I love traveling to Europe (obviously), but there are some trips where you crave a complete departure from Western culture. Morocco has always been on my bucket list because it’s so exotic to me as an American, who has never been to a Muslim country. (I KNOW.) Spending a night glamping in the Sahara, watching snake charmers in the square, shopping in the souks, eating tagines and staying in riads adorned with lanterns and intricate tile are just a few of the reasons I was aching to go.
I’m happy to report it was everything I dreamed, and it also ended up being the last big trip for me before the world shut down international travel. Another reminder that we should always just do the thing, because we don’t know what the future will hold.
Sermon over. Now on to more practical tips for visiting Morocco. First, make sure you have a couple of weeks if you want to make the most of your time – my crew flew into Marrakesh, spent a night in Dades Gorge (breathtaking), one night in the Sahara (pinch me), drove to Fes (foodie haven), moved to Chefchaouen (known as the Blue City) and ended in Rabat before flying out of Casablanca. When planning to visit, you could easily just spend 4 nights in Marrakesh. If you want to see more of the country, I’d recommend 2 nights in Dades Gorge for relaxing and hiking, one night in the Sahara (no need to hang out), 3 nights in Fes and then 2 nights in Chefchaouen, ending with a day in Rabat for flying out of Casablanca.
I used Two Nights In to help me map out the trip, as it wasn’t somewhere I felt comfortable “winging it.” We had a driver – Hicham! – throughout the trip who was on call anytime we needed him, and that’s hands-down my number one piece of advice. He also became one of our crew, even catching my friend as she fell backwards getting into a taxi. (Ha.) My second piece of advice is that if you like to drink wine as I do, be prepared to BYOB, especially in Chefchaouen. The city is alcohol free and we had to “do a deal” in some dark, private room to get wine for dinner. Third, plan way further in advance than you would normally if you’re more spontaneous like me, as accommodations book up fast. And finally, the Jardin Majorelle is Instagram hell – way too many influencers to actually enjoy yourself, so I’d skip it.
…where to crash and get some R&R
Luxe takes on a new meaning in this hotel that feels more like a palace if you would like to splurge (I didn’t but would next time). And if you don’t stay, definitely make time to sip cocktails on the vast grounds underneath the palm trees and warm night air. With decor and ambiance that showcases colorful Morocco while also giving a nod to its French colonial history, you’ll be transported to a bygone era where men still wear ties to dinner and women are decked out in evening dresses. Despite the elegant surroundings, the staff is very friendly and accommodating, without the stiffness you might find at other properties of its caliber.
A riad is a traditional Moroccan house, usually with a courtyard, and offers a different experience than you’ll get at one of the luxury properties. No doubt you’ve seen several riads while scrolling through Instagram, and I’d highly recommend the experience of this tradition at some point during your stay. La Maison Arabe is just minutes from the Jemaa el-Fnaa and was a perfect welcome to Morocco for my girls trip. Though it feels small and boutique-y, the property has a spa (I went straight there after the plane), a beautiful tea room, a dark, cozy bar with a live piano, and a restaurant overlooking the pool lit up by hundreds of lanterns. It’s a magical sight.
Most people make a stop in Dades Gorge on their way to the Sahara – it’s about a 6-hour drive from Marrakesh, but it’s a beautiful one. This little hotel is tucked in the cliffs, and I wish I could have stayed just one more night to do some hiking and relaxing amongst the scenery of the mountains. It was something I didn’t expect during this trip. The rooms here are modest yet lovely (mine had a private terrace with insane views), but the real star is the restaurant where foodies will enjoy the coursed out European-Moroccan fusion … and wine!
This was where I was SUPPOSED to stay, but it got booked up. Instead, I stayed at Palais Faraj, which was really nice with an amazing rooftop restaurant and spa, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the rooms – just a tad outdated. Palais Amani is a new, boutique property with only 18 rooms that are modern, but not without the traditional Moroccan aesthetic. What lured me in was the colorful tile and plush furnishings found in the luxury rooms. Go and let me know how it is.
