I spent two weeks in Morocco with Intrepid Travel’s Best of Morocco Tour. With its dramatic landscapes, fascinating history, and intersection of Berber, Sub-Saharan, Arabian and European culture, it should be on the bucket list of every world traveler.
For solo travelers or couples, assembling an itinerary for a place like Morocco – including booking hotels and overland transport – can seem daunting. Small group tour operators like Intrepid make it possible for even solo female travelers to immerse themselves in a culture while having the work and worry of the planning taken care of.
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Morocco Haphazard Rating: (3 of 5). Expect more basic hotels and services, particularly outside of the large cities. The winding old city medinas are difficult to navigate. Female travelers may feel they receive unwanted comments or attention.
To See: Sahara Desert, Settings of Game of Thrones and Gladiator, Roman ruins, labyrinthine medinas, souks and markets, Atlas Mountains, coastal towns
To Eat: tagines, couscous, mint tea, camel burgers, pastilla pigeon pie, the best olives and dates
When to Go: Weather is best in April – May or September – November
Intrepid’s trip begins in Casablanca and continues through major cities like Rabat and Fez before it ends in Marrakech. You also spend several days in the Atlas mountains and an overnight in the Sahara, in addition to the seaside town of Essaouira. Keep reading to find out all the best sights, food and adventures this trip has in store!
Morocco History, Religion and Geography
Current-day Morocco is part of the Maghreb, the name for the region of western North Africa which in Arabic means “west” or “sunset.” It is also the legal and Arabic name for Morocco. The Maghreb’s ancient and Classical history is a blend of native Berber tribes, Phoenician settlements on the coast, and later as a Roman province. In the 7th century, a Muslim conquest brought the Arabic language and Islam to the region. The next centuries saw Berber and Arab dynasties, and even invasions by Ottomans, until Morocco was united under the Alouite dynasty in 1666. This is still the ruling house of Morocco. In the late 19th century, both Spain and France had designs on Morocco as a colony, and entered into a treaty to establish protectorate regions within the country. In 1956, Morocco gained its independence from France and then, a few years later, from Spain. Morocco is now a constitutional monarchy under King Mohammad VI.
The official languages of Morocco are Arabic and Berber. French is also spoken in the larger cities.
Islam is the state religion of Morocco. The second most prevalent religion is Christianity, although most Christians are foreigners or descendants from the period of Spanish and French colonization. Morocco’s Jewish population has mostly emigrated to Israel and other countries, with fewer than 6,000 estimated remaining.
Morocco has coasts on both the Atlantic and Mediterranean, one of the things that made it so attractive as part of an empire or protectorate in its past. The Atlas mountains, still mostly inhabited by Berber people, run down the center and southwest of the country. The Sahara desert makes up a large portion of the southeast. Another mountain range, the Rif, is found in the north.
I traveled in November, which was generally nice, although cold at night in the cities at higher altitudes. Beware of traveling during the summer months – the temperatures can easily be over 100F.
Two Weeks in Morocco
The starting point of my trip was Casablanca. Because the itinerary included only one night there, I planned to arrive a day early; unfortunately, my first flight was cancelled and I couldn’t catch up to the other connections. So I arrived on the same flights the following day, but still in plenty of time to meet my group that night.
In the airport, follow signs to the taxi stand outside. You’ll need to agree on a price with the driver, since taxis aren’t metered. I paid around 300 dirham ($30) to get to the city center. There are currency exchanges and ATMs upon exiting customs.
In Morocco, you’ll encounter two types of taxis: petit taxis, which will only carry 3 passengers or less, and grand taxis which will carry 4. All of the airport taxis are grand taxis.
Sightseeing in Casablanca is limited, especially in comparison to Morocco’s other cities. There is a Rick’s Cafe modeled after the movie bar if you’re a film buff. Before setting off by train to Rabat, some of my group and I made a quick trip to the Hassan II Mosque, the largest in Morocco, for a guided tour.
Rabat & Meknes
Rabat is the capital of Morocco and has a beautiful train station and a wide main avenue. You can walk around to see the royal mausoleum and nearby gardens, then follow the walls of the old citadel to the ocean. There are shops and cafes along the way.
Meknes is another chance to tour by foot, with a morning walk from the granary to the medina for lunch. This is where my love affair with mint tea began – but camelburgers, not so much. In many Moroccan cities, you’ll find a main square with an open market. To escape the sellers and bustle of the city, look for a restaurant with a rooftop terrace where you can enjoy a cup of mint tea in peace.
A “camel burger” from a seller in the Meknes souk
Mint tea is served hot and very sweet throughout Morocco. Found here on a rooftop above the Meknes El Hedim square
Volubilis is the site of Roman ruins set against the Moroccan countryside, and the best-preserved archaeological site in the country. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, it is known for its many beautiful mosaics. Take a guided tour and spend a few hours roaming the ruins of different palaces, houses, public buildings, bathhouses, and more.
Be sure to take sunscreen, a hat and water. There is little shade, but the views of the ruins and surrounding area are beautiful!
