Let me hit you with the headline: Morocco is magic and you MUST visit! It is a wonderful destination for solo female travelers (super safe!), beautiful, great weather, affordable, and offers an extraordinary variety of experiences all in one country: Sahara dessert; a plethora of big cities and smaller villages to suit your mood (and cultural and/or shopping desires); efficient transit by trains, planes, and automobiles; and, great surfing at any number of beaches. That’s just the start of it! I had no idea how much I’d love this country when I booked my trip- otherwise, I would have allowed myself much more time. This is easily my favorite destination in my four months of travel! This post gives details on the two biggest cities I visited: Casablanca and Marrakech.
The most affordable flights in and out of Morocco are to/from Casablanca (generally speaking), which is how it landed on my itinerary. I arrived on 2 October early afternoon and Jean-Marc met me at the airport. (I had heard or read that the airport/country could be overwhelming and sketchy, especially for solo female travelers. I’m going to go ahead and clear that up: NOPE! I would have been completely fine arriving and getting a taxi into the city myself.) Taxis charge a flat fee from airport to the city center: 300MAD = ~$30. Reading other blogs and advice on TripAdvisor prior to my arrival, my expectations were low (general advice seems to be: the city sucks, skip it). But I enjoyed the city and think it’s worth spending a bit of time exploring (1-2 days is probably enough). Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco and is the economic and business hub, so it does lack some of the charm that Marrakech and smaller cities have. But there’s is quite a bit worth seeing and I like the energy at night. The Hassan II Mosque (2nd largest in Africa and in top 5 largest globally) is a spectacular building! Though save yourself the 150MAD the tour will cost; the tour lasted less than 30 minutes and the interior of the mosque isn’t all that impressive. The exterior is what you’ll want to see. (Caveat: this is the only mosque in Morocco that permits non-Muslims to enter, so if you’ve never been in a Muslim country before and are curious, then it’s worth entering. Otherwise, head to Istanbul or Abu Dhabi for truly spectacular tours of mosques.)
After visiting the mosque you can take a lovely stroll along the ocean walkway until you get to an area with lots of new developments, including a lovely little cafe (Gusto Marina), where we stopped for snacks and to cool off. Sadly, just beyond this (and in the shadow of all the newly built, modern buildings) remains a shanty town where people are living in little better than tents. Perfectly illustrates complexities of development in a country with rich and poor, and few between.
Next stop was to walk just a few minutes farther to get to Rick’s Cafe. Yes, this place is super touristy. But it’s fun and worth stopping by for at least a drink, because, why not? The Cafe was designed to look just like the cafe in the movie Casablanca, and they nailed it! And they do have the movie playing in the upstairs bar (which is a great place to hang out if you wait too late to call and can’t get a dinner reservation). They also make a solid martini.
The night was capped off with dinner at La Sqala. The restaurant is located inside a fort, and has beautiful gardens and outdoor seating. Like most restaurants in Morocco, they do not serve alcohol (you usually have to go to a high end restaurant to find a place with a liquor license), but more than make up for it with ambiance. A quick note: none of the places I ate in Morocco blew my mind. Plus, there are only about three traditional Moroccan dishes that are vegetarian: tajine, couscous, and pastilla. All of these are decent but none are great, even at great restaurants.
Best food I had was at a beach restaurant/bar in Agadir (specifics in my next post on Morocco). As for places in Casablanca, La Sqala offered some very decent Lebanese options, which was great for me.
I stayed in Casablanca twice: for one night following my arrival, and a second night prior to my departure from Morocco. On my final night I decided to treat myself and went to dinner at Atelier Oriental. Awesome reviews and I was craving non-Moroccan food, so a place that offered French and Mediterranean seemed perfect. The restaurant is in the Sofitel Hotel, and they valet parked my car for free while I had dinner. Great ambiance and service, and good food (though, as with all my meals in Morocco, nothing mind blowing). But a nice way to spend my final evening in the country.
During my first stay in Casablanca, I stayed in the city at Idou Anna Hotel. It was a totally decent place to stay, quiet at night, and has a Starbucks directly across the street! For the night prior to my departure, I had a rental car and needed free parking- plus, I wanted to stay closer to the airport, as the drive from the city center can take well over one hour. So I stayed at a bed and breakfast, Dar Diafa, in a residential neighborhood. The room was spectacularly HUGE and decked out with traditional Moroccan touches, though the absence of curtains to cover the large French doors was less than ideal during the night (and privacy would definitely be a problem for couples, as there are homes within spitting distance). So as far as places to stay, my best advice is general: stay in the city if you plan to spend time exploring Casablanca. But if you want to be close to the airport, Dar Diafa is definitely an upgrade from the two airport hotel options- just make sure to request a bedroom with curtains over the windows. (And maybe plan on getting your own breakfast because all you get at Dar Diafa is a spread of about 6 types of bread and coffee or tea; most riads will offer you bread, eggs, and usually fruit and/or yogurt.)
