morocco had been on my bucket list for years. it carried an air of exotic mystery in my mind, a place where the streets smelled of saffron, leather, and a mélange of spices. the buildings would be tiled, and the souks, or bazaar, crowded. i’d watched jason bourne run through the streets of tangier, fleeing from an assassin. of all the gin joints in all the world, ilsa walked into rick’s café in casablanca. as the tourism industry in morocco continued to grow, i knew we needed to visit sooner rather than later, and tacking it onto a thanksgiving trip to barcelona was the perfect excuse to go.
i did my research and talked with a few friends who had visited morocco before, and we landed on marrakech, essaouira, and fès for our itinerary. my husband left the details to me, and i did my best to efficiently arrange our travel and accommodations within the slightly odd confines of our schedule. we only had from thursday morning until tuesday night to see three cities, and i had to plan our flights both within the country and between it and spain. if i were to do it again, i would probably visit essaouira first, then go to marrakech for a couple days and take a desert tour from there to merzouga instead of going to fès. we spent most of our time in the old town areas, or medinas, of marrakech and fès, and they were similar enough to not warrant visiting both on such a limited schedule. we drove through the new town of fès, and it felt rather cosmopolitan; we walked through part of the new town of marrakech and it offered a more unique city vibe. if you are planning a trip to morocco, i’d encourage you to seek out cities that offer different scenery and landscape, like essaouira (a port town), marrakech (an old city and cultural capital), and merzouga (glamping in the sahara, anyone?). that being said, i will lay out an overview of our itinerary and some of the things we learned along the way in this post, and i will write separate posts about each city.
getting there and getting around:
in my opinion, the most cost effective way to travel to morocco is by way of western europe. budget airlines fly from france, portugal, spain, and other popular european destinations to morocco for less than $100. we packed everything we needed for an eleven-day trip in carry-on bags, so i only added checked bags to our fares within morocco and returning to spain because i knew we’d be shopping once we arrived in marrakech–a full carry-on + new rugs and poufs = a new moroccan leather duffel bag for transporting said rugs and poufs. we flew one-way from barcelona to marrakech for about $70 each. our airbnb host arranged a taxi for us from the airport, so that eliminated the stress of trying to find our way to our riad through the winding streets of the medina. we explored the medina on foot and got terribly lost in the souks on the first day, so i’d recommend downloading an offline map of morocco to your smartphone before exploring; we circled nearly the entire medina on foot trying to find our way back, and it made for a less than fun afternoon when coupled with jet lag and three hours of sleep the night prior. jonathan promptly downloaded a map once we found the riad, and we tended to our blisters. we didn’t get lost again after, and the next day we navigated our way around the new town and the medina like pros.
from marrakech we took an early morning supratours bus to essaouira, roughly a three-hour ride including a short break at the halfway point, for about $8 per person. the owner of our riad was an incredible host, so he purchased the tickets for us. the bus was in great condition, we had assigned seats and air conditioning, and it was nice to stare out the window at the fields of argan trees we passed. essaouira is a fortified town, and there aren’t any cars inside its walls. the manager of our riad there arranged a luggage carrier for us, and he was waiting at the supratours station with a large wheelbarrow-style cart when we arrived. he was at least seventy-years-old, roughly five-foot-three-inches, and didn’t speak a word of english. we struggled to keep up with his quick pace as he pushed his giant cart with our three bags in it. the medina of essaouira is small and easily walkable, and we only took a taxi when riding to the beach for a camel ride (more on that in my post on essaouira). we had to leave before the first supratours bus the next morning, so we took a private taxi back to the marrakech airport (and shaved a half hour off the trip) for roughly $60.
we flew from marrakech to fès on an air arabia flight for about $70 total. this is part of what made things tricky for us–air arabia only flies that route on certain days (friday, sunday, and wednesday, with sunday being our only option), and any other tickets from marrakech to fès were at minimum $200 a piece. knowing what we do now, we both would have rather stayed an extra day in essaouira then returned to marrakech and done another day trip from there instead of cutting short our time on the coast just to make the air arabia flight work. alas, that is not what we did, and we learned from it. again, our host arranged a taxi for us from the fès airport, and we walked our way around the medina and its souks. our tickets back to barcelona from fès were, i kid you not, $30 each.
trains and private 4×4 tours are other easy ways to get from place to place in morocco, especially if you have more time to spare; we opted for the most direct and quickest means of transportation because we were on a tight schedule. i’m a firm believer in walking as much as possible anywhere i travel, but i know taxis are plentiful and pretty cheap in marrakech and fès; just be sure to ask your host what sort of fare you should expect, or, better yet, have your host arrange the cheapest option for you since nothing makes better prey than a clueless tourist with a full wallet.
- riad helen, marrakech: i found riad helen on airbnb and immediately fell in love with its aesthetic as i scrolled through its photos. it came as no surprise when i read that the couple who runs it, mario and maxime, are from france; the design, while it incorporates many local goods, had that certain je ne sais quoi of european influence. a HUGE breakfast was waiting for us when we arrived, and they allowed us an early check-in since we got there around 10:30. we communicated mostly with mario, and he was beyond gracious in helping us plan out our days to make the most of our short time in the city. he recommended restaurants, sights, and even walked us to his favorite rug shop so we wouldn’t have to deal with sketchy rug dealers in the souks (many of the so-called “vintage” rugs in the souks are overpriced, new, and of shoddy quality). we would stay at the riad helen again in a heartbeat.
