IntroductionMorocco’s heritage and its future belong in a large part to its cities. Each has its own character and represents a particular thread in the country’s cultural tapestry. Casablanca is the economic powerhouse, a vital metropolis planned and constructed under French occupation; it represents the most modern and global aspects of Morocco. Agadir, arguably an even more modern undertaking, was built to be a paradise for beach holidaymakers, and reflects Morocco’s new focus on tourism. At the other extreme there is Fez, an ancient imperial city whose architectural treasures are unrivalled. Meanwhile Marrakech, at the very heart of the country, blends history and tradition with modern sensibilities – including world-class bars and clubs – to become one of Morocco’s most popular destinations.
In this module we’ll explore some of the key cities in Morocco – but remember, this isn’t an exhaustive list! There are scores of other cities, each with its own stories, its own atmospheres, its own secrets to discover. If you want to find out more, visit www.visitmorocco.org or contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office.
Situated in the middle of Morocco’s Atlantic coast, Agadir is the most renowned of Morocco’s beach resorts – and it has 10km of golden sand to back up its reputation. Originally its status was less elevated, though. Agadir began life as a tiny village and remained that way for nearly 500 years, until Mohammed V ordered its rebuilding after the earthquake of 1960.
The modern Agadir is a leisure hotspot with sculpted white buildings, lush, colourful gardens and 300 days of sunshine a year. While its position in the middle of the coast make it a perfect base for excursions, the town itself offers riding, sailing, diving, jetskiing, game fishing, tennis, golf and much more – including, of course, relaxing on the beach.
Worthwhile excursions include Tiznit, an unspoilt town of pink buildings and traditional costumes, and Souss Massa, natural reserve that is home to flamingo, ibis, ducks, doves, heron and gazelle. Taroudant, nicknamed the ‘little Marrakech’ and celebrated for its 7.5km long walls and impressive kasbah, is a short distance away, as is the Imouzer of Ida Outanane, home to the largest collective beehive in the world and an annual honey festival (May).
- The Amazighe Heritage Museum, built to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the reconstruction of Agadir, houses the magnificent Saïd Zitouni collection of silver jewellery: fibulae, necklaces, rings, earrings and belts. The suggestively coloured rooms range from sunlight yellow to earthy ochre to sky blue, while embossed doors, wooden locks, chests and columns reflect traditional Moroccan interiors. Open 9.30 – 5.30 Monday to Saturday.
- The Souss Massa National Park lies between the sea and the desert, at the mouth of the Souss and Massa oueds. It is visited by thousands of migrating birds that stop over in the lagoons and reed beds, and was made a national park in 1991. Grab your binoculars and come and watch pink flamingos, ospreys, cranes, spoonbills, storks, grey herons and some of the last specimens of bald ibis. The best times to come are between September and November and between February and April.
- Argan trees are one of Morocco’s most distinctive endemic species, and are the source for highly sought-after argan oil, which is used in both cookery and massage. Head to the Argan House to find out more about the product and its benefits…
Marrakech, set in an oasis of 150,000 date palms in the shadow of the High Atlas mountains, isn’t just one of Morocco’s most famous cities – it’s the city that gave the country its name. Historically it was a major stop on the spice route, and it remains a vibrant meeting place full of bustling markets and grand architecture.
The Almoravids, from the Western Sahara, founded Marrakech in the 11th century. Since then its beauty and importance have been added to over the centuries, from the towering Koutoubia Mosque (12th century) to the stunning Palais el-Badi (completed 1602) to the more modern Museum of Moroccan Arts.
Recommended excursions include the grand Ourika and Ouirgane valleys, the beautiful village of Asni and the winter ski resort of Oukaimeden, which is just as charming, if less popular, in summer. All are under an hour’s drive away. It’s also possible to drive to Essaouira (see below) from Marrakech, but the journey is closer to two hours.
- The Jemaa el-Fna square is a famous hive of activity, almost constantly occupied by food stalls, market sellers and street performers.
- The Koutoubia Mosque, Built in the twelfth century. Its 70-metre high minaret is Marrakech’s equivalent of the Eiffel Tower!
