First, a story. (If you want to skip ahead to the nitty-gritty of the guide, scroll down.)
We’re meandering around the dusty streets of Marrakech, looking for a palace. It’s our second full day in the city, the start of our week-long trip north through Morocco. Though only 48-some hours had passed since our arrival, we were already starting to get acclimated to the inevitable culture clash — namely, motorbikes weaving around groups of pedestrians on streets no wider than two people standing side-by-side with their arms stretched out. My only frustration is my defensiveness.
“Watch out for pickpockets!”
“Don’t listen to people who try to give you directions!”
“Don’t look lost!”
“Don’t follow anyone who tries to escort you!”
The warnings felt relentless and I’m starting to wonder if they were really that necessary. Yes, there was the occasional, unsolicited direction. “Wrong way. Souks that way.” But surely not everyone was trying to take advantage of us. Did I really need to be so terse, so closed off?
It’s been long enough that we start second guessing where we’re walking. The palace is nowhere to be found and there hasn’t been a sign in a while. We’re obviously the only tourists around on a quiet road when we walk by a Moroccan man, perhaps in his early 20s.
“Hello. Are you looking for someplace?’
I’m tired of shutting people down, thinking everyone is trying to rip me off because of what the casual advice might be. I’m a guest in their country and I want to treat them with the respect they deserve as I would in Europe or the Americas. So instead of resorting to the usual, “We’re fine, thanks, ” and speed-walking away, I tell him we’re looking for a palace.
“It’s back that way,” he says, pointing where we had just come from. I thank him, he smiles and keeps going. We turn and start walking in the same direction, per his directions. A couple minutes later, he turns back again. “I can show you the way if you want.”
Before I can even question if he’s trying to play us, he tells us, “No charge. I promise.” He’s met an apprehensive tourist before.
So we follow him, through the narrow streets of the Jewish Quarter and he shares a bit of his story. He studied French, English, and even a bit of Spanish in school. He comes to Marrakech every day for work but lives in a village near the Atlas Mountains some 90 minutes away. He seems to take pride in sharing a story of peaceful coexistence among Jews, Christians, and the dominant Muslims as we continue through the maze. Eventually, he invites us for tea, which happens to be near the palace. We agree, sensing that a swindle might be on the horizon, but he anticipates our hesitation again. “No charge.”
Even if there was, I don’t think I’d care. I’m already seeing more of local life than I had the past 48 hours by following his lead. A tea is certainly worth the price of admission.
We arrive at the shop and have a seat. He speaks in Arabic to the shop owner and tea is quickly prepared. The owner speaks to us in perfect English, having spent some time living in the States.
“Where in the States are you from?” he asks.
“Cleveland, Ohio,” we respond.
“Ah, yes. Cleveland.”
“You know Cleveland?”
“Of course! I study history.’
I’m too surprised that he so confidently knows of Cleveland to bother understanding what his studying of history had to do with it.
About a half-hour passes by and we take turns sharing stories about our lives in the States and Germany and theirs in Morocco. We try several types of tea and he gives us a gift of “Moroccan lipstick.” In the end, we ask if we could purchase some tea.
“Of course you can!”
Yes, we had been buttered up and slightly swindled to make a sale. But it doesn’t bother me in the slightest because they did it the Moroccan way. They didn’t ask us what we wanted or jump right into a discussion of a potential transaction, but they made an experience out of it. Perhaps we were just another pair of tourists they pulled a fast one on, but it was worth every last dirham.
Morocco Travel Guide — Off The Beaten Path
Where to Stay in Marrakech
First thing’s first — the Riad Star. Riads are all around Morocco and they’re basically old homes with a courtyard, often converted into hotels. I first came across the Riad Star through my co-host at Beyond Borders (who we then featured on the show) and was happy to take them up on their offer to visit. Most riads, it seems, are going to be aesthetically gorgeous and serve delicious, home-cooked cuisine. The Riad Star certainly did that, serving up a tangine (traditional Moroccan stew with couscous, vegetables, and meat) that I can still taste when I close my eyes. But the Riad Star excels in a couple other areas, too. First, the history. Josephine Baker evidently stayed in this building while recovering from surgery. She’d give children sweets outside her window for reading her lines of the Koran to occupy her during the recovery. She was also a philanthropic force in the area, a deed that hasn’t gone forgotten. The room we stayed in was believed to be where she stayed because it’s the only one with a window facing outside.
