Morocco lies less than ten miles from the Southern tip of Iberia but culturally speaking it is an entire world away from Europe. One of the safest and most accessible countries in Africa, it offers a window into the Arab world and is the ideal place for anyone looking for a different kind of backpacking trip. This is your ultimate guide to backpacking Morocco giving you the lowdown on where to stay, what to do and how to get around mysterious Morocco.
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Best time to visit Morocco
Morocco is an extremely diverse country with everything from sunny beach resorts and coastal towns, to chilly mountain villages, and dry Saharan landscapes. As such, there are quite large climatic variations, but there are a few simple rules of thumb to follow.
If you’re planning on taking a trip into the desert, it’s best to avoid the summer months when temperatures soar to levels that are difficult to bear. The desert can get very cold at night in winter though, and most budget accommodation options lack heating, so spring or autumn are better times to visit if a desert trip is on your agenda.
If hiking in the mountains is a bigger priority, then visiting anytime between late March to the end of October, should provide great hiking conditions.
Overall, April and May are the best months to visit Morocco, with generally pleasant weather in all locations making spring perfect for a backpacking trip.
However, pay attention to the Islamic religious calendar and, in particularly, the month of Ramadan. Most businesses and shops shut down during major festivals, accommodation prices may rise while transport becomes more limited. Despite the restrictions, from a cultural perspective, it’s an interesting time to visit.
The year starts in the heart of the Moroccan winter with wet conditions in the North while snow makes travel difficult in the highest mountain regions. The South remains relatively mild with day-time temperatures pushing 20°C. Aside from a flurry of New Year visitors, few travellers come to Morocco during the first few months of the year, with the weather not really improving until the onset of Spring in late March.
By April, most of the mountain snow has thawed and all the regions start to experience warmer conditions making it a very popular time to visit. Spring is perfect for trekking in the Rif mountains or exploring Morocco’s ancient cities. June represents the start of the summer, although snow remains on the peaks of the High Atlas Mountains. This is a better time to visit the North of the country which has more of a typical Southern European climate.
The peak summer months of July and August are scorching hot in a large portion of Morocco and trekking in the Atlas Mountains or exploring the desert can be quite unpleasant. Weather-wise this is the best but busiest time to visit Mediterranean Morocco, while you can escape the crowds in the Southern coastal towns which have less dramatic seasonal variations.
Things start to cool down in September and it’s perhaps the second best time to visit after spring, for anyone wanting to explore the whole country with gentle breezes cooling the desert down and conditions great for hiking in the mountains. By late October rain can become a more persistent issue north of the Middle Atlas and by November most travellers in Morocco tend to avoid the north altogether with the climate much more favourable in and around Marrakesh and further south.
December snow closes the highest of the Atlas passes but does create good conditions for skiing while Marrakesh and the southern beach towns start to fill up with European holiday-makers around the Christmas and New Year period.
Essaouira doesn’t really experience the seasons in the same way as other parts of Morocco. Average daytime temperatures range from 19°C in January and February through to 23 or 24°C in the summer months.
The best time to visit is widely considered to be July to October. These are the warmest months and there is virtually no rainfall during this period making it the perfect time to hit the beach or explore this historic city. Tourists flock to Morocco’s Mediterranean beaches during this period which means Essaouira should be pretty quiet.
The worst time to visit is between December-January. With a mild year-round climate, there’s not really a bad time to visit Essaouira but December and January are two of the cooler months with chilly sea temperatures and more rain. There are also more tourists at this time, particularly over the Christmas and New Year period, with people looking to escape the European winter. So accommodation prices can rise and backpackers would be wise to visit at any other time of the year.
Temperature in Marrakech
Marrakech experiences seasons in much the same way as the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, however winters are far milder than nearby Europe or even Northern Morocco with average daytime temperatures of around 20°C. Those figures do drop quickly at night though meaning you’ll need to wrap up warm in the evenings and even summer nights can get cold. Expect day-time temperatures in the mid 20’s or a bit higher if you visit in Spring or Autumn while most days will be above 30°C from early June to late September.
The best time to visit Marrakech is between April-May. Spring is generally viewed as the best time to visit Marrakech with warm temperatures that are great for both exploring the city or trekking in the nearby High Atlas mountains. Late September to November is perhaps the next best time to come with similar conditions.
The worst time to visit Marrakech is between July-August. With average temperatures hitting 37°C and record highs of a scorching 49°C, Marrakech is seriously hot in the middle of the summer and best avoided.
Morocco visa requirements
Morocco is fairly relaxed when it comes to entry requirements. UK and EU citizens get 90 days visa-free as does anyone from a host of other eligible countries including USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and South Korea. Given it is a relatively compact country with an excellent travel network by African standards, 90 days should easily be sufficient for any backpacking trip in Morocco.