I’m recommending Riad Fes because it’s a Relais & Chateau property, and I find these properties never disappoint. Though I wanted to stay here, sadly it was booked during my trip even though I planned months in advance. The aesthetic celebrates the Moroccan decor that is revered all over the world with handcrafted rugs, intricate tile and antique furnishings, while the location inside the ancient Medina can’t be beat – it’s where you’ll want to spend most of your time. Just don’t got out at night alone – 1. you’ll definitely get lost in the maze and 2. it’s not very safe.
We opted to stay in Rabat the night before our flight instead of Casablanca, and I have to say that this was definitely the right move. Right on the water, Rabat’s cool breezes (in September anyway) gave us beach vacation vibes and our friendly and knowledgeable guide really made the quick stay special and unexpected. Euphoriad is much like a small palace boasting blues and whites and gold in its lavish courtyard. Definitely make time for a dip in the pool located on the terrace with breathtaking views of the Medina. Trust me – skip Casablanca and go to Rabat instead. It’s only about an hour to the Casablanca airport from here.
You’ll learn that the Greek had a huge influence on Chefchaoeun which is obvious from the architecture. The Blue City doesn’t have a lot of nice lodging options and this was the recommended spot. It’s a 5-star property decorated in the blue and white that gives this city its name. Plus, it has a spa. You can never get enough massages or hammam trips IMO.
If you have limited time and can’t get to the Sahara, but want to experience a remote location not far from Marrakesh, this destination in the Atlas Mountains offers serenity and 5-star service. It’s glamping at its finest with an array of activities at your fingertips – camel rides, private lunches, yoga, hot air balloon rides, and more.
Spending a night in the Sahara is something I will never forget. Upon arrival into the small town on the edge of the vast desert, you take a camel ride at sunset until you reach camp among the dunes. Though the white tents look simple on the outside, the inside is far from roughing it with full-size beds, Moroccan rugs and all the comforts of a riad including a fully functioning bathroom. The evening activities are filled with drums, food cooked in tagines, the moon as you’ve never seen it before and countless stars. Guests awake before the sun comes up to watch the sunrise over the dunes – another spectacular sight.
During our hike in the Atlas Mountains, we passed this desert oasis and from just one look, you could tell this property was a destination in itself. Richard Branson owns this hotel and it’s everything you would expect from a man of his tastes – from the lush gardens that provide a perfect contrast to the desert rocks to the eclectically decorated rooms to the multiple lounges, pools and cocktail bars. Now that I’ve seen a great deal of Morocco, this would be a great spot to spend the days hiking remote mountains and the nights with a cocktail taking in the views from a 5-star property that’s made the list of Travel + Leisure’s Best three years in a row.
…where to chow down and then unbutton the top button
The experience of my first tagine in Morocco did not disappoint, and I think it was my absolute favorite of the trip. Our guide took us to this authentic spot overlooking the medina and the simple chicken tagine with olives and lemons was cooked to perfection. No booze – but we probably needed water and shade more.
An old post office transformed into a French restaurant with wicker chairs, ceilings fans and greenery, located right in the middle of the bustling Marrakesh streets. Here you’ll find typical French dishes – beef tartare, warm goat cheese salad and prawns – along with all of the pastries you’d expect to find on the streets of Paris. You can definitely set up here for a chill night with a couple of great bottles of French wine.
As you walk in, the scene will take your breath away. Hundreds of lanterns adorn poolside tables creating a magically exotic atmosphere that you and your fellow guests will comment on throughout the night … and as the wine continues to pour. The food won’t disappoint and you can choose from Moroccan and International dishes depending on your mood. After dinner, you can have a drink in the dark lounge to the tune of a live piano.
We only had a couple of nights in Fes and it was very hard to choose where to book dinners (definitely book in advance). This one seemed truly special – frequented by foodies from Europe and with a female chef at the helm (not very common in Morocco). Tucked among the twists and turns of the Medina, the journey to this tiny spot is an experience in itself, but don’t worry, one of their staff will meet you outside and escort you through the streets and to your table. At 10 courses with wine pairings, this dégustation menu is a culinary journey where we tasted some truly inventive dishes while getting a glimpse into Chef Najat’s love affair with cooking.
