8 (Not So Obvious) Tips for Enjoying Morocco
During our 5 weeks in Morocco we definitely had moments that we loved more than others. While there were great resources available for what to see, there weren’t a lot that really scratched below the surface. By the end of our trip we had really fallen in love with the country and the people and wanted to do our part to help future travelers have the same amazing experience! So the following are our 8 (not so obvious) tips for enjoying Morocco:
1. Explore the Smaller Cities
Before arriving in Morocco all we heard from friends (and lots of travel forums) was “Fes and Marrakech are awesome, but skip Casablanca”. If you follow our adventures you’ll know that not only did we end up really enjoying Casablanca, but we gave ourselves time to venture outside of the popular cities. While it would be easy to assume that shorter trips won’t allow for stops in smaller towns, I urge everyone to figure out a way to make it happen. Sure, Marrakesh and Fes were interesting, but in a day or two you can see all of their top sites and you’ll quickly tire of the touts. While we visited a number of small towns (Asni, Meknes, Asilah) our two favorites were definitely Chefchaouen and Essaouira. Both offer a small, only partially touristy, Medina and gorgeous surroundings.
Set in the Rif Mountains Chefchaouen offers friendly locals, amazing views and great day hikes. The food variety leaves something to be desired, but if you hit up your host they can direct you to the hidden gems. We loved leisurely wandering along the blue-washed lanes and drinking the fresh mountain spring water (believe the locals, you really can drink it!). For those travelers who are more adventurous than we are there are options for multi-day hikes along the ridge. Plus, an easy 45 minute cab ride will take you to Park National Talassemtane where you can hike to an isolated waterfall, a great spot for a swim and relaxing lunch. Note: I don’t care what anyone tells you, plan 2-3 hrs each way for that hike, wear very good shoes and anticipate slipping at least once. If you’re visiting Chefchaouen, and appreciate some good British wit, be sure to stay at Riad Baraka and tell Joe and Trevor we said ‘Hi”!
Our second favorite stop, and home for our last 10 days in Morocco, was Essaouira. While popular with French tourists and other European travelers, it seems like most Americans have never even heard of it. I’m not exaggerating when I say we could have stayed there forever. Originally planning to stay for 3-4 days we immediately extended to six and then shortly after that to 10. While popular with the kite and winder surfers this sleepy, seaside fishing town offers a quiet whitewashed medina, beautiful oceans views, wonderful food (the fish, oh the fish!) and amazing sunsets. Plus there are a few bottle shops, so for those travelers craving a drink (that won’t cost them $10) they are a nice option (Adam bee-lined for a bottle of red wine). There’s also an active and very welcoming expat community, many of whom are happy to introduce you to their adopted home. We spent most of our days just relaxing and reading in cafes and taking long walks by the ocean. We were so sad to be leave and plan to return as soon as possible!
2. Take the 2nd Class Train
Unless you’re traveling with a large group that insists on sitting together or with a high maintenance travel partner, there is no reason to pay for the 1st class train tickets. The 2nd class tickets never sell out because they are unassigned and are pretty much the same as the first class. Plus, you won’t get pestered by all of the ‘helpful’ strangers who are willing to tell you about this tour/hotel/shop they know of…they only target the first class cars.
3. Try the local Hammam
I’m so glad I resisted the urge to visit one of the tourist hammams, which are basically just spas set in former hammam facilities. Sure it was weird at first to strip down to my underwear (no bra) in front of a room full of women and then have a stranger scrub me down, but I’m not lying when I say you get used to it all really quickly. Maureen and I visited one while she and my dad were in town and we both had a great time! I found it really easy to get distracted by all of the activity around me and felt instantly comfortable in the community of women. No one was judging or paying any attention to anyone outside of their own group and it was nice to see the little girls witnessing the comfort their older relatives had with their own bodies. While there were a couple girls in their 20’s who were fit, for the most part the women in the hammam came in all shapes and sizes. All I could think was that it would be so great for little girls at home to be exposed to this experience to see that we all look different and there is no such thing as a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ body.