People from some Non-EU European, Asian and African countries will require a visa, which should be sorted in advance via a Moroccan embassy or consulate. A three-month visa generally costs $30 for single-entry and $50 for double-entry and can be arranged in your homeland. Another option is to process this at either the Moroccan embassy in Madrid or at the consulate in the Spanish port of Algeciras which has ferries to Tangier in Northern Morocco, taking just 90 minutes to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. You will need three passport photos and the processing time is normally 48 hours.
Morocco visa on arrival
Morocco doesn’t offer a visa on arrival at this point. All visitors who need one should arrange this in advance and present it upon immigration. Anyone from visa-exempt countries just needs to show their passport, which must have at least six months left until its expiry date.
Travelling around Morocco
Transport in Morocco
Morocco is one of the most visited countries in Africa and it has a range of transport options catering to both tourists and locals. Most backpackers in Morocco opt for the affordable public trains and buses, while perhaps forking out for a tour to head to more remote regions such as the desert or the High Atlas mountains if time is a restraint.
The train network in Morocco is great for getting between all the major cities. Tangier, Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, Meknes and Fes are all connected by rail. The trains have various class options and are easily amongst the best on the African continent with fast, air-conditioned services, although delays are not uncommon. Starting out from the Mediterranean port of Tangier, you can reach the imperial city of Fes and its mazy medina in around 5 hours with 4 services per day.
The other major line runs from Tangier to Marrakech via Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city and nearby Rabat, the capital. The current fast trains take just under 9 hours to do the whole route with Casablanca or Rabat a decent halfway stop. However, many backpackers opt for the sleeper train which departs Tangier Ville at 11:45 p.m. arriving in Marrakech at 9:50 a.m. the following morning (heading the other way the sleeper train leaves at 9:00 p.m. from Marrakech, arriving in Tangier around 8:00 a.m.). A high-speed line is currently being constructed which will eventually dramatically cut travel times to under three hours from Tangier to Marrakech. The first portion was scheduled to open by the end of 2018 with a new fleet of 300 km/hr French-made trains set to really speed things up.
Rail is certainly the best option for getting between the main cities but to reach the smaller towns and more rural areas, you will most likely need to take a bus. From Marrakech you can reach the popular coastal cities of Agadir (3 hours 30 minutes) and Essaouira (3 hours) by buses run by Supratours, departing from just outside the rail terminal.
Rail tickets can be booked in advance online or at the respective stations. Booking 24-48 hours in advance is advisable. Bus tickets are available via Supratours, a company affiliated with the rail firm while CTM is another bus company with an extensive network.
Travelling around Morocco alone
Overall, Morocco is a safe country for solo travellers to explore, providing you follow basic common sense. Getting between the main cities and destinations is simple enough but Arabic or French speakers will have an advantage and it’s worth at least learning some basics as English is not widely spoken by those outside of the tourism industry.
Trips into the desert organised by tour companies are easily arranged in Marrakech or Fes with a range of multi-night options available depending on your time-span and budget. Some solo travellers opt to go with this although renting a car may become more affordable for groups. If time is not a major restraint or you are keen to cut costs to a minimum, there are CTM and Supratours bus services to the Saharan settlements of Merzouga and M’Hamid (taking up to and sometimes over 12 hours from Marrakech). Independent travellers may prefer this option as it offers more flexibility to shape your own desert experience.
Solo female travellers in Morocco can be subjected to unwanted attention though and this is undeniably one of the main drawbacks to visiting the country. This is generally more annoying than dangerous but with hostels everywhere and by using a range of travel apps, it shouldn’t be that hard to meet other backpackers to do activities with. You may feel safer in a group and you’re certainly less likely to be bothered.
Travelling around Morocco on a budget
For longer trips, budget travellers should be able to get to almost anywhere they need by using a combination of trains and long-distance buses. Fares are very reasonable for both.
For shorter trips within cities or to nearby points of interest, there are also some good options. While local buses are very cheap, finding information about departure times and points can be tricky. Shared taxis (Grand taxi) are a popular option for trips of a medium length between nearby towns. They are also useful for getting from the major cities to nearby mountain villages and hiking routes. They are generally a bit cheaper than the buses, although they can be quite crammed with two people sharing the front seat and four on the back seats. Private taxis (Petit taxi) are fine for getting around a city like Fes or Marrakech but they normally turn down trips outside of the city borders. Most taxi prices are negotiable so get ready to bargain!
Hitchhiking is also very common in Morocco and generally considered to be safe. You will be expected to contribute towards petrol which usually works out cheaper than any of the other options. Finally, cycling is a cheap and fun way to get around in smaller towns and more rural settings although it’s probably best avoided in the major cities which can be fairly hectic places with few designated cycle paths.
Cost of travelling around Morocco
Overall Morocco is a very affordable country to travel in. The longest possible train journey for example, from Tangier to Marrakech costs just 216 Dirhams ($22.50) in 2nd class and 327 Dirhams ($34) for a sleeping berth on the night train. Prices may rise slightly once the high-speed trains kick into gear but there are still likely to be many options targeting poorer Moroccans and budget travellers. As a general rule of thumb, you can budget on spending $2-3 for every hour travelled on public transport in Morocco.
