Morocco is split into 5 different regions:
- The north
- The mountains
- The Sahara
- The coast
Marrakesh For Backpackers
This is the tourist mecca of Morocco since it has all the weird and wonderful things you’d imagine. It is a very touristy city, but it has the best Morocco bang for the buck and shouldn’t be missed. It makes for a great place to start your backpacking adventure.
To understand Marrakesh more, read our first impressions: Ali Baba and Fatima in the land of Aladdin
Things to do in Marrakesh
- Explore the souk (market) for everything Moroccan
- Great sensory experience
- Hold your horses on buying anything, the other big cities are normally cheaper
- Explore the medina and all its small alleyways
- Make sure you stop to have a tea to watch the world go by
- Take a stroll to Jamaa el Fna square to see how crazy it is
- During the day you’ll find snake charmers, henna painters and OJ sellers
- At night there are drummers, storytelling, dancers and food stalls. The food stalls are 2 or 3 times the normal price and best avoided. Lots of cheaper places on the outskirts of the square
The glowing lights of Jamaa el Fna at night
Not so good stuff in Marrakesh
- Bahia Palace
- Frankly not an interesting palace, just empty rooms that aren’t that impressive
- Majorelle Gardens (Yves Saint Laurent garden)
- The garden isn’t that big and there is only a small selection of plants
- There is one big blue house that looks nice in photos
- All for an astounding 70 DH – highly overpriced!
The blue building in the Majorelle Garden
Sahara Desert Guide
One of the most iconic visions of Morocco is riding a camel into the sunset of the Sahara desert. This vision is easily achieved, but shouldn’t be forced into every backpacker’s itinerary.
There are two big dunes in the Sahara, Erg Chebbi and Erg Chegaga. Both are 10+ hours away from Marrakesh and seeing them depends on how badly you want to see them and if you have the time.
There are lots of multi-day tours going to the Sahara from Marrakesh but involve a lot of driving in a short time. If you don’t want to be staring out of bus window for 20+ hours go on your own and take your time getting there.
Can you do a Sahara tour at backpacker prices?
If there’s one thing you’ll get offered again and again in Morocco, it’s going on a desert tour in the Sahara. You can book them from pretty much everywhere, but beforehand you should look into all the details. It took us a while to find a tour and we wrote about all the ins and outs in our post M’hamid: Cheap Sahara desert tour, yes, please! Our experience will hopefully make it easier for like-minded backpackers contemplating doing a desert tour.
After all, you want that one time you go camping in the Sahara desert to be just as amazing as you pictured it!
The Atlantic Coast Guide
Surf’s up bro!
The central and northern coastline has nice sandy beaches with good waves. To the South, the beaches were a bit rocky, but the surf was just as good. Renting a car is a great option for the coast to find some hidden gems.
This small, whitewashed seaside fortress is Morocco’s version of a Greek Mediterranean village. During the summer it’s quite crowded with Moroccans and best avoided, but quaint the rest of the year.
There aren’t any beaches in Morocco’s biggest city and financial hub. The only thing really worth seeing in the city is the Hassan II Mosque. It’s an impressive building and one of the only mosques open to non-Muslims in the country. They have guided tours, but they’re quite expensive at 120 DH for 45 minutes. Otherwise, the city just feels a bit like you’re back in Europe, which is why it might be a good option to spice things up by Couchsurfing. If you want to get out of the city there are some great beaches around Casablanca you can check out.
Hassan II Mosque is the largest mosque in Morocco
A big industrial port town that is a good stop between Casablanca and Essaouira. The town itself doesn’t have a good beach, but several nice beaches are only a short drive away. If you’re looking to buy some pottery, then Safi is the answer to your prayers. The whole country gets most of its clay trinkets from here and there are many bargains to be found.
Despite the great hostels and a cool artsy vibe, Mariana and I weren’t so sold on this place. Not even all the Jimmi Hendrix hype could distract us from how tourist-oriented Essaouira is. To be honest, it just felt like the wind had blown most of the authenticity away.
The medina is an impressive-looking fortress right against the ocean which has actually been a filming location for Game of Thrones. The beach in the city is very touristy with camel and horse rides up for grabs. It can also be quite windy, great for windsurfing or kiteboarding, but not for sunbathing. The huge fish market is a good place for pictures and is bustling with bargaining locals. It’s a nice glimpse into the normally closed-off world of most Moroccans.
Quite frankly the best beach town in Morocco. A really small fishing town that has a cool surf vibe, but hardly any tourists. The place is cheap and the best place to stay is without doubt Chez Hafid, an awesome blue-and-white painted hostel right on the beach. The surf break in town was almost empty most of the time we were there, even when the waves were good. Go and buy one of the fresh catches at the local fish market and watch the sunset in Morocco’s backpacker’s beach paradise.
The only downside is that it’s a little difficult to get to without a car. We had to hike the last 5 hilly kilometres off the main road. Otherwise, it’s a great place and you have to go!
Killing it on the roof of Chez Hafid with a book and 101 other things
Just north of Agadir, you’ll find Taghazoute, the main small beach town everyone goes to from Marrakesh. When I say everyone, I mean it felt like the whole of Morocco was in that town. It has one of the world’s best surf breaks and the prices in town reflect that. The hostels are among the most expensive in the country and the food isn’t much better. Imessouane is a much better choice if you want the small beach town feeling.