- In the building’s 16th century heyday, El-Badia Palace’s marble and onyx façade more than justified its name (‘The Incomparable’). Its ruins are still impressive, and are open 8.30 to 12.00 and 14.30 to 18.30 seven days a week
- The El Bahia palace was built at the end of the 19th century for the Grand Vizier Ba Ahmed. Inside is a stunning maze of large, richly decorated rooms, giving onto private gardens and secret courtyards. At its heart is a huge garden and a courtyard planted with orange and lemon trees, jasmine and cedars. It’s a dizzying, labyrinthine building, but there’s a well-signposted signposted route will lead you through it. Open every day from 08.30 to 12.00 and from 14.30 to 18.30.
- The Majorelle Garden, created by the painter and botanist Jacques Majorelle in around 1920, is in the heart of Marrakech. It is now co-owned by Yves Saint Laurent, and its exotic, fragrant grounds – home to many species of cacti and beautiful bougainvilleas – are a popular way to escape the hustle and bustle of Marrakech’s streets. The house, which is painted a vivid shade of blue, contains a small museum of Islamic art.
Located in the northwestern foothills of the Middle Atlas mountains, Fez lies at the heart of Morocco’s cultural and intellectual traditions. The most ancient of the imperial cities, it was made Morocco’s first capital in 808AD, and later became capital twice more – once in the 13th century and once in the 19th.
The city is divided into three distinct parts. There is the new European city, built by the French after the First World War, and the two older cities: Fez el Jedid (“the new”), dating from the 13th century; and the larger Fez el Bali (“the old”), dating from the 9th century.
As a result, Fez is a city of contrasts as well as ancient heritage. The art and architecture of Fez el Bali are inherited from the Andalousian arabs and the Kerouan (who built the El Quaraouiyn mosque, the oldest centre of learning in the western world). Just a few hundred metres from the golden doors of Fez el Jedid’s Dar el-Makhzen palace stands the Mellah, a Jewish enclave dating from the 15th century.
Meanwhile the modern city’s broad avenues and ornamental pools contrast with the narrow, intricate and intoxicating streets of the old town.
Possible excusrions include the ski resort Ifrane, custom-built by the French to resemble an Alpine town; the imperial city of Meknes (see below); the renowned spa village at Moulay Yacoub and the holy town of Moulay Idriss; and the well-preserved Roman ruins at Volubilis.
- The Merinid tomb site, located on a hillside above the city, offers spectacular views of Fez and the surrounding country
- The Al Karaouiyine mosque, famous for its emerald-green tiled roofs, is the oldest centre of learning in the Western world
- The Royal Palace is at the heart of Fez El Jedid (‘New Fez’). This important building has stunning gold doors
At the crossroads of Africa and Europe, the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, Tangier has an individual character.
It is one of the oldest cities in Morocco. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians established trading posts here. The Romans made it a capital city. It was occupied by the Arabs and invaded by Vandals and Visigoths. Before the Spanish, the Portuguese controlled the town. In the early part of the 20th century, Tangier was an international city whose tax-free status and cosmopolitan image attracted European and American artists and writers.
Although it has lost a little of its glamorous image, it is still a bustling city with an air of mystery surrounding it. For most visitors that arrive in Morocco by sea, it is their first point of contact with the country.
Several nearby towns are suitable for excursions from Tangier – its location means you can explore the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts with equal ease. Pay a visit to Larache, whose Andalusian-influenced modern quarter contrasts with its Arab-influenced old town; Asilah, a pretty, artistic town on the Atlantic coast; Chefchaouen, a charming and peaceful place from which to explore the Rif region; and Tetouan, a Hispano-Moorish jewel on the shores of the Mediterranean.
- Dar-el-Makhzen – the governor’s house – is at the heart of the Kasbah. Built around a large green-tiled patio that opens onto seven richly decorated rooms, it hides a Andalusian garden perfumed by orange and lemon trees.