Car hire is relatively expensive but does offer more freedom in terms of exploring Morocco’s more remote regions. It’s a good option for anyone looking to really get off the beaten track, but the quality of roads often isn’t great away from urban areas and mountain routes can become quite dangerous during the winter months.
Flying is largely unnecessary unless you plan to visit the sparsely inhabited Western Sahara region, a large debated territory that is partially administered by the Moroccan government.
Cost of travelling around Morocco
Morocco is very cheap by most international standards. Anyone based in Europe should be able to find a low fare on a budget airline to fly in and then find costs comparable to the very cheapest countries in Eastern Europe and prices for most things are about half those you might find in Western Europe, sometimes even less.
The local currency is the Moroccan Dirham. As of November 2018, these are the current exchange rates:
£1 = 12.40 Dirhams
€1 = 10.78 Dirhams
$1 = 9.56 Dirhams
The exchange rates are pretty easy to get your head around and by dividing anything by ten you can get a rough idea of how many Dollars or Euros you are spending.
Average costs Morocco
Dorm Bed in a Hostel: 30-70 Dirhams
Budget Double Room (Shared Bathroom): 50-150 Dirhams
Private en-suite room in a Marrakech Riad: from 200 Dirhams
Food & Drinks
Simple Breakfast: 20 Dirhams
Sandwich: From 5 Dirhams
Dinner in a restaurant: 50-100 Dirhams
Pot of Tea: 5-15 Dirhams
Small plastic bottle of Water (Shop): 3-5 Dirhams (Drinking tap water isn’t recommended)
Soft Drink Can (Shop): 5 Dirhams
Bus from Marrakech to Essaouira: 65 Dirhams
Train from Marrakech to Rabat: 127 Dirhams
Train from Tangier to Fes: 111 Dirhams
City Taxi Ride (Private): 20-50 Dirhams (Varies greatly depending on your negotiating skills!)
Car Hire per Day: 150-300 Dirhams
Activities & Tours
Admission to museums/major sites: 10-50 Dirhams
Local Hammam: 10-30 Dirhams
‘Tourist’ Spa Hammam & Massage: 200-600 Dirhams (More at top-end places in Marrakech)
3 Day, 2 Night Desert Tour from Marrakech: 600-1000 Dirhams (600 is possible in the low season with some negotiation)
How much spending money for a week in Morocco
This very much depends on what kind of trip you’re planning and particularly whether or not you take any tours, which is the most popular way to experience the Sahara, even for budget travellers.
Travelling only via public transport, backpackers in Morocco should be able to get by on under 300 Dirhams per day meaning around $200 should be sufficient for a week in Morocco. On this kind of budget, you should be able to visit two or three of the main cities and perhaps do a couple of independently arranged day trips on top of that.
Increasing your budget to $300 will allow you to take a trip into the Sahara and perhaps fork out a little bit more on food, accommodation and other activities.
How much is beer in Morocco
Morocco is an Islamic country and most restaurants and cafes do not serve alcohol. A beer isn’t too hard to find though but isn’t quite the bargain that many other things in this country are. You can expect to pay about 10 Dirhams for a beer in a shop while 20-40 Dirhams is a more likely price in the restaurants that do serve alcohol.
Prices may increase to 50 Dirhams in the more upscale bars or nightclubs in Marrakech and more for spirits and cocktails. Morocco has more of a smoking rather than drinking culture and a pack of Moroccan cigarettes typically costs around 20-25 Dirhams with foreign brands slightly more.
Is food in Morocco expensive
Moroccan food is really good value. You can find sizeable main courses for around 50 Dirhams in many restaurants and the food bill for a dinner for two people will rarely exceed 200 Dirhams, even in some of the nicer joints. A small breakfast is often included in the price of hostels in Morocco, while snacks and sandwiches are easily found out and about for under 20 Dirhams. This means that food expenses shouldn’t take up a big chunk of your budget.
Where to stay in Morocco
Hostels in Morocco
Morocco has emerged as a popular backpacking destination. For Europeans, it is one of the easiest countries to get to, that offers a change in culture and the possibility for a real adventure. As a result, hostels have sprung up in all of the major destinations. Recent troubles in Egypt and parts of the Middle East have also added to Morocco’s status as the easiest and most accessible window into the Arab World, but even so you won’t find anywhere near as many backpackers here as in Southeast Asia for example.
Unless you really get off the beaten track, finding a hostel shouldn’t be a problem. Dorm beds typically start at about 30 Dirhams per night but you can usually find somewhere much nicer by doubling that budget. Some of the hostels are set in a reasonably authentic Riads, meaning you get a taste of a traditional Moroccan home (some of which are absolutely stunning) without having to break the bank. You can also find more typical European-style hostels and either way, a range of private and mixed dorm options are available.
The majority of hostels will also offer a range of tours and excursions but shop around before booking anything as significant differences exist in terms of price and quality.
