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Morocco in one word is vibrant. From the white, snow-capped Atlas Mountains to the golden hues of the Sahara Desert to the lush green farms, travelers to this north African country are immersed in the vibrant colors of a geographically diverse nation. Setting foot in one of the ancient medinas will transport you to a world from the past: narrow streets with towering walls and markets (souks) full of artisan goods, spice-laden food and bustling crowds of people.
A sense of organized chaos fills your senses as streets are often shared by large tour buses, motorcycles, horse-drawn carts and pedestrians all at once. Some visitors may feel overwhelmed while others find this to be a thrilling adventure in a mystical land only seen on movie screens. Whichever your knee-jerk reaction might be, take a deep breath and brace yourself for exotic sights, sounds and smells as you begin your journey in the Kingdom of Morocco.
It’s important to note here that in Morocco homosexual acts are illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison. Even though this is not always enforced, it’s smart to use street sense and avoid PDAs (public displays of affection) as this is culturally frowned upon for both opposite and same-sex couples. As in any country, respect local customs and most people will not be hostile. Transgender travelers should be especially aware of potentially abusive behavior, particularly to transgender women, due in part to a lack of education in the country and conservative Muslim values.
Uniquely positioned with coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, the majority of Morocco experiences the seasons with tropical weather patterns typical to most Mediterranean countries. This includes sweltering hot temperatures from June to August and cold, wet days from November to January. The exceptions are the dry desert climate in the east and the much cooler temperatures up in the Atlas Mountains. This being said, the best times to visit are spring and autumn when the weather is less extreme, sunny and it’s pleasant to be out and about.
Due to its diverse geography, the climate does vary some from region to region. For instance, in Marrakech, temperatures from November to January sit at around 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius) and from June to August are on average at 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) with very little rainfall. In contrast, towns like Merzouga in the Western Sahara can see scorching summer temperatures in the daytime around 115 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius) and dramatic drops at night, even down to freezing in the winter. It’s best to book desert tours in the spring or autumn, but keeping in mind that March and April are prone to high winds and sudden sandstorms.
At the foot of the Atlas Mountains lies Morocco’s most famous city, Marrakech, best known for its vibrant, bustling square and market called Jemaa el-Fnaa. Day and night, this is where you’ll find desert musicians, snake charmers, storytellers, acrobats and more ready to entertain and profit from tourists passing by, as well as countless food stalls and artisans selling local crafts. Escape the hustle and bustle and step inside the tranquil Menara Gardens, complete with a 19th-century palace, reflecting pool and olive groves backdropped by the Atlas Mountains on the horizon. Must-see sights also include the Koutoubia Mosque, the largest mosque in Marrakech, and the Bahia Palace, an architectural masterpiece.
Located in the northeastern part of the country, Fez is often considered the cultural capital since it has the best maintained traditions and old-world charm. The center of it all is the Fes El Bali, the walled medina, with its narrow, pedestrian streets that house artisan workshops, mosques and an 11th-century tannery still using ancient methods of tanning and dying leather. Continue your tour of ancient Fez at the Bou Inania and the Al Attarine, both 14th-century religious schools with stunning Marinid architecture. Finally, visit the Quaraouiyine Mosque, the site of the University Al-Quaraouiyine founded in 859.
Known as the “Blue Pearl” of Morocco, Chefchaouen has become world famous for its blue-washed streets. Situated in the Rif Mountains of northwestern Morocco, it's much more than a hot spot for photographers trying to capture its otherworldly hues. The Plaza Uta El Hammam is the heart of the medina offering a shady spot to relax and contemplate the many theories as to why the city was painted blue. Towering over the plaza is the Grand Mosque, featuring an unusual octagonal minaret built in the 15th century. Continue exploring the kasbah with its red clay fortress walls and Andalusian-style gardens.
Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, is a modern city filled with palaces and gardens. Overall, it is relatively safe and inexpensive. It’s home to the Dar al-Makhzen (Royal Palace of Rabat), the official residence of the king of Morocco, where you can view the exterior architecture. Another highlight is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V and the unfinished Hassan Tower. Construction of its minaret began in the 12th century as part of a mosque that was intended to be even more grand than both the Giralda of Seville and the Koutoubia of Marrakech. Also worth seeing is the Kasbah of the Udayas, a fortified medieval city at the mouth of the Bou Regreg River.
Famous from the 1942 film, Casablanca is the economic capital of the country and located on the Atlantic Ocean. The most impressive site is the Hassan II Mosque that appears to rise up from the coastline with its towering 210-meter minaret, making it the largest mosque in Africa. Other spots to check out are the Casablanca Cathedral built in a 1930s neo-Gothic style and the Muhammad V Square, featuring a large, colorfully lit fountain.
The oldest city in the kingdom of Morocco, Tangier is a crossroads of civilizations. Known as the Bride of the North, it’s located on the coast where Mediterranean and Atlantic waters converge, spreading out along a magnificent bay at the foot of green hills. The cosmopolitan city has a long history of tolerance and acceptance, serving as inspiration to queer Beat Generation writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Visit the Kasbah (the ancient medina) and the nearby Grand Socco, a central meeting point for travelers, where you can savor a warm cup of tea referred as Atay Chamali at Cinémathéque de Tanger. You can also stroll through the narrow streets of the medina, which will lead you to the terrace overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. If you are a bibliophile, visit the bookshop Les Insolites, where you will find a large selection of LGBTQ+ literature. There are many excursions available, such as Cape Spartel—on the tip of Africa, not far from the famous Hercules Caves—and Cape Malabata, home to a lighthouse and medieval castle.
