Top most beautiful places to visit in Morocco
Tangier, Matisse’s mixed-race city
“I’ve set to work and I’m not too dissatisfied…, the light is so soft, it’s quite different from the Mediterranean.” (Henri Matisse, March 1, 1912)
For two consecutive winters (1912 and 1913), the painter Matisse lived in Tangiers. He was in the prime of life at the time, and was seeking to simplify his painting. These two stays helped him, in his own words, to “get back in touch with nature”
Tangier, located in northern Morocco at the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, had long been a haven for many intellectuals and artists: Alexandre Dumas, Truman Capote, Jean Genet, Joseph Kessel, Paul Morand, Tennessee Williams and, of course, Beat Generation writers such as William Burroughs and Paul Bowles…
The oldest city in North Africa, its medina, kasbah and bazaar are among the most popular in the country. A cosmopolitan city, with one foot in the Mediterranean and the other in the Atlantic, it continues to captivate visitors, particularly the international jet-set.
Today, Tangier is still a city of exchange with many faces. Arabic, Berber, Spanish and French are all spoken here. Witness to this multilingualism is its Grand Socco, so wonderfully described by Joseph Kessel in his novel Au Grand Socco. This colorful work was written after the writer had spent two months in the port city two years earlier.
But the man of letters didn’t confine Tangier to its orientalist side; he also knew how to walk along the coast to the grottes d’Hercule and the marabout de Sidi Kacem, vestiges of a bygone era when women bathed naked in the waves.
Chefchaouen, azure Morocco
Perched in the foothills of the Rif at an altitude of 600 m, “Chaouène” as the Moroccans call it, cultivates indolence as an ornament to its beauty. Andalusian to the core, its salt-blue houses have always captured the imagination of watercolorists.
An emblematic figure of Chefchaouen, the painter-photographer Mohamed Hakoun has an unconditional love for his hometown. Trained as an ironmonger, he decided one day to leave everything behind to devote himself body and soul to the town where he grew up. His house, now transformed into a museum, displays thousands of photographs ranging from the first shots taken in the 1920s during the Spanish colonial period to the present day, not forgetting the master’s paintings, of course.
But to experience Chaouen is above all to let yourself be guided by chance encounters along its narrow streets and staircases, in an environment of whitewashed walls in infinite shades of blue, among green plants, ceramics and wrought-iron window grilles. A slightly “timeless” wander that takes you almost unconditionally back to Place Outa-el-Hammam, where the impressive Kasbah stands. The ideal place to sip mint tea on the terrace while unfolding a map before exploring the surrounding area.
There’s no shortage of attractions in the surrounding area either, such as the ras-el-maa spring that supplies the medina with drinking water, the waterfalls and refreshing natural pool in the village of Akchour, “God’s Bridge” (a welcome change from our “Devil’s Bridges”), a 25 m-high natural arch, or the Talassemtane National Park, with its astonishing biodiversity and abundance of hiking trails.
Rabat, the city of princes
Chosen by Lyautey to be the administrative center of the French Protectorate, Rabat still has the image of a wise, cosmopolitan city. With its wide avenues lined here and there with pretty Art Deco buildings, its parks and gardens, Rabat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012 for the homogeneity of its urban fabric, copes in an exemplary way with buildings dating back as far as the 12th century.
In Rabat, each district has retained its own identity. Having preserved, and even enriched, the architectural and decorative elements of earlier dynasties, the city today offers strollers the result of an original and refined syncretism between ancient, Islamic, Andalusian and European cultures.
The Oudaïa kasbah, for example, is a sight to behold! Built at the mouth of the Oued Bou Regreg, this fortress, whose main gate can still be admired today, dates back to the 12th century. It served as a rear base for Yacoub el-Mansour’s armies when they set out to conquer Andalusia.
Much less impressive than Fez or Marrakech, Rabat’s medina, created by the Moriscos (Andalusians expelled from Spain in the 17th c.), is a delightful place to linger. Extended by the Sebt souk and the mellah (Jewish quarter), you finally come to the Rue des Consuls, where, for almost 1 km, you’ll find numerous craft stores selling carpets, pottery, esparto work, basketry, brassware and silver jewelry.
Fez, imperial jewel
A jewel among jewels, Fès is a world unto itself. Heir to Andalusian culture, the imperial city remains one of Morocco‘s most important religious centers. The city has been called “Jerusalem of the West” and “Athens of Africa”, for the erudite Fès leaves no one indifferent.
Some will say that its medina is a veritable labyrinth, with many dead ends. We readily believe them. Others will claim that all it takes is a little common sense and, above all, a good compass to find your way around. Whatever the case, Fez is well worth a visit, whether as a backpacker or as part of a “thousand-and-one-night” plan in a charming riad.