Where to stay – Atlas Mountains Morocco
Taking a trip into the Atlas Mountains is highly recommended for anyone looking for stunning scenery, great hiking routes and a glimpse into the indigenous Berber culture. Day-trips into the High Atlas Mountains are possible from Marrakech, while the Middle Atlas region can be explored from Fes or Meknes, but there is no reason why you can’t stay for a night or two in one of the smaller mountain towns or villages.
The most pure Berber populations live in reddish-coloured housing nestled into the Atlas Mountains. Small homestays and guesthouses do exist in Berber settlements and you can certainly expect great hospitality although modern facilities may be somewhat lacking.
Camping is permitted anywhere in Morocco, provided you have the landowner’s permission. This can be a nice option for anyone on multi-day hikes, but nights can be very chilly in the Atlas Mountains, with freezing conditions likely during the winter months, certainly at higher altitudes.
Another option in the mountains is the Gîte d’étape. This is a home or small hostel offering very basic accommodation and they are found along or near to most of the main trekking routes in the Middle and High Atlas regions. They tend to have very basic facilities and don’t always have hot water but at the very least should provide some shelter from the elements. There are a few larger refuges too, typically with dormitory style accommodation and often communal showers.
Where to stay in Marrakech
Marrakech has the biggest range of accommodation options in Morocco with everything from basic dorms and traditional Moroccan homestays to luxury hostels and resorts. Many visitors to Morocco come just for Marrakech so it has a more touristy feel than all of the other main cities but there is an abundance of budget accommodation and the competition has generally led to low prices and fairly high quality certainly in comparison to what you might find in small mountain settlements.
The quintessentially Moroccan experience is to stay in a riad and they are most common in Marrakech where several hundred can be found. A riad, in the truest sense of the word, is a traditional Moroccan house built around a garden with trees. However, many townhouses now also sell themselves as ‘riads’ with an interior courtyard rather than a garden. Most offer only private rooms, which start at around 200 Dirhams in the less fancy riads and increase to many times that figure in more luxurious joints.
Backpackers will certainly find hostels in Marrakech to be the cheapest option with a wide choice available and dorm beds can be found for just 30 Dirhams/night (around $3). This is the best option for anyone travelling on a budget or solo travellers hoping to make some travel buddies. While there isn’t a massive party culture on the Moroccan backpacker trail, Marrakech is your best bet for a night out and some of the hostels do organise themed nights and bar crawls.
With historic cities, stunning mountains, desert retreats and a long, attractive coastline, Morocco is pretty blessed with a huge range of destinations to consider when it comes to planning a backpacking trip. You may need several weeks to truly explore the whole country but despite that, it is small enough to fit a great deal into a shorter time if you only have a week or so.
Morocco Itinerary 7 days
Days 1-2: Fes
Fes is one of Morocco’s most charming cities and one of Northern Africa’s oldest, with over 1000 years of history preserved within its ancient walls, which still surround the ‘old city’ to this day. Its enormous medina is tricky to navigate, with hundreds of narrow, winding streets and alleyways, but that’s half the fun. A visit to the hustle and bustle of Fes is a real attack on the senses with sights, sounds and smells that will leave you in no doubt that you’re in Morocco, as you explore one of the best-preserved medinas in the Arab world.
You will get more than a history lesson and a few more things to stick in your backpack in Fes though. It is modern day Morocco’s second city and home to a young population, many of whom attend the world’s oldest university (Qarawiyyin University was founded in the year 859!). The ancient medina is still home to around 70,000 people and remains the central point for trade and commerce in Fes. While it can be an intimidating place at times, with shoppers, tradesmen, carts and donkeys all jostling for space, it’s a fascinating glimpse into Moroccan life both past and present.
Overnight Bus – Fes to Merzouga
There are two overnight options for getting from Fes to Merzouga. The best bet is perhaps to take the CTM bus which leaves Fes at 22:00 and arrives in Rissani at 7:30 the next morning. From there you can take a share-taxi for the 30km ride Merzouga. There is also a 19:30 Supratours bus that goes direct to Merzouga but the 5:30 a.m. arrival time is less than ideal so it’s worth contacting your accommodation in advance to make sure they’ll be open to check you in.
Day 3 – Merzouga (Sahara)
The village of Merzouga is the main gateway to the desert and the best place to head to for anyone wishing to visit the Sahara independently. There are many ways to experience it, with options including horse, 4×4, motorbike or camel trips out into the wilderness where you can sleep under the stars and gaze into the most brilliantly clear night sky. It’s also possible just to head out on foot to the nearby dunes, which rise to great heights of 350 metres, although be sure to take plenty of water.
Bus/Grande Taxi – Merzouga to Tinghir
It’s around 200 km by road from Merzouga to Tinghir and there are direct morning buses with Supratours. If the departure time isn’t convenient, it is possible to make the trip by a series of grande (shared) taxis and local buses. From Merzouga, first head to Rissani and then change for a taxi heading for Erfoud. The longest leg is from Erfoud to Tinejdad, which will take about 2 hours by road with minibuses serving the route and from there you can change to another grande taxi to Tinghir. This may not be the quickest way to get from Merzouga to Tinghir but it’s a great way to meet some locals and get a better feel for life in this remote part of the world.
