For a sense of Moroccan culture, a good start would be to embrace some of the ongoing rituals of daily life. These are a few highlights—customs and sites you can experience with relative ease.
Mint TeaWhen in Morocco, it's a good idea to make friends with mint tea. This sweet and aromatic brew is the national drink, offered for, with, and following breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It's served as an icebreaker for anything from rug selling in the Meknès souk to matchmaking at the Imilchil marriage market. Dubbed "Moroccan (or Berber) whiskey," thé à la menthe is Chinese green tea brewed with a handful of mint leaves and liberally loaded up with sugar. Introduced to Morocco only in the mid-19th century when blockaded British merchants unloaded ample quantities of tea at major ports, the tradition has now become such a symbol of Moroccan hospitality that not drinking three small glasses of tea when your host or business contact offers it to you is nearly a declaration of hostilities. Generally ordered by the pot and poured from on high in order to release the aromas and aerate the beverage, mint tea is recommended in cold weather or in sweltering heat as a tonic, a mild stimulant, and a digestive.
MusicMusic is integral to daily and ritual life in Morocco, both for enjoyment and as a form of social commentary. It emanates from homes, stores, markets, and public squares everywhere you go. Joujouka music is perhaps the best known, but every region has its own distinct sound. In the Rif you'll hear men singing poetry accompanied by guitar and high-pitched women's choruses; in Casablanca, rai (opinion) music, born of social protest, keeps young men company on the streets; cobblers in the Meknès medina may work to the sounds of violin-based Andalusian classical music or the more-folksy Arabic melhoun, sung poetry; and you know you've reached the south when you hear the banjo of the roving storytelling rawais in Marrakesh. Gnaoua music is best known for its use in trance rituals, but it has become popular street entertainment; the performer's brass qaraqa hand cymbals and cowrie shell–adorned hat betray the music's sub-Saharan origins. Seek out live music at public squares such as Marrakesh's Djemaâ el-Fna, or attend a festival, a regional moussem (pilgrimage festival), or even a rural market to see the performances locals enjoy.
Moroccan markets, souks, and bazaars buzz with life. Every town and city in Morocco revolves, in one way or another, around its market, and beginning your exploration at the hub of urban life is one of the best ways to start a crash course in wherever you find yourself. The chromatically riotous displays of fruit and vegetables are eye-bogglingly rich and as geometrically complex as the most intricate aspects of Islamic architecture and design. Fez el-Bali is virtually all market, with the exception of the craftsmen and artisans preparing their wares for market. Fez's henna souk is famous for its intimate ambience and archaic elegance. Marrakesh's central market stretching out behind Djemaâ el-Fna square could take a lifetime to explore. The Meknès market next to Place el-Hedim is smaller but loaded with everything from sturdy earthenware tagines to a wide selection of Moroccan spices and fish fresh from the Atlantic. Casablanca's Marché Central in the heart of the city is one of the most picturesque and least Europeanized parts of an otherwise unremarkable urban sprawl. Essaouira's crafts and produce market shares this light and cheerful town's easygoing atmosphere, and shopping there becomes a true pleasure rather than a grim battle over haggling leverage.
Trek the mountains of the High Atlas.For spectacular vistas and fresh air, the High Atlas is a perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of urban Morocco. Hiking North Africa's tallest peak, Djebel Toubkal, rising to nearly 14,000 feet, is only a two-day climb best done in late summer. Guides can lead amateur hikers through rural Berber villages and rocky paths less strenuous but equally rewarding. Head to the Ourika Valley for a variety of outdoor adventure—it's a justifiably popular region to hang-glide, ski, or ride mules to hidden waterfalls and tranquil hilltop gardens.
Bargain for babouches in the leather tanneries of Fez.
With the stench of animal skins curing in the hot sun and sounds of workmen laboring in the rainbow of dye vats beneath rows of open terraces, there is no better place to contribute to the artisanal cooperatives if you want to buy beautifully handmade leather house slippers, bags, belts, jackets, and poufs. Negotiating in one of the many shops claiming to be the best producer of leather goods guarantees a memorable experience as you haggle dirhams while sniffing a complimentary bunch of mint leaves to offset the strong acidic smell of natural curing ingredients in the medina air.