While buses are a VERY affordable (and safe) way to get around Morocco, a flight from Casablanca to Marrakech takes only 30-40 minutes so is well worth it if you have a bit of extra room in your budget. When visiting Marrakech, you should definitely stay in a Riad. These are small, boutique hotels (similar to a B&B) with only a handful of rooms, and that usually offer beautiful terraces, rooftops, and/or pools to relax beside. Most include free (and wonderful!) breakfast and free wifi; while I loved our Riad and would definitely recommend it (details forthcoming), everyone I met in Marrakech had equally positive reviews on their Riad. In other words, don’t get overwhelmed by options or fear you’ll make the wrong choice in choosing where to stay- seems like you’ll have a wonderful experience at most places. The real choice is whether you want to stay inside the Medina (old city) or outside the Medina walls (new city). Most tourists decide to stay in the Medina, as it’s home to most of the historical sites you’ll want to visit, and it offers a lot of charm; that’s where most Riads are located. However, if you want modern accommodations and to ensure car pickup and dropoff from your front door (the Medina has many roads that are pedestrian or scooter only, so keep that in mind), as well as more restaurant options that serve alcohol, then the new city is for you. I stayed at Riad Les Trois Mages (http://lestroismages.com/) and highly recommend it! They offer airport pickup for a totally reasonable fee, super reasonable prices (rooms starting at around $78USD/night), rooftop pool, beautiful ground floor courtyard, free breakfast and as much coffee or Moroccan mint tea as you can drink (anytime), and a great location that is inside the Medina and walkable to everything in the old city- but set apart from the city center enough so that it’s very quiet at night. The service is also amazing! When we mentioned to the manager we were taking a bus to Agadir he offered to walk to the bus station to buy us tickets (because you can’t purchase online) at no extra charge; we were able to pay for the tickets when we settled the room bill, which meant we could use a credit card (this country is still very much a cash society, and if you use a credit card be warned- they will pass on the 3% credit card fee to you). If you’re heading to Marrakech and want to stay here shoot me a message because I can give you a code for 10% off your booking (no, I don’t get ANYTHING for this- it’s a “friends and family” discount they told me I could share, and since it’s really only friends and family who read this blog, may as well mention it here).
The Medina area of Marrakech is a fantastic place to spend a day (or several) strolling through all the winding streets and the souk. Even more fun when you run into the film set of a movie filming; in our case: Men in Black 4. (Sadly, I didn’t bump into Chris Hemsworth.) Some tips for a visit to the souks: (1) don’t buy sandalwood from any place. It’s fake. Shopkeepers take scrap chunks of word and coat it with sandalwood scented spray. (2) You won’t find “pure” Moroccan argon oil either. Missaoui (see below) told us we’d be better off ordering online from an authorized shop. (3) If you want spices, skip the shops that use fancy ceramic or metal containers and displays; follow the locals into side streets and find shops that sell in huge sacks. They charge as much for 1 kilo as other shops charge for 100 grams! (4) If you love dates, the top quality variety are imported from Saudi Arabia and you shouldn’t pay more than 120MAD for 1 kilo. And (5) Most of the art around the city appears to be paint-by-number. Despite being beautiful and made with oil/acrylic, almost all of the art shops sell the exact same paintings. So make sure you do lots of browsing and bartering to get the best price (and it takes a lot of effort to find paintings that are truly original).
Because I was only in Marrakech for two days, I decided to go back to my favorite activity finder: Airbnb Experiences. I saw the “Walking Sightseeing Tour” with Missaoui, which had over 100 5-star reviews… for good reason! When you only have a short time, this is the BEST way to see the city ($30-$35 for the tour, plus entry fees at the various sites, which is around $10-$20). Missaoui added a tour for a day/time that was not initially available, which allowed me to meet another wonderful couple during the tour- Ignace and Heidi. Missaoui’s tour lasted a full 5 hours (though advertised as 4, he let us take our time and we went 1 full hour long) and he walked us around and through almost all of the major tourist sites in the Medina: Bab Er-Robb (Kasbah district), Saadiens Tombs, Bahia Palace, and Le Jardin Secret (secret garden). Highly recommend this tour!
Le Jardin Secret
Place Jemma el-Fna
The real heart of the Medina is the Jemaa el-Fna Plaza/Square. This is where you’ll find snake charmers, the horrible people who keep monkeys on chains (please for the love of God do NOT pay for a picture or to interact with the monkeys, because you’re just supporting this animal cruelty), and countless numbers of restaurants set up in tents. If you want to eat at one of these places, check out TripAdvisor for advice; Missaoui advised us during his walking tour to skip, so I didn’t bother eating at one of these. But I did pay to go up to a balcony and catch the Square at sunset, and it was totally worth paying exorbitant prices for a bottle of water to do so (meaning, $2, when a bottle of water costs about $0.10 elsewhere, haha). In the video below, you can hear the final moments of the call to prayer.
For my final night in Marrakech I took a taxi from Place Jemaa el-Fna into the new city to get at least a taste of that part of the city. I loved it and when I return to Marrakech at some point I’ll definitely give myself time to explore this part of the city. Based on online reviews, I went to dinner at Kechmara, which is just around the corner from the Yves Saint Laurent Museum. Food was decent. The restaurant had a issue that night and wasn’t serving alcohol, but this is supposedly a hot spot for cocktails in Marrakech. I did love eating on the roof terrace; great ambiance! I paid 30MAD ($3) for a cab out to Kechmara, and 40MAD ($4) for a cab back into the Medina later at night. Cabs always increase prices at night (across Morocco), and like all things in Morocco prices are negotiable so be sure you barter or you’ll pay 3-4 times higher!
I finished my last night in Marrakech back at the Riad with the most traditional night cap possible, mint tea (aka, Moroccan whiskey). Also pictured below, some of the super yum sweets I picked up at the souk. Nom nom nom! Stay tuned for my next blog post about travel around Morocco and surf camp.