Only steps away from the Medina, this palace turned hotel boasts green and white tile and a beautiful rooftop restaurant with sweeping views of the city. If you stay as long as I did, you’ll definitely tire of tagine (most restaurants have an international menu option), but I would definitely recommend the traditional Moroccan menu here. And if you are staying at the hotel, don’t skip breakfast. It might have been my favorite meal – delicious breads with a plethora of jams, cheeses and honey.
If I could say I discovered one hidden gem on this trip, this Mediterranean café in the Blue City would be it. This cute café with a rooftop view features simple and delicious options that include Shakshuka, fresh juices, omelettes, falafel and mezze. Over a week into the trip, it was a welcome departure from the heavier Moroccan dishes.
One of the nicest restaurants in Rabat, Cosmopolitan is a modern spot in the city featuring fresh seafood that includes oysters, given its proximity to the Mediterranean. But even if you’re not a seafood lover, you can find something from the earth menu – beef, duck or pasta. The wine list favored Old World, and as the clientele is very international, you’re likely to hear several languages on the patio.
… where to drink up and get down
No trip to Morocco is complete without belly dancing and hookah. And Azar – a dark lounge with low tables and deep, red accents – was the perfect Saturday night out in Marrakesh. Throughout the meal (which I don’t really remember because the entertainment was such a spectacle), belly dancers roam the lounge in candelabra headpieces draping scarves over patrons – they’ll even let you try to balance a headpiece yourself. When we weren’t eating or watching the entertainment, we were taking puffs on our hookah, perfecting our form.
This one came recommended from several sources, though we didn’t make it here on this trip. The food is Asian-influenced – many of the flavors and dishes Vietnamese, but Dim Sum is also a highlight. And after you’re done eating (or even if you just come for drinks), stay for the live music and DJs that frequent this spot mostly known for its nightlife.
If you are looking for a club-like atmosphere, this is for you. It’s the perfect place to prolong your evening with a cocktail or two in an eclectic atmosphere of live performances (that look like Mardi Gras), local Moroccan musicians, and at times, international DJs. Get your dance on.
ANTS IN YOUR PANTS
…what to do when you can’t sit still
You likely recognize the lobby’s elegant white decor from several Instagram posts. I always like to do a restful, bougie interlude during the trip for some R&R, so we posted up here for the better part of the day and experienced the traditional hammam at its finest. After disrobing, I was told to lay down on a heated slab of exquisite marble while they scrubbed away the dead skin (and some of the live skin), as I found myself a bit rubbed raw on one side of my rib. Ouch! (Worth it though.) They washed my hair with silver pitchers, gave me a massage and then finished it off with a facial – my skin has never been so soft and I felt VERY clean. I keep trying to find something like it here.
I came here twice – once at night and once during the day – and would recommend seeing it in both settings and definitely with a guide. At night, the lights illuminate a bustling market scene, and during the day, you can get a proper tour of the hidden beauties, pharmacies and many souks. You can catch your breath for some shade, beverages and tagine at one of the many rooftop restaurants. With the mosque dominating the skyline, the call to prayer echoes throughout the day, while snake charmers play music to taunt the cobras (who supposedly have no venom but I wasn’t taking chances).
When I think of the beautiful tiles of Morocco, the Bahia Palace is what immediately springs to mind. Around every corner was a different discovery of beautiful tilework that I oohed and ahhhed over. I had to put my camera down because everywhere I turned, I wanted to take a picture. Pro tip – go in the morning as many flock to this treasure in search of the quintessential Moroccan photo op.
A day exploring smaller villages can tell you a lot more about the culture than a city can in a lot of instances, as the rural part of a country is mostly locals. When I learned the mountains were only about an hour outside of Marrakesh, I added hiking to the itinerary. It was a relatively easy hike, but I’m sure there are longer and more grueling hikes if you want to do more than just a day. We were led by a local guide, who welcomed us into his riad for mint tea and told us about life in the mountains and a bit about the Berber people. The highly-coveted Berber rugs are likened more to pieces of art rather than home furnishings, given their intricate craftsmanship that can take months to finish.
