Countless tourists flock to the European mainland each year — to the enotecas of Italy, the museums and cafés of Paris, the breweries of Germany, and the tapas bars of Spain. But oft is the African paradise just across the Strait of Gibraltar: The Kingdom of Morocco.
An anchor of northern Africa, Morocco has long been the stuff of storybook legends. Moroccan markets have drawn international travelers — and their exotic goods — for centuries; iconic fortresses have greeted seafarers from all over Africa and the Mediterranean; and many chapters of war and conquest have painted a fascinating, if turbulent, picture of a kingdom ever at odds with neighboring powers.
The first signs of a self-ruled Morocco date back to the seventh century and the rise of the Berbers. A Muslim tribe, the Berbers laid the legal groundwork for an organized society and Muslim-centered education. But theirs was not an altogether peaceful existence; they constantly vied for control with other regional tribes and Muslim leaders. This continued until the 11th century, when Berber tribes grew in power and began to acquire land and broad governmental control.
When the early 1500s rolled around, however, Morocco saw incursions from European powers — namely Spain and Portugal. In a couple of centuries, France would join the mix, leaving Morocco in a constant tug-of-war with foreign powers. While this turmoil weighed heavily on the region, new traditions, fashions, foods, and rituals brought by Europeans offered a new cultural experience — one that natives would eventually weave into their own.
Morocco finally gained independence in the 1960s, and while clashes with neighboring Algeria and Spain persisted for a time, the country came into its own and began to develop a strong national economy, based in large part on tourism.
Fortunately for travelers, a vacation to Morocco is a relatively inexpensive treat (one Moroccan Dirham is about as much as 10 U.S. cents), which means you can explore historic sites, shop at famous Marrakech markets, and dine at breathtaking, world-class restaurants without worrying about sticking to a budget. To help guide your trek through this inspiring African destination, we’ve put together an ideal itinerary below — balancing food, modern culture, and history.
Morocco’s most well-known city is arguably Marrakech, but that’s not its capital — or its largest city. It’s difficult (if not impossible) to a get a direct flight to the capital, Rabat, but several major U.S. airports offer direct flights to Casablanca. If you want to land elsewhere, you can easily arrange a layover in Europe and fly into Rabat or Marrakech. Consensus, however, is that Casablanca has the best international airport in the country with easy access to car rental companies, trains, taxis, buses, and hotels.
Once on the ground, opt to take the train into the heart of Casablanca. You can certainly take the bus, but it’s a bit difficult to figure out. Taxis are also an option, but most are shared, which can make your trip to a hotel or tourist site uncomfortable or awkward. If you rent a car at the airport (no international driver’s license required), you’ll enjoy the freedom of traveling when and where you want. Plus, it’s relatively inexpensive. Just keep in mind that Moroccans have a reputation for being a bit crazy on the road — and speed traps are common.
Where to stay
Casablanca is full of well-known Western hotel chains, and most offer rooms at rates slightly cheaper than what you’d find in the U.S. If you want authentic Moroccan accommodations, however, consider opting for a property that showcases classic Moroccan architecture. Art Palace Suites & Spa is perhaps the best option for this; not only does it feature rooms with traditional northern African design, but also includes themed rooms inspired by a wealth of countries, films, and eras — including America’s own “Casablanca.” Moroccan House Hotels is another standout option, although the Moroccan-inspired design is arguably a little over-the-top.
Morocco Day 1
Once settled into your vacation digs, begin your trek into the city. You’ll want to hit several religious sites — as well as some iconic neighborhoods and beachfront spots —but start with a simple breakfast at the Café Amnay mere steps away from the ocean on Boulevard Moulay Youssef. Keep the meal to coffee and a croissant, though, as you’ll be spending a lot of the day walking and won’t want to be weighed down.
Breakfast enjoyed, amble down toward the water and take in the imposing Hassan II Mosque. Not only does it boast the tallest minaret in the world, but has been equipped with a modern “rolling roof” that opens in mere minutes come prayer time. Take some time to walk the perimeter and appreciate the Venetian sconces, tilework, cedar beam cupolas, and ornate carvings. It’s hard to believe, but this Muslim mosque was completed less than three decades ago, in 1993. (Pro tip: Unless you’re Muslim, you likely won’t be allowed inside the Mosque, so don’t expect a self-guided tour of the interior.)