Like many medinas, Fès is divided into drouba (neighborhoods). Each derb has its own mosque and amenities (ablutions fountain, public toilets), medersa (Koranic school), communal oven, clear-water fountain and hammam. All more or less gravitating around the Qaraouiyine, known for housing one of the oldest universities in the world, dating back to the middle of the 9th century! The only problem is that, since Lyautey banned non-Muslims from entering Moroccan mosques, many tourists have had to make do with just glancing outside. The same applies to the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss, patron saint of the city.
Fortunately, apart from its craftsmen’s souks (coppersmiths, tinsmiths, jewelers, boisseliers, leatherworkers, embroiderers, bookbinders, etc.) and its famous tanneries (a feast for the eyes and the nose), Fès abounds in medersas, veritable masterpieces of Merinid art (14th c.), built in pure Hispano-Moorish style.
Fès is also renowned for its ceramics production. Easily recognizable by its dominant cobalt-blue color, although today, boosted by the public’s craze for tableware, more contemporary creations have emerged. The Al Batha Museum exhibits some very fine old pieces.
Ifrane, African Switzerland and its cedar forests
In the heart of what geographers call “Morocco’s water tower”, the cedar forests of the Ifrane region are an unrivalled biotope.
From Ifrane, which Moroccans have been quick to nickname “Moroccan Switzerland” due to the thick blanket of snow that covers the region some winters (Ifrane is, along with Oukaïmeden, one of Morocco’s two major winter sports resorts), a small, winding road winds its way through the cedar forest to the village of ain Leuh.
As well as some fine specimen cedars, some of which can be up to 8 m in circumference, it’s not uncommon to come across a rather facetious guest: the magot monkey. Since the disappearance of the last Atlas lion (in 1921) and the panther (estimated in 1994), this little macaque has proliferated (its population is now estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000 individuals).
Created in 2014, Ifrane National Park is particularly well suited to hiking. Between dense holm oak and cedar forests, springs, caves and high-altitude lakes, the region is also very popular with semi-nomadic shepherds and their flocks. It’s an opportunity for unusual encounters, in a world still untouched by mass tourism.
The Ouzoud waterfalls, or water rediscovered
The Ouzoud waterfalls are one of Morocco’s most spectacular natural sites. At its highest point, the water of the Ouzoud wadi cascades nonchalantly through a century-old olive grove, before suddenly crashing more than 100 m below with a deafening roar (except, of course, at the end of the dry season). It’s a meeting place for city dwellers, who come here for a swim and a family picnic in the hot summer months.
On site, you’ll find a series of small, simple gargotes facing the falls. This is the perfect opportunity to enjoy a good tagine or sip a mint tea before continuing to the foot of the falls, where you’ll find the giant potholes for a dip if you like. Of course, you won’t feel quite at home there in summer, but outside bridges and weekends, the site is still superb.
The lower part of the cascades lends itself to numerous hikes, notably to the Oued el Abid canyon or to the village of Tanaghmelt, with its labyrinth of narrow streets and its zaouïa dating back to the earliest days of Islam in the region. The adventurous backpacker will find no difficulty in finding accommodation in the area, whether camping or staying with local people (ask at the waterfalls).
The Marrakech souk, a certain idea of trade
There are many ways to approach the Marrakech souk. You can go in shorts and a tank top, with a banana strapped to your abdomen, preferably in the middle of the afternoon to make sure you don’t get picked on… Or you can dress like everyone else and get sucked into the flow of bodies that enter the souk at the end of the day, before the penultimate prayer, when the housewives go out to do their shopping.
The souk then takes on two different faces. If you choose the first option, you run the risk of missing out on something, namely an encounter with a thousand-year-old city that you can easily imagine, given the atmosphere, colors and fragrances that still adorn the many stalls that dot its central part.
In the second option, however (our choice, as you’ll have gathered), you have to let yourself be carried along, rely on the chance of an encounter and, like a butterfly, flutter through the stalls in the alleyways, ending up, after the penultimate prayer, on the Place Djemaa el-Fna to sit down to a brochettes-frites, a grilled fish or a bowl of snails for the more adventurous. As you can see, the Marrakech souk is an almost existential experience…
Essaouira, the well-designed
Now famous for the mega-festival of Gnaoua music it hosts every June, Essaouira is a city apart. Exactly halfway between haha (Berber) and chiadma (Arab) country, the town has always cultivated its mixed-race character, so much so that, in the 1970s, many hippies settled here.
Today, Essaouira, which has benefited from a facelift in recent years, has lost none of its soul. It still offers the authentic traveler its souk, with its gentle blend of sea spray and cedar wood aromas, its medina (a UNESCO World Heritage site) with its lively alleyways and its powerful ramparts, which give it the air of a Cherifian Saint-Malo.