Day 4 – Tinghir & Todra Gorge
You’ve now made it into the High Atlas Mountains and Tinghir (AKA Tinerhir) is your best place to find a bed for the night. However, there’s not much to see in town with the stunning hike out to Todra Gorge being the main draw here. The hike will see you enter a world of canyons and giants palm trees while also exploring an abandoned Berber village. It’s also a popular spot for rock-climbing and the landscape is a huge contrast to the dry, dusty desert from the previous day.
Tinghir to Ouarzazate
There’s an 8:45 a.m. bus from Tinghir, arriving in Ouarzazate at midday. Shared taxis are also possible and if you’re travelling with friends or meet other travellers heading the same way, you can just hire your own one which should speed things up as you won’t have to wait for it to fill up.
Day 5 – Ouarzazate & Aït Benhaddou
Ouarzazate lies on the edge of the Saharan region and is perhaps best known as the setting for many famous movies. The nearby Atlas and CLA Studios have been used to film the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Both are open for visits, but nature lovers may prefer to head out to Oasis Fint, a tranquil paradise full of birdlife about 15 km south of Ouarzazate.
Nearby Aït Benhaddou is another essential stop on most Moroccan backpacking itineraries and this picture-perfect town, which has been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, can be visited as a half-day trip or as a flying visit on the way to Marrakech. It boasts one of Morocco’s finest kasbahs and has also been used for many iconic movies while scenes from Game of Thrones have also been shot there.
Ouarzazate to Marrakech
There are four daily buses from Ouarzazate to Marrakech including a 1:00 a.m. night bus that arrives at 6:00 a.m. in the morning. The other departure times are currently 8:05 a.m., 8:45 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. with the journey taking roughly 4 hours 30 minutes.
Days 6-7 – Marrakech
Marrakech is Morocco’s most popular destination and receives lots of visitors with budget flights from all over Europe. This makes it a good starting or end point for your trip in Morocco. The Jemaa el-Fnaa is the first point of call for most visitors to Marrakech. It is an enormous square and despite large numbers of tourists, it retains mystical qualities with magicians and story-tellers by day and dozens of food stalls by night. There is a souk on one side of the square but overall Marrakech’s medina isn’t as large or impressive as the one in Fes.
Away from the square, Hammams are very popular among visitors to Marrakech with a range of options from the basic, cheap local joints to plusher spas which offer a great deal more privacy. Most have an extensive list of massages and spa treatments. Marrakech also has by far the widest range of options when it comes to eating out and partying and it’s a good place to spend any remaining Dirhams on the final day of your trip.
There are many tour companies that offer a similar multi-day itinerary going from Marrakech to Fes via the desert or vice-versa. It’s likely to work out more expensive but your transport will be arranged. For anyone with just five or six days in Morocco, it’s probably advisable as the above route will be difficult to squeeze into that timeframe if you do it independently.
One common error visitors to Morocco make is to sign up for the desert tours in Marrakech or Fes without realising that it will involve spending around 10 hours sitting on a bus (both ways!). If that doesn’t sound like your idea of fun then consider an alternative itinerary such as Fes-Casablanca-Marrakech-Essaouira. This can mostly be done by train and doesn’t involve quite as many hours getting around, leaving more time to see and do things.
While the reality of Casablanca isn’t quite as wonderful as the romanticised version, it is by far Morocco’s biggest and most cosmopolitan city. It’s worth hanging around for a day or two and visiting the Hassan II Mosque, the world’s 3rd largest mosque, being the main point of interest. Skipping the desert should also allow you time to make it all the way to Essaouira, a fortified coastal town with plenty of interesting historical sites and a breezy beach which is perfect for watersports.
A dive into Moroccan cuisine extends far past couscous, although the Maghrebi dish is the country’s most famous culinary export and a must for any visitor. Moroccan food also consists of everything from a range of soups and stews to slow-cooked meats as well as tasty snacks and delicious desserts. With prices generally very low, even the most budget conscious of backpackers should have no problem eating well in Morocco and sampling a range of new dishes.
Breakfast (Al-ftour) in Morocco is not to be skipped and while it is often provided in hostels and guesthouses, head to the nearest souk and grab a coffee and something to eat for a more local experience. The exact nature of breakfast varies but you can expect to at least get bread or toast which you dip into vitamin-rich Moroccan Argan oil, which is perhaps more famously known as a cosmetic but is very safe to eat!
More lavish breakfasts may include omelettes, pancakes or pastries, all served with a Moroccan twist. The French influence in this country has also ensured that more traditional European-style croissants are widely available, but for a more authentic Moroccan breakfast try B’ssara, a filling bean soup. You may also be served a range of sliced packaged meats or fruits. Those with a sweet tooth won’t want to miss Sfenj, a crispy, deep-fried Moroccan fritter which takes the form of a sugar-coated doughnut, sometimes with an egg dunked in middle.
