The Kingdom of Morocco is one of the most interesting places I have ever visited. The fact that it’s accessible with just a short boat ride from Spain or a low budget flight from a lot of European destinations makes it even more attractive. The country’s geographical diversity is truly astonishing as one can enjoy an abundance of interesting yet completely different cities, the glorious mountains, both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast as well as the Sahara desert. Although the cities tend to be quite dirty and it might be challenging to get used to the local mentality, the Moroccan architecture and the landscapes are completely breathtaking. If you’re traveling to Morocco here is a short guide and some tips & tricks for getting around the North African jewel:
CHEFCHAOUEN (“THE BLUE CITY”) – the name of the city translates to “two horns” in Arabic because it’s hidden in a rural slope in between the Rif mountains. The city’s medina (the old walled part of the town) is entirely colored in blue. The rumors say that the buildings might be painted blue because it helps to keep away the mosquitoes. This charming little town is surely the best place to visit in the north of the country as the blue medina filled with flower pots and all kinds of colorful Moroccan goodies make it the most photogenic town in the country. The locals speak Arabic, French and Spanish however one can get around with English as well. Since it’set high in the mountains nights tend to be quite cold so make sure to bring warm clothes if you’re visiting Morocco during the colder seasons.
I stayed in the Aline hostel near the medina: http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Aline-Hostel/Chefchaouen/15869 – it was a very nice and friendly place to stay, however, as most places in Morocco they don’t have heat and it can get quite cold during the night (bringing a sleeping bag might be a good idea). The price of a bed in a shared dorm is around 6€ per night.
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BETWEEN THE ATLANTIC OCEAN AND THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS
FEZ – the imperial city with the largest and the oldest medina in the country is definitely a must see. The thing about the Moroccan medinas, especially the one in Fez, is that it’s quite easy to get lost there as they’re not exactly built in a planned way. The narrow alleys and the streets without names or numbers tend to confuse a lot of tourists, which is why locals offer their help, however, they also charge people for showing them the direction. The medina is full of movement and shops with traditional Moroccan goodies and food, but the most interesting thing to see is the famous tannery. Since the smell near the tannery is quite bad I suggest rubbing some mint leaves on your hands and smelling your hands. Outside of the Medina there is a wonderful park called Jnane Sbil and it’s definitely worth checking out.
I stayed in the Funky Fes hostel near the medina: http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Funky-Fes/Fez/50393. The interior is quite nice, but the rooms and the shower were very cold. The price of a bed in a shared dorm is around 6€ per night. Breakfast is included in the price.
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MEKNES – with just a 40 minute train ride from Fez you can reach the city of Meknes. The fortified walls and the gates were the creation of Moulay Ismail, a Moroccon sultan. Check out the most impressive Moroccan gate called Bab Mansour, get lost in the city’s medina (unfortunately it’s not nearly as impressive as the one in Fez) and make sure to visit the Madraza Bou Inania, a student residency with some wonderful Moroccan style tile-work. Other than that Meknes doesn’t have much to offer, but north of the city you can visit the holy mountain town of Moulay Idriss and the Roman ruins of Volulibis.
Photo source: www.visit-meknes.com
THE ATLANTIC COAST
RABAT – it has been the capital of Morocco since 1912 and it holds some of the most interesting monuments. Moreover, the economy doesn’t depend exclusively on tourism like in most of the Moroccan cities, so even though it’s quite conservative I felt less attacked by the local merchants. Discovering the city’s medina is very nice since the alleys aren’t as small and it’s much easier to get around than in other medinas. A stroll next to the Bou Regreg river – just outside the medina is quite lovely and a visit to the Mausoleum of Mohamed V is definitely a must.
I stayed in the Medina Surfing Association: http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Medina-Surfing-Association/Rabat/264840 and it was the worst place I’ve stayed in during my Moroccan trip. It’s totally overpriced – about 15€ per night for a bed in a dorm. The sheets were dirty, the WiFi wasn’t working, they put 10 beds in a room where you can obviously fit 6 beds tops and the shower was cold. The breakfast was pretty bad too.
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CASABLANCA – even though everyone was telling me there’s nothing to see in Morocco’s largest city I couldn’t resist going to Casablanca. As it turned out they were right – there isn’t much to see, but I’m not sorry I went. The most impressive and practically the only thing to see in Casablanca is the Hasan II Mosque which is huge and absolutely glorious from the outside. However, I wouldn’t recommend paying 120 Moroccan Dirhams (around 12€) to get inside because it’s not worth it. Casablanca’s medina is nothing special, in fact there’s nothing to see there and it’s quite dangerous. That goes for the rest of the city too. Visiting the beach can be quite nice, and if you’re a fan of Casablanca the movie, check out the famous Rick’s Cafe – it’s totally overpriced (breakfast costs around 15€) but the interior is breathtaking (I went inside, took a couple of photos and went outside – as rude as that might be).
I stayed in Hotel Central which is located both near the medina and the Hasan II Mosque: http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Hotel-Central/Casablanca/18172 because I was dying to get some alone time and a proper shower (+ it was Christmas so it was my Christmas gift to myself). The price of a double room with a private shower was 30€ per night. It included a very good breakfast (actually the best one I’ve had in Morocco).