Second, they make traveling Marrakech easy. You’re bound to be overwhelmed by Morocco at first no matter where you come from, especially so in Marrakech where motorbikes have just as much right to the streets as pedestrians (not the case in Fez or Tangier, as we’ll discuss in a bit). For starters, they arrange a pickup at the airport and escort you into the medina so you can easily find the riad. But it’s their MarrakechRiad app that truly sets them apart. The app is a pet project of the property’s founders, making it much easier (never truly easy) to navigate Marrakech with main points of interests, restaurants, and museums, all saved into the app so you can navigate without using data. Besides making it easier for travelers, they were also motivated by encouraging young boys to stop trying to score money off of tourists with an impromptu tour and to get back in school.
Disclosure: The Riad Star hosted my wife and me for one of our three nights there. All opinions are my own.
Things to do in Marrakech
The highlight of Marrakech is the souks — narrow passageways lined with shops selling everything from art and jewelry to carpets and pottery. This is why people come to Marrakech. They want to get lost in the souks, in the chaos, in the smells, in the sounds, and to get their asses handed to them by a professional haggler. You need at least one full day in Marrakech to properly enjoy the souks without worrying about getting some place on time.
Eventually, the souks pour out to Jemaa el-Fnaa, a large square covered with hagglers, street performers, snake charmers, and a few men with monkies on a leash, ready to perform for silly tourists looking for a photo. When people say Marrakech is like a movie, this is one of the scenes they’re talking about. If the animal performances or constant calls asking if you want to buy something bother you, you can always charge further south down the pedestrian boulevard to the Royal and El Badi palaces.
A real surprise was the gardens surrounding the Koutoubia Mosque. The mosque is the largest in Marrakech and is noted as a thing to do in Marrakech even though non-Muslims cannot go inside. But surrounding the mosque is a lovely manicured park with oranges growing on the trees. Here you see why Marrakech used to be considered one of the greenest cities of Morocco.
The Secret Garden
One of the first places we ended up at was the Le Jardin Secret. It was a bit serendipitous, our original intention being to dip in for a break from getting lost. But it’s more than an excuse to get out of the crowds. It’s quite literally a breath of fresh air, serene, and perhaps best of all at that moment, quiet. You can walk around the gardens, admire the traditional, Islamic architecture, and take in more rooftop views of the city.
Museum of Marrakech
The Museum of Marrakech is another short walk from the riad and recommendable for a quick visit if only for the art that was being highlighted at the time of my visit. They were oil portraits of mostly Moroccan faces, but the one foreigner I could spot happened to be a personal creative favorite of mine, Charlie Chaplin, complete with some of the lyrics from “Smile” scrawled onto the canvas. That happy coincidence aside, it was the first time I understood the call some people experience to purchase expensive pieces of art.
I read another blog post insisting that there aren’t any good restaurants in Morocco. Only the riads are serving up good food because the kitchen staff cook like they would at home. I do think there’s truth in that the riads tend to offer the best meals, but there are plenty of great Moroccan restaurants to be found and that’s certainly the case in Marrakech.
Splurge on your nice meal at Le Fondouk, just around the corner from the Riad Star. They’re celebrated for their rooftop view of the city, but the atmospheric interior more than suffices if it’s too chilly for outdoor dining. The cuisine is basically what you’re going to get at a riad, right down to the Tangia Marrakchia — a local Marrakech-take on the tangine with savory lamb dripping off the bone. You can also get some harira, a Moroccan lentil soup that I highly recommend. If you’re one to imbibe and the thought of significant travel in a mostly dry country gives you the shakes — fear not. A wine menu is available, though prices are going to be pricier than you might be used to.
For lunch, we went to Café de France on the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa. It felt a bit touristy, but the food was fine and you could get a nice overhead view of the square without having to be in the middle of it. Another option in the heart of the souks is the Earth Café. (You might see their signs around the souks.) Another solid dinner option will take you to Le Jardin where you can change things up from the tangine and instead go for one of the pastillas — a pastry pie thinly wrapped with veggies or your choice of meat (perhaps pigeon?) inside.
