain, Tangier has captured the imaginations of writers, poets and songwriters for generations. Somewhat derelict for decades, Tangier is experiencing a comeback. Wide beaches, thriving cafe culture, artisanal handicrafts and art deco facades continue to draw curious visitors. To the west of Tangier, see the Les Grottes d’Hercule, a pair of caverns along the ocean that offer a glimpse into the meeting of two continents.
On the other side of the Atlas Mountains, Morocco opens into the Sahara Desert. Visit Ait Benhaddou, a well preserved kasbah town that was featured in the film Lawrence of Arabia. See shifting sand dunes called Ergs well south of the Atlas Mountains. The area around the dunes are home to nomadic Berbers and Bedouin Arabs who are accustomed to visits from tourists who camp or stay in guest quarters.
Morocco is a feast for the senses that deserves to be on your bucket list. Our insider guide to Morocco is the best place to start planning an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life.