Morocco is a beautiful and incredibly diverse country to explore - here you will find crumbling sandcastles, deserts, busy markets, sleepy seaside towns, moorish architecture and medieval city centres - all within a few hours drive from each other.
I went to Morocco in June 2014 for 10 days with my friend, Llinos. We split our time between three main cities - Marrakech, Essaouira and Ouarzazate.
Currency: Moroccan Dirham (MAD)
Language(s): Arabic, Berber, French
Plug Sockets: Type C and E
Ease of travel: 5/5
Ease of communication: 3/5
Ease of meeting others: 4/5
General costs: £
Marrakech is a vibrant city - full of bright coloured markets selling fabrics, spices, bags, soaps, beautiful mosques, parks and sensational culinary delights.
The city is split into three main areas - the medina, the ville nouvelle, and the surrounding areas. The medina is the old historic area, made up of twisting alleyways and a maze of bustling market stalls. This is also where you'll find the main sights. If you’re staying in a riad then more than likely you’ll be in the Medina. We decided to stay in a riad, and it was 100% the best decision. This is the most authentic way of experiencing traditional Moroccan day-to-day life and it also helps support local families. I stayed in Riad Amlal, which was beautiful (and budget-friendly!) http://www.riadamlal.com/
If you do chose a hotel for your stay, you’ll most likely find these in the ville nouvelle.
The hardest part about staying in a riad is trying to find it. With lots of unnamed roads creeping off main roads with multiple names (yes, really) - we spent a good 40 minutes in a taxi weaving down random roads and knocking on random doors until FINALLY we found it.
In hindsight, taking a screenshot of the directions or the contact number would have been helpful. At least the taxi ride was cheap!
Riad Amlal, Marrakech
Riad Amlal, Marrakech
Mint tea in Jemaa el-Fnaa
Things to do:
1. Jemaa el-Fnaa Square
Jemaa el-Fnaa is the main square in Marrakech - although lots to see and do pretty much 24 hours a day, the area really comes alive at night and has a fantastic atmosphere. Here you can weave your way through market stalls, food stalls, snake-charmers, horses, musicians and restaurants serving an abundance of delicious mint tea and lamb tagine!
As a compulsive shopper, the souks were the main attraction for me - mazes of stalls selling row upon row of fabrics, spices, bags, soaps and of course, tagines.
There are a multitude of souks in the city - we wandered around a few different ones, gauging the prices before settling on a slightly smaller one in the medina to start haggling. Most tourists start at the souks at Jemaa el-Fna in the day, however if you walk out of the centre a bit, you’ll find that there are many smaller souks with exactly the same stock, but selling at a quarter of the price.
Before heading to shop, it's a good idea to be aware that the custom here is to haggle for goods, and the shop sellers can be pretty full-on, so having an idea of the maximum you're prepared to pay and sticking to it is a good plan.
One thing we did notice was that if the owners heard us speaking English, the prices wouldn't budge much. When we spoke in Welsh to each other, we managed to barter for significantly lower prices. I was pretty lucky that Llinos speaks French, and so we developed a system of speaking solely in Welsh to each other, and then Llinos would translate to French to speak to the stall holders.
I felt pretty chuffed to be coming away with three new bags, lots of spices I'd didn't recognise the names of, some solid perfume that smelt like a yoga studio, and several lampshades. Sadly I couldn't fit a tagine in my backpack.
Henna in the main square
3. Visit a Hammam
No trip to Morocco is complete without visiting a hammam and after a long tiring day of shopping, we decided to try it out.There are lots of options - including ones specifically for tourists, specifically for locals, or some that are a bit of a mix. We chose a hammam that promised an 'Authentic Moroccan Experience' for both locals and tourists.
Although I wouldn’t have said it was necessarily a ‘relaxing’ experience, it was an experience nonetheless. It firstly involved being shouted to remove my clothes and left naked (and awkwardly-facing my equally-naked friend) for what seemed like a hours.
Finally the woman returned and I was ushered through to a different room. Here I was scrubbed vigorously with a black exfoliating scrub until my skin was lobster red from head to toe (and I was wincing with pain). The experience finished off with buckets of lukewarm water thrown all over me, and then we were left again for about half an hour, carefully avoiding each-others gaze until the woman returned with our clothes.
We weren’t quite sure what to make of the whole experience, but two things I was sure of - my skin was baby soft and Moroccan women clearly have a higher pain-threshold than I do.
I think next time, I'll opt for the 'tourist-friendly experience'.
4. The Saadian Tombs
These are well worth a visit. Since the late 1500’s, this area has become home to beautiful mausoleums decorated with colourful patterns, carvings and Arabic scripture for over 60 members of the Saadi Dynasty.
Incredibly these tombs had been forgotten over time - only rediscovered in 1917.
Beautiful geometric patterns
in the Saadian Tombs
5. Koutoubia Mosque
The stunning minaret of Koutoubia mosque stands can be seen from Jemaa el-Fnaa square. The mosque itself is beautiful and worth a look around. At the time we visited, non-muslims were not permitted to enter the mosque itself - but we still managed to enjoy its beauty from the outside.
6. Ouzoud Waterfalls
A popular day trip from Marrakech is to visit a Berber village and the beautiful Ouzoud waterfalls. You'll find lots of travel agents selling these trips, as well as many hostels, hotels and riads.
We selected a day trip that included a visit to a Berber house, copious amounts of mint tea, a camel ride, and a walk up to the waterfalls. If I were to do the day again, I would probably have just taken the walk up to the waterfalls. Although it was interesting to see the Berber house, it felt very much like a tourist gimmick. Groups of tourists on the exact same trip itinerary were shepherded through the house every 10 minutes.
The waterfall itself was pretty and was a nice escape from the bustle of the city.
