Day 1: Casablanca and Meknes
Casablanca is the modern commercial capital of Morocco, with relatively few sights for tourists compared to the imperial cities of Fes and Marrakech. A single morning may actually be all you need for a quick tour of the highlights here before venturing further afield.
If you only visit one place in Casablanca, make it the Hassan II Mosque, sitting in a picturesque location on the sea. Inaugurated in 1993, its 656-foot (200 m) minaret is the tallest structure in Morocco — and the tallest minaret in the world. It is estimated that the courtyard can hold 80,000 worshipers, with room for another 25,000 inside While the exterior and surrounding area are impressive — the lavish interior is festooned with wood, marble, carved stone, and gilded ceilings — what makes this mosque even more unique is that it is of the few in the country open to non-Muslim visitors. One-hour guided tours run in the mornings between 9 am and 2 pm, and include a tour of the Hammam in the basement.
After your visit, you'll hit the road towards Meknes.
If you want to spend a bit more time in Casablanca, here are a few other sights:
- The “Old Medina” is only around 200 years old (new compared to those of Fes and Marrakech). If you’re visiting those cities you may want to skip this one.
- The Hobous, Casablanca’s “New Medina,” built in the 1930s by the French. Here you can get a taste of art deco architecture as you seek out crafts, and an olive, vegetable and spice market.
- Boulevard de la Corniche, the Beach Promenade area (often called Morocco’s “Miami”). Take a leisurely stroll here and see other nearby sites of interest.
- Rick's Café is worth a visit if your main draw to Casablanca is to follow in the footsteps of Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart; this eatery recreates Bogie's famous café in the legendary film. Sip a cocktail while Sam plays it again!
The prosperous city of Meknes is a nice preparation for your time in Fes: the medina here is smaller, less busy, and shopkeepers are not quite as pushy. While most travelers simply pass straight through, those with a bit more time may find several places of interest in this historical Imperial city.
In the Ville Impériale (Imperial City) area, you can explore gardens, palaces, the impressive gate of Bab al-Mansour, The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, and the Royal Stables. The medina is smaller and easier to navigate compared to those in Fes and Marrakech. Other than the scattered souks, you may wish to visit the 14th-century Medersa Bou Inania (which has nice views from the roof) and the Dar Jamaï, a beautiful palace built in 1882.
Total driving time: 2.5-3 hours
Day 2: Roman Ruins at Volubilis, the "Blue City" of Chefchaouen
After breakfast, you'll drive about 30 minutes to the old Roman settlement of Volubilis, a UNESCO world heritage site home to Morocco’s best-preserved Roman ruins. This town was once one of the most remote parts of the Roman Empire, yet after 200 years of rule, the Romans left to focus on other parts of the empire. They grew and exported much wheat for the rest of the empire, and sent many wild animals (lions, bears, elephants) to the capital for feasts, celebrations, and sacrifices.
A visit to Volubilis makes for a nice detour from the hustle and bustle of Meknes. Wander the massive complex, exploring large merchant homes (with visible heating systems underneath), temples, and many colorful mosaics in situ. After, enjoy a scenic 3-hour drive to Chefchaouen, watching the flat plains transform into the mountainous landscape of the Rif mountains. You'll also pass through many small towns along the way.
Chefchaouen (known as “chaoeun” by the locals) translates to “two horns,” named for the two peaks rising above the hillside town. Travelers know this place as the "Blue City,” a vibrant town that offers an endless winding maze of picturesque homes and streets. You’ll notice quite a difference from the medinas of Fes and Marrakech, with a much more relaxed atmosphere and some of the friendliest people you will find in the country.
You will spend most (if not all) of your time in the compact medina area, which clings to the northern hillside. Lose yourself wandering the small alleys and roads, but be respectful, as the gorgeous homes here are occupied by local residents.