Volubilis, ruins of a Roman and Berber city near Meknes, fell to local tribes in 285 and was never retaken by Romans. During the early 20th century, it was excavated by the French.
Detail of a Volubilis mosaic representing the 12 labors of Hercules
Ruins of the basilica at Volubilis, used for the administration of justice and governance of the city
Start the day with a walking tour of the city, including the gates of the Grand Palace, or the Dar El Makhzen. Fes was Morocco’s capital until 1924, and is its second-largest city and cultural hub. A day in the winding streets of the medina is fascinating and nearly overwhelming.
Although it was early in my trip, Fes was the best place for souvenir shopping. Visit the Tamegroute Pottery Cooperative to see pottery being made and painted by artisans. Here you can purchase ceramics made from white clay, including decorative bowls and tagines, or even large mosaic fountains and tables. In the medina, visit the metal works of the family who made the palace gates: my group bought ornate silver teapots and a table with a beautiful hammered tray. Stop at a weaver to buy scarves or djellabas and learn how to wrap a turban. You’ll also visit the tannery and, if you survive the smell, can buy leather goods including coats, purses, belts and babouche slippers.
We were happy to stop at a restaurant tucked deep in the medina for a quiet lunch. We had small plate appetizers, harira chickpea soup, and delicious pastilles pies made from either chicken or pigeon (our choice – although I wasn’t sure there was too much difference between the two!).
Stay with your group in the medina and don’t get lost, or you might have to hire a guide to get out and a car to get back to your hotel. (Alternately, you could just apply for a job in the tannery.) In addition to shopping, there are museums and several restored mosques to visit.
View of the Fes medina (old city) from a cemetery at the edge of town.
An artisan in the Tamegroute Pottery Cooperative in Fes. Artists create, paint and hand-form mosaics and pottery pieces before your eyes.
Fes is famous for its leather products, all made in a process that remains mostly unchanged since medieval times. The legendary smell comes from the cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt used to prepare the hides.
The smell is nearly unbearable, despite the mint the guides give you to mask the smell.
Traditional Moroccan babouche slippers from the tanneries in Fes
An assortment of Moroccan salads and spreads including zaalouk, delicious cooked salad made with eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and spices
Midelt began my tour’s ascent into the Middle Atlas Mountains. On one of our stops along the route, we had a chance to see Barbary apes (the only monkey found in North Africa). Our auberge for the night was one of the more rustic hotels along the route, but a welcome respite after the chaos of Fes. We had time in the afternoon for a hike to the nearby village, with dramatic views of the Ziz River.
A Barbary ape, North Africa’s only primate.
The winding path of the Ziz River in Midelt, in the Middle Atlas Mountains
An old aqueduct in Midelt.
If you travel to Morocco, you must do a desert trek. For our tour, the drive from Midelt into the Sahara was around 5 hours. You can also book treks from Marrakech or Essaouira.
I was so excited for this part of the trip that I was practically giddy. We finally reached Merzouga, a settlement at the edge of the desert. There we left our main luggage and prepared only our day packs with necessities for the overnight. After a quick tea, we tied our turbans with help from our desert guides, and settled off on camels into the dunes of the Erg Chebbi (a large sea of dunes that makes up part of Morocco’s Sahara).
The two-hour trek into the desert is almost surreal – orange sand dunes as far as you can see, with the occasional trek group off in the distance. It is also completely quiet other than the sounds of the camels taking steps in the shifting sands.
After arriving in the Sahara camp, some of us hiked to the top of the tallest dune while we waited for our Sahara guides to prepare dinner. In the evening, our guides played and sang traditional Berber songs around a campfire. I’ve never seen more stars than that Sahara overnight.
It was cold, and I was glad I’d brought a small fleece sleeping bag for extra warmth. The tents were made from heavy blankets which sectioned off separate sleeping rooms. There were basic toilet facilities and running water (but no showers).
In the morning, we woke to tea and again mounted the camels for the return trek. We had breakfast at the auberge and freshened up, then began the onward journey to the Atlas Mountains.
Transportation into the Sahara – technically a dromedary (only one hump)
A line of camels file into the Sahara, in the dunes of the Erg Chebbi.
An overnight camp in the Sahara Desert
The dunes of the Erg Chebbi and fellow trekkers against the sunset.
Sahara trek guides are multi-talented: leading your excursion, preparing meals and providing entertainment with traditional Moroccan stories and songs.
Todra Gorge and Ouarzazate
We spent two nights in Todra Gorge, in a hotel nestled into a palmery against sheer rock cliffs. Our guide discouraged us from the optional 10km gorge hike, saying it was too difficult, but the members of our group who went really enjoyed it. Instead most of us hiked through a local village and along the river, stopping for lunch in a local home, before we met up with the rest of the group.
From Tinghir, we continued to Ourzazate and Ait Benhaddou, which served as the Game of Thrones kingdom of Yunkai. The owner of the guest house where we stayed is a frequent movie extra and likes being referred to as “Mr. Action.” After we arrived, my first Facebook post declared “You guys – I can see Game of Thrones from my window!”