When you’ve had time to absorb the awesome architectural feat that is the Hassan II Mosque, trek over to San Buenaventura Church a little ways to the east (still walkable). This once-was Catholic church — a symbol of earlier Spanish domination in the region — now serves as a cultural event center and museum. Constructed in 1891, it boasts the high church architecture of Catholic Europe while also featuring Moroccan accents. It’s a fascinating nod to Spanish culture in the heart of this medina (district) of Casablanca.
No doubt you’ve build up an appetite after church and mosque-gazing, so wander north again to the popular Rick’s Café — made famous by the Hollywood hit, “Casablanca.” Not only is the food a global feast (beef filet mignon with couscous and spaghetti), but the music is, unsurprisingly, a buzz-worthy draw. You never really know what you’ll hear at Rick’s; everything from dulcet piano music to Bossa Nova jive and Cuban beats stir up the patrons here. If you find yourself enthralled, grab a signature cocktail (the Cognac-soaked Apricot Velvet is a must) and stay a while.
The afternoon — whatever’s left after savoring Rick’s tunes — should be devoted to strolling along the manicured beachfront, just to the west of the mosque you explored earlier. Treat yourself after your late-day constitutional with a dinner at the classy waterside Umayya. It’s not a cheap meal, but you’ve earned a little spoiling — to the tune of seafood pastilla (phyllo dough layered with fresh catches), veal scaloppini, kabobs, and of course, plentiful wine and ocean views that stir the soul.
Morocco Day 2
Be sure to get up early for Day 2, as you’ll be headed to Marrakech down south. The journey by car is just shy of three hours and slightly less if you opt for the train. If you go by rail, buy first class tickets; they’re only slightly more expensive than second class tickets and get you a more comfortable compartment.
Once in Marrakech, you’ll deboard just west of the city center. If you’re feeling up for a walk, head southeast to the famed Jemaa el-Fna market; otherwise, you can grab a taxi and pay a few Dirham to get there faster. Once at the market — a sprawling assembly of tent-covered booths in a prominent city square — take your time to walk by each stall and enjoy the textiles, arts and crafts, and snake charmers (yes, snake charmers). You’ll also see plenty of designer clothing rip-offs, so steer clear of anything Western. If you want a souvenir, opt for something distinctly Moroccan — like a handcrafted lantern or carved wooden tchotchke that’s easy to pack.
When hunger strikes, duck away to Nomad, one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants. It bills itself as a haven for “modern Moroccan” fare, which folds vegetarian, pescatarian, and meat-centric fare to ensure everyone is satisfied. Local ingredients are prime here, too, featured in dishes like the Nomad Couscous and Vegetarian Pastilla. If it’s meat you’re craving, you can’t go wrong with the Grilled Lamb Chops, served with spiced potatoes and harissa.
With a several-hour trek back to Casablanca ahead, don’t spend too much time lingering in Marrakech. Your best bet for a curtailed afternoon: Follow lunch at Nomad with a peak at some other traditional Moroccan souks (markets), or take in the mesmerizing green of the Place de la Jeunesse and its environs. With views of all corners of the city, it’s a good spot to take photos.
When late afternoon hits, hop in the car or head to the train station and make your way back to Casablanca. You can grab a quick street kebab on the way back to the hotel if you’re peckish, but don’t linger too late.
Morocco Day 3
When the sun rises, take advantage of an early morning stroll back down to the water — this time to take in the flavors and colorful surroundings of Café Sqala. Myriad umbrellas, lush greenery, and crenellated pergolas frame this lusted-after brunch spot, while the menu courts primarily African flavors. Keep it savory with veggie tagines, freshly caught whitefish, and fresh-from-the-oven sesame rolls alongside copious amounts of piquant tea. You can over-indulge easily here, so take your time and enjoy — both the food and the surroundings.
A bit more history before you close out your trek, yes? Head back into the city toward Mohammed V Square, built in 1920 by the French and restored in 2017. Take in the distinctly European architecture, reminiscent of the French opulence on display at Versailles. For a clear juxtaposition, continue west to the Central Market where a mixture of ornate mosaics, cornucopias of fruit, and countless stalls welcome shoppers every day. It’s a good look at how many Moroccans still shop.
To avoid a scramble, track back to the hotel and prepare yourself for the journey home. If time allows, enjoy a spa treatment or simply savor a cocktail in your hotel bar. Grab your rental car (or train tickets) and head out to the Casablanca airport for your journey back to the U.S.
Grab a souvenir
If you haven’t already purchase a knickknack at one of the many Moroccan markets, then you can make a quick pitstop at the Ghandi Mall on your way out of town. While there are certainly a number of Western chains in attendance, you’ll also find something uniquely Moroccan to remind you of your treks around Casablanca and Marrakech.