Stroll over to Plaza Outa el-Hammam, the main square named for the number of Hammams that once circled it. People watch from the plaza's restaurants and cafes or pop into charming shops, which offer better prices and friendlier service than what you'll encounter in Fes or Marrakech.
Be sure to also check out the Grand Mosque and Kasbah. The Mosque was built by Moulay Mohamed in 1560, and although inside access is limited to Muslims, non-Muslims can still admire the exterior and grounds. Save 30-60 minutes to visit the Kasbah (old fortification), where you can roam around a garden, a museum, and some of the old prison cells. Make sure to head up to the roof for a fantastic viewpoint of the town.
For an even better view, walk up to the city walls, through the gates, and then up the paths towards the Hotel Atlas, where you'll be rewarded with a vast panorama over the Blue City. For more of a hike, take the switchbacks leading up the mountainside (if finding these proves difficult, ask for help at the hotel).
As the day ends, follow the streets east and pass over the Ras el Ma spring, where the Oued el Kebir river flows below the town. Enjoy an afternoon mint tea from a café here, then follow the path up the hill for 20-30 minutes until you reach the white Spanish Mosque. From here you can enjoy one last view of the town as the sun sets behind the mountains.
You can also explore the area on a bigger hike; there's a trailhead to a couple of local routes just a short drive away. Plan on spending at least half a day either hiking along the river to the Cascades d'Akchou waterfall, or to the rock arch known as “The Bridge of God.” The trail diverges early, so with a full day, you can try to visit both sites.
Total driving time: 3.5-4 hours
Day 3: Chefchaouen to Fes
Rise early and you may be treated with an hour of quiet as you wander the streets in the morning. This is a great time to snap unobstructed photos but keep in mind that if you're looking to do some last-minute shopping, many stores don't open until 10 am or so.
You'll then hit the road, heading south for roughly 3.5 hours to Fes, with its impressively large and labyrinthine old medina stretching down the hill. Before venturing into the bustling matrix, stop above the town at the ruins of the Merenid tombs, where you can enjoy a lovely panorama of the old city. On the hillside below you may even see leather drying in the sun. After lunch, lose yourself in the medina's winding streets, which you'll find much larger and more complex than Chefchaoeun's.
Enjoy your evening in a beautiful riad. You can dine here as well if you like.
Total driving time: 3.5-4 hours
Day 4: Fes: Exploring the Imperial City & Medieval Medina
Today you'll learn about Fes, the oldest of the Imperial Cities in Morocco and perhaps the most interesting and exciting to explore. Its medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the most complete of its kind in the Arab world. Because the city never experienced much colonial development, much of Fes feels like stepping back through time hundreds of years ago. How you tour Fes and its highlights is up to you, so consider some of these options or ask your local specialists for ideas that speak to your interests.
If you're inspired by history and culture and have time to spare, you could spend a couple of days wandering the medina, visiting Madrasas, and exploring beyond the medina walls. If you have a shorter trip, a full day exploring the medina and a few highlights outside may be enough. Either way, we recommend using an expert guide for a half-day tour to learn more about this stellar city and help you navigate the medina.
Fes el Bali ("Old Fes") is a great place to start your adventure. This city, founded in the 8th century CE by Moulay Idriss I, welcomed refugees from Cordoba in southern Spain and Kairouan in Tunisia (both capitals of western Islam at the time). Their skill in architecture and craftsmanship played a large role as the city grew over the next hundred years as the city grew organically (thus the maze-like narrow streets).
The charming medina area will likely draw most of your time and focus. The roads are much narrower, windier, and steeper than those of Marrakech, making it almost impossible not to get lost at least a few times (part of the fun, just keeping walking until the flow of people increases and you find yourself on one of the main streets). Shop the iconic souks (markets) of every variety, spices, vegetables, leather goods, ceramics, metal, shoes, scarves, medicines, and more. Many are concentrated together and you're bound to see artisans at work in small shops.
