Secret gardens, towering mountains, medieval cities, bright blue houses, legendary caves and epic fortresses. You might think I was talking about somewhere in Europe, but all these things can be found just across the Med in the spellbinding country of Morocco. It might be best known for camels and tagines, but there’s way more to discover for backpackers who venture further than the souks and palaces of Marrakech. Here are ten of the best places to visit in Morocco to get you started.
Think of Tangier as Moroccan with a twist, as the local culture here sets it apart from the country’s other cities. It used to be an ‘international zone’ visited by LGBT tourists from Europe and popular with authors like Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote. Locals often speak Spanish as well as French and Arabic.
The medina is the city’s beating heart, full of weaving motorcycles and stalls selling vegetables, meats, spices, carpets and clothes. Other highlights include the Kasbah, an old fortress that’s now home to a museum where you can take in insane views of Spain across the sea, and Perdicaris Park, a free and less-visited seaside forest just outside the city. You can wander through Tangier checking out all its incredible architecture without spending a penny, although the Kasbah Museum will cost you 20 dirhams.
If you want to stay in the heart of the medina, The Melting Pot Rooftop Hostel is a solid choice – a roof terrace with views of the ocean and the Great Mosque, live music and art nights and cheap, comfy dorms to rest up in before a day’s exploring.
- How long to spend: Two or three days
- Getting there: You can fly in, get a ferry from Spain or a bus from other main cities
2. The Caves of Hercules
A taxi from Tangier will take you to the famous Caves of Hercules in just 20 minutes. The caves were hollowed out over time by both nature and local tribes, and they open out to the sea with a window shaped like Africa. Legend has it that the Roman god Hercules stayed in these caves during his trials! You could add a trip up to the Cap Spartel lighthouse to make a day of exploring Morocco’s Atlantic coast, or check out the opulent summer palace of the King of Morocco nearby.
- How long to spend: You can explore the caves in a morning or make it a full day to check out Cap Spartel too.
- Getting there: Taxis can get you here and back from Tangiers for around 200 dirhams (£17)
- Price: 5 dirhams (50p)
Chefchaouen is a regular feature in most lists of the best cities to visit in Morocco. It’s an awesome ancient town painted almost entirely blue, located in the Rif Mountains not too far from Tangier. Nobody really knows why the city is painted blue – the practice could’ve been started by Jewish refugees during WW2, or it could be to keep homes cool, repel mosquitos, or just to attract travellers – if it’s the latter, it’s definitely working!
The vine-covered azure streets lined by pot plants and clothing stalls are a backpacker’s dream (and ideal for filling up your Instagram feed). The centuries-old Kasbah (citadel) is well worth dropping into for 10 dirhams – it has a small prison, a museum and views over the city from the walls.
Blue tiled Hostel Baraka blends in with its surroundings, and its roof terrace has a hammock deck and BBQ zone with 360 views of the medina below. It’s spotlessly clean and the staff are happy to help you plan the next leg of your journey.
- How long to spend: One or two days
- Getting there: The cheapest option is a bus from Fes or Tangier
Fez is Morocco’s second largest city, just a few hours’ drive from Tangier or Chefchaouen. The old medina is a preserved medieval warren of walkways shaded by timber beams, with busy markets and hidden madrasas. It’s also one of the largest car free urban spaces on the planet, so it’s perfect to spend hours exploring (and getting lost!) on foot.
Fez is best-known for its dye pits or ‘tanneries’, where craftsmen work on the leather products you’ll spot round all of Morocco’s souks – bags, shoes etc. You can see them at work from the surrounding leather shops, usually for a small fee. The narrow alleyways around the pits can get a bit dodgy after dark, so keep an eye on the time.
It’s definitely worth paying a visit to Café Clock, not far from the Water Clock and the Blue Gate. It’s a multi-storey restaurant with great food that hosts live music and cooking classes, which take you out into the market to buy ingredients. I came here almost every night and still have their recipe book.
