Get lost in the mystic winding streets of Morocco as Homepolish's Kate Huneke explores the cities of Marrakech, Fes, Rabat, and other places farther off the beaten trail.
Photos by Kate Huneke.
Morocco is, simply put, a magical place. It’s a place where djellaba-clad women and men walk quietly along bone-colored citadel walls, where curtains of jasmine perfume riad courtyards, where a sweet and pinkish air hangs like heaven. In a word, it’s poetic. I spent most of my time in the capital city of Rabat, but toured by train to destinations like Marrakech, Fes, Tangier, and Essaouira on weekends. Even though I spoke the language, each town felt entirely alien and new to me. It took time to adjust to the rhythm of Maroc, which opens and closes with an azan, the call to prayer that shakes the bones of a city. But once I got past the cacophony of everyday life, I drank in the intoxicating beauty of the country that manifests itself in the arches and minarets, the etched marble and painted tile of aging structures. These destinations I’m sharing with you are just a few of many special places and spaces that stick with me to this day.
Let’s begin where everybody usually begins… Marrakech. The rose-colored city, built as an imperial fortress by Moroccan Berber empires, is home to some of the most breathtaking and awe-inspiring architectural sites that draw in millions of travelers every year. There’s an unusual balance in the city. The narrow streets of the souk roar with an ever-present clamoring while the shaded courtyards calm the tumult with their peaceful tranquility.
In planning your stay, you can kill two birds with one stone and book a room or riad at La Mamounia (pictured above). The hotel itself is the physical incarnation of years of painstakingly difficult work done by hand and hours upon hours spent sourcing only the finest materials the earth offers. You’ll be mesmerized by the expertly-laid emerald green marble and ornately hand-carved wooden doors that can be found all throughout the hotel.
Once you’re all comfy and cozy, you’ll undoubtedly want to check out Majorelle Garden (also known as the iconic property of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge). The shocking zaffre home, the stately garden of lofty cacti, and the enchanting water lily pond will have you wondering if you’re walking in a daydream. Next, head to Ben Youssef Madrasa, Morocco’s largest Islamic college (which isn’t a college these days). You’ll see a feat of Islamic architecture what with the carved marble and cedar, as well as theological inscriptions and patterns.
You can get from Marrakech to Fes by plane, train, or automobile, but I recommend the second option. The trip isn’t a short one, but it is hands-down the most convenient and comfortable, especially if you book a car with extra leg room.
Fes is, in my opinion, the one Moroccan city where you should make an active effort to stay in a small riad in the medina rather than an established hotel chain on the perimeter. My all-time favorite Moroccan spot is located in the heart of the old city and goes by the name Riad Laaroussa. Not only did the staff provide me with everything I needed to get over a bout of food poisoning, but the elegant, antique vibe of the 17th-Century palace wowed me at every step (even as I was sick).
In all honesty, the only tried-and-true way to experience Fes is by foot. There’s nothing quite like having to navigate your way out of the souk whose “streets” (if we’re using that term liberally) wind like snakes and will have you simultaneously amazed and anxious in the best way possible. Some stops along the way include the Ibn Danan Synagogue, which is one of the oldest in all of North Africa, and Al-Attarine Madrasa, a hidden gem of a religious school buried in the cavernous medina. Lastly, it wouldn’t be a trip to Fes without seeing the tanneries (seen above). Watching the workers wade in sea-green stone wells while they dye leather hides is all but hypnotic. Be the expert traveler that you are at heart and be wary of so-called “tour guides” who will lead you into shops that are conveniently owned by their cousins. All you need for a tannery trip is a detailed map and sprigs of fresh mint (to alleviate the rather powerful smell).
Tangier and Chefchaouen
We’ve covered the two must-see destinations for many travelers, but I’ve found that the best experiences often lie where you least expect (namely, the non-item list cities and towns). First, let’s head to Tangier. Over the years, Tangier has been home to the likes of the Rolling Stones, Tennessee Williams, and Allen Ginsberg himself, and thus has a rich history of art and literature. There are a few hidden gems in the city limits of Tangier like Cafe Hafa, a notable haunt where you can sip slowly on the best mint tea you’ve ever had while looking out over the Straits of Gibraltar, or Dar Sidi Hosni, summer home to heiress Barbara Hutton that was surely a witness to many wild nights of hashish and hedonism.
That said, in my eyes the allure of Tangier lies in the lands surrounding the city itself. One such place is Chefchaouen (pictured above), a spot nestled high in the Rif mountains. The homes of Chaouen, as they’re known by locals, were once painted differing shades of light blue by Sephardi Jews in the 15th Century and inhabitants have kept the tradition alive since. There’s no specific spots you ought to see; rather, the entire town is a stunning reverie of inspiration.
Other lesser-known spots include, ironically, Morocco’s capital city of Rabat (rooftops from my window pictured above). Unfortunately for those who miss out, Rabat is a hidden gem what with its unique status of a World Heritage site, its prestige as one of four Moroccan Imperial cities, and its riveting history that even includes tales of Barbary pirates. Like any other Moroccan city, explore the medina and the surrounding neighborhoods like L’Ocean and Salé by foot. You’ll find small treasures in the medina’s gold district, intriguing niches like a Jewish cemetery with tombstones engraved in Hebrew, French, and Spanish, and the open arms of crashing Atlantic waves. The Mausoleum of Mohammad V is well worth a trip. You’ll discover ornate example of Islamic architecture, complete with intricate hand-painted tile and expertly-carved marble galore. Be sure to dress modestly, as it is not only a tomb but also a mosque.
Meknes and Volubilis
About two hours inland from Rabat are the crumbling remains of what once was an essential outpost of the Roman Empire and the capital of ancient Mauritania. To get there, you’ll drive through another one of four imperial cities, Meknes, which is host to a number of astonishingly beautiful historical sites. If you have time, be sure to check out the massive and ornate Bab Mansour Gate as well as the cavernous Dar El Ma that has a horrifying history that led to a complex and essential piece of ancient architecture. Once you’ve toured Meknes thoroughly, hop in a car and drink in the endless fields of silver-green olive trees dancing in the wind that you’ll pass by on your way to UNESCO site Volubilis. At the site itself, be sure to enlist a guide who can tell you about the amazingly advanced ways in which Romans and Berbers alike manipulated the lush landscape to accommodate the remote outpost. And a word to the wise… be sure to bring sun protection and water. It is a ruin after all, and there’s no shade.
Round of your tour of the Maghreb off by heading south to Morocco’s own little beach town Essaouira. The small city is known as a hippie, surfer escape, and it couldn’t be more cool. The combination of intoxicating sea air, swaths of soft sand, and surfer dudes strolling alongside camels will have you swooning. If you need some R&R time, Villa Gonatouki‘s magnificently minimalist accommodations will get you as calm and collected as you need to be before you head on your way home.
These are only starting points for you to build your own journey off of. No guide will include the serendipitous spots where you’ll happen upon a spice vendor carefully crafting a pyramid of cinnamon or turmeric, an imam thumbing a lapis lazuli tesbih, or the moon kissing the horizon, shedding a strange white light onto the sea. That’s just part of the magic you’ll have to discover for yourself.