As a firm believer in the perfection of a fall vacation, I packed my bags a few weeks ago and headed to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. While getting ready for the trip, I was consistently getting the same reaction from my friends and family—excited by the allure of the Mediterranean spots I would be hitting up in Spain and Portugal, but questioned on why I would bother going to a place like Morocco that sounds so “scary.” I didn’t get into detail with everyone, but if you’re feeling the same apprehension about visiting Morocco, this post is to debunk the myths, and whatever your fears may be.
Wow, Africa sounds so far away!
Africa is both closer and farther away than you think. From New York, you can catch a direct flight to Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, and be there in about 7 hours. Not much different than if you’re headed from New York to L.A., London, or Madrid. But Casablanca to Cape Town, South Africa? The distance and flight time is almost twice as far. And even though you’ll be right next to the European capitals, you’ll be paying a fraction of the price. With a cost of living index lower than most cities in Europe and even in South America, expect a great meal with a glass of wine and a few courses at around $20.
Is it safe?
Based on data from the UN, crime rates in Morocco are actually lower than many countries in Europe and other more popular vacation destinations like Mexico. You just need to be careful like you would in any other big city in the world.
What can I do there?
Perhaps the best thing about Morocco is that it has something for all kinds of travelers—for the cosmopolitan city sightseer, desert adventure seeker, and all-night partygoer (yes, you read that right). The terrain and landscape is so diverse that depending where you are, you might feel like you’re in a Middle Eastern sand dune, an ancient fortress in Southern Spain, the remnants of a colonial Latin American outpost, or a crumbling copy of a grand European city. You can spend as long or as short as you want to in Morocco, and you’ll feel like you’ve seen the far corners of the world versus stayed in the confines of a country that’s just about the size of the state of California.
If you’ve only got a few days to spend in Morocco, no need to worry that you won’t see it all. You could spend weeks and still not see everything the country has to offer. Check out one of these options depending on what kind of traveler you are.
Casablanca. While unfortunately Morocco’s largest city hasn’t been the best maintained following the end of the French occupation, this stop is still worth a visit. Architecturally, you will be submerged between East and West. The Hassan II Mosque features the largest minaret of any mosque in the world and is unique in that rather than desert dunes, you’ll see ocean waves crashing on the shore just beside the mosque. You’ll also encounter remnants of the Parisian Art Deco Movement that took the city by storm during the French occupation, giving the feel of a decaying yet deeply historical version of South Beach. And the food is some of the most varied in all of Morocco—you’ll find Moroccan specialties of couscous and tagine as well as the French classics. Film fanatics can check out Rick’s Café, which was opened just in 2004, as a tribute to the 1943 film Casablanca itself.
It’s also the most convenient city to reach with the only direct flights from the US. Royal Air Maroc flies direct between DC and New York, and American and United Airlines will soon start to offer direct flights as well. While I wouldn’t make a trip out of Casablanca itself, it does make a perfect stopover for a night or two on your way to or from Europe, or your onward Moroccan destination. And the flight prices will surprise even the most deal savvy budget travelers—I purchased a round trip flight from New York to Barcelona, complete with an overnight stay in Casablanca, for only about $400.
If you choose to continue your Moroccan journey instead of heading to Europe, you can reach Morocco’s most popular and glitzy city of Marrakech in just about three and a half hours by train. Trains run about every two hours, and I purchased a same day ticket for about $10. For an upgrade to a spacious first class seat, you’ll only spend about $10 more for the journey. The entire train is air conditioned, and the drastic change from seaside city in Casablanca to dry and desolate desert on the way to Marrakech is eye opening. Not to mention how friendly my fellow passengers were! I chatted with an elderly woman who had spent her whole life living in Morocco as well as a woman who was trying to teach her young children English. They were happy to offer tips of what I should make time to check out on the journey. And if you’re already in Europe and want to head to Marrakech, there are plenty of inexpensive and short (2-3 hour) flights from most major cities.
Since Marrakech is Morocco’s equivalent of let’s say Vegas meets Miami, the party doesn’t stop. It’s home to a branch of Pacha which happens to be the largest nightclub in all of Africa. While bars are not as common in the rest of Morocco, you’ll feel right at home in Marrakech if you’re a liquor lover. It’s also a shopper’s paradise, where you can visit the souks for spices during the day and the lively Jemaa el-Fnaa night market which features both surprising street performers and all the kinds of trinkets you can imagine. You’ll want to stay by the night market, where you’ll find both the comfort of Western brand hotels at discount prices as well as the charm of local guest houses (riads) at an even lower price.
Rabat and Fes. If you choose to head north rather than south of Casablanca, Rabat is just over an hour train ride away, and you’ll reach Fes in about two and a half hours beyond that. Trains run nearly every hour. History buffs will want to spend some time in Rabat—it’s been the capital of Morroco since 1912 but has plenty of history dating from before that. It’s got the palaces, memorial sites, and ancient marketplaces that embody the heart of Morocco.
Fes is deeper in the desert and will be appreciated by shoppers and nature lovers alike. Their medina (historical marketplace) is huge and offers spices, souvenirs, fresh groceries, and most importantly leather. Locals on the street will be happy to guide you to the end of the marketplace, where the tannery is located, for a small tip. And in just a quick 15 minute walk from the medina, you can make it to the lush Jnan Sbil Garden or the Alhambra-like Borj Nord fortress on the hill overlooking the medina. If you’re only in Fes for a quick stay, find a guesthouse near the Batha section of the medina so that all the sites will be just a few minutes walk away. And if you’re willing to spend just $50 a night, you’ll be living in almost luxury lodging with a friendly host to help guide you.
Have more time to spend than just a few days? You don’t have to pick between these cities and can check out all four. And an absolute must if you have the time is a desert safari. You’ll ride on a camel and camp out in the desert to watch the sun set and rise. Don’t worry if you think this sounds like roughing it too much (I’m a fan of “glamping” myself)—Viator makes the experience as hassle-free and luxurious as possible. If you’d prefer to stay closer to the cities, check out the beautiful blue city of Chefchaouen or the Roman Ruins of Volubilis to the north of Fes or the beach town of Essaouira to the west of Marrakech.