Medina Social Club is a colourful, friendly hostel in Fez that’s decked out in traditional Moroccan design. They offer free breakfast every day and host cultural events like dances, plays and music nights.
- How long to spend: Two or three days
- Getting there: You can fly in or get buses from other major cities
It’s impossible to talk about the best places to visit in Morocco without mentioning Marrakech. The medina feels less medieval than Fez and is much less blue than Chefchaouen, but it’s special in a uniquely Marrakech way. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the largest traditional market (souk) in the country.
The Ben Youssef Islamic College in the medina is re-opening this year after renovations, an important religious site covered in intricate mosaics and with beautifully tiled pools -definitely worth the entrance price of 50 dirhams (£4). Watch out for nearby touts offering to take you to the dye pits, as it’s a scam. Full disclosure, I got sucked into it and saw a fair few travellers making the same mistake on the walk back to the souk.
Another must-visit spot that should be on your list for Marrakech is Jemaa el-Fnaa, a massive open square filled with snake charmers, henna artists, dancers, storytellers and food stalls. This is one of the busiest squares in Africa. You can get dinner or tea on several nearby rooftop restaurants to get a sense of scale and just take it all in. The Miaara Jewish cemetery, a humbling expanse of white tombstones near the magnificent Bahia palace, is also worthy of your time.
But my favourite place in the entire city is The Majorelle Garden (or Jardin Majorelle), an oasis created by French painter Jacques Majorelle over forty years, just a short walk from the walls of the Marrakech medina. Several storeys of towering bamboo lean over shaded walks past little streams and fountains. It’s an antidote to medina fatigue, an idyllic haven hidden in the Marrakech madness. It costs 70 dirhams to enter (£6), or 35 (£3) for students, and is usually open from 8-6, but this varies depending on the time of year.
You’ll feel like royalty on a backpacker’s budget staying at Rodamon Riad. It’s got a roof terrace and bar for soaking up the scorching Marrakech sun, but when it all gets too much you can cool off in the stunning courtyard pool. It’s full of traditional touches and even the dorms are bougie AF!
- How long to spend: Two or three days
- Getting there: The majority of domestic and international flights fly into Marrakech airport
6. Atlas Mountains
If you’re having a coffee or mint tea on a Marrakech rooftop, you’re likely to see faint mountain peaks hiding behind low clouds. These are the tips of the Atlas Mountains, which separate Morocco’s main cities from the desert. You can take a day tour from Marrakech or hop on a bus to one of the towns in the mountains to experience local life.
The Atlas Mountains are home to fascinating ancient Berber villages. In winter there’ll be snow on the mountaintops, and there’s waterfalls, deep canyons and treks to explore – you’ll feel a million miles from the humid crowds of Marrakech. Top sites include Todra Gorge and Ouzoud Falls. You could spend days just hiking through the Atlas if your itinerary allows. The best hikes start from the quiet town of Imlil.
A challenge that’s not for the faint hearted, Toubkal Mountain is the highest in the Atlas, capping at 4,167 metres. Treks to the peak leave from Imlil, and you’ll be guided by local Berber people. You don’t need to be an experienced climber, but the hike is steep and long. It’s best to attempt this one in the warmer months. The reward is worth it – views of what feels like the whole planet await at the top.
- How long to spend: One to three days
- Getting there: A 5-hour bus from Marrakech to Ouarzazarte goes through the Atlas Mountains and costs around 80 dirhams (£7)
Although this gritty city isn’t much to look at, it’s a must-visit for film fanatics, having attracted Hollywood directors and producers for years. Atlas Studios, the world’s largest film studio, is nearby.
Ouarzazate is a base for heading to Ait Benhaddou, a hilltop fort and clay village on an ancient caravan route to Marrakech. A long list of films and TV shows have been shot here, including Gladiator, Babel, Kingdom of Heaven and most recently Game of Thrones – Ait Benhaddou featured heavily in season 3. Some shops in the village are carved straight out of the hillside, mostly selling trinkets and offering a chance to play with movie props. Narrow streets wind up to a small peak, where you’ll find a perfect sunset spot to watch the light drop over the red desert and distant mountains.
