If you're looking for a vacation filled with adventure and variety, look no further than Morocco.
From the stunning Atlas Mountains and sand dunes of the Sahara Desert to the mazelike medinas of Fez and Marrakech, a trip to Morocco is anything but dull. With this itinerary, you can experience the flavour of life in this North African country – even in just one week.
Founded in the early 9th century, Fez is Morocco’s oldest city. A fortified wall surrounds its medina quarter, or old city, which has narrow mazelike streets that are off limits to vehicular traffic. Both of these features – the wall and winding streets – are remnants of times when cities needed protection from marauders. While their principle need is gone, the fortification and labyrinth remain, making it easy to distinguish the medina from the new parts of the city.
While some ancient cities now lie in ruins, Fez continues to be functional. Its buildings are both residential and commercial, and visitors can book accommodations within the city walls as well. Staying in a riad is a must in Fez (and in any city in Morocco for that matter). A riad is a traditional Moroccan home with an interior central courtyard. Its decor is authentically Moroccan, typically styled with colorful tiles adorning the walls and locally made rugs dispersed on the floor.
Getting to and from your riad, and around the mazelike medina in general, can be confusing. With so much to see in Fez, it’s in your best interest to hire a local guide to take you around for the day. Your riad should be able to help you set this up. Going through your riad ensures you get a legitimate, certified guide and not a dishonest hustler you may meet while wandering around on your own.
Tip: Read reviews online to find a riad that helps its guests set up a guided tour, and then choose a riad with helpful managers.
Some of the top sights you’ll visit on a day tour include Bab Boujaloud, the large embellished gateway to the medina; Fez el Bali, the original ancient town; Al-Qarawiyyin University, the oldest university and library in the world; Fez el Jedid, the “newer” town founded in 1276; the Jewish Quarter and centuries-old Ibn Danan Synagogue; and the expansive leather tannery and shops.
On your last day in Fez, after you’ve experienced the labyrinth of the historic medina, pack a lunch and take a hike up nearby Mount Zalagh. It’s an easy trek, even for inexperienced hikers. From the top, you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular panoramic view of the area and a picturesque spot for a picnic.
Marrakech is also an ancient city, founded in the 11th century. Jemaa el-Fna is the main square, and a hotbed of activity. By day, snake charmers, medicine men, street performers and orange juice vendors set up shop in the space. At sundown, the square begins to transform into an outdoor food court. Like a beautifully choreographed dance, the daytimers move out and grills get fired up at dozens of makeshift food stalls. The scents wafting through the air are intoxicating, making it difficult to resist even the most exotic fare, like stewed snails and cooked sheep’s head. After you have your fill, head to the balcony at Cafe Glacier to take in the best view of the square while you sip Moroccan whiskey (sweetened mint tea).
Past the square is the medina’s souk (market bazaar), where you can shop for spices, dried fruit, local clothing (like kaftans and djellabas) and so much more. On the other side of Jemaa el-Fna is Koutoubia Mosque with its towering 220-foot-high minaret, a much-photographed and recognizable symbol of Marrakech.
Beyond Jemaa el-Fna, take some time to explore the Saadian Tombs, Bahia Palace, Majorelle Gardens, Menara Gardens and the local leather tanneries (especially if you missed them in Fez). If you have the opportunity, stop into a hammam for a traditional bath experience. There are also upscale hammams where you can indulge in luxury spa treatments.
The Sahara Desert
The last item on your Morocco itinerary is a multi-day trip to the world’s largest desert: the Sahara. To maximize your time, book a 2- or 3-day tour package (don’t pre-book online, but in person once you’re actually in Marrakech to avoid paying double the price). Talk to more than 2 travel agents to get a feel for prices and to ask them what is and isn’t included and what will be available as an add-on. When you find a winner, go back and negotiate to get the best rate.
Tip: It’s easy to negotiate the price of goods and services in Morocco, and you should negotiate.
There are two main destinations for the Sahara trip: either to Zagora for the 2-day/1-night tour or Merzouga for the 3-day/2-night option. The main difference here is that the sand dunes outside Merzouga are more dramatic. If you want to see that postcard-perfect desert panorama, you may be disappointed with the Zagora experience.
No matter which destination you choose, this trip packs in some amazing stops along the way. You’ll drive through the incredibly picturesque High Atlas Mountains; enter the fortified village of Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; and stop at one or more Berber villages to learn about the locals and their culture.
Once you reach the desert, you’ll get to ride a camel for the journey to your campsite, where Bedouin tents will be set up for you to stay the night in. Before you head to bed, don’t forget to look up: without light pollution, stargazing in the desert is an incredible experience, and the perfect end to a memorable vacation.