Spices piled into high triangles. Sands shifting on the Sahara. Piping hot and frothy mint tea. Morocco welcomes all travelers with alluring sensory experiences and warm hospitality at every turn. Whole cities are painted blue, tasty morsels steam bake in earthenware pots, and fluffy camels bleat as they traverse the desert. It’s an intoxicating place and we’ve gathered our favorite flavors, scented tendrils, and sensations it has to offer.
Things to see in Morocco
Cheerful blue Chefchaouen: In a charming mountain town in northern Morocco, you’ll find yourself surrounded by cool shades of blue. Turquoise! Indigo! Periwinkle! Name a shade and you will find it in a maze of market stalls, cafes, and narrow streets full of cats. So many cats. It’s a place where you’ll have to work hard to put your camera down as another blue-washed picture emerges at every turn. Pay attention to your manners when it comes to the locals and ask first before taking pictures. Also, don’t miss the perfect overlook and sunset location by taking a 45-minute walk to the Spanish Mosque on top of the hill.
Gorgeous Todra Gorge: Imagine you are standing in a narrow gap where limestone cliffs reach more than 500 feet above your head on either side. Carved by the Todra and Dads rivers, the resulting canyon makes a great hiking path. Set in the High Atlas Mountains, prepare for a dramatic change of color and texture from the smooth orange rock to the brilliant green palm trees nestled in the valleys. In addition, a river still flows from a mild current in the dry season to a raging torrent in the wet.
Well-Preserved Volubilis: Smack dab in the middle of a fertile plain, you’ll find what remains of an ancient Roman city. Volubilis is one of Morocco’s best-preserved Roman ruins, which is impressive considering its long abandonment and much of it collapsed in an 18th-century earthquake. Thanks to extensive excavations, you can walk around the site to find ancient but sophisticated remains such as olive presses, underfloor heated thermal baths, and captivating mosaics.
The latter have been preserved in situ and depict everything from the fascinating sea creatures of Orpheus to Bacchus riding a leopard-drawn chariot. For real wildlife, from September to March you can find massive storks nesting atop Roman pillars.
Things to taste in Morocco
Moroccan Mint Tea: In a country where few people drink alcohol, mint tea is the social drink of choice. A piping hot cup is offered and tasted to welcome visitors at any time of the day. Ingredients vary by region and season and can include additions such as lemon verbena, thyme, lemongrass, and even a punch of dried flowers. And, of course, there’s an art to pouring. While the green tea is brewing, the liquid is poured from a height between the pot and the glass until foam appears. no foam? There is no tea. It’s all about stepping back and enjoying the company of others so enjoy the wait.
Towers of Tagine: For starters, tagine is the name of both the conical cooking vessel and the resulting dish. Bakeware is made of ceramic or unglazed clay, which later adds an earthy flavor to your food. While the ingredients are very diverse, layering is important. It starts with a bed of onions so that meat, vegetables, herbs, spices, and oil are placed on top.
Just add water and heat, and the magical concoction serves up a delicious and moist dish to be enjoyed en masse. Freshening up and eating is such a big part of Moroccan life and culture that we highly recommend taking a cooking class as part of your trip. You will have the time of your life and your taste buds will sing with praise.
Stacks of Harissa Dip: Speaking of taste sensations, this spicy, smoky, tangy chili paste is one of those flavor combos you’ll consistently crave after trying a particularly good batch. It is a cornerstone of North African cooking and used to kick everything from chicken to fried eggs to yogurt dips. The specific ingredients in the beloved spice vary widely as does the level of heat so try a little at first. If it’s on the far end of the spectrum, a little goes a long way!
Things to smell in Morocco
Smells Good: Nothing shakes your olfactory senses (in a good way!) quite like the colorful pyramids of herbs and spices found in socks. Descend through major swaths of cooking spices such as cumin, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, and saffron, as well as all kinds of leaves, barks, petals, and oils. At Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakech, you can even catch whiffs of fresh citrus from orange juice vendors. Bargains are expected in all markets and what better way to try your hand at it than with some fragrant souvenirs. A note of etiquette: It’s considered rude to walk away with the best offer, so only bargain if you want to buy.