To break up the long ride from Marrakesh to the Dades Gorges, we made a pit stop to ride ATVs through the rugged terrain surrounding the UNESCO World Heritage site at Ait Ben Haddou. The ride wasn’t a walk in the park – our guides really let us loose as we tore up and down hills – some that were quite steep! By the end, we were all feeling pretty badass as we leaned into the dirt instead of away from it. The ride’s pinnacle destination overlooked Ait Ben Haddou – a historic site that was once along the former caravan route between Marrakesh and the Sahara. Also the location in Game of Thrones were Daenerys first unleashed her dragons if you care. I did.
Sunset Camel Ride (Sahara Desert)
If I’m going to ride a camel, it’s going to be in the Sahara. I have no interest in riding a camel in some makeshift animal park. The ride to our camp in the desert took a couple of hours but it was a pinch me moment as we watched the sun dip below the horizon surrounded by sand dunes that appeared to have no end. We dressed the part in turbans and long, billowy dresses, and it turns out the turban has a purpose beyond fashion in keeping the sand out of your face, but we also looked pretty Sex & the City (Part 2). Beware of the dismount – the quick descent catches you by surprise, so hold on.
For the best view of the Blue City, join the masses in hiking up to the Spanish Mosque for a breathtaking sunset. It’s a quick 15 minute hike to the gathering spot, but you can hike further if you have time before sunset. Our guide (though you don’t need one) took us a bit further so he could show us the marijuana plants hiding in fields. (For a city where we had to buy wine on the black market, weed seemed to be pretty accepted.) I digress. Back at the lookout point, there are musicians playing music to accompany the orange and yellow hues bouncing atop the blues of the city.
I JUST BOUGHT THESE PANTS
…where to nab the best threads
Everyone who goes to Morocco wants a rug. For the record, I hate buying things on a trip for the sake of buying them; I want to really love (and use) what I buy. I say all this because a good Moroccan rug is not cheap and if you want a good one that you’ll want to show off in your home, get ready to pay for it. Sure, you can find a cheap one, but that doesn’t mean it has the same craftsmanship of an authentic Berber rug. Palais Saadien came highly recommended for both experience and quality.
The process is magical and exhausting – a salesman rolls out rug after rug while you sip on mint tea and give hand signals that translate to yes and no. Once you find “the one” (or two in my case), the negotiating begins and it’s exhausting (for me anyway). For some, it’s exhilarating. My advice is to stay the course because unless it’s a ridiculous offer, they will usually come down to you, even if they seem like they won’t. I wasn’t the best at bargaining because we had been there for 3 hours at that point – I bought one and then ended up contacting them once I returned home to purchase the second one. I don’t regret it.
The Moroccan Pharmacy
How would the Moroccan pharmacy compare with my favorite French Pharmacie? After visiting both, I can only say that they’re both very different, but what they share are many destination options throughout the country. Our guide recommended one in Marrakesh, and upon arriving, my friends and I were ushered into a room while an expert explained the purposes of all the oils and herb mixtures that surrounded us. The standouts were cactus oil (deemed natural botox), saffron lip balm, pure Argan oil, orange blossom scents and an herbal tea that helped with bloating. It’s also a great place for gifts – I bought beaucoup orange blossom for friends and co-workers for its stress relieving properties.
This place was located across from our riad and we were really just killing time when we walked in, but ended up trying on turbans, scarves and kaftans. My kaftan is one of my favorite purchases – the silk is luxurious and cool with vibrant colors. It’s my go-t0 coverup when lounging poolside.
The tanneries in Fes are a sight (and smell) to behold in itself. Luckily, the salesmen give you mint leaves to place under your nose for the initial tour where you see the legendary dyeing vats for preparing Moroccan leather. The tour ends at showrooms full of leather goods – from bags to jackets to other accessories. We all bought leather coats of different colors for about $150 each (a steal for real leather!). After taking our measurements, they custom-made the jackets and delivered them to our hotel that night!