To drink, coffee (Ahwa) is served everywhere although Morocco is also a nation of tea-drinkers and a traditional mint tea is a popular way to start the day. Freshly squeezed orange and other fruit juices are also known for their high quality.
The Moorish medina is a good starting point for anyone looking for lunch or dinner in Marrakech with a wide range of options to suit all tastes and budgets. Fes may be regarded as Morocco’s culinary capital, but you won’t have any trouble finding tasty local dishes in Marrakech. There is more of an international scene too, with plenty of ways to try the cuisine of other countries in Africa and across the Arab world.
The first point of call for any visitor to Marrakech is usually the electric Jemaa el-Fnaa square, which turns into a giant food market after about 5:00 p.m., with around 100 stalls. So grab a table and chair and delve into the weird and wonderful world of mealtime in Marrakech. The quality does vary, so it’s probably best to look for stalls which appear popular with the locals. Excellent tagines and couscous can be found while there is a range of grilled meats and some seafood options – although being around 200 km from the nearest coast, means it’s rarely fresh.
Eating in Jemaa el-Fnaa on your visit to Marrakech is certainly not to be missed, but it’s not the most relaxing of experiences with dozens of pushy touts and waiters competing for business and thousands of people passing by every hour. For a quieter experience head deeper into the souks of the medina or even to one of the newer parts of the city.
There’s a relatively late dining culture in Marrakech with few locals eating dinner before 8:00 p.m. A traditional Moroccan starter is Harira – a tomato, chickpea, lemon and lentil soup although it can be enjoyed as a snack at any time of the day. Main dishes usually involve some kind of grilled meat – lamb chops and a hearty stew called chicken gumbo are among the best options. You can find skewers of just about any meat other than pork. The Marrakech speciality is a dish called Tangia. It takes hours to prepare as the chicken or lamb is slow-cooked in a pot along with saffron, lemon and garlic and when it is finally ready, it is usually eaten just with a traditional flatbread.
While meat-lovers will certainly enjoy eating out in Marrakech, vegetarians are unlikely to go hungry either. For lunch delve into a mezze of salads or a Berber vegetable tagine. If you’re starting to feel like you’ve had your fill of couscous, then pastas and particularly pizzas are also widely available across Morocco and most of Northern Africa. The quality is generally high, particularly when topped with local spices.
Morocco is a paradise for lovers of all things sweet. If that’s you, then you’ll enjoy wandering through Morocco’s old cities, diving into cafes and market stalls to try out new sweets and snacks.
One thing you will notice quickly is the many different cookies on offer and one of the best is Chebakia. Covered in honey and sesame seeds, this sticky sweet should be easy to spot and is served in small stalls across Morocco. The same goes for Ghoriba – a chewy shortbread cookie distinctive by its yellowy colour and large craters across the surface. Halwa dyal Makina meanwhile is another type of cookie, although with a thinner shape it appears more like a biscuit and it’s often coated in chocolate at each end.
Another traditional Moroccan sweet is Sfouf, made from roasted almonds and toasted sesame seeds, although it is usually reserved for big occasions or festivals and is easiest to find during the month of Ramadan.
Many of the sweets can also be served as a dessert, and at lunch-time you can expect to get sweet mint tea after your meal. If you have room for something bigger, tuck into some Kaab el Ghazal (Gazelle Horns). These crescent shaped cookies are filled with almond paste and cinnamon and are sometimes complimentary.
Seffa, which is essentially couscous and vermicelli, may look and sound more like a main dish but topped with almonds, powdered sugar and cinnamon, it’s often served as a sweet dessert in Morocco and is found on most menus.
Baklava is a dessert that you might have tried before as it is found in many parts of North Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans. It is essentially a pastry filled with pistachio nuts and sweetened by layers of honey. Oranges à la cannelle is a lighter option, consisting of sliced oranges doused in cinnamon. Meanwhile one of Morocco’s most memorable desserts is the M’hanncha, another almond-paste based affair, coiled like a serpent into a pastry resulting in its other nickname – the Snake Cake.
Morocco is an Islamic country and the vast majority of Moroccans are Sunni Muslims. Only 1% of the population practice other religions but the Moroccan constitution does grant the freedom to worship and there are small Christian and Jewish populations.
The laws aren’t quite as strict as ones in Islamic countries in the Middle East, and the large tourism industry ensures there is always a wide mix of international people in Morocco. That’s certainly the case in Marrakech and Agadir, both of which have bars, casinos and nightclubs which go against common Islamic teaching.
From a traveller’s perspective you need to be aware of the main Islamic holidays and festivals such as the month of Ramadan, Eid-ul Adha and Eid-Milad-un-Nabi. The Islamic calendar is only 354 or 355 days’ long, so events move forward each year. Transport options are likely to be much more limited during this time, while most restaurants and shops will shut.
Morocco has many stunning mosques, however most cannot be visited by non-Muslims. The majestic Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca is an exception with guided tours available.