If you want to save money, you can always dive back into the souks and look for street food. We enjoyed what we intended to be a snack before dinner with a street food vendor selling omelette sandwiches (dashed with a bit of spice) for about five dirhams a pop. Neither of us could believe how tasty it was. In true Moroccan fashion, the vendor tried to give them to us for free, as a cadeau or gift, because we supposedly were not “tourists” by coming to his stand. (My limited French could understand him complaining about certain parts of town hoarding the tourist money for themselves.) He pulled out two plastic seats for us so we could enjoy our sandwich seated (but we wondered if we were simultaneously serving as billboards for other tourists). Was it the best meal we had in Marrakech? Probably not, but it was the best meal we could have in that moment.
Where to Stay in Fez
The Riad Tahra & Spa was our base for a couple of days, just a few minutes walk over to Bab Boujloud — a blue gate that serves as an easy marker for otherwise oblivious travelers. Like at the Riad Star, we spent our first night dining in. Again, delicious food in an enchanting courtyard environment complete with the traditional mint tea welcoming.
Things to do in Fez
Tombeaux Des Mérinides
We started off our first morning with a walk up to the tombs where the guardians of the riad told us is a popular view of Fez. Not many people appear to do the walk with only a couple passersby during the entire jaunt over (just over a mile) to the tombs. I imagined it’d be a pretty miserable walk in the summer with no shade, but in February, it was a perfectly comfortable walk. We even managed a little sweat, walking up the set of concrete stairs that appear off the sidewalk to make the final ascent up to the tombs. At the top, a couple of police officers shot the breeze and another man was trying to sell hats or carpets he said were made by his wife.
The view of Fez can be a bit blinding in the morning hours because it sits right under the sun. The guardians did warn us that it’s especially popular during the sunset — and I could see why. Still, the morning gives a better view of the relatively untamed landscape behind the tombs and the view of the city is only marred if you planned on getting a shot with your camera.
For whatever reason, we were determined to find the tanneries on our own without signing up for a tour. What we didn’t know beforehand is that you have to go into one of the businesses to get onto the rooftops for a view of the tanneries. Nor did we realize just how difficult it would be to even find the street, which is admittedly quite silly after having had a taste of the Moroccan medina in Marrakech.
I still think you can get by without a tour, but don’t be in a rush, and look specifically for Rue Chouara. (Chouara is the name of the most famous tannery dating back to the 11th century.) Here you’ll find the businesses with men asking if you’d like to see the tanneries. My mistake was assuming they were asking us to sign up for a tour. Really, they just wanted us to go into their shop, to the roof, see the tanneries, and then have a look around their shop. No cost and no pressure to buy. When you agree to go in, they’ll give you some mint tea leaves for you to smell whenever the scent of the tanneries gets to be a bit much. (That smell, we were told, is actually bird poop — not the leather-making process.) You’ll get some history, they’ll answer questions, and then they might ask if you’d like to have a look at their store. If not, there’s really no pressure to pay, but do so if you enjoyed yourself.
Garden Jnan sbil
Walking in the Moroccan medinas, you might think there’s a serious lack of green space in the cities. While the medinas are certainly incredibly dense, fresh air can always be found outside of the medinas — particularly at the local gardens. In Fez, it’s Jnan sbil — another short walk from Riad Tahra & Spa. Arriving at the free, public grounds, I was pleased to find an overwhelming local crowd. Moroccan men and women were sitting around the water, chatting, or simply cutting through. Others on the younger side appeared to be on a class trip of sorts. As we walked around one group playing, a little girl ran up to us and said, “Bonjour!” She continued, asking where we were from before ending our brief exchange with a toothy smile. “Bienvenue au Maroc!” As adorable as she was, a cynical person might wonder if she were sent over by the local tourist board.
The Jewish Quarter
After Garden Jnan sbil, we continued south to the Jewish neighborhood and to have a look at Porte Palais Royale. It’s interesting to get an even better taste of local life since it didn’t appear that many tourists went this way. The streets were full of vendors, selling mostly clothes but some produce as well. Since tourists were fewer and further between (I think I counted less than five during all of our walking in the area), vendors were not at all aggressive about asking you to buy something as they were in the souks. It made me wonder how one makes the decision of presumably spending more to set up a stand in the more competitive but possibly more lucrative souks versus taking it easy with locals only in the Jewish Quarter.
