Morocco is a country of contradictions. Travel south and you’ll encounter the dunes and deserts of the Sahara; travel north and you’ll find lush, green plains and mountain ranges. Its cities are vibrant, and distinctly unique. Just a stone’s throw from Europe, the country has adopted its own distinct personality and cuisine: a blend of North African, Arabic, and French. Morocco is a place of color, culture, and charm.
- Independence: March 2, 1956
- Capital city: Rabat
- Area: 172,414 mi2 (446,550 km2<)
- Population: 35,280,000
- Official languages: Arabic, Berber
- Currency: Moroccan dirham
- Time Zone: Western European Time Zone
- Drive on the: Right
WHERE IN THE WORLD
Advantageously located in the northernmost region of the African continent, Morocco’s position allows for easy travel to Europe. In fact, it is less than nine miles from the southern border of Spain. Morocco’s unique location provides access to both the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and the rest of the country is quite varied: there are mountains, deserts, and vibrant green landscapes. Morocco shares borders with Spain, Algeria, and Mauritania.
The northern part of the country is home to the city of Fez, the Rif Mountains, and the accompanying fertile, green plains that stretch from Cape Spartel and Tangier in the west to Berkane and the Melwiyya River in the east. The area around the Rif Mountains is a visual departure from what visitors may expect from Morocco, namely its arid desert zones.
In the center of the country lie the Atlas Mountains, which stretch over 1,500 miles (2,500 km) through Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. This range separates the coasts from the Sahara desert and are home to a rich variety of wildlife and spectacular climbing opportunities. Popular cities in this region include Safi, Marrakech, and Casablanca.
In the southernmost part of the country, you’ll find the dunes of the Sahara, miles of sand, camel caravans, and some of the brightest star-spangled skies in the world.
A BIT OF HISTORY
Morocco’s recorded history begins between the 8th and 6th century BCE, when the Phoenicians began to colonize and settle the coast. Once in Morocco, they had to compete with the indigenous Berber people, who had already occupied the area for nearly 2,000 years.
In 40 AD, the area now known as Morocco was annexed by the Roman Empire, though their reign was interrupted in the 5th century by the Vandals. By the 8th century AD, Muslims conquered the region, and 50 years later, the Idrisid dynasty officially established the Moroccan state.
By the mid-1500s, power had switched hands to the Saadi dynasty, which was followed by the Alaouites, who have held power since 1667 and comprise the current Moroccan royal family.
In the 1900s, a series of conflicts over colonial expansion in Morocco occurred between France and Germany (known as the First Moroccan Crisis and the Agadir Crisis), resulting in the Treaty of Fez, which was signed in 1912. The treaty split Morocco into French and Spanish-controlled protectorates. Morocco received independence from France and Spain in 1956.
Today, Morocco is divided into 16 regions, which are subdivided into 61 prefectures and provinces.
Those flying into Morocco will likely land at one of four major airports: The Mohammed V International Airport (CMN) in Casablanca, the Menara International Airport (RAK) located near Marrakech, the Rabat-Salé Airport (RBA) which services Salé and Rabat, or the Agadir Al Massira Airport (AGA) in the city of Agadir. The country has an abundance of smaller airports, as well.
Getting around Morocco is easy via its excellent train network, which links many of the cities. The trains are generally comfortable and reliable, and the Moroccan train network is run by The ONCF (Office National des Chemins de Fer). Two major routes run from Tangier to Marrakech (passing through Rabat and Casablanca) and from Oujda or Nador to Marrakech (running through Fez and Meknes). Trains in the cities of Casablanca and Rabat run very regularly.
There are also plenty of buses and shared taxis that navigate the smaller cities and prove an affordable — and reliable — option for travelers.
Visitors may also choose to arrive via ferry: there are several services that operate between Moroccan ports (Tangier or Ceuta) and European locations like Spain or Gibraltar.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Morocco is a land of many languages. Arabic and Berber (the mother tongue of the country’s first people) are the two official languages, but French is still commonly used throughout the country. It’s certainly helpful to know a few phrases in French so you can navigate, especially in transportation hubs.
Women traveling to Morocco will likely be familiar with this piece of advice: dress modestly. It is recommended that women cover their shoulders and knees while in cities, as uncovered tourists may receive unwelcome attention otherwise. It’s also a good idea to bring a sheer scarf along during your travels in Morocco, since many mosques require women to cover their hair.
Unsure of where to stay? Choose a riad (a traditional Moroccan house with a garden or courtyard in the center) inside the walls of the city’s medina and close to its perimeter, so you don’t have to lug excessive baggage through the twisting streets. Another accommodation tip: choose a room on a floor that is close to ground-level: that’s where the wifi will be the strongest.
If you’re assisted by locals during your time in Morocco, a 10% tip is typical and greatly appreciated. This applies to tour guides, restaurant service, and even a particularly helpful stranger. If you visit a craftsman’s workshop, you’re not obligated to buy their wares, but a small tip is a good idea regardless.
You’ll probably be tempted to buy spices from the colorful domes at the bazaars, but you may want to refrain. Purchasing your spices at the Berber pharmacies is often better because these products have been properly packaged and not left out in the polluted air.
Visiting a Moroccan souk (market) is one of the most colorful experiences you can have during your visit. Narrow streets are lined with goods, and merchants encourage visitors to buy their wares. You can purchase everything from textiles to souvenirs to food products, but be prepared to break out your best bartering techniques.
Travelers to Morocco can change their bills at the airport, which has similar rates to those offered in the town centers. Keep receipts from all exchanges, as they’re a necessity for converting Dirham back to your own local currency prior to departure. Changing money in the streets is illegal, so always look for a Bureau de Change, a bank, or a hotel — as a note, hotels generally do not charge commission. Travelers should bring clean, crisp bills with no tears. Coming from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, or Singapore? Leave your dollars at home — they’re not accepted for exchange in Morocco!
There are many ATMs in the cities, but you may incur a hefty fee plus additional interest. Debit cards may be accepted in high-class establishments, shops, and restaurants.
Finally, don’t forget your camera! Morocco is a photographer’s dream, so be sure to bring extra batteries. Check out our Instagrammer’s Guide to Morocco for visual inspiration before you leave.
Now that you know what to expect, explore everything Morocco has to offer!
Header photo by Lisa Weatherbee.