We took an evening hike up to the top of the kasbah, where there is a lovely observation deck where you can have tea and watch the sunset. I also bought a painting from a seller there.
Get up early at dawn, and get amazing photos of the kzar before any tourists arrive.
Our trip continued to the High Atlas Mountains, where we again stored our main luggage and took only our day packs on a one-hour hike up to Aroumd. The village is picturesque with brightly colored houses perched against the mountains. We stayed with a local family: the lower level of their house was outfitted with several large shared sleeping rooms connected by a lounge area, with a shared bath. We had a delicious dinner upstairs in their large dining room. Although we wanted to thank the wife who had made the dinner, apparently it wasn’t appropriate – and I wished that our guide had explained this. He said only, “Here is the chef,” as he gestured toward the husband.
The next morning, most of the group went on a hike – but it turns out this was the one to avoid! I happily stayed behind and caught up on some reading, while several of my group barely made it back due to the higher altitude and difficult trail.
Berber carpets for sale along the route of a hike up to Aroumd, a small Berber village in the High Atlas Mountains.
The Berber village of Aroumd, in the High Atlas Mountains
Along the road to Essaouira, we kept an eye out for goats climbing the trees to eat argan seeds, but no luck. We did visit a women’s collective to buy argan oil products (which, honestly, sort of seemed like a bit of a scam but I bought some on the off-chance it wasn’t).
Essouira is a seaside fishing town, and was the most walkable destination of our trip. The medinas lead to the sea wall where you can look out over the Atlantic. Our hotel here was the most unique of the trip – a restored riad. No elevator, but the lobby was open all the way to the top floor with a large atrium, and rooms on each floor had windows into the center.
We took a walking tour of the medina, sea wall (skala) and port, then shopped in the medina before having afternoon tea at the port. In the medina some in my group bought CDs in a local music shop and the store owner recommended regional musicians. When we got back to the hotel, I downloaded some of the music and this was one of my favorite memories of the trip: the sounds of Moroccan, French and sub-Saharan African music echoing through our riad.
Some of us also booked massages, which was a welcome bit of pampering after our desert stay and basic hotel accommodations. That evening we enjoyed dinner at a seafood restaurant with live gnawa music.
The port at the fortress walls of Essauoira (formerly Mogador), on the Atlantic coast.
An arched doorway of a home in Essouira
A cat in a shop of the Essaouira medina
Upon arrival to Marrakech, we checked into our hotel, which had an actual elevator. The more comfortable accommodations were very welcome after two weeks in rustic hotels.
In Marrakech, it was easy to catch a local bus on Mohamed V Avenue, and take it directly to the medina main square, or Djemaa el Fna. We ate in one of the food stalls on the first night we arrived, which felt like a uniquely local experience.
The next day we toured Marrakech – a walking tour of the Kotubia Mosque, and then through the streets of the medina. We ended at the market of Djemaa el Fna square and its labyrinth of sellers. Finally, we had dinner in a local restaurant and celebrated the end of our trip with a strong peppermint drink in the square. There’s a restaurant in the square with a terrace which, again, was a welcome escape from the sellers below. I visited for lunch and again in the evening to get photos of the square.
Two weeks in Morocco was the longest I’ve spent in one country during my travels. Although Morocco is small, with its blend of cultures and gorgeous landscapes, it still wasn’t enough.
The Koutoubia Mosque, the largest mosque in Marrakech
A daytime view of the Djemaa el Fna square, where you can find orange juice sellers and snake charmers by day.
The marketplace of Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech. In the inner market, you can find artisans producing their wares which are sold in the chaotic outer stalls.
A reflecting pool in Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech, a twelve-acre botanical and landscape garden built by French artist Jacques Majorelle. Yves Saint Laurent and partner Pierre Bergé bought the Jardin Majorelle in 1966.
At night, the Djemaa el Fna Square fills with dancers, magicians and musicians, as well as dozens of food stalls.
A peppermint-based drink from a seller in the square, with other spices like cardamom, ginger and galanga.
A Note On Female Travelers In Morocco
Since I traveled, I’ve gotten many questions about my experience in Morocco as a woman. With the growing trend for solo female travel, I wouldn’t recommend Morocco as a spot for this unless you’re an experienced traveler. I mostly stayed with others in my group although I did walk and shop a bit on my own, particularly in Essaouira; and the only time I felt uncomfortable was when I received some comments there in the medina, but nothing explicit. Once, in a crowded passageway in Fes, a man touched my shoulder – but that was the extent of it. We did notice that Moroccan women didn’t go out to cafes or restaurants and were only seen in passing in medinas. The exception was Marrakech: we did see more women out and about, including at the shopping mall.
Overall, I think that souk sellers might be pushier with women traveling alone or without a male guide. And the women in my group definitely felt visible if we ate in local restaurants, but never unsafe.