ESSAOUIRA – this eighteen century town enclosed by medieval forts is one of my favorite places in Morocco. The medina is full of art galleries, wood workshops, traditional spices and clothes. The beach is very nice and climbing the fort next to the port gives you a wonderful view of both the town and the Atlantic ocean. The thing I liked best was the less aggressive and less sexist vibe – there were even women in the bars and they were smoking. There are daily trips from Marrakesh which include the stop at the Argan oil factory (the price is around 20€).
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MARRAKESH – Morocco’s biggest tourist attraction is definitely Marrakesh, also called the Red City because of the red ochre pigment on its walls and buildings. The origin of the city is more Berber (the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa) than Arab. The main square – Jemaa el Fna, full of food stands, musicians and performers is set at the heart of the medina. Even though it’s really exotic and interesting I hated seeing chained monkeys and snakes for tourists to take photos with. The souks are situated north of the main square and there is an abundance of Moroccan spices, traditional clothes, all kinds of food and jewelry. I found the souks in Marrakesh the nicest in Morocco, they are colorful and lovely, however, the merchants are extremely aggressive, persuasive in a non pleasant way and they’re trying to rip you off in a non human way. The landmark of the city is the Koutoubia Minaret which is quite nice to see. The Majorelle Garden, which is about 3km from the medina is one of the biggest attractions in Marrakesh, but even though it’s very nice I think it’s really overpriced compared to other sites (the entrance to both the garden and the museum will cost you about 10€). The Bahia Palace is definitely worth seeing – it’s a typical Moroccan style palace with stunning tile-work and the entrance is only 1€. The ruins of the El Badi Palace and the Saadian Tombs are also worth checking out and they cost 1€ each as well.
I stayed at the Madrassa Hostel in the Medina: http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/The-Madrassa/Marrakech/267181. The price for a bed in a dorm was 10€ per night, and breakfast was included (a really good one too). The staff was nice, it wasn’t too cold, the WiFi worked, the entire Riad (a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard) is very nice and the terrace is awesome.
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THE WESTERN SAHARA
SAHARA – the largest hot dessert in the world stretches throughout North Africa. There are organized trips to Western Sahara which you can purchase in travel agencies all over Marrakesh. A three day trip shouldn’t cost more than 70-80€. Be aware of the fact that the days in the dessert tend to get very hot while the nights tend to get very cold. If you’re visiting Morocco during the colder season make sure to bring a sleeping bag and warm clothes.
Photo source: www.sahara-morocco-tours.com
TIPS & TRICKS
FOOD – Moroccan cuisine is very interesting – the Tajine and the Couscous are definitely a must. I would highly recommend Pastella, the best dish I ate in Morocco – it’s a sort of a pancake with powder sugar on the top, filled with chicken and almonds. The snail soup is quite famous but if you’re not into experimenting I wouldn’t recommend it. The traditional mint tea is to die for.
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TRANSPORTATION – it’s quite easy to get around by bus (make sure to pick the CTM bus, the others are not as good), as well as by train. The prices are not too expensive. A train ticket from Fez to Meknes (45 minute ride) was around 2,5€, the bus from Fez to Chefchaouen (4,5 hour ride) was around 9€, the bus from Chefchaouen to Rabat (5,5 hour ride) was 10€, the train from Rabat to Casablanca (an hour ride) was around 5€, the train from Casablanca from Marrakesh was around 9€.
However, the use of cabs is inevitable in Morocco and that’s where the problems start. Being a tourist in Morocco means a lot of bargaining and negotiation. Almost every cab driver will try charging a price that is 10 times higher than usual. Don’t accept that and ask for the taxi meter to be switched on. If the cab driver doesn’t agree wait for the next one, be persistent, otherwise you’ll loose a lot of money on cab rides.
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SHOPPING – one simply cannot resist the colorful souks with all kinds of shops. Whether you’re looking for spices, Moroccan lanterns, amazing jewelry, traditional shoes and clothes or you want to get a traditional Henna tattoo – you will have a huge choice. However, practice your bargain skills before your trip to Morocco because if you don’t bargain good you’ll loose a lot of money. The merchants tend to charge up to 10 times more than the actual value of the goods.
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RESPECT THE CULTURE – make sure you’re respectful of the Moroccan culture. Dress properly, because otherwise it might seem provocative. When entering a mosque taking shoes off is a must. Treat everyone nice and with respect even though they might not treat you in the same way. Usually there are only men in bars so try finding more touristic places with both women and men (even though they’re more expensive) to make both them and yourself feel more comfortable.
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THE PEOPLE – the thing about Morocco is that as a tourist you interact mostly with men – they work on the souks, they work in the bars and restaurants and they tend to be quite pushy and aggressive, and they’ll do anything in their power to rip you off. Having traveled a lot, I am aware that the tourist prices differ from the local prices, however, there’s a moderate rip off and the “Moroccon rip off” which is everything but moderate. While sightseeing, more often than not, the locals follow you around offering to show you the direction, asking you to purchase things in their shop, inviting you to their restaurant – which could be nice if they wouldn’t follow you around and harass you until you say yes. Ignoring them doesn’t help because they start following you, saying no doesn’t help because they start persuading you… So the best advice I can give you is telling them: “I’ll come back later.”
The approach the locals have towards men is quite different from the one they have towards women which can be quite difficult especially if you’re a solo female traveler. I’ve heard an abundance of sexist comments and it was really unpleasant. If you’re still keen on traveling solo try to pair up with other solo travelers from the hostel because it makes it a lot easier. I find the people in Marrakesh the most difficult to deal with, and the ones in Essaouira the least difficult – even though it wasn’t a walk in the park even there.
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