Outside of the riad, we ate at Cafe Clock where they offered seating on several floors. We ate on the rooftop for fresh air and a view, but the floor beneath featured live music that we were a bit bummed to miss out on. The food, per usual at this point for Morocco, was delicious. You can get the usual Moroccan staples here of harira, tangines, and other tempting dishes. A personal highlight of Fez eating, though, was the street food. For dinner one night, wanting to save money, we opted to head back into the souks near Bab Boujloud. We found one stall with quite literally a hole in the wall that was outfitted with a television playing soccer and picnic-style benches for a few people to have a seat. The batch of locals eating there intrigued us, so we ordered two chicken sandwiches. Like the omelette sandwich in Marrakech, neither of us could believe how good this simple-looking concoction was. So much so, it was our last stop in Fez the next day, grabbing a quick lunch before hopping on the train to Meknes.
Where to Stay in Meknes
Riad Yacout is the exception to my riad rule in that they don’t usually stick out on the street. Sitting right on Place Lalla Aouda, you can spot the riad with comparative ease and even pull right up alongside the door in a cab. The riad was par for the course, though it had a more familiar hotel feeling than the riads in Marrakech and Fez. We received the typical mint tea welcoming (which by the end of the trip, I wished was a universal custom) and friendly conversation. This was the first place where the hostess didn’t appear to speak any English (though I didn’t press her to at all), so something to consider for anyone who’s a bit bashful of jumping into another language. Though if I could get by with my Spanish brain listening for similarities and interpreting her hands, then you shouldn’t have a thing to worry about.
Things to do in Meknes
Bab Mansour Laleuj
The highlight of Meknes is Bab Mansour Laleuj anchored on Lahdim Square. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll recognize the word “Bab.” It’s another Moroccan gate, but this is one travelers make a point to visit because it’s especially ornate and quite large. Lahdim Square across the way felt very similar to its sibling Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech complete with snake charmers, men with monkies, and hagglers trying to sell something. We came by during sunset as the vendors appeared to be closing up shop for the night. The crowds were fairly intense and even a bit surprising considering how tranquil it was just around the corner at Place Lalla Aouda by the riad. Tour buses full of foreigners had pulled up in front of the gate to take photos of the Bab, something I was frankly a bit surprised to see. The amount of tourist bus groups I had seen through the trip were rather limited, most likely because there’s no way in hell one of those things could fit into the medina. It made me wish I made the effort to get up early in the morning to see the Bab with the sunrise and without the crowds.
Despite being a Muslim country, Morocco is not a dry country. Drinking certainly isn’t as prevalent as in, well, Germany or most any other western country you might be coming from, but it’s here — specifically in Meknes. The region around Meknes is where you’ll find Volubilia-Domaine de la Zouina and Les Celliers de Meknes, two Moroccan wineries outside of the city. Unfortunately, you need to organize a tour several days in advance, so we were unable to visit. Still, we found our way to a bottle of local wine in Meknes at dinner.
We had our wine with dinner at Le Collier de la Colombe. The bottle came from Les Celliers de Meknes upon a recommendation from the waiter after specifying we prefer a dry red. Again, another delicious meal and the wine complimented it as well as my admittedly ignorant palette could hope.
Where to Stay in Tangier
I ended up selecting Dar Souran for its proximity to the Petit Soco, a popular crossing point with artists of the past, and ease of getting to the ferry to Spain where we’d be ending our trip in Morocco. The stay could’ve been yet another hospitable, comfortable experience, but it ended up being a bit more than that.
After checking in, dropping our bags off, and getting ready to head out, a man said something to me in French near the reception. My hesitation in responding told him that I might not be French after all. When he asked if I spoke French, I told him I could “un petit,” but that English or Spanish would be better. So, he switched to Spanish and I found out that he, the owner of Dar Souran, comes from the French border with Basque country as he walked us through some of the initial twists and turns of the Tangier medina before pointing us up to the Kasbah. Joining us on the short walk was another employee, and apparent friend of the owner, on his way to pick up some groceries. He, a Moroccan, preferred Spanish as well having spent some years living in Barcelona.