Morocco has two official languages – Arabic and Berber. The latter is most commonly spoken in the mountainous and rural regions and around a third of the Moroccan population can communicate in Berber while that figure jumps to 90% for Darija, the group of Moroccan Arabic dialects.
Despite not being officially recognised, French is still widely used in administrative, media and commercial settings and it’s by far the most useful of the major European languages for anyone travelling in Morocco. All Moroccans are taught French in school so should be able to at least communicate in it.
If you are travelling in the north of the country, you may encounter some Spanish speakers. Younger Moroccans may have a basic grasp of English but overall the standard is low so communicating can be an issue with anyone who doesn’t work in the tourism industry.
History of Morocco
Morocco has a rich and varied history with evidence suggesting the area has been inhabited for over 100,000 years. The Berbers are considered the indigenous Moroccan people and while they held onto many customs, they largely converted to Islam during and after the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb, which brought both Islam and the Arabic language to Morocco in the 7th and 8th centuries. A series of Berber dynasties came and went from the 11th to 16th centuries, perhaps most notably the Almohads who controlled the Western Mediterranean coastlines and large chunks of modern-day Spain and Portugal.
However, by the start of the 20th Century, Morocco’s position had weakened considerably. Faced with newly industrialised European powers on its doorstep and both Spanish and French interventions, this ultimately led to Morocco becoming colonised and officially a protectorate of France in 1912. Despite various uprisings, French rule continued until 1956 when Morocco regained its independence with Sultan Mohammed becoming the King. The Spanish also gave up large territories but held on to the Mediterranean ports of Melilla and Ceuta, which remain somewhat controversially under Spanish control to this day.
Morocco did see protests during the 2011-12 Arab Spring however there was only very limited bloodshed compared to neighbouring countries and the end result was a revised constitution, rather than the widespread reforms many had hoped for. Officially, the country is still the Kingdom of Morocco with Mohammed VI having ascended to the throne in 1999 although some power did transfer to the parliament in Rabat following the events of the Arab Spring.
Moroccan traditional dress
The traditional dress for both Moroccan men and women is called the djellaba. This is a long, loose-fitting robe with full sleeves. However, it does come in various materials with a light cotton variety for the hot summer months while a warm woolly djellaba is worn during colder times of the year. It also has a hood called the qob which is designed to protect the wearer from the elements. Many female djellabas are brightly coloured with various elaborate patterns, while the male version tends to be plainer. The djellaba is still widely-worn across the country, although in the bigger cities, Western fashion trends are gaining in popularity for both men and women.
For weddings and special occasions women often opt for the Takchita or the Caftan, two more extravagant traditional robes which often have shorter sleeves and have been adapted slightly with time.
Head into the Sahara region and you will encounter men wearing the Deraa, an extremely loose garment, usually in blue, that helps to keep the body ventilated. Meanwhile women in the Southern and Saharan areas of Morocco often go for the Melhfa, a large fabric dress which offers greater protection from the blowing sands.
Travel advice Morocco
As far as travel in Morocco goes, there are more general nuisances than genuine dangers. Travellers are likely to experience being hassled in the street, sometimes quite persistently, by everyone from ‘unofficial guides’ to people trying to sell drugs, mostly marijuana which is grown and used widely in Morocco, despite its illegal status. Stories of visitors becoming victims of extortion or tricked into dangerous situations are often drug-related.
The streets of Moroccan cities are generally safe to stroll around, even after dark, but getting lost is common particularly in the old medinas. With so many languages and a colonial past, some streets have two or three different names which hardly helps matters. It’s advisable to stick to the main paths at night, especially if you’re alone, although this is common sense advice for all countries rather than specific to Morocco.
Solo female travellers do sometimes receive a lot of unwanted attention in Morocco, in the form of cat-calls or even being followed. Generally, you will feel safer and more comfortable with at least one other traveller, so if you are backpacking alone it’s probably best to stay in hostels and buddy up.
As far as health and safety goes, tap water is not considered suitable for drinking but cheap bottled water is widely available. There is no real risk of malaria and while it may be advisable to get vaccinations for Typhoid as well as Hepatitis A and B, this is not an official requirement for visitors to Morocco.
In terms of terrorism, there has only been one major attack in Morocco in the past fifteen years, taking place in 2011 at a popular tourist spot in Marrakech. Overall though there have been far fewer incidents in Morocco when compared to other countries in Europe and North Africa.
Is Marrakech safe?
Pick-pocketing and petty theft against travellers is a pretty common problem in Morocco and as the city that receives the most visitors, Marrakech is certainly somewhere to be extra vigilant and take care of your belongings. The crowded old medina makes it easy for pickpockets to steal things and sneak away unnoticed. It’s best to carry only what you need for the day or evening and don’t carry expensive electronic items unless you really need them. The thieves can range from small children to old ladies begging in the souk, so be on guard at all times in busy areas.