- riad baladin, essaouira: tripadvisor came to the rescue on this riad, and it made all of my airy coastal living dreams come true. it felt like it belonged on a greek isle, though it maintained elements of arabesque design. my only regret is that we didn’t have more time here, especially since our room had a private terrace on which we could’ve spent the afternoons relaxing. it was lovely.
- riad marjana, fès: riad marjana was another tripadvisor find, and it was luxurious with only a slight hint of gaudiness–methinks it was the purple velvet dining cushions. our room boasted lofted ceilings, a king-sized bed, and tall windows that opened over the dining area into the courtyard. it was family-owned and run, and the staff was kind and attentive. the location was close to the souks but tucked in an alley off an ugly street. i’d give it an A overall, but a C+ on the location.
shopping and navigating the souks:
here are the basic rules:
- if you stop and look at or, God forbid, touch an item as you walk by a shop, the vendor will immediately start showing you everything he or she has that even remotely resembles it. keep your hands to yourself unless you’re serious about wanting something, don’t express too much interest in any one thing, and, if possible, wear sunglasses so you can discreetly look at things.
- when you do find something you like, pay attention to the details. what is the seaming like on the rug? does the leather pouf smell funky? is the “antique silver teapot” lightweight and untarnished? has the supposedly vintage item clearly been dyed recently? as a tourist, you will be a target if you allow yourself to be one. maintain a high standard for quality, and don’t compromise on it.
- when you finally do find the perfect item and the vendor names a price, offer 1/3 of what is asked. when you’re met with shock, resistance, or any sort of dramatics, walk away. you will earn respect for knowing how to bargain, and the vendor will probably chase you out of the store offering a better price. we paid between 30-50% of the original asking price on almost everything we bought with the exception of our rugs; they came from the rug dealer mario recommended, and he wasn’t located in the souks or typically one for negotiating, though we did talk him down by 30%. a guy chased me after i walked out of a shop yelling, “lay-dee, lay-dee, come back!” at one point, and i, of course, got the price i wanted.
- know that if you are buying something larger, like a rug, you can often pay extra to have it shipped home. we didn’t do that, but it is an option if you are wanting to travel lightly and not bring home two extra suitcases like we did.
eating and drinking:
most riads will provide a complimentary breakfast, and you’d be remiss if you didn’t take advantage of the spread. the consistent breakfast foods were fresh bread or croissants, eggs, yogurt, and moroccan pancakes called beghrir, served with jams and local chèvre, and fresh orange juice, coffee, and mint tea to drink. i stuffed myself each morning.
tagine and couscous filled the majority of the menus we saw, and we mostly ate different types of tagine dishes to taste the local flavors. chicken tagine usually paired the meat with some form of lemon, while beef and lamb often featured figs or prunes. i tried a kefta tagine in essaouira because it was described as an “egg poached in tomato sauce”, but upon its arrival i learned that kefta just means meatball; it definitely wasn’t beef, and i learned later that moroccan kefta is usually lamb or sometimes…wait for it…camel. i die.
i made it my mission to eat as much stuffed msemen (basically roti crêpes) as possible while we were wandering the souks. it was stuffed with caramelized onions, red peppers, and herbs aplenty, and i could eat it every day forever and be happy. it also costs about $.20, so i would save a ton of money if it comprised the majority of my diet.
the local drinks were one of my favorite things about morocco. being a muslim country, alcohol is hard to find at most restaurants. we did eat at a couple places that served wine, and we were surprised by how delicious some of the local wine was. what the restaurants lacked in adult beverages they made up for with juices, mint teas and, my new favorite, lightly sweetened lemonade blended with fresh mint leaves–put it in an IV, connect that drip to my veins, and let me live my best life.
there is plenty to see all over depending on your preferences. do your research beforehand and ask your host for his or her recommendations once you arrive. if you want to see beautiful arabesque architecture, visit a madrasa or two; non-muslims aren’t allowed to go inside mosques, so madrasas are a great alternative with a similar aesthetic. most cities have at least a couple museums worth checking out like the maison de la photographie in marrakech (it also has a great restaurant on the terrace where you can see the whole medina while sipping on tea or lemonade) or the dar batha in fès. there are beautiful gardens to explore, souks to wander, tanneries to stop by to see leatherworkers perfecting their craft, and, if you’re feeling adventurous, hammams to visit for a traditional islamic bathing and cleansing ritual (more on this in my post on fès). i’ll delve into the details of what we did in each city in my other posts.
be smart, be savvy. if you make yourself an easy target, leaving your wallet readily accessible or your purse open, you will probably fall victim to pickpocketing. know where you’re going before you leave, and walk with confidence. if you are a woman, especially one with fair coloring like me, know that you, whether you intend to or not, will probably attract an uncomfortable amount of attention from men. i wore baggy clothing and walked closely with jonathan the entire time, and that didn’t stop many borderline voyeuristic stares from coming my way. i have also received messages on instagram from random moroccan men who found my account because i used hastags having to do with morocco. be strong, but be wary, too.
more than anything, though, be open. morocco was unlike anywhere else i’ve visited. marrakech and fès had us on sensory overload, and the chill beach vibes of essaouira contrasted beautifully with the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities and their medinas. eat well, enjoy the chaos, and appreciate the beauty of the colors, tiles, smells, and sights around you. it is a culture rich with history and flavor, and it was well worth the effort and craziness of coordinating our schedule to experience it.