Long-considered the gateway to Africa, Morocco features cities that are a true fusion of European, African, and Middle Eastern heritage. Don’t choose just one—like members of the same family, each city exudes its own unique personality rooted in a common history. The following five cities display the diversity found in Morocco—from the hip art galleries of Marrakesh to the bewitching alleys of the Fes medina. See for yourself why travelers can’t get enough of these inspiring cultural centers.
For many travelers, the transport hub of Casablanca is the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” with the country of Morocco. This modern city offers a contrast to the Imperial Cities of Fes and Marrakesh by showcasing current Moroccan culture. Architecture fans will enjoy strolling the city center to survey the Mauresque-style buildings, a blending of traditional Moroccan design with Parisian Art Deco. Famous examples include the Cinema Rialto and the Hotel Transatlantique.
The must-see attraction in Casablanca is the awe-inspiring Hassan II Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world. Completed in 1993 to commemorate then-King Hassan II’s 60th birthday, the oceanfront building is a modern marvel, boasting space for 25,000 worshippers and a laser beam that points to Mecca. It offers one more reason to linger a bit longer in Morocco’s most contemporary city.
Feel the old-world culture of Fes transport you into Morocco’s ancient past. Give yourself plenty of time to let this city work its magic. Of Morocco’s four Imperial Cities (Fes, Marrakesh, Meknes, and Rabat), Fes feels the oldest, its medina the most labyrinthian, and its atmosphere the most mysterious. A breezy plaza leads up to the ornate Bab Boujloud gate—the main entrance to the medina—and from there you dive into the past.
The old medina is a sensory experience: The crowded bazaars feature ornate tilework, bumpy cobblestones, and the aroma of grilled meat. The air is punctuated by the shouts of the donkey drivers and the clanging of the metal as artisans work their craft. The whole experience will thrill and delight. Any alleyway can lead to the discovery of a trove of handmade treasures—from leather goods to ceramics to copper bowls to embroidered linens. Your taste buds will also be rewarded when you indulge in the famed seven-course meat and vegetable Fassi couscous dinner.
While the old city is the big draw, the newer areas of Fes (most of which are still quite old!) also deliver on good eats and interesting sights. The Royal Palace, Dar el-Makhzen, is dazzling, while the old Jewish quarter of Mellah reveals an often overlooked piece of Moroccan history. Take your time exploring all angles of Fes—it does not disappoint.
Marrakesh is a delightful mix of old and new: The city is steeped in history and yet seemingly for every spice seller there is a chic art gallery. Honor this marriage of contrasts by staying in a riad. These opulent dwellings—characterized by detailed tilework, interior balconies, and central courtyards—were once occupied by wealthy families and are now converted into hotels that are intimate and full of atmosphere. Some are luxuriously furnished in a modern style. Others are traditionally furnished in zellig tile, stucco, and aromatic wood. You’ll feel like you’re staying in a museum—or a palace! Their leafy courtyards are the perfect place to begin a day with fig jam, sweet potato butter, and freshly baked bread.
The central medina in Marrakesh is an easy place to lose track of time. There are museums to visit, passageways to walk down, and haggling to be done in the expansive covered markets. The bazaars pour into Djemaa el-Fna—the famous central square. By day, the square is a sea of tourists streaming from sight to sight, and the locals are busy with shopping and errands. But at night, it’s transformed! Snake-charmers, musicians, and entertainers of all descriptions create a carnival-like atmosphere. You'll find orange juice vendors and sellers of dried fruits and nuts that offer a quick snack, plus a wide variety of food stalls that serve as pop-up restaurants: Sit wherever you want, and the vendors literally cook right in front of you on big sizzling grills or steaming pots.
It’s wise to come up for air from the frenzy of the medina in Ville Nouvelle—the modern neighborhood in central Marrakesh. Here the vibe is hip, clean, and arty. High-end boutiques hob nob with art galleries showcasing local and international talent. The gem of this neighborhood is the venerable Majorelle Gardens, Yves Saint Laurent’s oasis of rare desert plants set against vibrant buildings and accents. And after a long day on your feet, unwind at a traditional hammam, a Moroccan bath experience.
Located in north central Morocco, Meknes is best known for its proximity to Volubilis, the country’s most famous Roman ruins. And they are indeed worth a visit. Sitting atop a hill, the surviving columns and remnants of the ancient capital of a Roman province are a powerful way to transport yourself back in time. The intricate floor murals that have survived give you a taste of what life was like for the wealthy Romans who lived in the commanding villas.
In the city of Meknes, Bab al-Mansour is the main gate between the city’s medina and the Imperial City district. It’s one of North Africa’s largest surviving gateways, and the intricate tile work and arches are a sight to behold. Another architectural wonder can be found at the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, the tomb of the sultan who made Meknes the Imperial capital in the 17th century. The interior showcases the wonderful complexity of Moroccan religious decoration. While the mosque isn’t open to non-Muslims, visitors can still get excellent views from the entranceway.
Other impressive sights in the Imperial City district include the Koubat al Khayatine—the old ambassador building that now houses a photography exhibit on the city—and the ruined palace of Moulay Ismail known as Dar el-Kebir.
The Meknes medina is known for the 12th Century Grand Mosque with its unique green-tiled roof that sits at its core, which makes navigating the twisting lanes relatively easy. Shops are full of textiles and traditional Moroccan crafts, and chances are you’re likely to get a better deal here than in Marrakesh.
The low-key capital of Morocco seamlessly blends the best of what the country has to offer into one unassuming package. Travelers find this city pleasantly under-the-radar while still offering an oceanfront location, walled medina, interesting architecture, important historical points of interest, and delicious cuisine.
Rabat’s status as its nation’s capital also gives a sense of order to the metropolis, where palm-lined streets are noticeably devoid of honking horns and tourist touts. People who lack a robust sense of direction will be relieved that Rabat’s medina was built on a grid and is therefore much easier to navigate than others in Morocco. The shopkeepers are also less aggressive so this is a great spot to score that handwoven carpet you want to bring home.
Just outside the city, archeology junkies can get their fix at the ruins of Chellah, a Muslim necropolis built over an ancient Roman city. Marvel over the crumbling minaret, now guarded by storks, or play an epic game of hide and seek.
Originally written for Come to the Sahara.