The very best of the north African nation, from its coastal resorts to its colourful cities
If the physical environment of Morocco has more than its fair share of beauty and drama, the man-made environment is equally entrancing and diverse. Some towns have a local colour: Marrakech is known as the red city (it’s more ochre really); Chefchaouen is blue. The past is written on the peaks and valleys of the Atlas Mountains in the form of abandoned earth-coloured kasbahs or fortified palaces; it’s very much present in the green-tiled roofs and intricate multicoloured mosaic tiling of medieval Fès. Here at Time Out we’ve picked our favourite destinations in this diverse, captivating country.
Almeln Valley and Tafroute Rural idyll & town: Trekkers in the Anti Atlas have known about the relaxed, high-altitude town of Tafroute, as well as the landscape that surrounds it (cloud-capped peaks, deep valleys and gorges), for decades. The Almeln Valley is dotted with tiny, thriving villages, but Tafroute is something special, with its spectacular surroundings making it seem cosier than your average Moroccan town. The region is renowned for its almond harvests, which find their way into delicious couscous and tagines. Stay at: Hotel Les Amandiers, www.hotel-lesamandiers.com (+212 28 80 00 08).
Asilah Coast: Today one of Morocco’s cosiest and most charming coastal resorts, Asilah possesses a swashbuckling history of Barbary pirates, Riffian rebels and battles on its 15th-century ramparts. The smart and busy Zallaka in the Ville Nouvelle is a hub of decent restaurants and seafront avenues, but you can still get a taste of the romantic past by walking through the Bab Bhar gate into the town’s incredibly well-preserved medina. Casa Garcia (51 Avenue Moulay Hassan ben Mehdi, +212 39 41 74 65) is a small, beguiling restaurant that knows a lot about the town’s speciality food: fish. Stay at: Berbari, www.berbari.com (+212 62 58 80 13).
Casablanca City and coast: In Casablanca today, residential boulevards that wouldn’t look out of place in Beverly Hills, along with chic French restaurants and chi-chi beach clubs, play host to Morocco’s wealthiest and most Westernised people. And while the city’s seafront is dominated by the immensity of the Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca is also home to North Africa’s largest Jewish population, consisting mainly of well-off, middle-class Moroccans. Stay at: Hôtel Transatlantique (+212 22 29 45 51/29 52 04).
Chefchaouen City: Folded high in the crags of the Rif Mountains, this remote hideaway has a bewitching, storybook atmosphere to match its fairytale history as a retreat for rebels and European adventurers. Its ancient crafts and diverse cultural heritage have been perfectly preserved, along with its stone-walled streets and impressive Spanish mosque and Kasbah. Try to book a table at Casa Aladin (+212 39 98 90 17), which has a well-executed roll-call of rich and sticky tagines and couscous and a highly romantic atmosphere. Stay at: Casa Hassan, www.casahassan.com (+212 39 98 61 53).
Dadés Valley Mountains: The Dadés Valley runs between the High Atlas to the north and the Jebel Sarho to the south. Sometimes called ‘the Valley of the Kasbahs’, fortress-cities litter the route as a reminder of civilisations that flourished here. It’s the most barren of the southern valleys, which makes palm-strewn oases such as Skoura all the more beautiful, and dramatic gorges like Dadés and Todra all the more spectacular. Stay at: Les Jardins de Skoura, www.lesjardinsdeskoura.com (+212 24 85 23 24).
Marrakech City: Founded at the confluence of ancient trade routes, Marrakech is rooted in the twin activities of hospitality and trade. In its booming 21st-century incarnation, that means two things: chilling out and shopping. Head to the fantastical central square, Jemaa El Fna, for a nightly carnival of local life; north medina for a thriving network of souks; and south medina for the glittering remains of the sultan’s palaces. Stay at: Dar les Cigognes, www.lescigognes.com (+212 24 38 27 40).
Oualidia Coast: The stretch of azure Atlantic, butterscotch beaches and rugged caramel cliffs between Casablanca and Safi is a haven for wildlife, birds and surfers alike. Oualidia is just one of the unique towns that punctuate the wilderness. Here, a ruined Saadian kasbah stands sentinel over the ethereal beauty of a crescent-shaped inland lagoon, but the town is most famous for its oysters, which you can sample straight from the water with a dash of sun-kissed lemon. Try a plate of them on ice on the terrace next to the lagoon at eatery Ostrea, accompanied by a perfect glass of chilled white wine from the Moroccan and French wine list. Stay at: La Sultana, www.lasultanaoualidia.com (+212 23 36 65 95).
Ouarzazate Desert: Ouarzazate is a town primarily known for its on-screen exploits: Lawrence of Arabia, the Asterix movie and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator were all filmed here. The town is inhabited mainly by Berbers, who built many of the kasbahs. Venture out of the town into the biblical landscape of the Draa Valley, however, and you find Morocco in the raw, just a hop, skip and a sand buggy away from the Sahara Desert. Stay at: Dar Kamar, www.darkamar.com (+212 24 88 87 33).
Rabat City: Rabat was once a medieval imperial city, and vestiges of this illustrious past remain in the form of city walls and imposing gates built by Sultan Yacoub El-Mansour in the late 12th century. Today, while Rabat is the seat of government, in national life it takes a back seat to the economic powerhouse of Casablanca. The city’s focus on government and away from tourism means visitors can enjoy the sights in a pleasantly low-key fashion: the picturesque kasbah overlooking the Atlantic, the core of the medieval city, and the peaceful beauty of the walled Chellah. In 2009 the city gained the country’s first tram system, linking Rabat and nearby city Salé. Stay at: Villa Mandarine, www.villamandarine.com (+212 37 75 20 77).
Tangier City: Tangier is a city that has changed hands more times than it cares to remember, and African and European sensibilities battle with each other in its jumble of architecture, ancient alleyways and mixture of coastline and kasbah. The Grande Mosquée and little cafés in the Petit Socco remain much as they did at the early part of the last century, but a visit to the terrace of the port-side Gran Café de Paris in Ville Nouvelle, and one coffee and pastry’s worth of people-watching, leaves you in no doubt that this is a city still very much at the hub of human movement. Stay at: Riad Tanja, www.riadtanja.com (+212 39 33 35 38).
Taza Rural idyll: Head off the tourist trail out of Fès, through steep, rolling hills, and you come to Taza, a rather isolated provincial town with stunning views of both the Rif and Middle Atlas mountain ranges. Built as a fortress in the 12th century, you can still wander within medieval city walls and enter its original Andalucian mosque. Nearby is Jbel Tazekka National Park, a rambling wilderness home to the largest cave system in North Africa. Stay at: Auberge Ain-sahla, www.ainsahla.com (+212 61 89 35 87).
Need to know
Getting there Emirates flies from Abu Dhabi to Marrakech via Casablanca from about Dhs4,600 return. www.etihadairways.com (02 599 0000)