Before parting ways, we ended up with an invitation to a couscous lunch the next day with a few other French guests, two Germans, and themselves. Of course, we happily accepted and the lunch ended up cementing itself as one of my happiest, serendipitous travel experiences. Our new friend at the Dar took pride in his seating arrangement, sitting us in between his Spanish-speaking Moroccan friend and the two guest Germans. (We mentioned that we now live in Germany and one of the Germans had apparently told him that she lived in Costa Rica, so he assumed we’d have plenty to talk about.) The French speakers all went at the other end of the table next to the Germans.
The experienced summed up why Tangier was my favorite stop in all of Morocco. That international flair it used to be known for is clearly on its way back — if not already arrived.
Things to do in Tangier
Walking and Sunsets at the Kasbah
The theme throughout Morocco is walking, folks, and Tangier is no different. Spend hours walking around the medina and up to the Kasbah. “Kasbah” means fortress, but in practical traveler’s terms, its an elevated area where you can get views of the city. A handful of restaurants and hotels are here where you can get up to the rooftop for a meal, a drink, or even just a tea as we did at Detroit Palace. Some tourists were stationed with their cameras, but the crowd was overwhelmingly locals chatting among themselves over a glass of steamy mint tea. The next night, per a Moroccan recommendation from our Dar lunch, we ended up at Hôtel Nord-Pinus Tanger for the sunset. After the sun had set and it got to be a bit chilly, we retreated indoors onto a sofa where we had another glass of Moroccan wine, thumbing through the various coffee table books set out for visitors.
Local life at the Phoenician Tombs
The Phoenician Tombs stick out on Google Maps like its something touristic to do, but like the tea drinking on the rooftops of the Kasbah, this appeared to be a popular local hangout for the sea air and a foggy view of Spain out in the distance. An old-looking, almost Roman road leads to the cliff where parents sat on the rocks as their fearless children ran around edges that would’ve been fatal had there been a slip-up.
This is when even a child-free traveler can realize the fundamental difference in Moroccan versus traditional North American parenting is the freedom. Kids run around unsupervised in the streets and parks. The danger is limited because cars aren’t around. In Fez and Tangier, there aren’t any vehicles, motorbikes or cars, to speak of in the areas where children are running free. I remember thinking how lucky they are to not have to worry about sticking to the sidewalk, or worse, making sure one existed. Moroccan cities are their playgrounds with their winding staircases and sloping streets around every corner.
In other words, come to the Phoenician Tombs for a bit of a pause to reflect back on the trip.
Uncle Sam at the American Legion
Few Americans know that Morocco was the first country to recognize the independence of the United States in 1776. (The reasons for doing so were, of course, political, but that’s a long story best researched on your own.) Because of this early relationship, the U.S. has long had a presence in Tangier (before Rabatt was established as the capital) and the American Legion in Morocco retraces this unique history. Those traveling with Paul Bowles in mind will be pleased to know that a section is dedicated to displaying some of his work and playing the music he recorded during one of his first trips around the country, capturing traditional music for preservation. A brief glance at the guestbook indicates that it’s not just Americans who were happy to make time for this stop, but nationalities from across the world had left their mark of approval as well.
Have a coffee at Café Tinjis
Okay, I admit it, I only know about Café Tinjis because of Anthony Bourdain’s Tangier episode. In the episode, he meets up with a long-time British expatriate where they discuss how the café and surrounding Petit Soco area was a popular hangout for writers and artists throughout the decades. The history aside, Café Tinjis is objectively an ideal spot to enjoy a strong Moroccan coffee and people watch on the patio.
Egg Sandwich outside Café Baba
Okay, at the risk of forgoing originality, this is another Bourdain feature from his Tangier episode. But I’m not too proud to keep out a solid recommendation just because I’m not the first American to publicly write about it.
Café Baba is featured in the episode as another staple of Tangier life, but you get your meal across the street at, even more so than the place in Fez, a hole in the wall serving up egg sandwiches. The son of the owner, who was the one featured in the episode, noticed us hovering around and kicked a friend of his out of the seats to give them to us as his father cooked up the sandwiches. We had a chat with the owner and his son about their television appearance and went away with happy stomachs.
