Morocco's perfect places

The very best of Morocco, from its coastal resorts to its colourful cities

Morocco's perfect places Chefchaouen, the blue city - © Jonathan Perugia/Time Out
By Time Out Editors

If the physical environment of Morocco has more than its fair share of beauty and drama, the built environment is equally entrancing and diverse. Some towns have a local colour: Marrakech is known as the red city (it’s more ochre really); Chefchaouen is blue. The past is written on the peaks and valleys of the Atlas Mountains in the form of abandoned earth-coloured kasbahs, or fortified palaces; and it’s very much present in the green-tiled roofs and intricate multicoloured mosaic tiling of medieval Fès. The restoration drive, now spreading throughout the country, is responsible for some of Morocco’s loveliest hotels, combining traditional aesthetics, artisanship and materials with modern comforts, as well as ensuring the future of historical monuments.

Almeln Valley and Tafroute

Rural idyll & small gem

Trekkers in the Anti Atlas have known about the relaxed, high-altitude town of Tafroute, as well as the landscape that surrounds it (cloud-capped peaks, deep valleys and gorges), for decades. The Almeln Valley is dotted with tiny, thriving villages, but Tafroute is something special, with its spectacular surroundings making it seem cosier and more welcoming than your average Moroccan town. The region is renowned for its almond harvests, which find their way into delicious couscous and tagines.

Stay at Hotel Les Amandiers (+212 28 80 00 08, www.hotel-lesamandiers.com).

Asilah

Coast

Today one of Morocco’s cosiest and charming coastal resorts, Asilah nonetheless possesses a swashbuckling history of Barbary pirates, Riffian rebels and battles on its 15th-century ramparts. The smart and busy Zallaka in the Ville Nouvelle is a hub of decent restaurants and seafront avenues, but you can still get a taste of the romantic past by walking through the Bab Bhar gate into the town’s incredibly well-preserved Medina. Casa Garcia (51 Avenue Moulay Hassan ben Mehdi, +212 39 41 74 65) is a small, genuinely beguiling restaurant that knows a lot about the town’s speciality food: fish.

Stay at Berbari (+212 62 58 80 13, www.berbari.com).

Casablanca

City & coast

Preconceptions of Casablanca are often wrong. Glamorous visions of Humphrey Bogart and intrigue in the kasbah bear little relation to this thoroughly modern metropolis. In many ways Casa, as everyone calls it, is more Marseille than Maghreb. This is the country’s economic powerhouse; the principal port, centre of finance, industry, commerce, media and manufacturing.

Detailed town planning and other large infrastructure projects by the French in the early 20th century have shaped the modern city. The resulting economic and property boom left a legacy of myriad 20th-century architectural styles, particularly art deco and its colonial spin-off, Mauresque. There are deco gems everywhere, not all of them well preserved.

In Casablanca today, residential boulevards that wouldn’t look out of place in Beverly Hills, along with chic French restaurants and chi-chi beach clubs, play host to Morocco’s wealthiest and most westernised people. And while the city’s seafront is dominated by the immensity of the Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca is also home to North Africa’s largest Jewish population, consisting mainly of well-off, middle-class Moroccans.

Stay at Hôtel Transatlantique (+212 22 29 45 51/29 52 04).

Chefchaouen

Small gem

Folded high in the inaccessible crags of the Rif Mountains, this remote hideaway has a bewitching, storybook atmosphere to match its fairytale history as a retreat for rebels and disguised European adventurers. Its ancient crafts and diverse cultural heritage have been perfectly preserved, along with its stone-walled streets and impressive Spanish mosque and Kasbah. Try to book a table at Casa Aladin (+212 39 98 90 17), which has a well-executed roll-call of rich and sticky tagines and couscous and a highly romantic atmosphere.

Stay at Casa Hassan (+212 39 98 61 53, www.casahassan.com).