If a camel ride along desert dunes is on your bucket list, then check it off with a visit to the Sahara. Head down to the southeastern part of the country where you’ll find Erfoud, the major town in Saharan Morocco for accommodations and a jumping off point. Then make your way south to Merzouga, which is the gateway to the Erg Chebbi dunes. There you can book a 4x4 tour or a camel ride to discover the magical desert landscape. Experience a breathtaking sunset and spend a night under the stars gazing up at the crystal-clear heavens above.
High up in the Atlas Mountains, a hike to North Africa’s highest peak, Mount Toubkal, is not for the casual hiker and takes about three days to reach the summit and return. In the springtime, consider hiking the Ait Boguemez or “happy valley” where you’ll witness traditional Berber life while passing through remote villages and lush, green landscape. Well off the beaten path, on the edge of the Sahara in Kalaâ M’Gouna, you’ll discover Morocco’s fourth highest peak, Jebel Sahro, which is less popular and the furthest of the three from Marrakech.
You may want to plan your visit to Morocco around one of its many cultural festivals. The Fez Festival of World Sacred Music brings together performers from across the globe to perform in open-air venues throughout the city. Another is the Gnaoua World Music Festival in Essaouira, a convergence of artists from around the world and Gnaoua musicians. Other festivals highlight the region’s agriculture like the Erfoud Date Festival and the Valley of the Roses Festival. Lastly, the Marrakech Popular Arts Festival is a meeting place for entertainers and artists from across Europe and Asia, which takes place on the grounds of the Jemaa el-Fnaa and the typically tranquil El Badi Palace.
Although most don’t associate Africa with downhill skiing, from January through March visit Oukaïmeden, Morocco’s only actual ski resort. Located just 49 miles (78 kilometers) from Marrakech in the High Atlas Mountains that run down the center of the country, a single chairlift and several tow ropes take you to the top of Jebel Attar Mountain where six downhill runs await.
A visit to a hammam will introduce you to the ancient Middle Eastern bathing ritual. It is a traditional public steam bath that not only served the purpose of cleansing and exfoliating one's body, but also acted as a social meeting place long before private baths were typical in homes. For an upscale experience, ask your guide for a hammam with private treatment rooms and spa-like products.
If the beach is calling your name, then make your way down to the fishing village of Taghazout, just north of Agadir. Here you can find world-class breaks for surfers of all levels. Swells are best from September through April. For kite surfers and beginner surfers, check out the beach resort of Essaouira to the north.
Moroccan cuisine is an experience for your taste buds characterized by the herbs and spices that slowly cook into tender meats, vegetables and grains. A mix of Mediterranean, Andalusian, Berber and Arabic, signature Moroccan dishes are influenced by a melting pot of cultures. Without a doubt, the most iconic dish is tagine. Referring to the clay pot with a cone-shaped lid in which the dish is slow cooked, tagines may feature fish, chicken, lamb, beef or veggies. The grain of choice for most plates is couscous, which originated in Morocco and is usually served as a large communal dish topped with a meat or vegetable stew.
Many meals start with a typical tomato-based soup of lentils and chickpeas called harira. Other traditional dishes feature sweet and savory flavors including bastilla, a pie made with pigeon or chicken, and plates of meats and dried fruits like lamb or beef with prunes and fried almonds. To soak up all of these flavors, grab some khobz, a crusty, wood-fired bread, and wash it all down with mint tea, a green tea with lots of mint leaves and sugar added. If you’re looking for something stronger than mint tea, ask your server for a glass of red wine even though it may not be on the menu. Alcohol can be consumed by tourists discreetly, indoors and out of sight.
For more flavor-packed plates, try kefta, ground beef or lamb seasoned with cumin, paprika and herbs often served as a kabab or meatballs. Special occasions call for whole roasted lambs, and eating the head is especially popular. Additionally, you’ll find a variety of olives, dates, sardines, and sweet and savory filo dough-wrapped pastries. Tropical fruits and fresh vegetables are in abundance due to northern Africa's rich agriculture, and smoothie stands are a delicious way to enjoy the bounty.
As a conservative Muslim country where homosexuality is illegal, there aren’t any official “gay hot spots” or LGBTQ+ celebrations. That’s not to say that gay-friendly bars, restaurants, night clubs or beaches do not exist. In urban centers like Tangier, Marrakech and Agadir, it’s possible to find gay-friendly accommodations and spots that welcome a mix of gay and straight visitors. Self-proclaimed as the “best club in Morocco,” Pacha Marrakech is part of the international club chain and caters to a mixed audience. The Tangier Inn located within the Hotel El Muniria is a long-standing nightclub in Tangier that draws in a liberal crowd. In the beach town of Agadir, the Flamingo Oriental Night Club brings in a mix of locals and tourists and is busiest on the weekends.
Ryan is a world traveler, happy-hour seeker and digital marketer based in Chicago. For two years after university, he called Madrid, Spain home and traveled extensively. Ryan continues to explore the globe and his home country. He has six years of experience in social media and writing in digital ink for the travel and hospitality industry.
Image credit: @peruvian.nomad
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