Be sure to also check out the famed Tanneries Chouara, which still implement traditional techniques from centuries ago. Find a local leather shop for a view from above (giving the tanner a small donation may help you gain access) to watch the masters at work. The process starts with a soak in a mixture of pigeon droppings and limestone which helps remove any remaining fur and soften the leather. Next, the leather is dyed in the large colored vats for about a week before being set out to dry on nearby rooftops or hillsides. To guard against the pungent scent, grab some mint leaves to have onhand during your visit.
The medina is also home to the 9th-century Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, which can hold up to 20,000 worshipers inside. Although it's only open to Muslims, there are a few places where you can glimpse inside to admire the beautifully decorated interior. Next door sits one of the oldest universities in the world — Islamic University, regarded as Morocco's scientific capital. You can also visit the old Madrasas, intricately decorated housing for university students: check out the Medersa Bou Inania (currently under renovation), and the Al Attarine Madrasa (built in 1325). Their stunning main courtyards showcase detailed tile work, dark cedar woodwork, and intricately carved stucco patterns. Head upstairs to see old student dorm rooms with great views.
From here, stop through the famous Bab Boujeloud, the large gate that welcomes you into Fes el Bali from the west. The outside is blue (the traditional color for Fes), and inside is green (the color for Islam). Heading through the gate to see the main thoroughfare of Talâa Kebira, which is packed with shops. Treat yourself to some retail therapy or pop by the Musée Batha, home to many Moroccan arts — including carved wood and traditional pottery — and a beautiful central garden.
Southwest of and uphill from the old city, is Fes el Jedid (“New Fes”), built in the 13th century when the Merenid Dynasty came to power. From the street, you can admire the Royal Palace and the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter and its cemetery, where you can take in a stunning panorama of the city. Just beyond the medina, you can tour a local ceramics and tilework collective. You'll get a quick overview of the full process, from mixing the clay to painting the designs on the fired piece. You'll also see tile masters at work, fitting together the intricate puzzles forming impressive mosaics.
No matter how you choose to explore Fes, consider enjoying the sunset from the Merenid Tombs in the north or Borj Sud in the south; both viewpoints offer fantastic views of this dynamic city with timeless roots.
Day 5: Over the Middle Atlas to the Desert: Erfoud, Merzouga & the Sahara
Get an early start today, as you'll be covering a lot of ground. You'll be heading over the Middle Atlas, through a cedar forest, stopping through towns, and ultimately arriving near Merzouga at the Sahara Desert's iconic sand dunes, where you can ride a camel before enjoying a delicious traditional dinner and spending the night in a Bedouin tent.
Your scenic journey this morning takes you through the town of Azrou, over the Col du Zad Pass and through the cedar forests of the Middle Atlas mountains, where you can spot Barbary macaque monkeys in the trees and by the side of the road. You'll enjoy lunch and a short stop in Midelt, "the apple city;" be sure to look out onto the nearby River Moulouya, which enables these orchards to grow in the desert.
After lunch, you'll continue over the Tizi-n-Talremt pass and into the Ziz Valley, known for its hidden oases and palm tree clusters. Along the road, you will see many fortified houses known as “ksars,” built by merchants to product precious goods like gold, salt, and spices. Just before Erfoud, you'll see glimpses of the ever-shifting Saharan sand dunes. Because the dunes travel with the wind, they can encroach on farms, roads, and buildings. You'll also see an ancient method of water "mining" — an ingenious way to transfer water to farmland — as well as nomadic shepherds and their settlements. If time permits, you may even be able to visit a local nomadic Berber family here for a spot of tea.
The next stop is Erfoud, a bustling market town known for its date festival, fossil mining, and artisan factories. Stop at a local artisan collective where you can to learn about the area's fossils and see how the fossil-rich rock is transformed into beautiful objects. Soon you will see the sand waves of the Erg Chebbi, an extensive sea of sand dunes covering; their color change depending on the time of day and they are especially spectacular at dusk.