Dadés Valley

Mountains

The Dadés Valley runs between the High Atlas to the north and the Jebel Sarho to the south. Sometimes called ‘the Valley of the Kasbahs’, dozens of fortress-cities litter the route as a reminder of the civilisation that once flourished here. It’s the most barren of the southern valleys, which makes palm-strewn oases like Skoura all the more beautiful, and dramatic, twisting gorges like Dadés and Todra all the more spectacular.

Stay at Les Jardins de Skoura (+212 24 85 23 24, www.lesjardinsdeskoura.com).

Fès

City

For many travellers, Fès still represents the ‘real Morocco’: a medieval, labyrinthine Medina, distinctive Arabesque architecture, a total assault on the senses. Developed from the ninth century, the city became a major centre of religion, culture and learning at a time when the Islamic world led intellectually. Its monuments reflect this status, with numerous merdersas (religious schools) alongside historic mosques.

Fès may be an extraordinary monument to the past, but it’s also a living and working city. Around 200,000 Fassi still live within the walls of the medieval Medina area of Fès El-Bali. Many of them work here too, in commerce or trades eschewing modern production methods, producing outstanding decorative arts. To explore this warren of narrow passages, teeming souks, huddled housing, archaic industry and venerable mosques is to find oneself in a space where elements of the Middle Ages never came to an end.

Stay at Riad Fes (+212 35 94 76 10, www.riadfes.com).

Marrakech

City

Founded at the confluence of ancient trade routes, Marrakech has always been rooted in the twin activities of hospitality and trade. In its booming 21st-century incarnation, that means two things: chilling out and shopping. Head to the fantastical central square, Jemaa El Fna, for a nightly carnival of local life; north medina for a thriving network of souks and hagglers; and south medina for the Jewish quarter and the glittering remains of the sultan’s palaces and gardens.

Stay at Dar les Cigognes (+212 24 38 27 40, www.lescigognes.com).

Oualidia

Coast

The stretch of azure Atlantic, butterscotch beaches and rugged caramel cliffs between Casablanca and Safi is a haven for wildlife, birds and surfers alike. Oualidia is just one of the unique gems of towns that punctuate the wilderness. Here, a ruined Saadian Kasbah stands sentinel over the ethereal beauty of a crescent-shaped inland lagoon, but the town is most famous for its oysters, which you can sample straight from the water with a dash of sun-kissed lemon. Try a plate of them on ice on the terrace next to the lagoon at eaterie Ostrea, accompanied by a perfect glass of chilled white wine from the Moroccan and French wine list.

Stay at La Sultana (+212 23 36 65 95, www.lasultanaoualidia.com).

Ouarzazate

Desert

Ouarzazate is a town primarily known for its on-screen exploits; Lawrence of Arabia, the Asterix movie and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator were all filmed here. The town is inhabited mainly by Berbers, who built many of the kasbahs characteristic of the area. Venture out of the town into the biblical landscape of the Draa Valley, however, and you find Morocco in the raw, just a hop, skip and a sand buggy away from the Sahara Desert.

Stay at Dar Kamar (+212 24 88 87 33, www.darkamar.com).

Rabat & Salé

City

When it comes to the successful rebranding of a city, look no further than Morocco’s capital Rabat, and Salé, its sister city across the river. Once a breakaway republic, nest of piracy and hub of the trade in captured white slaves, today the twin cities are models of law and order – host to foreign embassies, the Moroccan monarchy and the machinery of government.

Rabat was once a medieval imperial city, and vestiges of this illustrious past remain in the form of city walls and imposing gates built by Sultan Yacoub El-Mansour in the late 12th century. Today, while Rabat is the seat of government, in national life it takes a back seat to the economic powerhouse of Casablanca down the road. The city’s focus on government and away from tourism means visitors can enjoy the sights in a pleasantly low-key fashion: the picturesque kasbah overlooking the Atlantic; the core of the medieval city, and the peaceful beauty of the walled Chellah. In 2009 the city gained the country’s first tram system, linking Rabat and Salé.

Stay at Villa Mandarine (+212 37 75 20 77, www.villamandarine.com).

