Steeped in rich history and marked by exotic colors, culture, and cuisine, Morocco, the Kingdom of Light, is a hidden gem when it comes to vacation planning, and is located on the western coast of the African continent. Morocco is the best of both worlds, with the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean lining its coasts and the Sahara Desert along its border. Whether you come to this far country for sand or sea, you will not be disappointed to find both right at your doorstep.
Just a few short miles across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain, Morocco has a population of over 37 million people. Everywhere you look there is a feast for the eyes, from fortress cities built atop ocean cliffs and steep mountain sides, to bright and lively marketplaces which sell pottery, textiles, spices, and so much more. Colors of all shades abound in Morocco, and the local populace is not afraid of showing them off, as buildings, steps, walkways, and streets are whimsically painted in various hues, which seems to transport you into another world altogether.
Let’s take a look at this beautiful and breathtaking location while considering Morocco for that long-overdue dream vacation.
To give a perspective of size, Morocco is a little bigger than the state of California. Two mountain ranges run throughout the country, the Atlas Mountains and the Rif Mountains. The Rif Mountains run along Morocco’s northern coast, buffering the country along the Mediterranean coast, while the Atlas Mountains run through the center of the country, separating its coasts in the northwest from the desert in the southeast.
In antiquity, Morocco belonged to the Roman Empire and then in the 7th century was conquered by Arabs during the Arab conquest. Soon after, the country adopted Islam which is reflected in Morocco’s jaw-dropping mosaics, textiles, artwork, and architecture. By 1912, Morocco was made a French protectorate, however in 1956, the country won its independence from France. Morocco remains the only monarchy in the whole of North Africa, with King Mohammad VI as the current reigning monarch.
Morocco is also home to the Berbers, an indigenous people of Northern Africa who almost exclusively live within the country, although a few pockets of Berbers live in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya as well. Along with their own language, they have their own lifestyle, and make up about 20 million people of Morocco’s overall population.
The main exports of Morocco include dates and olives, along with other agricultural goods, along with argan oil and sardines from the coastal regions.
The national drink is mint tea, so be sure to drink some during your stay. Morocco is also home to quite a few snake charmers. If you’re in the mood for something a little odd, yet also oddly fascinating, you might want to find a few on your travels and watch as they handle the poisonous reptiles with ease.
Casablanca - Who can forget this iconic city and the famous 1942 black and white Hollywood movie (starring Humphrey Bogart) which shares the same name? Despite its on-screen reputation as a city of sin, Casablanca is actually one of the country’s most bustling and modern cities. It prides itself on being Morocco’s economic capital, as well as a city that adapts and changes with the times. Casablanca has a thriving business sector and a middle class population which gives a Western flavor to the city. Architecture in Casablanca consists of local craftsmanship, but also employs a distinct flair for Parisian art deco. If you’re ever in Morocco, you won’t want to miss this famous city.
Tangier - Tangier is one of the most beloved cities in all of Morocco and attracts artisans of all kinds to its shores. This city is located only nine miles away from Spain on the coast of the Strait of Gibraltar, the northernmost tip of Morocco. Tangier has been the home of several famous people, including Jack Kerouac, Henri Matisse, and even the members of the Rolling Stones for a time. Due to its location, Tangier has been a central hub for trading routes coming in and out of Africa and Europe alike for thousands of years. For a city seemingly older than time itself, with an eclectic vibe and artistic scene, check out Tangier on the northern Moroccan coast.
Fez - Fez isn’t merely one of the oldest cities in Morocco, it is one of the oldest in all of North Africa. This city used to be the Moroccan capital and is believed to be the site of the oldest university in the world—outside of Medina and Mecca, that is. All kinds of cultures converge in Fez, from Berber to Arab, as well as refugees from Tunisia and Spain. Fez is also home to the Old City of El Bali, where streets are painted gold and mosques and marketplaces abound. The artisans who sell their wares in El Bali have handed down their secrets for generations, which makes these crafts quite similar to those sold in El Bali over the last thousand years. For the art lover and the history buff, Fez is where you want to be.
Chefchaouen - Chefchaouen, Morocco’s famous Blue City, is situated high within the peaks of the Rif Mountains. Every structure and wall within Chefchaouen is painted blue, a tradition believed to have begun by Jews who settled in the region after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. In Jewish culture, blue represents the color of divinity as it is the color of the sea and the sky. Or perhaps, according to a few locals, the color repels mosquitoes. Whatever the reason, Chefchaouen is breathtaking and almost surreal to behold, as quite literally, every single surface and structure in the city is some shade of blue. Several locals of Chefchaouen speak Spanish, which is an anomaly within Morocco, as most of the country speaks Arabic and French. Even though this city is small, its reputation for being completely blue is known the world over. In order to keep its reputation intact, any new structure built is promptly painted blue.
Marrakech - Along with Morocco’s Blue City, there is also a Red City, the city of Marrakech. This city got its name from the reddish-pink clay used to build the structures, walls, and various streets in the 12th century. The red color here is not necessarily due to paint, however tourists love to come and see the wonder of the Red City for themselves. Marrakech is at the foot of the Atlas Mountains and most well known for its medieval medina. The streets of Marrakech twist this way and that in a historical labyrinth protected by UNESCO. Tourists often get lost in the Red City, but that is sometimes part of the draw and charm of this old-world gem.
Agadir - Agadir is the city most visited in southern Morocco. Here, you’ll enjoy sandy beaches along the Atlantic coast and the streets lined with palm trees all throughout the city. Of all the cities in Morocco, Agadir most definitely has a Western flair, considering its many beachfront bars and the amount of European tourists who retreat south during colder months. If you wish to relax on your vacation to Morocco, Agadir is the place to be, whether walking the beaches, pursuing the markets, or looking out upon the beautiful skyline from the ruins of the Agadir Kasbah. In Agadir, you can even go for a camel ride.