Day trip to Ourika Valley and Ouzoud Waterfalls
Ouarzazate was the next stop and was where I was most looking forward to exploring.
It is a small city on the edge of the desert and was a lovely place to wander around.
Things to do:
Visit the Kasbahs
These are incredible castles and fortresses built from mud and hay. Many have become crumbling ruins whilst others are standing strong. Kasbah Taourirt is the main kasbah in Ouarzazate itself and provided a beautiful backdrop for wandering around the narrow alleyways. Although incredible, if you push East you’ll find the much more impressive Ait Benhaddou and Kasbah Amridil.
Kasbah's around Ouarzazate
2. Day trip to see Skoura Oasis, Dades Valley, Todra Gorge, Tinghir, Ait Benhaddou and Kasbah Amridil.
We only had one more day in Ouarzazate and wanted to make the most of it, so we had planned a day trip to see kasbahs, the oasis of Skoura, the Dades Valley, the Todra Gorge, Tinghir and the through some rocky desert villages.
Arranging the trip couldn’t have been easier - we had seen several options online and it seemed a lot of companies use the same rough route, however we agreed a cheaper price with the taxi driver we had who took us from the bus station to the hotel. He showed us his company’s private day trip options, gave us his card, and we set a time for the next day to meet. We paid around 200 dirhams each for a full day trip including vehicle and tour guide, entry to all the kasbahs, and lunch. The tour was great and we could spend as little or as much time as we wanted in each place.
Day trip from Ouarzazate
The city itself had a very relaxed vibe, however I did feel a little uneasy walking around during the evening despite being dressed very respectfully. In Marrakech, Llinos and I had been able to walk wherever we wanted without feeling as if we stood out.
In Ouarzazate, it was a different story; wherever we walked we were stared at and had some pretty offensive remarks and inappropriate comments directed at us - mostly by young men. I would have definitely not felt comfortable walking around solo.
Our final stop was Essaouira. We wanted a beach stop but were keen to avoid the touristy areas and so chose this small surfing city, and I'm so glad we did.
Essaouira was hands-down my favourite place in Morocco, with its charming seafront, strong french influence and a distinct relaxed vibe. Here we stayed in a fantastic hostel, Atlantic Hostel - the staff were brilliant, they offered day trips and there was a great backpacker vibe.
Things to do:
Harbour and Port
Here you’ll find the iconic blue boats which have launched thousands of postcards.
You can walk along the harbour and buy fresh fish here.
Essaouria harbour, port and souks
2. Walk along the Ramparts
The ramparts are the city walls - built in the 1700s. They are very well preserved and offer some stunning views of the coastline.
3. The Medina
The medina is a calm and peaceful place to shop in souks, view beautiful artwork in the many galleries and showrooms, and enjoy some mint tea in the many cafes and patisseries. It’s worth noting that the prices here are much much lower than in Marrakech.
4. The Beach
The beach in Essaouira is clean and well-kept. It’s a great place to come in Summer as even though the rest of Morocco has scorching sunshine, Essaouria temperatures drop to mid 20 degrees celcius - perfect tanning temperature!
My best meal of the trip was here in Essaouira. The fish market had been recommended to us by a girl at our hostel, and I had seen no mention of it before in my travel guide.
At the harbour were a row of fishing boats - each day they anchor here at about midday and the fishermen sell a selection of their fish. You pick your fish and buy it. I’m not particularly skilled at gutting fish and so I paid a different fisherman 10 dirhams to gut my bag of fish.
To eat it, we walked down to the fish market itself - big blue market stalls with clusters of picnic benches and beaming locals ready to cook your fish at their grill. We paid 20 dirhams to have our fish grilled with spices, and plated up. You can also buy raw fish here if you don't have it from the harbour (however it's slightly pricier here and less fresh).
The meal was delicious - the meatiest fish I’ve ever tasted! The only downside was the fact that there was no cutlery available - it took a lot of strength to break and eat my lobster with bare hands!
Fish market, Essaouira
Beware of hungry cats trying to steal your fish!
Places I would have liked to have visited:
Rabat, Tangier and Fes were places I heard great things about during the trip. Sadly I didn't have time for them, but are definitely places I'd like to go back to.
All the places I visited were easy to get to by bus.
Before coming to Morocco I researched transport online and found two companies that were well-established and well-reviewed; CTM and Supratours. I had found booking online difficult - the websites didn't translate to english particularly well, but I had read online that booking in person was quick and easy. On the first day in Marrakech we went to the CTM and Supratrours offices near the bus station and managed to buy all the tickets for the trip in one go; the whole process taking less than an hour.
The bus from Marrakech to Ouarzazate was 4 hours, and the bus from Marrakech to Essaouira was 4 hours. Unfortunately there was no direct way of getting between Essaouira from Ouarzazate so we had to face a long day on two buses.
The buses were clean, safe, punctual and importantly, air-conditioned!
Other options for getting around other parts of Morocco include train and plane.
Train travel is a good option between Rabat, Tangier, Marrakech, Fes and Casablanca.
Plane travel is expensive - but obviously a much quicker option for long-distance routes.
Top Tips for Morocco
Dress respectfully - this doesn’t mean you need to cover from head to foot or wear traditional dress, just don’t walk around in shorts and strappy tops.
I dressed covering my shoulders and knees in Marrakech and Ouarzazate, and relaxed a little in Essaouria.
If you’re heading to places other than Marrakech, hold off buying items in the souks until you reach these destinations - you will find souks outside of Marrakech much cheaper!
ATMs are easily found and easy to use - so don’t worry about bringing piles of cash in with you.
If you speak a little french it will help greatly!
Don’t go to Morocco expecting to be able to drink alcohol easily - yes it is available and there are many cafes and restaurants that serve alcohol, however they are the minority and they are usually expensive!