A big resort city made for not leaving the resort once you get off your flight. This isn’t our sort of place so we only passed through. We didn’t hear anything good from other travellers and wouldn’t’ suggest going.
An odd town that is very spread apart. On the main beach, Aftas Beach, you’ll find Cafe Aftas which is the name of the by far best accommodation in town. Stay here not only because it’s a nice, rustic cafe with a couple of charming rooms for rent, but also because it’s the only hotel that’s on the actual beach. Mirleft is set on a cliff, so beach access from the town centre is everything between a 15-20 minute walk or a drive away. If you can get a room here, it’s well worth going, otherwise, the town is easily skippable.
Mariana to worried about her phone to see the view of Aftas beach
Camper van paradise for a lot of “grey nomads” from Europe. Apart from the touristy areas around the campsites, the city struck us as quite lifeless.
The only nice things were the long boardwalk and the fish market. The boardwalk is set between picturesque blue-and-white houses and a rocky beach since it fills with all sorts of colourful sea creatures in the late afternoon.
About 6 km north of town is a quite cool rock formation on the beach of Leghzira. An easy half-day stroll from town or there is a local bus from town if you want to be a little lazy.
The amazing power of Mother nature
Moroccan Mountain Guide
Mountains, mountains and more mountains, with a few palm trees thrown in here and there. There are 4 main mountain ranges in Morocco: The Riff, Middle Atlas, High Atlas and Anti-Atlas. If you’re into your outdoor sports, these will be heaven for you.
The Riff and Middle Atlas Mountains
Lots of weed plantations and a few hikes. We didn’t go ourselves, but this is all we heard about for the two most northern mountain ranges. If you want to get that fresh mountain air, it’s best to go a bit further south.
First up is the amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ait Ben Haddou, an ancient fortified city. It has been a filming location for Russel Crow’s Gladiator, Game of Thrones and about 100 other films, so perhaps it rings a bell. It’s quite touristy with package tourists from Marrakesh flooding the place during the day. However, if you stay the night you can get the place completely to yourself – needless to say, that is an absolutely fantastic experience. You can stay in the village, which is a 10-minute walk from the fortified city itself, or you can go all-in on the adventure and spend the night in one of the few accommodations inside the walls.
That’s the beginning of the Dades Valley or “road of a thousand kasbahs”, aptly named because of the sheer number of small kasbahs lining the valley. The Dades Gorge is at the northern end of the valley, which has an impressive road winding down one side.
150 km to the East is the Todra Gorge with even more impressive, 300 m high rock walls only 20 m apart. This is very much a rock climber’s wet dream. When you’re sick of rocks, the palmery is also beautiful.
Getting ready to pound the pavement in Todra Gorge
Then back down to Ouarzazate and heading east is the 100 km stretch to Zagora called the Draa Valley. Filled with, you guessed it, palm tress and kasbahs. We enjoyed watching all the camper vans zoom past us while we walked around the palmeries of Agdz.
The main town in the region is Tafraoute and going there felt like we’d just landed on Mars. The landscape of red and orange oversized boulders together with a few argan trees thrown in there was pretty impressive. Keep an eye out and you might be lucky to see some local goats climb the argan trees to eat the nuts.
The town is in a valley that is the perfect base to attack the surrounding mountains. There is plenty of cheap accommodation for a backpacker’s budget and there is even a massive farmer’s market one day during the week. There are a few expat-owned outdoor shops where you can rent bikes, find out about trails or even just have a chat. You should definitely spend a couple of days here if you come down past Agadir.
Northern Morocco Guide
In the North, the arid Berber villages have been pushed aside for big cities and a more European Morocco.
The mother of all medinas with countless narrow and winding alleyways and a great place to get lost. If Fes is your first stop, you’ll probably be overwhelmed by everything going on. Just have a read of our guide on how to stay sane in Morocco as Fes has a lot of fake nice guys around, especially in the tanneries. These are interesting and a must see in Fes but be aware when invited up to leather shop balconies for a look.
Tourists enjoying the views from the Tannery balconies in Fes
These ancient Roman ruins are a good day trip from Fes. If you want to get away from the touristy vibe of Fes, tie a trip to Meknes in for a few days while you visit the ruins.
A beautiful city that’s been painted completely blue. The painting was started by Jewish refugees in the 1930s because it symbolised the sky and heaven, but now it’s more so you can take some very nice photos. Good hikes around the city, a nice mountain-top viewpoint and some “waterfalls” close by as well.
The town also has a semipermanent smoke haze hovering over it. This is from marijuana or kiff sold and smoked in town. It is the biggest producer for Morocco and a big exporter to Europe. Lots of pushers in the streets, but they are not very annoying if you politely decline.
This also has the other effect of giving the place a certain hippie vibe. There are some nice hostels in town that people usually end up staying at for longer than expected.
Rabat and Tangier
Like Casablanca, these are bigger and not so impressive tourist cities. If you do want to go, I would again suggest Couchsurfing for a better experience.