The Beautiful Colors of Morocco

Perched between the Atlantic and the vastness of the Sahara Desert, on the cusp of Europe and forming Africa’s northwest corner, Morocco offers a mixture of culture, color, and natural beauty that makes it one of the world’s most fascinating places to visit.

road to volibulis
Situated not far from Meknes, between Fes and Rabat, the Roman ruins of Volubilis stand as a testament to a culture that changed the world forever. In the fertile area that the ruined city is located, it’s difficult to remember you’re in Morocco. There’s a lushness that’s not visible everywhere else in the country. Long blades of green grass sway in the gentle breeze, the sun makes the white stone seem bleached and an olive grove along the road you hike from car park to temple, seems to transport you to faraway Italy. Volubilis is a UNESCO World Heritage site and as such is being reconstructed and preserved for future generations. For good reason. The site has an outstanding collection of mosaic floors that rival any collection I’ve seen anywhere in the world outside Rome itself and they’re still being restored which shows the collection will be even more impressive in future years. The Appian Way also runs through the ruins and it’s surreal to walk along the paving stones of a road that was begun in 312 BC. It’s worth any extra money you might incur to hire one of the guides that wait near the entrance to the complex. They’re worth their weight in gold if history interests you. Visit when the sun is not directly overhead for the best photographs and bring extra layers of clothing because the gentle breeze can quickly turn into a strong wind as the ruins are at a higher elevation that the surrounding land.
N9, Morocco
The distance between Ouarzazate and Marrakech is only 200km (125 miles) but the drive on the N9 through the High Atlas Mountains can take as long as four hours. The winding road, full of switch backs and featuring such scenery as to make one’s jaw drop in disbelief is not recommended for those who suffer chronic motion sickness. Like myself. So, when we woke up, the long drive ahead of us and an eagerness to see my beloved Marrakech again, I medicated and prepared myself mentally for four hours of white-knuckle-torture. By the time we arrived at this vantage point in the Tichka Pass, I was suffering more from a backache and pain in my hands than from nausea. Dramamine is truly a wonder drug! And thank god for it, there isn’t a drive I have done anywhere in the world that was as rewarding as the road from Ouarzazate to Marrakech. Car rental is possible and the Lonely Planet forums have great information on doing this yourself but I recommend having a very good, local driver. Be prepared with very warm clothing for getting out and taking pictures at the highest parts of the pass, the temperature drop is astonishing and the winds will knock you over. The view you’re rewarded with is, of course, worth it! There are also wonderful small villages scattered all along the N9 - to stop in and eat, shop and rest your body before completing the drive.
Passage Prince Moulay Rachid
Described by writer Tahir Shah as the “greatest show on Earth,” no visit to Marrakech would be complete without a visit to the famous night market on the Djemaa el Fna. Arrive before sunset and park yourself at one of the various cafés with terraces overlooking the square to watch performers set up; then venture into the fray in search of adventure. Silk-clad acrobats, wide-eyed storytellers, sly snake charmers, jangling belly dancers, and capricious monkey handlers all emerge from the darkness, ringing the edge of the food stalls with their own special brand of entertainment. When you tire of the heckling, prowl the market in search of good things to eat: bite-size morsels of grilled lamb rubbed in cumin, sardines fried in chermoula, peppery snails, and sheep’s heads for the brave. Then nudge up alongside a family of locals at the table and settle in for the feast. If you’re nervous about going it alone, you can sign up for a food tour with Canadian tour guide and all-round good egg Mandy Sinclair of Tasting Marrakech; she’ll help you find the best stalls while introducing you to the secrets and delights of traditional Moroccan street food.
Aït Benhaddou, Morocco
We set off not long before sunset, from the “new” village across the river. Passing over a modern bridge, I didn’t feel at first like this trek in Morocco was much different than any other. Then the terrain changed, I had to pay more attention to where I walked, we began to pass open doorways with lives in progress barely visible far back in the dark spaces. I saw a crude sign with faded, tape-covered photographs advertising that this was the place in which ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ had been filmed. As we climbed further, passed more houses, took in more of the stamped details in the mud walls -- I finally understood. It’s protected by UNESCO and for good reason. There are probably thousands of kasbahs and ksars in the country of Morocco but the devil is in the details at Aït Benhaddou; walls, patterns, faces of the 10 families who remain, the sound of a drum beating faintly from down a passage. Take time to come early enough in the day that you can shop and bargain with the locals who still reside on the hill inside the old ksar. Leave enough time to hike to the very summit, where the watchtower is, to view the sun setting over the entire valley. Old caravan roads snake through the landscape intertwined with the gleam of the river; it’s a serene space that feels a bit worshipful. To what I don’t know, perhaps to the confluence of nature and man’s creation. After all, nature is trying to bury Aït Benhaddou but man will not be driven away.