Another stop near Ouazazarte is Fint Oasis, an out-of-the-way collection of villages that are home to lush palm trees and a sparkling turquoise lake in the middle of the dry desert. You can day trip here from the city, but you’ll need to hire a taxi or a 4WD which can be costly.
Cinema Riad is a hostel that plays tribute to its location in the ‘Hollywood of Morocco’, decorated with classic movie memorabilia. The roof terrace offers views of the green palms and Atlas Mountain backdrop, what’s not to love?
- How long to spend: One night
- Getting there: Take a bus from Marrakech
8. The Sahara Desert
The Sahara is the world’s largest hot desert and one of the best places to visit in Morocco. Interestingly, the Sahara alternates between life as a desert and that of an open grassland every 20,000 years or so, depending on changes to the Earth’s axis. It is expected to go green again in about 15,000 years. Meanwhile, its dust can be carried by the wind as far as the Amazon rainforest and even Greenland. Impressed? You should be.
The Sahara almost always rates as travellers’ most fulfilling experience in Morocco. Camel trekking through the sand across spectacular scenery, camping out under the stars, cooking dinner over the fire and experiencing pure peace, all under the guidance of an expert local.
- How long to spend: 2-3 days
- Getting there: You can take a desert tour from Ouazazarte, Marrakech or Fez. These aren’t cheap and can’t be done in a day, but are worth your time and every penny
Most backpackers to Morocco usually overlook the capital, heading instead to big hitters like Marrakech or Chefchaouen, which is totally unfair. The ancient Kasbah of the Udayas is another of Morocco’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the walk uphill to the gate will make you feel like you’re on a movie set. The Hassan Tower, located in the aptly-named Hassan Quarter, is a beautiful red sandstone minaret flanked by white columns, part of an unfinished mosque. History buffs should also head to the Chellah, an old citadel and gardens complex housing Roman ruins. Entry prices have recently increased for foreigners to 70 dirhams (£6).
For a place to bed down in the capital, Medina Surfing Association offers not only a cosy stay, but the chance for surfing lessons with some local pros. Rabat’s beaches have some of the best waves in the country! When you’re not in the sea, enjoy free breakfast, a sociable rooftop terrace and an awesome location close to Rabat’s best nightlife.
- How long to spend: Two days
- Getting there: Flights arrive in Rabat from major European hubs, plus there are buses from other Moroccan cities
Casablanca is the stuff of Hollywood legend – here’s looking at you kid! The city’s top landmark is the breathtaking Hassan II Mosque, the largest in Africa with the continent’s tallest minaret. It’s a mammoth place of worship nestled by the ocean that can hold over 100,000 people (80,000 outside). Non-Muslims are allowed to visit during certain hours, as long as they wear appropriate clothing. Entry is 120 dirhams (£10)
Elsewhere in the city, the Moorish architecture (that’s a mixture of French and Arabic influences) is stunning. The sociable beach area is lined with busy bars and restaurants, and the one of a kind Morocco Mall offers way more that your typical shopping experience, with an indoor souk, fairground and even an ice skating rink – not the most obvious activity in 35 degree+ heat!
LHostel A Casablanca is head to toe tradition, a red clay building with leafy gardens and pretty courtyards. The dorms are clean and comfy, while the budget-friendly private rooms are fit for royalty. Their amazing buffet breakfast of Moroccan and international dishes will set you up for a day’s surfing and exploring.
- How long to spend: One night
- Getting there: Casablanca has an international airport, plus buses to other cities are frequent
Has this list of the best places to visit in Morocco got you psyched for a North African adventure? We hope so! If you’ve got more Moroccan insider tips, let us know in the comments.
About the author:
I’m Ewen, a journalist living in Sydney and co-founder of Taiga Travel, a locally-run tour company in Mongolia. My favourite journey was buying a small motorcycle in Ulaanbaatar and riding it to Europe, an adventure you can read about here