If the desert is calling, take a short break near Merzouga for a camel ride through the dunes; you'll arrive at camp just before sunset. Climb up the nearest sand dune to watch the colorful display on the sand sea as the sun dips in the west, then head back to camp for dinner, followed by an evening of traditional Berber music by your campfire. Before you head to bed, take a look at the expansive night sky, then turn in for the night in your traditional Bedouin tent.
If four walls and modern comfort are more your style, you can also opt to spend the night at a comfortable hotel/auberge in Merzouga.
Total driving time: Approximately 7-7.5 hours
Day 6: Erg Shibi, Dades Valley, and Ouarzazate
Set your alarm before dawn, then crawl out of your tent and bundle up for a sensational sunrise over the sand dunes. After breakfast, spend the morning exploring more of the Sahara: you can rent a sandboard and test your skills on the dunes, tour Erg Shibi tour (around the sand dunes), join a quad ATV tour, or simply relax for a bit by a pool.
Cap your morning off with a visit to Khamleya, a traditional Saharan village whose people originate from Mali. Enjoy local music, drumming and dancing before taking an easy walk around the village and its farmed plots in the sand. As you leave the Merzouga region, stop in Rissani, another market town with an impressive gate at the town's entrance. Walk around the traditional stalls, watch livestock sales, and stop by the "donkey parking lot."
Continue through the desert to the town of Tinerhir and take in a great view of the nearby towns that cling to the side of the green river oasis, which filled with verdant palm trees. The surrounding desert landscape reveals impressive buttes, mesas, and plateaus. You'll also stop by the Todra Gorge, which stands 984 feet (300 m) high, and features stunning red-stained limestones. Here you can enjoy an easy walk through the gorge, or relax in the cool water of the shallow river.
Your journey then travels along the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, a fortified complex where chiefs and landowners once lived. You'll see various farms, many of which still use traditional methods, and will likely encounter Nomads herding sheep, goats, and camels. You'll then pass through the Dades Valley, where cultivated plots of farmland are bordered by rose bushes, which are used to make rose water and rose oil. If you're here in May, you might catch the annual Rose Festival that celebrating the year’s production. Stop at the rose collective, where you can watch the distillation process; on the roadside, you may even see boys selling various crafts made from the roses.
You can also stop in Ouarzazate, a popular filming location for both local productions and Hollywood movies. You can tour one of the two movie studios here, where you'll get an up-close look at props and sets, then head to the Musée du Cinema for more background on local film history. If the landscape nearby looks familiar, it may because this area is featured in a number of Hollywood productions over the last century, including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and Game of Thrones.
Total driving time: 5-5.5 hours
Day 7: Aït Benhaddou to Marrakech
Start your day in Aït Benhaddou, the most famous Kasbah in Morocco and a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is believed to date back to the 11th century. As you head up and over the High Atlas, look out for the highest peak, Mount Toubkal, which stands at 13,671 feet (4,167 m). Near the top of the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, you can enjoy great panoramic views over the mountain range, as well as the road ahead that snakes down the mountainside.
The first town after the pass is Taddert where you can stop at an oil cooperative to learn how olives are processed for a variety of uses. Taste a few products, then head back on the road. As you descend from the mountains, you'll notice a dramatic change in climate and landscape, with river valleys carved into the hillsides. After all the tranquillity of the mountains and the desert, soon you will be in the midst of the hustle, bustle, and clamor of vibrant Marrakech.
Check into your hotel and relax before heading back out in the early evening, when Jemaa el Fna, the main square, comes alive with musicians, performers, snake charmers, games, food stalls and more. Wander around stalls, vendors, and performers or enjoy it all from a distance; situate yourself from a café surrounding the square and enjoy the show while you tuck into a delicious meal.
Total driving time: 4 hours
Day 8: Marrakech and Departure
Depending on your flight time, you may have time in the morning to explore more before your transport to the Marrakech Menara airport. If you do, here's some background on the city and its highlights.
