Must do in Morocco

Having been to Morocco 3 times and spent around 5 weeks there in total, I’ve find it difficult to limit my recommendations for things to do when there. Many a visitor will spend time in one of the many Moroccan all inclusive hotels, as I did during my first trip. However, Morocco offers so much more. Dip into the culture or immerse yourself in local life and you will get a completely different experience. It’s a destination that I recommend time and time again, a photographers dream. Just a few hours flight from the UK, here are my list of must do’s in Morroco:

When to visit

Visit Morocco when it isn’t too hot. The best time being: mid- Sept until early December or March to May, both cooler and it’s low season. Summer (June to August) in Marrakech is very, very hot and chances are you won’t want to be outside very much. Winter tends to be rainy and cool, much better suited to travelling around although temperatures can drop dramatically at night so take appropriate clothing.

Shop and bargain

Get lost in the souks of the capital, Marrakesh. You will need to be prepared to bargain hard. Take your time to experience it all and try not to get too frustrated at the sometimes aggressive sales people.

Jma El Fna, Marrakesh

Jma El Fna at night

Experience Jma El Fna (Marrakesh’s square and market place) during the day and night. The heat puts visitors off during the daytime but you should still stop here and take in the vastness of this space before the evening sets in. At night the snake charmers disperse and the food stalls appear. Get a spot on the balcony of Le Grand Balcon Cafe Glacier, before sunset to view from above.

Don’t just visit Marrakesh

Explore places around Morocco, ie other than Marrakesh. Marrakesh is great for a stop over but as I learnt from my second and third visits, there is so much more to Morocco outside its capital.

Sahara Desert

Sleep in the desert. Spend the night in what feels like the middle of nowhere. Watch the sun set across the dunes, sit by a fire and watch the stars. Just do it, there’s no other place in the world quite like the Sahara at night.

Camel Safari

Although extremely touristy, it’s quite fun to spend time roaming the dunes on the hump of a smelly camel. Get yourself a “shesh” and learn to tied the traditional turban, for a typical souvenir photograph.

Visit the coast

Make sure you don’t miss the beautiful city of Essouira. For great photos and deliciously fresh fish. Take time to sit back and relax whilst watching the world go by. Games of Thrones fans will head here to see Astapor in the flesh.

Travel around

Spilt your time between the North and the South, take 2 separate trips if you can. I personally preferred the South which was more natural but the North is more westernised.

Festivals

Consider whether to visit during the Muslim holy month. Shop and restaurant hours are often changed and there is less activity as most of the country is fasting from dawn to dusk. However this can be a great time to experience local life, but if it’s anything like the time I spent in Malaysia during Ramadan (see my post Experiencing Malaysia during Ramadan) it can be frustrating.

Photography highlight

Spend hours photographing the blue city of Chefchaouen. No doubt you will have seen this iconic place all over the web. The souks are much more laid back than Marrakesh.

Traditional foods

Taste Tangia as well as Tagines. Tangia is a slow cooked meat stew cooked in a pot of the same name. Try it in Marrakesh or enjoy the numerous varieties of Tagines everywhere… home cooked is best, my favourite is probably with meat balls. Check out my post for more Must try Moroccan meals.

Take a hike

Mount Toubkal is the highest peak and will require an overnight or two. For most the Atlas Mountains can be reached fairly easily, with plenty of short hikes around the area, through Berber villages. Or the Rif Mountains are a less popular alternative.

Take Care

Fes and specifically it’s Medina is renowned for being somewhat unsafe as evening falls. However visit during the daytime or with a reputable guide and see it’s traditional craftsmen including tanners, weavers and coppersmiths. Of course the famous tanneries are a photographers highlight.

Must try Moroccan meals

The food in Morocco is as diverse as it’s culture. With the Berber, Arabic, French and Spanish influence, wherever you travel around Morocco you can find a variety of local specialities and of course numerous versions of the originally North African Berber dish, tagine.

moroccan chicken tagine at amal cooking school marrakech

So where to start on the menu? Here’s my recommendations for meals in Morocco…

Bread

Well, knobz (bread) comes with every meal and often with olives.  Sometimes there are dips or sauces and even salads, but all depending on where you choose to eat.