- Attached to the governor’s residence is the Bit el Mal pavilion. Constructed in 1684, it is now notable for its elegant lines and sculpted cedar ceiling. Inside is a public collection of giant chests made of metal and studded wood, the oldest dating back to the 18th century.
- Cape Spartel, the extreme northwesterly tip of Africa, has beautiful beeches and a lighthouse built in 1864. The whole area offers great views of the ocean.
- The nearby Hercules Caves have amazing views and an interesting history. They have been shelter for Neolithic man, limestone quarries and the setting for legendary parties during the international period.
Essaouira, on the northern half of Morocco’s Atlantic coast, has been an important port for centuries. After the Portuguese lost the town in the 15th century it became a haven for pirates, until Sultan Mohammed ben Abdullah established it as a free port the 18th century.
The town quickly developed into a major trading centre with a large foreign and Jewish population, and in the 1960s it became a popular stop on the ‘hippy trail’. Today, Essaouira’s past is visible in the sand-coloured walls and ramparts that surround it, in its traditional white-walled, blue-shuttered houses and its quiet squares.
Long, sandy beaches sheltered by the Iles Purpuraires make the town an ideal spot for watersports enthusiasts too.
- The Skala de la Ville, an impressive sea defence, built along the cliffs, houses a collection of 18th and 19th century cannons. Orson Welles filmed the opening of Othello here. It has good views across the sea.
- The Skala du Port, near the harbour, is a good vantage point from which to view the busy fishing port and the Ile de Mogador, out in the bay.
- The Museum Sultan Sidi Mohammedben Abdallah, in the medina, houses a marvellous collection of jewellery, costumes, weapons, musical instruments and tapestries.
Situated well into the northern half of the country’s Atlantic coast, Casablanca is the financial heart of modern Morocco. 60% of the country’s companies (and all of its high-tech companies) are based here.
Almost completely from 1920 onwards, it is a modern, international city that mixes traditional Moorish architecture with art deco and contemporary styles – from the grand, imposing Hassan II mosque to some of the Morocco’s most luxurious hotels.
Under the westernized exterior, however, elements of traditional Morocco still exist. The Habbous area in particular is a labyrinth of shady streets and squares, leading from one colourful souk to the next.
- The famous corniche of Ain Daib is Casablanca’s playground. Here the local population come to stroll and lie on the beach during the day, while at night it comes alive with restaurants and clubs.
- Completed in August 1993, the Hassan II Mosque is the third largest religious monument in the world. Ten thousand Moroccan craftsmen worked on it for five years. The mosque can hold 25,000 worshippers while another 80,000 can pray on the surrounding esplanade.
- The biggest park in the city, the Parc de la Ligue Arabe, has an essentially French layout although its flora is more in keeping with its African setting. During the day, it is a pleasant place to walk and take a leisurely coffee. You can also visit the Yasmina amusement park.
- Place Mohammed V is a good place to see examples of Casablanca’s Art Deco and neo-Mauresque architecture. Its four monumental public buildings – the post office, the Palace of Justice, the Prefecture (Wilaya), and the Bank of Morocco – are set around a central fountain. The square is particularly beautiful when it is illuminated at night.
- The marabout (holy shrine) of Sidi Abderrahmen is a picturesque cluster of tombs rising on a rocky outcrop just off-shore. The tombs can only be reached at low tide. The holy man was said to have miraculous powers and many sick and infirm still visit the tomb today.
Situated on a hilltop in the Middle Atlas mountains, Meknes represents one of the most extraordinary architectural projects in Morocco’s history.
Sultan Moulay Ismail, who ruled from 1672 to 1727, made the town his capital. He commissioned 30,000 people to turn Meknes into a glorious, landscaped collection of mosques, palaces and public squares. The construction work took 50 years, and although the sultan’s vision was never fully realized the modern town, crowned by emerald minarets, is still home to some of the most astonishing architecture in the country.
Possible excursions include the Roman ruins at Volubilis and the holy town Moulay Idriss.
- Dar Al Baida Palace dates from the 11th century and is now a military academy. It retains its historic character, reflecting the imperial grandeur the Alawite princes wanted to give to Meknès.