Capital of the wind, the former Mogador (its old name in Portuguese) is also a must for board sports enthusiasts. While the cool, windy summer is particularly popular for windsurfing and kitesurfing, the mild, windless winter is more suited to surfing. The off-season (April-May and October-November) is the best time to take full advantage of this exceptional city, with its many fondouks (merchant’s warehouse-houses) built in the 18th century and now transformed into hotels or guesthouses.
Last but not least, Essaouira is also an ideal base for exploring the hinterland, where a number of associations are promoting a return to sustainable tourism, including visits to country souks (such as Ida Ougourd) and traditional oil mills.
The geological mysteries of the upper Dades valley
As you travel up the extraordinarily beautiful valley from Boumalen-du-Dades towards Msemrir and the Imilchil plateau, a few kilometers before the bridge that invites you to change banks, you’ll come across some highly original geological formations. Locals call them “monkey fingers”. In fact, they are conglomerates that erosion has sculpted over the centuries.
In this imbroglio of crimson rock, sometimes tinged with violet, majestic earthen kasbahs have sprung up, witness to a time when sedentary people had to protect their crops from the onslaught of desert raiders.
Today, the upper Dades valley is an ideal holiday destination for both the contemplative (many painters come here to sketch the landscapes) and the sporty. Delightful inns, furnished in the local style, invite travelers to put down their bags for several days, or organize a day trip with a local guide to meet the nomadic tribes who graze their herds on the igoudlane (regulated mountain pastures) perched on the heights.
This colorful discovery of Berber country is particularly well-suited to families, as the upper Dades valley, camped at an altitude of 1,700 m, remains quite cool even in midsummer, when the mercury flirts with 45 degrees in Ouarzazate.
Ait Ben-Haddou, a real movie set
With its red hue standing out against the azure sky, the ksar of Aït Ben-Haddou has long been one of Morocco’s most popular postcards. If you can believe it, it’s still hanging in the corner of Grandma’s scullery! This adobe masterpiece, a Unesco World Heritage site, is no stranger to the limelight! From Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to the Game of Thrones series (2013), not forgetting The Diamond of the Nile, Tea in the Sahara, Gladiator and Alexander, the red dust of the ksar has colored the Hollywood elite!
This former stopover on the caravan route from the desert to Marrakech is a real gem of inventiveness. This conglomeration of dwellings, some of which date back to the 17th century, is encircled by walls reinforced by corner towers and pierced by a chicane gateway, making it hard to hide its defensive vocation! Inside, you’ll find a highly sophisticated social organization based on the need to process and store cereals, and as such, it’s undoubtedly the site offering one of the most complete panoramas of adobe construction and decoration techniques of any pre-Saharan region.
Today, of course, it is home to a number of traditional kasbahs that have been converted into guest houses. Ideally, you should arrive at the end of the day and spend at least one night there, to experience the magic of waking up “au bled”: roosters crowing, goats trilling as they head out to pasture, hot bread soaked in oil, rancid butter, cow-qui-rit and mint tea. Almost a journey of initiation!
The Toubkal: a 4,000-mile climb in couscous country
Morocco is truly a multi-faceted country. You can be purring along with your sweetie, lounging in the shade of a palm grove surrounding the pool of a luxury Marrakech hotel one day, and climbing Jebel Toubkal in the cold and sleet the next!
But let’s not oversimplify things. While hikes to the small Berber villages around Marrakech are more or less within everyone’s grasp, climbing Toubkal remains a high-mountain experience, with all the physical preparation that this type of ascent requires to enjoy it to the full. In short, it’s best to be in good physical condition, and climbing in flip-flops is out of the question!
The ascent of Morocco’s highest peak always begins in Imlil, some 60 km south of Marrakech. It’s in this Berber village, perched at an altitude of 1,740 m, that you’ll find mountain guides worthy of the name to accompany you. The first night is usually spent here. It’s an opportunity to meet your guide and top up your equipment if necessary.
It’s also a good opportunity to warm up before embarking on the first stage of the ascent to one of the two refuges located on the “home stretch” to the summit: the Toubkal refuge, the most popular, with Spartan but adequate comfort, or the more comfortable but also more expensive Mouflons refuge. Both have to be booked in advance.
Then comes the long-awaited day. We wake up just before 4 a.m., have a good breakfast to settle our stomachs, and set off in single file in the dark to shake off the rust. After 4 hours, we usually reach the summit. A few well-chosen selfies. Then comes the hard part: the descent! It takes a good 8 hours to get back down to Imlil before nightfall, but not before stopping off at the refuge to recharge your batteries!