Moroccan knobz bread table view

Here are some of my recommendations …

Tagine

Slow cooked lamb, chicken, beef, veggies etc. Cooked and served in the conical clay pot in which it is cooked, which allows the steam to rise, condense, and drip back down to the stew. Expect to wait for this dish as cooked fresh it will take some time; often preparation begins after breakfast.

My favourite version of the tagine is the meat balls in tomato sauce, usually served with an egg.

meatball tagine with tomato and egg homestay moulay idriss

Another recommendation is the chicken with preserved lemon.

Couscous

Traditionally served on Fridays, another North African Berber dish, these small balls of steamed semolina are widely available any day.

The couscous is served with a meat and/or vegetable stew. Vegetarians be warned that the veggie version can sometimes include meat based gravy.

Pastilla

Another dish that takes time to prepare with its endless layers of thin pastry. Traditionally stuffed with pigeon but now more widely made with a chicken filling. This pie like pod is often served sprinkled with icing sugar or cinnamon so is sweet to taste.

chicken pastilla

I’ve also spotted pastilla on the desert menu, with an adapted filling of something sweet which really suits this dish in my opinion.

Brochettes

moroccan meat brochettes kebabs

Grilled kebabs sometimes served with a salad or fries. Great to share, particularly if you go for the mixed version, although avoiding the sausage like meats is advisable (often stuffed camel spleen).

Raif

A fried, layered bread a bit like a pancake. Best served warm and eaten with your hands, just watch out as they can be a little oily so have tissues on standby.

Camel Burger

The first time I tried a camel burger was in Marrakech in a rather Westernised restaurant. It tasted like a really succulent burger, so the camel meat didn’t have anything particularly distinctive that I recall.

camel burger at cafe clock marrakech

On a more recent visit, I tried the camel burger, local style, from the street food stall in the medina in Fez. Just round the corner was the camels head, hanging happily for a selfie.

local camel burger in Fes souks

To be honest, both versions of the camel burgers I tried were very good, so just go for it and try it when you see it.

Harira

The home cooked versions are the best. Try this in a homestay or Riad and you will not be disappointed.

Often served before a main meal this chick pea soup is great for warming up. In Chefchaoeun their equivalent is made with white beans, Bissara, which is much more bland in taste – add more olive oil to taste.

Tangia

slow cooked tangia marrakech

Not to be confused with tagine, although also named after the pot in which it is cooked. Traditionally cooked for hours in a clay pot the slow cooked lamb, or beef, is a speciality in Marrakech. There are no veggies so this can be quite overwhelming on its own, better shared.

Salads and dips

My favourites are olives and Zaalouk, which is eggplant/aubergine with garlic. This and several other spread like dips are a great accompaniment for the obligatory bread before a main meal.

olives zaalouk eggplant/aubergine salads and dips

 At the end of a meal another Moroccan tradition involves drinking mint tea, in fact everywhere you go there will be mint tea served. Personally I prefer mine without sugar, but the sweetness can be addictive.

traditionally served moroccan mint tea

Of course there are many other dishes to try during a visit to Morocco. Have you been; have food recommendations to share?

Second chances: Marrakech

Many first time visitors will arrive at the central square, Jeema El Fna, and immediately experience the chaotic hustle and bustle of Marrakech, day or night.

Forty five degree heat and a skinny white bloke, who had barely experienced the non western world before, were not the two best things to be travelling in or with here. Arriving just across from Jeema El Fna was the best we could manage in navigating to the centre after losing our battle with a airport taxi tout.

Our suitcases were super heavy, the sweat was pouring and the dust was getting everywhere. What sticks in my mind, from that first visit to Marrakech, most, is just how much worse it became as the week wore on.