Derb Assehbi, Marrakesh 40000, Morocco
Opened in 1946 as a restaurant (where the famous regulars included Churchill and Hemingway), La Maison Arabe later expanded to a small hotel, then grew again under its current French-Italian owner. Today, it features 26 garden- or patio-view rooms and suites, individually designed in either a traditional or slightly more modern Moroccan style. All have air-conditioning and heating (a must for the varied desert temperatures) as well as Wi-Fi, satellite TVs, and marble-and-granite bathrooms stocked with aromatic toiletries. Also available to guests is an idyllic swimming pool, around which the hotel serves a home-cooked breakfast each morning, and the clubby, 1930s-inspired Piano Bar, where guests can enjoy live jazz and pre-dinner drinks by the fireplace. When it’s time to unwind, head to the cozy spa for an array of face, body, and hamman treatments, all performed with products made exclusively for the hotel.

Much like in the past, La Maison Arabe revolves around food. Guests can choose between Le Restaurant, where a gorgeous fountain and hand-painted ceiling set the stage for authentic Moroccan fare, and the intimate, lantern-lit Les Trois Saveurs, which serves a sophisticated menu of French, Moroccan, and Asian dishes. Additionally, the hotel offers some of the city’s best cooking classes, which are open to outside guests. Led by a dada (a traditional Moroccan cook), the lessons take place either at the main hotel or the Country Club—a satellite property located 15 minutes away by complimentary shuttle, where students can also find a larger pool, lush gardens, a restaurant, and a bit of calm away from the bustle of the medina.
Quartier Ain Noqbi, Fès, Morocco
Some travelers are exhausted by the haggling in the souks of Morocco, by the barely-organized chaos of the medinas. In Fes, the stunning mosaic tile creations that are so typical all over the country can be bought directly from the artisans who make them in a showroom just outside the walls of the old Medina -- haggle, and stress, free. See how the pottery and mosaic is made then shop till you drop without needing to haggle. The prices are fixed and they ship internationally with Fed Ex. Buy items as small as cups, as large as garden fountains and dining tables. They even accept dollars and euros!
Sidi Yahya La Palmeraie, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
French-owned Club Med has two properties in Marrakech. One is very near the old medina mere moments from the souk and the other is in the palatial Palmeraie area farther from historic Marrakech. I am not usually an all-inclusive traveler. It’s not my preferred style of travel. However, Club Med Palmeraie won me over first because of its location. After spending all day in the sensory overload that is historic Marrakech, with its bustling souk, medina and kasbahs; the walled compound that is Club Med so far away and sheltered by so many palm trees felt like an oasis in the desert. It is a calming place with no overly bright colors, no jarring music, no stall owners begging you to buy. Unless, you want these things! In true Club Med fashion there is trapeze, horseback riding, golf and dance parties should the traveler want them. Among many other things. At the buffet meals, one can even find excellent non-Moroccan food once sick of the local specialities (if that ever happens). I didn’t yet I still was able to enjoy Club Med for the oasis that it is. With a trapeze lesson just for good measure!
7 Derb el Magana، 252 Rue Talaa Kebira, Fes, Morocco
When Mike Richardson exploded onto the fairly limited Fes dining scene in 2007, he took the medina by storm. Suddenly there was someplace where locals, tourists, and a handful of resident expats could convene. They came to view exhibitions by up-and-coming young artists, to hear Sunday sunset concerts featuring the likes of Houariyat—an all-female drumming band—and to tuck into the café's legendary camel burger. All these attractions are still going strong, but Clock has expanded and begun offering excellent traditional-cooking classes, and holds movie nights in a screening room furnished with vintage cinema seats. It now also has a sibling in Marrakech and another soon to open in Chefchaouene, and a country cousin in the Scorpion House in Moulay Idriss, which you can book for private lunches. If all this doesn’t whet your appetite at least come at brunch for the best coffee and Berber eggs in town.