Tangier

City

Tangier is a city that has changed hands more times than it cares to remember, and African and European sensibilities battle with each other in its jumble of architecture, ancient alleyways and mixture of coastline and Kasbah. The Grande Mosquée and little cafés in the Petit Socco sedately remain much as they did at the early part of the last century, but a visit to the terrace of the port-side Gran Café de Paris (Place de France, Ville Nouvelle, no phone), and one coffee and pastry’s worth of people-watching, leaves you in no doubt that this is a city still very much at the hub of human movement.

Stay at Riad Tanja (+212 39 33 35 38, www.riadtanja.com).

Taza

Rural Idyll

Head off the tourist trail out of Fes, through steep, rolling hills of brown and velvety green, and you come to Taza, a rather isolated provincial town with stunning views of both the Rif and Middle Atlas mountain ranges. Built as a fortress in the 12th century, you can still wander within medieval city walls and enter its original Andalucian mosque. Nearby is Jbel Tazekka National Park, a rambling wilderness home to the largest cave system in North Africa.

Stay at Auberge Ain-sahla (+212 61 89 35 87, www.ainsahla.com).

Time Out guidebooks

Time Out's guide to Morocco: perfect places to stay, eat and explore selects 20 of the most idyllic destinations.

The Marrakech, Essaouira & the High Atlas guide is as practical and unfussy as a lamb tagine, and as sweet as the ubiquitous mint tea.

The Marrakech Shortlist guide selects the very best of Marrakech's sightseeing, restaurants, shopping, nightlife and entertainment, with Time Out's local expertise.

See all Time Out Morocco guidebooks.

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Comments

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By www.circuit-marrakech.com - Feb 21 2014

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By www.circuit-marrakech.com - Feb 21 2014

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By traveller - Jan 27 2014

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By houda - Oct 2 2013

I just read through this and I NEVER comment on these types of articles but I have to say this is a spot on description of the different cities of Morocco. I am born and raised in Morocco and I feel like the facts and ambiance of cities described are extremely realistic and well elucidated. I'm curious to know if this was written by a Moroccan? Thnks for making a great portrait of my country !!!

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By yassine - Dec 14 2012

A far cry from the hustle and bustle of the sea-resorts.
In the depth of the Moroccan Sahara with Berbers as guides
In the souks of Marrakech or Ouarzazate where you are to witness savoir-faire and relish the mysteries of ancient crafts together with the enticing flavors of a colorful cuisine.
The Atlas peaks winding their way down through the rocks
Coastal ports where boats and huge sea freight intertwine their nets in joyful laces.
"Sahara Services" opens the doors to Morroco, a humane and welcoming country.
They meet the local people and help build schools while discovering vast expanses of land , an unforgettable stay that makes you feel how genuine such a greaten people can be.

www.saharaservices.info
www.maroc-secret.com

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By Riad Yima - May 26 2012

Hidden on the medina just in the spices place Rahba lakdima ,Riad Yima is a spectacular labour of love that took three years to complete, with every detail very carefully made by the artist’s hand.
The owner Hassan Hajjaj acquired an old fonduq in Marrakesh, gutted and rebuilt it into a jewel riad witch is transformed recently into Boutique Gallery and Tea room, The Riad features his artwork, furniture design and products. Fusing east and west, his works range from witty photos of Arab life to recycled furniture made from African advertising signs. Hajjaj’s work encompasses a wide range of techniques and fields. He designs and produces furniture as well as clothes for fashion.
Lanterns and ceiling slabs recovered metal (cans of honey, tomato ...), dress and slippers cut from flour sacks, cushions sewn into the fabric parasol Fanta, T-shirts logotés, bucket seats...Etc
After the bustle of the souks, the best way to enjoy the place and a time of rest is to simply collapse on a pouf or brench covered with printed tarpaulin spitit 70s, a pot of green tea with mint or a natural organic juiceahead, flipping one of the many books available to customers in the patio, the lounge or on the terrace".

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