4. Just Wander
While I’m a big fan of doing research on locations and making lists of personal must see landmarks and must do activities, there is something to be said about the amazing possibility of wandering. No matter what city you visit take a day or two to just wander around. Leave the guide book at home and set out to simply observe the daily life of the local residents. Allow yourself to explore the side streets and grab a seat at a café and watch life go by. This is the best way to discover your own off the beaten path experiences and get to know the people. Plus the Moroccan people are so friendly and the cities are so safe that you don’t have to be afraid of getting lost.
One of the most magical things about Morocco is that there is literally beauty all around you. The traditional sites (mosques, palaces, etc) are all gorgeous and worth a visit, but be careful to not miss the colors and designs all around you.
5, Try ‘Berber Whiskey’ and ‘Nouss Nouss’
Even if you consider yourself to not be a tea or coffee person, just do yourself a favor and give these two local treats a try. The Berber Whiskey is just green tea that has been infused with lots of fresh mint and even more sugar. If you’re traveling to different regions you’ll find that they vary in their sugar levels, but they are all delicious! For the Nous Nous this is just a ½ mixture of warm milk and espresso. While not on most menus they serve it at every café, so just ask. I recommend ordering something nice and sweet to help balance out the bitterness of the espresso. If you’re anything like Adam and I (aka – don’t drink caffeine or sugary drinks in ‘real life’) you’ll be vibrating down the streets J.
6. Try experiencing life in the neighborhoods
It’s no secret that we are huge fans of Airbnb and feel that renting an apartment is a great option in any city or country. But this is especially true in Morocco! Wherever we could we either rented a room or an entire apartment which allowed us to not only experience the rhythms of the various neighborhoods, but also allowed us to try and master the local cuisine. While our attempts weren’t always successful (like our Fish Tajine in Essaouria) it always makes for a fun experience and gives your wallet a break from the restaurants.
7. Marrakesh Medina Food
Sure, every guide book tells you that no trip to the Marrakesh Medina is complete without enjoying a bite at the El Jemma Night Food Court. But, and we can’t emphasize this enough, plopping down at the first stall you see and sticking to the familiar choices of kebabs and couscous is a mistake. First be sure to visit the square during the day. Seeing the empty square will give you a greater appreciation of the effort it takes to create this giant food court every night. Second, take your time and enjoy wandering the lanes and taking in all the sights and smells. Sure each stall will have a hawker encouraging you to pick theirs but they are very friendly and a simple smile and shake of the head will cause most of them to move onto the dozens of other tourists right behind you.
Finally when it comes time to eat go on a ‘stall crawl’ and try something different at each stop. Pick stalls that are filled with locals and order any dish that seems unfamiliar to you. After all, what’s the point of travelling if you aren’t going to experience new things, right? The local specialties at the market are sheeps head, snail soup and harira and we tried them all. While we weren’t crazy about all of them, nothing was horrible and it was fun to take the food adventure. Tip: If you run into something that you aren’t sure how to eat (and can’t figure it out by watching those around you) a smile and an ‘I’m confused’ shoulder shrug will always do the trick!
8. Tap Into the Local Community
Even if you are just in town for a short holiday, try to incorporate a local activity into your trip. This doesn’t have to mean venturing off into the High Atlas and finding a berber wedding to attend (although that would be amazing). It can be as simple as attending a Meetup.com event or visiting a café that hosts live music. All of the Social Media platforms (esp. Twitter) and blogs make this so easy, all it normally takes is an introductory hello from you. And of course the age old approaching a stranger in real life always works to.
Just by sending out a couple social media ‘flares’ and making conversation with people we met day to day we got invited to dinner in someone’s home, taken out for multiple meals at places we would have never found on our own, ride along to the huge supermarket to accompany someone on their weekly shopping trip (and do our own shopping), received an invitation to come back in the future and ‘inn sit’ a riad, had homemade couscous unexpectedly delivered to our door on a Friday night and more cups of tea than we could stomach.
When visiting a new place don’t be so distracted by the history and the sights that you miss the daily life and people right in front of you. Without a doubt, these ‘local interactions’, no matter how small, will remain with us as some of the highlights of our trip.
Continue along our ‘Around the World’ adventure – Next stop – South Africa!