Rue Yves St Laurent By A-Maps، Marrakech 40000, Morocco
In 1923, the artist Jacques Majorelle acquired a four-acre plot of land just outside the center of Marrakech. Inspired by numerous travels around the country to paint scenes of village life, and funded by painting more illustrious portraits such as that of Pasha Thami el Glaoui, Majorelle was able to build a small studio and house, with enough land to indulge his other passion: ethnobotany. As his career grew, he added a splendid villa, and the garden took on a life of its own, featuring innumerable exotic species from around the world; he added pools and fountains, and, of course, the now iconic, eye-popping Majorelle blue that was lavished on the architecture. The property became so expensive to maintain that the artist was forced to open it to the public until his death in Paris in 1962. The garden gradually fell into a state of disrepair and was slated for development by a hotel chain until French designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé happened upon it during one of their many trips to the Red City. In 1980, they decided to buy it and restore it to its former glory, adding irrigation and doubling the number of plants and gardeners to look after it. They moved into the villa and set about transforming other buildings into what is now the legendary Berber Museum and a boutique. The latter is especially noteworthy for creative director Stephen di Renza’s commitment to reflecting Majorelle’s lesser-known passion for the decorative arts (which is manifest in the exquisite artisanal pieces, leather goods, and jewelry) and Saint Laurent’s inspired use of traditional Moroccan dress, such as the kaftan and djellaba, in haute couture fashion.
34 Derb l'Hotel Bab Doukala، مراكش 40000, Morocco
Haj Mohamed has made his name both as one of Marrakech’s top antique dealers and, for over three decades, one of its top tour guides, with clients ranging from U.S. presidents to celebrities like Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt. Both of his passions come together at his 11-room hotel, which he crafted with teams of skilled artisans and furnished himself. Set in an 18th-century riad, it features a traditional central courtyard and pool as well as warm, intimate guestrooms, complete with rich textiles, carved wooden doors, and cushy, low-slung seating. The same welcoming aesthetic can be found in the hotel’s common spaces, which include a small plunge pool, various pillow-laden lounges, a rooftop terrace, and a courtyard where guests can enjoy live music. Riad Kniza is also known for its gourmet Moroccan restaurant, which features just nine tables and requires reservations at least one day in advance, as the chef purchases ingredients fresh from the markets each morning.
El Moukef, Marrakesh 40000, Morocco
Marrakesh’s legendary La Mamounia, which dates back to the 12th century, reopened in 2009 after a meticulous three-year renovation by noted French architect and designer Jacques Garcia. Step behind its fabled doors and a sensory feast awaits, from the gentle tinkling of the numerous water fountains and basins; to the fragrant waft of jasmine, orange blossom, and cedar; to the lush Arab-Andalusian interiors, filled with traditional Zellige tilework, sculpted wood, and carved plaster. There are 209 rooms and suites, with the largest topping out at more than 1,000 square feet. Views range between Koutoubia Mosque, the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, and La Mamounia’s own legendary gardens, which abound with 2,000-year-old rose bushes, 700-year-old olive trees, and flowering bougainvillea and jacaranda. Three secluded, standalone riads each feature three bedrooms arranged around a central patio and private pool, though guests would be remiss not to hang around La Mamounia’s dreamy central pool, lined with palm trees, loungers, and lanterns.
Mirleft, Morocco
Morocco has so many destinations for anyone’s to-do list that there may not be enough time to cover them all. But if you’ve already decided to spend some time on the Atlantic coast visiting Essaouira or Agadir, consider traveling further south to enjoy the spectacular beaches from Mirleft to Legzira (and everything in between). Here you’ll find rugged coastal landscapes with unique rock formations and water-carved stone arches, sparsely populated beaches, and sleepy fishing villages. And if you’ve come this far south, there are a few other places you may want to add to your list: The historic walled city of Tiznit, where world-renowned silversmiths craft one-of-a-kind jewelry in geometric Tuareg designs; the unspoiled nature of Souss-Massa National Park where you’ll spot endless varieties of water birds; and Tafroute, with its famous artist-painted blue rocks.
Rue Assouel, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
At Ben Youssef Medersa, a 16th-century Koranic boarding school turned museum, visitors can see colorful mosaic zellij tiles and intricate stucco carvings inscribed with Muslim invocations. —Jennye Garibaldi
Hassilabied, Morocco
Get the camel, get the head scarf, stay in a tent. Don’t miss the chance to sleep in the Sahara Desert under the stars.
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Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
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