Otherwise, hustlers and unofficial guides in the streets are the main nuisance. A polite but firm refusal is the best way to deal with them. If you are followed against your will, it’s worth noting that central parts of Marrakech have a large police presence, mostly to protect tourists. They are normally very helpful and being a so-called ‘faux guide’ is illegal and can carry large fines or prison sentences so that should act as quite a large deterrent.
While Marrakech is more liberal than other cities in Morocco and has a wide range of nightlife options, acting drunk in public is still frowned upon and not the norm by any means. Staggering out of a bar or club at night makes you a real target for crime.
Is Agadir safe?
Much of the above applies to Agadir too. The coastal city is Morocco’s main beach resort which, like Marrakech, attracts plenty of tourists, almost exclusively Europeans. Again, uniformed police patrol the main tourist areas and are there for your protection while there are also large numbers of plain clothed police which helps to put off the hustlers and pickpockets.
By applying common sense you should have no problems in Agadir but after dark it’s perhaps best to avoid poorly lit streets and don’t head to the beach. Don’t accept offers of drinks from strangers in bars as spiking is not totally unheard of. The sale of hashish is also pretty commonplace and is illegal despite its fairly widespread use.
In general terms, Agadir is more relaxed than many other Moroccan cities but that’s not to say a visit is akin to a typical European holiday resort. Away from the beach or pool, you should still cover up and dress modestly as wandering around town showing a lot of flesh will attract plenty of glares whether you are male or female.
What to wear in Marrakech
If you’ve never visited before, it’s easy to get the wrong idea about what to expect in Marrakech and Morocco. Some travellers arrive with the notion of a deeply conservative Islamic country entrenched in their minds. Others assume that because it’s only two or three hours by plane from most parts of Europe and was ruled by France for much of the 20th Century, it retains a European feel with similar social norms.
The truth is somewhere in the middle, perhaps veering more towards one side of the spectrum than the other, depending on where you are. Those who come expecting a European feel, are likely to experience genuine culture shock even in Marrakech. Many Moroccans still wear traditional clothing and while you won’t be expected to do the same, dressing modestly is important in almost every setting to avoid causing disrespect or generating unwanted attention. That doesn’t mean you have to totally cover up but it’s advisable to ensure your shoulders and preferably knees are covered whether you’re male or female. The only real exceptions are in hotels or hostels and perhaps in more Western-style bars or nightclubs. A somewhat contradictory side-note to this is that almost all modesty goes out the window at traditional Moroccan hammams where public nudity suddenly becomes the norm, albeit usually in a single-sexed setting!
Overall, you shouldn’t have to adapt your wardrobe too much for a visit to Marrakech particularly if you visit at one of the cooler times of year. Long dresses or shorter dresses with leggings are good options for female travellers while T-shirts and jeans or knee-length shorts also work. Dressing appropriately becomes more challenging in the heat of the summer though when temperatures can soar above 40°C. In truth, the best advice is simply not to visit at this time but if you do, loose-fitting, lightweight clothing is the way to go.
It is equally important to understand that Marrakech is not always hot! Temperatures drop quite dramatically at night with sub-zero conditions not completely unheard of between December and February. Even during the summer months, evenings can suddenly become quite chilly so remember to bring a jumper and a jacket.
The Moroccan Dirham is the local currency with one dirham divided into 100 centimes. You will find Dh20, Dh50, Dh100 and Dh200 notes but may have trouble paying for small items with larger notes. Try to break up 100 or 200 Dirham notes at the earliest opportunity such as when paying for accommodation or a meal. Taxi drivers, shop-owners and street merchants will rarely have much change. Dh1, Dh2, Dh5 and Dh10 coins are also widely in circulation while you may occasionally receive some centime coins.
ATM’s, of which there are many in all major Moroccan cities, are the best way to get your hands on some Dirhams although foreign bank charges are likely to apply. ATM’s are far less plentiful in rural areas though so be sure to take enough cash to last you until you next reach a decent-sized town if you’re heading the Atlas mountains or Sahara. You can also exchange money at banks and exchange bureaus, but you may have a hard time finding somewhere that accepts some currencies including the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand dollars.
Euros are the most useful reserve currency to have and it’s advisable to take an emergency stash in your backpack. But it’s rare that you’ll be able to pay for things in Euros, certainly outside of Northern Morocco or higher end Riads.
Morocco has a pretty big tipping culture and many unskilled workers depend on it with some people making under Dh100 (less than 10 Euros) per day. Tipping is a good way to offload small coins, which can quickly mount up after a few days in Morocco. 10% is the norm in a restaurant and it’s common to hand over a few Dirhams to baggage handlers or toilet attendants for example.
It’s also important to note that the Dirham is a restricted currency which means you can’t get it abroad and won’t be able to exchange it once you’ve left Moroccan soil. In fact, it’s illegal to export Moroccan currency so spend or exchange your final Dirhams before you leave the country.
Mark Sochon is a sport and travel writer based in Madrid. As well as Morocco, he has travelled extensively in Europe, South America and Southeast Asia and regularly writes about backpacking and budget travel.