The Fascinating History Behind Morocco’s “Blue City”

The story behind the country’s most colorful town.

Stone stairway between two blue buildings in Chefchaouen with tile work

Buildings in Chefchaouen, Morocco, are painted blue, but why?

Courtesy of Jaanus Jagomägi / Unsplash

Indigo walls. Azure staircases. Heavy cerulean doors set into cobalt archways. After a while, moving through the shifting blues of the medina in the Moroccan town of Chefchaouen can feel more like swimming in the sea than walking around a mountain town. But the famous dipped-in-blue look has less to do with the sea than with the sky. In fact, it’s located in the foothills of the Rif mountain range about a two-hour drive inland from Tangier, the main port city for travelers coming to Morocco from Spain. If this colorful city has been on your radar, we pulled together some must-know history and a few recommendations of things to do in Chefchaouen, Morocco.

Who painted Chefchaouen blue?

Chefchaouen was first painted blue by the Jews who landed here in the 1930s on the run from Hitler’s growing reach. Their choice of hue came from the Jewish tradition of weaving blue thread into prayer shawls to remind people of the sky, the heavens, and ultimately, God’s power. (A less poetic explanation sometimes tossed around is that it’s to repel mosquitoes by mimicking the look of running water.)

The bulk of the Jewish population left for Israel in 1948. Still, every spring the local government hands out paintbrushes to help keep Chefchaouen’s signature look intact. Adding a fresh wash of color to their homes and alleys are Berbers, Muslims, and the Spanish-speaking descendants of 15th-century exiles from across the Strait of Gibraltar.

Also ever-present are travelers: Hikers who head out into the verdant Rif Mountains, climbing to the two hornlike peaks (chaoua) that gave the town its name. Shoppers dot the streets, haggling over wool and camel-hair rugs dyed with colors extracted from the mountain’s plants and earth. Backpackers are drawn in by the area’s famed hash. And photographers appear around every corner, finding frame-worthy shots no matter which way they turn.

Where to see some of Chefchaouen’s most attractive architecture

A bright blue wooden door in archway, surrounded by tiles

Keep an eye open for beautifully tiled doors and entry ways.

Photo by Carley Rudd

No matter what you end up doing, you’ll be treated to beautiful scenery all along the way. It’s impossible not to stop and take a photo or 20 when you’re strolling along the city’s streets. Getting a little lost among the saturated blue alleys is a sure-fire way to immerse yourself in the environment, so start at the Chefchaouen medina. Here you’ll be surrounded by picturesque doorways, loads of local cats wandering the walkways, and vendors. Even when it’s filled with fellow tourists, it’s worth a wander. Bring cash—this is also a handy place to pick up unexpected souvenirs but many markets and stands don’t accept cards.

Next, head to the Kasbah Museum, located inside a former sultan’s palace; it features the exquisite architecture and interiors that you might expect in such a setting. The exhibits dig into the regional history dating back to prehistoric times, offering another layer of “the Blue Pearl.” For the best sunset, make the 30-minute hike to the Spanish Mosque at the top of the hill overlooking Chefchaouen. There’s a trailhead at the east end of town that spans a small bridge before you start to climb the hill.

For dinner, head to La Lampe Magique Casa Aladin for a rooftop dining experience. It’ll be hard to tear yourself away from the tile-covered interior, but the alfresco view overlooking the surrounding riads will be worth it.

Plan a visit

Narrow street with building walls in different shades of blue

The blue walls in this Moroccan city are repainted every year.

Courtesy of Veronica Reverse / Unsplash

The best time to visit

The best time to visit Chefchaouen, weather-wise, is between May and September, when temperatures are more mild. If you venture here a little earlier than that, keep in mind that it’s a popular destination for Spaniards during their Semana Santa (Holy Week) each year between Palm Sunday and Easter.

Getting there

Buses arrive daily from Tangier (the closest hub), Fes, Casablanca, and other major cities to the Chefchaouen Station. It’s about a two-hour drive from Tangier, four hours from Fes, and five hours from Casablanca. The nearest international airport is 30 miles away in Tétouan (Sania Ramel Airport); it services flights from within Morocco as well as European hubs like Madrid and Brussels.

This article originally appeared online in 2015; it was most recently updated on March 20, 2024, to include current information.

Lisa Trottier is a journalist whose work has appeared in AFAR and Sunset Magazine.
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