That was back in 2008. Since returning home, I have simply avoided anything that reminded me of my time there.

***

My visits to Africa, generally, seem to have resulted in a couple of not so great experiences. So the fact that this region remains fairly unexplored by me probably doesn’t come as too much of a surprise.

However, Ive learnt many times that second chances often reap rewards. So last year, in December, Morocco was given one.

My first impressions were actually very positive…

We bypassed the touts at the airport and headed straight for the bus, which conveniently dropped us of close to or hotel in the modern district of Guilez. Even the driver spoke to me, which was a definite difference to my last visit where I was blatantly ignored; unless the trade of camels was involved.

The past 7 years have certainly changed this city. Positively more Westernised but yet, still completely and utterly like the Marrakech I remember.

The temperature was cool and pleasant in the month of December and I would highly recommend this time of year to visit over the summer months.

Must try food: Tanjia – only available in Marrakech, although veggies should avoid this meaty dish.

Cook your own: Amal – a womens training centre where you can dine in the restaurant or head along for a cookery class of your choice.

 

Don’t miss: the souks of course, inside the walled medina – get ready to bargain hard!

The rest of Morocco turned out to be so much more than its capital. Great food, people, activities and the mysterious lure of the desert. Check out some of the highlights in my ‘Memories from Morocco‘ post.

Memories from Morocco

Last time I ventured to Morocco it was 45 degrees in the middle of summer, and I saw very little in the stifling heat from the confines of our western hotel.

I also spent most of the week in Marrakesh, by myself, sitting in the shade by the pool as it was too hot to venture out. My fellow traveller was too sick to accompany me anywhere after the first day, where we had eaten in the square, so the chances of being hassled in the souks had increased ten fold. In fact I have absolutely no fond memories of that holiday whatsoever.

Of course, everywhere deserves a second chance, and I know only too well that Marrakesh is not Morocco, there’s so much more than that.

So, despite a less than good experience, I had high hopes of a return visit being loaded with the culture and charm that is pictured in many of the postcard scenes.

I wanted to bury my feet in the Sahara sand, climb the Atlas Mountains, spy tree climbing goats, drive over mountain passes, and people watch in the cafes along the Atlantic coast, whilst slurping mint tea.

Plus, Just 3 hours from London, and limited on time off, what better way to spend a few days in winter, somewhere a little bit warmer with a lot of culture.

After 9 days travelling through the south, I was not disappointed. In fact, I’m already looking at booking the Northern tour for another trip.

So, if you are thinking of heading to Morocco, don’t hesitate like I did. It really was a surprising country, and I ticked off everything on my list for the south. Here are a few of the highlights …

 

Guzzling grilled meat in Jeema El Fna – a must do once, during a visit to Marrakesh, despite the risk of a dodgy tummy, the levels of hygiene have some what improved since I was last here in 2008… maybe. Note: You won’t be disappointed with food generally throughout Morocco, there’s quite a bit to choose from. More on that on another post.

Atlas mountains

 

Trekking the Toubkal trail – the highest peak was too far and too long for this visit, but the 4 hour (return) trek to the shrine of Sidi Chamarouch. Following the footsteps of pilgrims, from our Berber homestay in Aroumd, was a good way to experience the mountain range.

Ait Benhaddou

 

Ait Benhaddou – the city of mud where we found ourselves caught up in the recording of the latest series to be filmed on location there. Surprisingly quiet otherwise and the souvenir touts were calm, and offering some interesting pictures painted with tea and spices.

 

Camel ride and dune climbing in the Sahara desert. Breath taking scenes across the glowing orange dunes in the dying light. A bit of a bitch to get to if you’re cramped in the back of a 4 x 4, still recovering from a camel ride, but the absolutely stunning views are worth it. 

Essaouira

 

Relaxation in Essaouira – laid back souk shopping coupled with cafes for people watching the hours away. The windy coast offers plenty of water sports for those that enjoy something a little more active.