Meknes - Small, but mighty, Meknes used to be the seat of power of Morocco during the rule of Sultan Moulay Ismail from 1672–1727, a man whom some would say had delusions of grandeur and absolute power and authority. During his reign, Moulay built several walls and fortifications around the city that are still standing today. Two of its main draws for tourists are the towering Bab Mansour gate and the stunning mausoleum of the sultan himself, both overlaid with colorful, intricate, and absolutely stunning mosaics. If you want to visit a part of Morocco that is not necessarily on the beaten path, definitely consider Meknes.
Moroccan cuisine is unlike any other cuisine in the world. Signature dishes have arisen out of the melting pot that is Moroccan culture, from Jewish tradition, to Arab-Andalusian, to Berber. Due to these fantastic flavor combinations, made possible by Morocco’s rich spice trade, this Kingdom’s reputation for gastronomy is known throughout the world. Some of these dishes include couscous, pastilla, r’fissa, mrouzia, and tajine.
Pastries are also fantastic in Morocco, with offerings such as Ghibra, Briouates with honey, and Gazelle horns, which will make your mouth water at the first whiff of their delights. Spices abound, including saffron, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, among others, and can be found in markets all over the medinas. These aren’t only used for cooking, however, as these fragrant spices are also utilized for therapeutic purposes.
Amlou, Morocco’a answer to nutella and a sweet delight of the city of Agadir, might also tickle your fancy. It is a mixture of almonds, argan oil, and honey, deliciously spread on just about anything. Agadir is world-renowned for its honey, so be sure to taste test these treats for yourself.
If you’re more into savory foods, check out the northern and central regions of Morocco, where you’ll find khlii, a spicy dried meat from Fez and a salty butter known as smen from both the Middle East and North Africa.
By the afternoon, you might enjoy a meal of couscous or tajine with family and friends. Be sure never to miss the afternoon teatime, as tea, especially Morocco’s famous mint tea, is the jewel of the Kingdom.
If you want to experience one of the greatest wonders of the culinary world, travel to Marrakech and visit the marketplace square known as Jemaa el-Fna at night. Once the sun goes down, the entire square becomes one enormous open-air restaurant, and is not to be missed, not only for the wonder of the sight itself, but for the fantastically delicious food. In 2019, TripAdvisor ranked this open-air restaurant as 9th best world destination, which shockingly beat out the well-known culinary titans of New York and Dubai.
What to Do in Morocco
Morocco is a country with a variety of things to do and see considering its location between the desert and the sea. If you love lounging on warm beaches, you have your choice of the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea, with waters so clear you won’t believe your eyes. Moroccan beaches offer waves, lagoons, red cliffs, and surfing of all kinds. You’ll definitely find rest and relaxation here.
If you’re a nature buff and you want to explore the rich landscape, Morocco is a wondrous place, full of lush oases, green valleys, snowy mountains, and decadent waterfalls. Cliffs and red sands also abound, giving travelers a glimpse into the lives of desert nomads on caravans of old. If the great golden dunes of the Sahara are a draw for you, southeast Morocco is the perfect destination. From here, you will look out upon the vast sea of sand in awe of nature’s starkness and beauty.
If your heart is set on shopping, marketplaces all over Morocco will delight and entertain you for hours. Walk through the bustling and busy stalls selling all kinds of wares, from intricate tea pots wrought in brass and silver to glorious carpets in all sizes and colors. Perhaps you’re looking for that one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry to pass down within your family or a unique musical instrument hand crafted from the wood of the region. Metalworks and glassworks are also everywhere you look, and there is no shortage of dishes, bowls, and other crockery hand painted with delicate designs.
One of the biggest draws of the Moroccan marketplace would have to be the mountains of spices and the sweet and pungent scents rising up in the air. It is a distinct aroma, to be sure, a heady mixture of cumin, cinnamon, coriander, saffron, and much more. These spices are displayed openly in handmade baskets, buckets, or bowls, and are available in abundance to purchase as much or as little as you like. Don’t forget to purchase one of the must-have staples of Morocco: argan oil.
Your Desert Adventure
Morocco is an eclectic mix of history and modern times, of rich culture and even richer food. The draw of Morocco is its exotic flair while also keeping an air of the West along its coasts. For anyone who appreciates the arts, Morocco is the perfect place to explore the works of local craftsmen as well as ancient mosaics and architecture. There’s even something for the whimsical at heart as well, with the jaw-dropping array of its Red and Blue Cities, its enormous open air restaurants, and its marketplaces reminiscent of Aladdin's Agrabah.
A visit to the desert is merely hours away from the beach and if you’d like a short hop to Spain, you can do that too, as Europe is a few miles across the Strait of Gibraltar. Take a Mediterranean cruise, try new and exciting Moroccan cuisine, and step out of your comfort zone to explore the medinas within each city you visit.
While you’re here, learn of the Berbers, the Arabs, and the Jews who settled in the region, and how their varied traditions melded over time into a storied culture that’s distinctly all Morocco’s own. Rustic and romantic, historic yet contemporary, Morocco is a complex amalgam that not only tantalizes the senses, but the intellect and the imagination as well.
Morocco is more than another country to visit overseas, it is an experience in and of itself. The atmosphere alone is worthy of your bucket list as it is unlike anything you’ve ever known. The sights, the sounds, and most certainly the smells of Morocco are one of a kind, and you’ll carry memories of your Moroccan vacation with you for the rest of your life.