Dine on kebabs and harira from a street-market grill.The intoxicating aromas of freshly grilled skewers of meat and simmering spicy soup in qissarias (open markets) and roadside stands tantalize even the most cautious traveler. Follow the rising smoke from burners and indulge in local cuisine ranging from beef brochettes and merguez sausages to fried calamari and whole fish caught fresh from the Atlantic and seared to perfection. For the more adventurous gourmand, snail soup and sheep's brains can be sampled. Sop it all up with freshly baked kesra (flatbread).
Morocco is a visual spectacle in every sense, and the human fauna are beyond a doubt the runaway stars of the show. French painters such as Delacroix and Matisse and the great Spanish colorist Marià Fortuny all found the souks, fondouks, and street scenes of Marrakesh, Fez, and Tangier irresistible. Today's visitors to this eye-popping North African brouhaha are well advised to simply pull up a chair and take in some of the most exotic natural street theater in the world.
People-watch in Fez el-Bali.
The to-and-fro pulsing of Fez's medina makes it the perfect place to watch Moroccans doing what Moroccans do. Great spots include the cafés around Bab Boujeloud and Bab Fteuh, though the latter is much less amenable to travelers.
People-watch on the Djemaâ el-Fna in Marrakesh.From morning to night, the historic square at the center of the medina guarantees to entertain and provide a glimpse into local living and the unusual. Surrounded by colorful dried fruit and juice carts scattered near terraced cafés and rows of shops brimming with activity, the carnival-like atmosphere of snake charmers, fortunetellers, monkey handlers, musicians, and costumed water sellers adds to the exotic flavor of what was once the principal meeting point for tradesmen and regional farmers, as well as gruesome site for public criminal beheadings in ancient times.
Appreciate Koranic scholarship in a historic medersa.A quiet spot in front of the central marble ablutions pool is the perfect place to view masterpieces of Islamic architecture. Look for intricate zellij tilework along arched corridors, ornate wood carvings in domed ceilings, sculpted stone friezes bearing symbolic Arabic calligraphy, and beautifully detailed stained-glass windows in prayer halls and reflection rooms of these culturally rich buildings.
Savor the scents and sights of a food souk.Weave through the labyrinth of open and covered streets to discover a feast for the senses. The indoor food souk of Meknès is a must. Along coastal towns, discover fish markets by the harbor. In rural villages, look for carts peddling freshly picked apricots and dates. From pyramids of marinated olives and preserved lemons to bulging sacks of finely milled grains and multicolored spices and nuts, the food souks reflect the wide range of aromatic ingredients used in traditional Moroccan cuisine. Follow your nose to sweet rosewater and honey-laden pastries flavored with cinnamon, saffron, and almonds.
Listen and learn at a local festival.One of the best ways to experience the rich heritage is to participate in a local event. Head to Kelaa-des-Mgouna in the Dadès Valley in May; home to the country's largest rose water distillery plant, this small oasis village celebrates the flower harvest each spring. In early June, enjoy the chants, lyricism, and intellectual fervor of international musicians, Sufi scholars, and social activists at the World Sacred Music Festival in Fez. In late June, the traditions of Gnaoua music, a blend of African, Berber and African song and dance, are celebrated in the seaside resort village of Essaouira. Experience the Imilchil Berber marriage feast in autumn. In December, the Marrakech International Film Festival is the hottest spot for international celebrity sightings. The all-important Eid al-Fitr (Feast of the Fast Breaking) best showcases Moroccan tradition with three days of joyous celebration at the end of Ramadan.
Pamper yourself in a hammam.Getting scrubbed and steamed at a local hammam can do wonders for the weary. Whether you choose a communal public bath or private room in an upscale riad, this traditional therapy of brisk exfoliation and bathing using natural cleansers has promoted physical and mental hygiene and restoration for centuries. Public hammams are clean and inexpensive. Le Royal Mansour and the Angasa Spa in Marrakesh are exceptionally luxurious spots to experience this unique cultural ritual.
