Morocco is a country with everything you’ll find in the more typical Mediterranean destinations of Europe with many African extras thrown in, and a price tag that’s much more forgiving to strained wallets. I’m going to let you in on five of my top Moroccan favorites along with the hotels I personally recommend, but please don’t stop at just these five. These are merely to get you started on your Moroccan exploration.
Meknes: Located in the north of Morocco, Meknes is a 9th-century medina surrounded by a 21st-century city. One of Morocco’s previous capitals, it still holds several major historical sites: Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, Bab Mansour (one of the most well-preserved gates in all of Morocco), Dar Jamai Museum (fascinating exhibits) and is one hour from Volubilis, a fascinating set of Roman ruins. Meknes’ medina (defined as the “old arab quarter of a North African town”) is what I like to call a “tester,” as it’s not so large as to utterly confuse you, but it’s just enough to test your sense of navigation through an exciting real world maze. Inside that maze but close to its entrance is the well signposted Ryad Bahia.
Pristine in every way, this authentic Ryad makes you feel at home in Morocco’s unique culture immediately upon your first steps through its gate. You’ll be greeted with mint tea and a warm smile, ushered into the open air sitting room for a calming rest before being escorted on the “house tour.” On the roof of the Ryad you can take in a sunset (or a sunrise) and get a better look at the old city which surrounds you. Ryad Bahia, and the city of Meknes, is the ideal first stop to introduce yourself to Moroccan culture and living.
Fez: The old city of Fez has one overwhelming and awe-inspiring attraction, the behemoth medina. A UNESCO World Heritage site measuring an astonishing 2.4 square miles, it is one of the most well-preserved old cities in the Arab-Muslim world. One might think the world’s largest car-free urban area would be a breath of fresh air for pedestrians, but you’re in for a shock and a treat. The Fez medina is one of world’s most complex mazes with treats and treasures down every little side alley. People do get lost here (often!), but thankfully there is always a local on hand to point the way to tourist site, your hotel or to the tannery (a site not to be missed).
Deep inside this huge medina, but not at all consumed by it, is the absolutely stunning Palais Amani Hotel. Your first glimpse of this private medina mansion-turned luxury hotel is the simple and unmarked front door, which belies the comforting opulence inside. You’re immediately transported to a Moroccan world beyond the crazed medina, but still very much inside it. Take the elevator to the rooftop balcony-bar for a glimpse of what surrounds you, and then make your way back to your suite where the exceptional Amani staff are available to cater to your every desire. Palais Amani is without a doubt one of Morocco’s finest hotels.
Merzouga: Don’t be alarmed if you’ve never heard of this remote Moroccan gem, I hadn’t either until my recently. It’s the gateway village to an overnight experience you’ll never forget, a night in the Sahara Desert: the dune covered, sand in the wind, plantless desert of your mind’s eye. It’s breathtaking and definitely worth the journey to this remote corner of Morocco. The travel arrangements can easily be organized by the reliable and accommodating Kasbah Mohayut.
Mohayut has everything you’ll need for your Sahara experience including its own campsite in the desert for overnight stays with the obligatory camel trek. The key to a good camel adventure is happy, well-fed and well-hydrated camels (along with top-notch desert guides). Once in the desert, you’ll be treated to the most amazing sunset of your life, authentic berber music and a feast fresh from the tajine. If you’re lucky, your Mohayut guides will tell you their coveted collection of Berber jokes and teach you a few Berber phrases for later use on your adventures.
Ouarzazate: Have you ever wondered where Hollywood gets some of those perfectly arid desert scenes from? Chances are some of your favorite desert classics have passed through Morocco at some point during their filming. It’s a country that’s been welcoming Hollywood directors since the ‘60s, and the town of Ouarzazate has been at the center of it all. From here you can take tours through the sets and locales of famous blockbuster hits: Cleopatra, Kingdom of Heaven, Sahara, Lawrence of Arabia and even the current filming of the HBO series Game of Thrones.
Dar Chamaa has the inside track on all filming, past and present, because it’s here that many cast and crew are likely to stay. Dar Chamaa can easily set you up on a tour of cinema sites as well as anything you might need in the nearby Atlas Mountains (you can see them from the hotel balconies). The staff at Dar Chamaa is young and delightful, providing a fresh perspective on central Morocco and its hospitality. If movies aren’t your style, the villages south of Ouarzazate provide a wealth of other activities from authentic Moroccan ceramics to the history of the ‘Kasbah.’ Have Dar Chamaa set up a schedule that fits your desires.
Marrakech: No trip to Morocco is complete without tackling the city at the heart of Moroccan tourism, the intensity of which will overwhelm you (it’s meant to). Marrakech contains the modern soul of Morocco, the countries most intriguing sites and museums, and the fiercest medina of them all. Don’t forget to bring your penchant for haggling because you’re going to need it. Marrakech appears to unfold before your eyes every dusk on the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa (the assembly of trespassers), a UNESCO site which has to be seen to be believed. I met a traveling couple on a rooftop bar overlooking the square who claimed they went to Jemaa el-Fnaa every night of their vacation in order to “people-watch.” “We can’t get enough,” she said to me.
When I’d had enough, it was incredibly comforting to know I could retire to the serenity of the medina’s Riad al Massarah, a quiet boutique hotel inside the Marrakech chaos. I was seriously impressed with how relaxing and comforting Michel and Michael (hotel owners) have made their tiny slice of an otherwise whirling medina. Pool, spa, hammam, library and rooftop breakfast all await your visit. By day you tackle the wonderous disarray of Marrakech’s bustling beauty, and by night you settle into your cozy corner of sanity in Riad al Massarah.
And if these five suggestions aren’t enough to satisfy your Moroccan cravings (and I’m certain they won’t be), may I also suggest you take time to explore the cities of Essaouira, Rabat, Tanger, Agadir and Tetouan. All have their own unique spin on Moroccan adventure and are absolutely worth the visit. Enjoy!