The bustling city of Marrakech, Morocco's second-largest city, will undoubtedly shock your senses with its vibrant sights, sounds, and smells. “The red city” is named for its stunning natural red ochre pigment in the walls. If you have the time, consider using an expert guide for a half-day tour of the history and culture, as well as the medina's hidden gems.
To understand the layout, orient yourself around Jemaa el Fna Square: the souks are to the north, the Koutoubia Mosque & Gardens to the west and the Kasbah area with the Saadian Tombs, Bahia Palace, and El Badi Palace are to the south. In the Ville Nouvelle, you will find the Majorelle Gardens.
If your flight is later in the evening, spend some time in Jemaa el Fna Square, which begins to fill in the late afternoon with musicians, storytellers, acrobats, dancers, henna artists, and snake charmers. As it gets dark, many rows of food stalls will begin to appear, serving anything from full meals to fruit drinks, dried dates, and small snacks. For a more relaxed experience, look for one of the many cafés that sit above the square to enjoy a meal or tea while you watch the show below. You can also tour the nearby area in style on a Caliche Horse Carriage.
If your flight is earlier in the day, head west of Jemaa el Fna, where you'll be greeted by the striking minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque in the distance across Avenue Mohammed V. Although entrance is restricted to Muslims, non-Muslims can enjoy the gorgeous exterior: on the north side of the mosque, you will see the foundations of the original structure, which had to be rebuilt to properly align with Mecca. Walk around the back of the mosque to the beautiful Koutoubia Gardens, filled with fountains, pools, palm trees, and flowers. It’s a perfect place for a late afternoon stroll when the late-day sun glows on the minaret.
You can also concentrate your time wandering the souks, alleys, and markets in the medina. Many areas are covered, which can be a nice respite from the heat. A few souks you may want to explore: Souk el Attarin (spices), Souk Haddadine (blacksmiths), and Souk Smata (slippers). One souk not to miss is the Souk des Teinturiers, the dyers’ souk. Here you can see people dying cloth and yarn, which will then hang above the streets in the afternoon to dry. You'll also find many shops with rugs and leather goods nearby.
Along many of the alleys, you’ll notice large open spaces and courtyards. These Fondouks were once inns used by visiting traders and merchants who slept on the upper floors while their animals stayed on the ground floor. Today some have been converted into residential places, while others are large shopping areas and workshops that you can explore.
If you're looking to escape the crowd, check out the beautifully renovated 16th-century Medersa Ben Youssef (Koranic school), which once housed students of the nearby mosque of Ben Youssef. Inside you can appreciate the carved cedar, stucco plaster and zellij tiling of the central courtyard, wander the old dorms where up to 800 students once lived, and visit the prayer hall.
Other sites in the area include:
- The Almoravid Kouba, the only intact Almoravid building
- Marrakech Museum — housed in the 19th century Dar Mnebbi Palace — features a collection of sculptures and various other Moroccan artwork
- Museum of Moroccan Arts and Crafts, which features stunning woodwork, including traditional wedding palanquins used to carry brides
Beyond the medina, you'll find the fascinating Kasbah area, home to several worthwhile sights:
These secret tombs from the 16th century were hidden for many years, only to "discovered" by the French Authorities in the 1930s. Enter through a very narrow passage to discover a small garden, graves and three main pavilions. As you peer inside, you will notice the detailed craftsmanship and beauty.
El Badi Palace
Although this palace, built in the early 17th century, fell into dereliction after the death of El Badi ("The Incomparable"), you can still visit its extensive courtyard and sunken gardens.
Built in the 19th century, this was the largest and most luxurious palace in its day. Today you can explore the courtyard, gardens, and appreciate the intricate woodwork and painted ceilings.
If you have time for a 30-minute walk or a quick taxi ride, consider visiting these lush, expansive gardens filled with sub-tropical plants, bamboo, lilies, and palms. It’s the perfect place to escape the afternoon heat and noise for a more relaxing experience.