Relax in a riad.Forgo the standard setting of a modern hotel chain, and opt for a room with character in the heart of the medina. Former private homes, multistoried riads have been restored to their original beauty and authenticity, furnished with antiques and local crafts, and outfitted with latest technology for those who want to stay connected. Many are family owned and operated, providing guests with personalized service, generous breakfasts, and spacious accommodations overlooking lush inner courtyard gardens. More luxurious riads have full-scale spas, panoramic terrace bars, swimming pools, and world-class restaurants.
Soothe the eyes in the blue-washed town of Chefchaouen.Founded in the 15th century by Spanish exiles, the village of Chefchaouen tucked in the foothills of the Rif Mountains, is widely considered to be one of Morocco's most picturesque places. Relax beneath verdant shade trees on the cobblestoned Plaza Uta el-Hamman. Wander the steep Andalusian passageways, where buildings bathed in cobalt and indigo hues blend with terracotta-tiled roofs, pink-scarved women, violet blossoms, and ochre-and-poppy red wool carpets to create an incredibly vibrant canvas of color.
Ride a camel to the dunes of the Sahara.
For an unforgettable adventure, mount a dromedary to experience the undulating orange dunes and abandoned kasbahs of the desert, a magical region immortalized in film and fiction. Select an overnight tour to stay in a Bedouin tent in the Erg Chebbi or Erg Chigaga desert wilderness.
The OutdoorsA range of spectacular landscapes has made Morocco a major destination for rugged outdoor sporting challenges and adventure travel. Much of Morocco's natural beauty lies in its mountains, where the famous Berber hospitality can make hiking an unforgettable experience. You can arrange most outdoor excursions yourself or with the help of tourist offices and hotels in the larger cities. Rock climbing is possible in the Todra and Dadès gorges and the mountains outside Chefchaouen. Oukaïmeden has facilities for skiing, and a few other long, liftless runs await the more athletic. Golf is available in Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Agadir. Several High Atlas rivers are suitable for fishing.
High Atlas. People come from around the world to trek in these mountains, drawn by the rugged scenery, bracing air, and rural Berber (Imazighen) culture. Hiking is easily combined with mule riding, trout fishing, and vertiginous alpine drives. Merzouga dunes. Southeast of Erfoud, beyond Morocco's great oasis valleys, these waves of sand mark the beginning of the Sahara. Brilliantly orange in the late-afternoon sun, they can be gloriously desolate at sunrise. Palm groves and villages, Tafraoute. A striking tropical contrast to the barren Anti-Atlas Mountains and the agricultural plains farther north, the oases are scattered with massive, pink cement houses built by wealthy urban merchants native to this area.
ArchitectureRefined Islamic architecture graces the imperial cities of Fez, Meknès, Marrakesh, and Rabat. Mosques and medersas (schools of Koranic studies) dating from the Middle Ages, as well as 19th-century palaces, are decorated with colorful geometric tiles, bands of Koranic verses in marble or plaster, stalactite crevices, and carved wooden ceilings. The mellahs built by Morocco's Jews with glassed-in balconies contrast with the Islamic emphasis on turning inward. French colonial architecture prevails in the Art Deco and neo-Mauresque streets of Casablanca's Quartier des Habous. Outside these strongholds of Arab influence are the pisé (rammed earth) kasbahs in the Ouarzazate–Er-Rachidia region, where structures built with local mud and clay range from deep pink to burgundy to shades of brown.
Aït-Benhaddou, near Ouarzazate. Strewn across a hillside, the red-pisé towers of this village fortress resemble a melting sand castle. Crenellated and topped with blocky towers, it's one of the most sumptuous sights in the Atlas Mountains. La Bahia Palace, Marrakesh. Built as a harem's residence, and interspersed with cypress-filled courtyards, La Bahia has the key Moroccan architectural elements—light, symmetry, decoration, and water. Bou Inania medersa, Fez. The most celebrated of the Kairaouine University's 14th-century residential colleges, Bou Inania has a roof of green tile, a ceiling of carved cedar, stalactites of white marble, and ribbons of Arabic inscription.