Where to go on a Morocco cultural vacation

Morocco’s cities, coasts and countryside all proffer a palette of pure prettiness. Marrakech boasts every colour going, the souks’ spices and dried fruits dominating with ochres and orange hues. Essaouira’s blue buildings and boats reflect its sunny skies and Atlantic influences, while Chefchaouen’s blues contrast exquisitely with the luscious Rif Mountains all around. The Atlas Mountains change with the seasons, from dusty to red to snow capped white. And there is no colour to describe the Sahara at sunrise. It’s just off the palette, and totally out of this world.
Ait Benhaddou

1. Ait Benhaddou

A UNESCO site near Ouarzazate, in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains, this town was once a trading hub for salt being carried from the Sahara. Today, its clay buildings and fortifications arise out of the wilderness like a mirage. It is a cultural hub where you can learn about its ksar history, the word for a group of ancient earthen buildings surrounded by high walls. It’s also movie set central.
Atlas Mountains

2. Atlas Mountains

It is likely you will travel through the Atlas on a cultural vacation in Morocco as its many ranges dominate the country’s interior. They are home for the Berber people, whose indigenous name is Amazigh, meaning ‘free people’, and when you visit the Atlas with the Berber, that sense of freedom is infectious. One of the responsible accommodation jewels of the Atlas Mountains is the Kasbah du Toubkal. 

3. Casablanca

Casablanca is a city of dichotomies – old and new, medinas and modern art, chic and shabby. It is also largest city in Morocco so can be a bit overwhelming. However, its coastal vibe is soothing, especially around Ain Diab. Don’t miss the contemporary chic Hassan II Mosque, one of the world’s largest, towering over the Atlantic. You can even see the sea bed under its floor, and it has a laser pointing to Mecca.

4. Chefchaouen

Some would describe this as the prettiest place in Morocco, with its blue and white traditional houses nestled among the Rif Mountains. Its beauty has attracted artists for many years, but also keen historians to learn about its Andalucian history, as much of the city was founded by those escaping the Reconquista. It also protected the region from invading Portuguese in the 15th century, and its museum is a must.

5. Essaouira

Even the name sounds like the sound of the Atlantic that envelops this beautiful coastal town, with a walled center, charming riads, fishing traditions and artistic vibes. It has attracted everyone from Orson Welles to Jimi Hendrix, and is paradise for foodies and surfers. It’s a calming coastal oasis, yet brimming with culture. And everything is painted blue, from the fishing boats to the women in traditional robes.

6. Fez

Often overshadowed by Marrakech, Fez is the city that cultural vultures know to swoop in on. A glorious city dating back to the Middle Ages, with its old town known as Fez el Bali. There’s a labyrinthine medina, a magnificent 14th century Madrasa Bou Inania and elegant Karaouine Mosque. Add Fez into your cultural tour and you will feel like a veritable time traveler.

7. Marrakech

Marrakech is a Marmite city; you either love it or hate it. Its souks are best negotiated on a guided tour, so as not to be too overwhelmed by the bombardment of the senses. Koutoubia Mosque is the city’s centerpiece and Place Jemaa El-Fna is where all the action happens. Take a breather in beautiful Ali ben Youssef Quranic School, a masterpiece of Hispano-Moresque architecture, and the exquisite Jardin Majorelle.

8. Meknes

This imperial city was built when Sultan Moulay Ismail (a contemporary of Louis XIV) decided to build his version of Versailles, using 25,000 slaves to construct walls, gates and over 50 palaces. Which isn’t a great selling point, although it has gained UNESCO status with for its spectacular Bab Mansour Gate, Royal Stables, old Habs Qara underground prison and the Jewish quarter. It’s also gloriously quiet in comparison to other towns.

9. Rabat

The capital city is so often left off Moroccan tourist trails, which in means it is much calmer. Cultural vacation companies know better, however, keen to show off the city’s history that dates back to Roman times. Its mix of contemporary and historic is wonderful too, from the ancient area of Chellah or 12th century waterfront kasbah to elegant boulevards and clean public beaches. There’s great seafood, too.

10. Sahara

It’s really worth seeking out a cultural vacation that brings you into the great Sahara, as its greatness almost knocks you off your camel. Drive out to a desert settlement such as Merzouga and then head out by camel into the infinitesimal dunes, or ergs, which shift by the minute. Often done at sunset when the desert starts to cool, your desert camp awaits, with star filled skies and equally glowing Berber hospitality.

11. Tangier

The gateway port to and from Europe as it’s only two hours by ferry from Spain. Also your port of entry on our Madrid to Marrakech vacation, for example, and although it has been off the tourist trail for years, it is catching up with a fabulous medina, central kasbah, cafes and patisseries and a real French ambience in parts. The juxtaposition of St Andrew’s Church and Grande Mosquée sums up this fascinating city.

12. Volubilis

This UNESCO site was the capital of the Roman Empire’s distant outpost, with an impressive collection of ruins stretching over 42 hectares; a tour guide is pretty invaluable. Archaeologists get very excited about the artifacts from many different civilisations here: Roman merging with Mauritanian, ramparts with ancient agricultural terraces. Don’t miss the view of the site from nearby Moulay Idriss Zerhoune.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Morocco culture or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Wei Pan] [Atlas Mountains: Annie Spratt] [Ait Benhaddou : Toa Hefiba ] [Atlas Mountains Red Village : Annie Spratt] [Hassan II Mosque : Flowcomm] [Chefchaouen: Sherpas 428] [Essaouira : Klim Levene ] [Fez : Migel ] [Koutoubia-Mosque: Daniel Csorfoly ] [Meknes: Anne Scott Turner ] [Rabat : Klim Levene] [Sahara - desert: Scott Presly ] [Tangier: Katie Bordner ] [Volubilis : Matteo Martinello]