- City gates: Meknes is renowned for its several monumental city gates. The largest, Bab Berdaine, dominates the northern part of the medina and is an architectural attraction in its own right. The beautiful Bab el Khémis bears the inscription “I am the door open to all peoples of the west and the east” and leads into the city’s former Jewish quarter.
- Dar El Bachaouate, finished in 1913, is a fine example of Hispano-Moorish architecture and is home to the Meknes Andalusian music academy.
- Dar el Ma, the ‘house of water’, overlooks the Agdal basin and is an exercise in scale. It used to contain about a dozen 40-metre deep cisterns to supply the city; its walls are four metres thick in places; and its enormous stables are said to have housed 12,000 horses!
- Dar Jamai was built in 1882 and is now home to the Museum of Moroccan Art. Its collections include jewellery, ceramics, wooden sculpture, traditional clothing, carpets and antique furniture. There is an Andalusian garden outside.
Located just north of Casablanca at the mouth of the Bou Regreg river, Rabat has been the capital of Morocco since 1913. The city is built around the Royal Palace of His Majesty King Mohammed VI, which is still surrounded by the old city wall. The spectacular Bab ar-Rouah (Gate of the Winds), in the wall’s northwest corner, is one of five decorative gates into the palace complex.
Rabat is surrounded by beautiful beaches and has a memorable blend of Islamic and European influences. Relaxed cafés mix with impressive mosques (like the 144-foot high Hassan Tower) and an ancient Kasbah, built on the site of a (Roman) monastery and used as an important Almohad military base in the 12th century.
- The Hassan Tower, the minaret of the great mosque, was the idea of Yacoub el Mansour and at 144 feet (44m) was never completed. He intended it to reach 280 feet (86m) which would have made it the highest mosque in the Muslim world.
- Construction of the Mohammed V Mausoleum, a monument to the man who led Morocco to independence, began in 1962. The exterior is a magnificent white marble pavilion with a roof of green tiles. Inside, the exquisitely crafted burial chamber contains a white onyx tomb standing on a highly polished slab of granite.
- The Oudaïas Museum of Moroccan Arts is a recreation of a traditional Moroccan interior and houses some extremely rare musical instruments, Berber jewellery, magnificent Fez pottery and sumptuous carpets.
- The nearby Chellah necropolis is the most beautiful of Moroccan ruins. Built in the 14th century by the Merenids, it stands on the site of the old Roman city of Sala and now houses the best archaeological museum in Morocco.
Film lovers will be in their element in Ouarzazate, the capital of the south. It is the Moroccan Hollywood, and has played a part in a huge number of major productions. So great is the demand to film here that the town has constructed three production studios; Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy and The Mummy Returns are just some of the blockbusters that have been filmed in the area. If you’re a cinephile, don’t miss the tour of the AtlasFilm Studios, just outside town.
The town itself is located in the High Atlas mountains, within easy reach of Marrakech. It is a popular base for exploring the Kasbah Trail and the surrounding sub-Saharan region – the Dadès Valley, known as the ‘Valley of the Thousand Kasbahs’, the gorges of Dadès and Todra and the date palm oases of the Drâa Valley are all close at hand.
This isn’t to say that Ouarzazate is not charming in its own right! Its market is packed with henna, roses, spices, Berber pottery, carved stone objects, blankets and the famous woolen carpets woven by the region’s Ouzguita Berbers. There is also a good Centre Artisanal in the town, with a variety of traditional local crafts.
- The beautiful Taourirt Kasbah was once one of the largest kasbahs in the area. In the days of the Glaoui family, it would have housed the chief and his entire family, his servants and followers, and a community of craftsmen, tradesmen and cultivators. UNESCO has restored sections of the building.
- To the west of Ouarzazate the Kasbah Tifeltoute was originally owned by the Glaoui family. It is said to be over 300 years old. There are splendid views from the roof. In the 1960s, it was converted into a hotel for the cast of Lawrence of Arabia.
Now try answering the following questions. Good luck!
For more information or to request promotional material for your agency, contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office.
205 Regent Street