Our only restaurant stop in Tangier was at Restaurant Dar Lidam, based entirely on flipping around Google Reviews. Indeed, the reviews were on to something and we had as nice a meal as anywhere else in Morocco.
Afterward, we made our way south to the new town where clearly Moroccans prefer to be. The quiet streets of the medina became lively once we passed Place Avril and onto the crowded streets of the new town. It actually reminded me a bit of Amman with its bumper-to-bumper traffic and proliferation of young faces. This is also the only area where you’re going to find bars. We ended up at Bar Carrousel, which from the outside appears shuttered away from society. Perhaps that’s because of the smoking and imbibing inside, shunned by the predominant conservative culture. Inside we grabbed a seat and were promptly served a glass of Morocco’s Casablanca beer. If it tastes like Heineken, that’s because they operate under the supervision of Heineken International.
At the time, we were the only obvious tourists. Moroccan men filled the bar counter and there was one woman next to us, chatting, smoking, and drinking with another man. We were served salty, Peruvian-style peanuts as a snack and were only approached once by a guy who really struggled with his annunciation through the intoxication. But it was all in good fun as he, like so many other Moroccans throughout the trip, wanted to welcome us to the country and wish us a good trip.
Weather in Morocco
I’ve yet to interact with a culture that doesn’t take some joy, masochistic or otherwise, in talking about the weather. Morocco was no exception, and whenever the topic inevitably came up, I was told that I picked one of the best times to come — mid-to-late February. The days were always sunny, but still cool enough to get by in a light, long-sleeve tee shirt. At night, a bit more bundling up was required, but a jacket usually did the trick. It was always nice, comfortable even, to walk around at night with the cool, brisk air about. Coming from a traditionally colder winter climate, I couldn’t have been happier and there was the added bonus of this being the off-season for tourism. Meaning I was getting sun and warmer temperatures without having to share with a flood of tourists.
Transportation in Morocco
Anecdotally, most seem to travel Morocco by signing up with some kind of tour operator, shuttling groups around in vans. This is certainly one way to do it, but I was plenty happy traveling Morroco by train. The train doesn’t hit every popular Moroccan destination, most notably neither Chefchaouen or Essaouira, but it gets you everywhere else. Unfortunately, the stations aren’t within walking distance to the riads in the respective medinas, so you’ll most likely need to take a cab, but that’s the only downside. The trains themselves are perfectly comfortable and allow you to take in the passing countryside without worrying about other drivers on the road. Want to know more about how to get tickets and what the travel times are like? Check out this post on traveling Morocco by train.
Before You Go
In Arabian Nights about his experience trying to find “the story in his heart” while traveling around Morocco. Shah had previously written about his family’s move to Casablanca, but I opted for this book since I knew I wouldn’t be visiting Casablanca that trip. Reading this book gave me bits of Moroccan culture I otherwise would not have gotten from the trip itself, namely an insight into their storytelling culture and their continued belief in jins — essentially pissed off ghosts. While I was fine missing out on the jins, I would’ve loved the opportunity to learn more about the storytelling culture in person.
Then I turned to Suzanna Clarke’s A House In Fez about her experience of moving from Australia to Fez to rehab a riad in the city’s medina. Though she killed any faint interest I ever had in rehabbing a property, much less in Morocco, I was happy to be the reader watching her fortune and misfortune play out from afar.
During the trip, I went with Paul Bowles’ classic The Sheltering Sky. It’s a fictional story, but could just as easily have happened to any pair of overly ambitious American travelers who think they can throw themselves into an unfamiliar culture and language and come out unscathed.
After visiting the American Legion, Melanie found and purchased a copy of Moroccan author Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Like Bowles, it’s a fictional work, but it’s easy to see how many Moroccans might likely empathize with the intertwining stories of her characters as they try to emigrate to Spain in search of a better life.
Morocco Wish List
Three places come up consistently as places I missed out on. They are Essaouira, Chefchaouen, and the Atlas Mountains. For my first trip, I was happy to stick to the rails, but next time, I have my eyes set on those three stops. Essaouira being the quiet beach town outside of Marrakech, Chefchaouen is the famous blue city perched between Fez and Tangier, and the Atlas Mountains and its surrounding desert have, a quick search will show you, no shortage of outdoor adventure opportunities.
See more photos of high-resolution photos of Morocco here.