Bad Smell: Nothing stirs up your olfactory senses (in a bad way!) like the colorful but pungent leather tanneries in Fes. At Chaura, the city’s largest and oldest tannery factory, you’ll find your nose for the absence of a sprig of mint so you can follow the traditional procession on the upstairs terrace. From this viewpoint, you’ll find a painter’s palette of stoneware filled with natural colors made from poppies, pomegranates, indigo, rosemary, mint, and saffron.
But where does the smell come from? Poop, mostly! Less colored vats contain a mixture of pigeon feces, cow urine, quicklime, and water to break down and soften the skins. At the end of the rank process, soft leather-like butter appears which is transformed into babouche (Moroccan slippers), poufs, purses, and bags.
Things to hear in Morocco
Captivating Gnoua Music: In a small village on the edge of the Erg Chebbi sand dunes, a spiritual wonder awaits for your ears and heart. Most travelers stop nearby in Merzouga for the thrill of sandboarding and 4×4 runs over the Sahara – and why don’t you? But push another seven kilometers to Khamlia, a town of fewer than 300 residents, and you might feel influenced by the traditional Gnaoua Tal.
Gnaoua (or Gnawa) is the name of an ethnic group of people originally taken as slaves from sub-Saharan Africa, a mystic spiritual order of Islam and a low-toned musical style. The sound is a catchy combination of castanets known as crackab, call-and-response singing, plucked strings, and large drums. Once marginalized, the Gnoua people eventually integrated into Moroccan culture and their music is celebrated with annual festivals. A few different groups, such as the Pigeons du Sable and the Bambara, live and play in Khamlia and welcome travelers with healing songs and dances.
Tree Goats: You like trees. You like goats. What if there was a place where you could find goats challenging you from high branches? Believe it or not, that place exists in the Sousse Valley of Morocco. While it is true that goats are natural climbers, they are pulled to higher altitudes every June by ripening argan fruit. Prickly argania trees hang heavy with cloves hoop ornaments that clear the fruit and fall to the ground below. As an added benefit, those seeds can be pressed for the highly prized argan oil. This is the circle of life!
Quick animal welfare note: Give a hard pass to any gathering where goats are tied up and/or a shepherd is waiting below to take your picture for a fee. It is probably staged for tourists.
The Call to Prayer: Beginning at dawn and four times thereafter, the muezzin (the chosen call leader in each mosque) reminds the Islamic faithful to pray. Called Aden in Arabic, the loudspeakers of the minaret make the sound of prayers louder and echo and overlap with all the mosques in the area. The sound is beautiful and moving, especially as you reflect on the adventures of the day.
Things to feel in Morocco
Scrubbed clean: Visiting a traditional hammam, or bathhouse, tops the list of many adventurous travelers to Morocco. After energetic days of wandering the medina and desert, the appeal of a pampering and spa day looms large. But prepare yourself for the optional supportive scrub and prepare to say goodbye to a few layers of skin.
Learning the Arabic phrase for “not so hard” (that’s Baswiya) comes in handy as the attendant spins you into a pretzel and cleans you with black soap and a kesa (scrub mitt). In all cases, the experience is refreshing but can test your flexibility and pain tolerance. In addition, the communal bath is a friendly gathering place to chat with same-sex locals as public hammams do not mix.
Amazing Hospitality: A warm welcome is part of Moroccan culture and its diverse range of people. In particular, the indigenous Amazigh people (also known as Berbers but that name is falling out of favor) are renowned for their generous hospitality. Like the Moroccan mint tea you will undoubtedly be served, Amazigh is an ancient culture steeped in pride and tradition. There are about 18 – 20 million Moroccan Imazighans, including most host in tent camps across the Sahara or, like their ancestors, leading a nomadic agricultural lifestyle in the High Atlas Mountains.