Before you visit Morocco, learn a bit about the history, religion, geography, climate, and local traditions so you can be fully prepared for your journey abroad. Within this article, we provide the best overview of Morocco plus some first-hand travel tips along the way!
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Imagine it: From the dusty dunes of the Sahara Desert to the magnetic energy of Marrakech, Morocco lights every sense on fire. The aroma of spices fills the air as you walk through bustling souk markets, the fresh breeze greets you on the Atlantic Coast, and the food and atmosphere are equally incredible. Get ready for a richening trip to Morocco with all the things you should know before visiting.
Brief History of Morocco
Before you get globally educated on all the must-know Morocco travel tips, let’s step into a quick history lesson. Don’t worry, we’ll keep it brief.
The written history of Morocco began about 1,000 BCE when Phoenicians sailed there from what is now Lebanon. As great traders, the Phoenicians founded many trading colonies and settlements across Morocco. During this time, the Phoenicians founded the city of Carthage (what is now considered part of Tunisia). This city became the powerhouse of the region, which often traded with Morocco.
By around 400 BC the native Berber communities formed the kingdom of Mauritania, a country just below modern-day Morocco. Centuries later, in 146 BC, Romans conquered Carthage and their influence grew across much of North Africa. As a result, Morocco was ruled by the Romans until the 5th century.
Over the next centuries, various dynasties captured different parts of Morocco – such as Marrakech and Fes. Cities were passed around from dynasty to dynasty until Morocco became independent many centuries later.
The Middle Ages
Soon after, Arabs arrived in Morocco. Raidings began in 681 and the Arabs were in control by 705, spreading Islam along the way. In 789, Idris I of Morocco founded a small kingdom and his son Idriss II declared Fes the capital. Over centuries, Fes became a vibrant center for culture and trade in Morocco.
The Berbers joined the Arabs in invading Spain in 711, only to later revolt against the Arabs, resenting their secondary status. In 1086, Berbers took control of large areas of Moorish Spain until they were expelled in the 13th century.
French & Spanish Colonization
With Morocco’s ideal location for trade, the French and Spanish began to take interest. In 1904, France and Spain concluded a secret agreement that divided Morocco into zones of French and Spanish influence. France controlled almost all of Morocco – which laid heavy European influences on the country – and Spain controlled the small southwest portion called the Spanish Sahara.
During the 1920s, Rif Berbers of Morocco began to rebel against French and Spanish authority. However, the Rif Republic was short-lived after a French/Spanish task force came through in 1926.
On March 2, 1956, French Morocco finally gained its independence. Except for the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish Morocco gained independence just a month afterward in April of 1956.
Modern Day Morocco
In 1961, Hassan II became King of Morocco. However, during the 1960s and 1970s, Morocco suffered from political instability.
This led to numerous constitutions being drawn up: one in 1962, another in 1970. Over the next couple of years, the King would survive two coup attempts. Then in 1981, riots broke out in Casablanca.
Flash forward to 1996, and Morocco was given a new constitution, and in 1999 Mohammed VI inherited the throne. But this was not the last of Morocco’s constitutions. In fact, in July of 2011, Morocco approved a new constitution for the country.
Mohammed VI has now been King of Morocco since 1999. When traveling in Morocco, you will likely see his portrait posted up on walls of restaurants, souks, and various places in the country. In fact, The lèse-majesté of Morocco makes mocking, criticizing, or speaking poorly about the Moroccan king a criminal offense.
Languages in Morocco
Now with a bit of historical knowledge, the languages in Morocco are going to make a lot of sense. The official languages in Morocco are Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Berber. However, most Moroccans speak some combination of Berber, French, and Darija, which is the Moroccan Arabic dialect. This is spoken more than Modern Standard Arabic. Something very interesting about Darija is that it’s difficult to speak and understand Darija if you speak MSA. However, those who speak Moroccan Arabic usually have no problem understanding modern Arabic.
You’re likely wondering why, the best answer is the French Conquest of Morocco in the early 1900s. It brought a lot of European words to the country. In fact, the late King Hassan II once said that Morocco is “a tree whose roots lie in Africa but whose leaves breathe in Europe.” Upon traveling in Morocco, you’ll quickly see what he means.
Some examples of European influence on the language in Morocco:
- ستيلو (stilo) – pen ; comes from the French word stylo
- فروماج (formaj) – cheese ; comes from the French word formaje
- كشينة (kuzina) – kitchen ; comes from the Spanish word cocina
But before visiting Morocco, we recommend you learn “hello” & “thank you” in Darija:
- شكرا (shoukran) - thank you
- سالم (salem) - hello
As for Berber, this is a language that is often spoken in rural Morocco, particularly along the Atlas Mountains. Some 60-80% of the population speak Berber. These locals may not speak French, so keep that in mind before traveling.
Demographics of Morocco
Morocco has a population of just under 38 million, with most living to the west of the Atlas Mountains toward the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. The majority of its population are Arab-Berber, with a tiny Jewish community of .2%. The rest of its population, a small .7% are immigrants from other countries around the world.
Something to keep in mind before traveling in Morocco is that you’ll have a harder time finding a strong expat community unless you focus on certain neighborhoods of Rabat, Casablanca, or Marrakech. Some are also living in coastal hubs like Essaouira, but these are much smaller places in Morocco.
Cities in Morocco
Morocco is full of captivating and characteristic cities from Fes and its famous tanneries to Marrakech and its aromatic markets. Here are some of the top cities to keep in mind before traveling in Morocco.
Morocco’s largest city, made famous by the 1942 romance film of the same name, is nestled on the northern Atlantic coast. The city today does not quite reflect the same old-world enchantment from its past. Instead, Casablanca is Morocco’s economic hub and a trading powerhouse.
Despite its modernity, it still boasts a charming old town mixing Moorish and European flair, beautiful coastal views, plus lots of shopping and even nightclubs.
Although Casablanca is the largest city, Rabat is actually the capital of Morocco. Here visitors to Morocco will find political and administrative buildings as well as the official residence of the king of Morocco.
Beyond its capitalistic qualities, the city flaunts both an Old Town and a New Town. While the New Town offers wide sidewalks and sunny cafes, its Old Town is full of wistful charm, historic Islamic and French-colonial architecture, and the surrounding fortress known as Kasbah of the Udayas.
Vibrant, chaotic, and alive, Marrakech (or Marrakesh) is one of Morocco’s most visited cities. It’s advantageously located in a central part of the country, making it a major trading hub for many years.
The medina of the old center of Marrakech is filled with aromatic souks selling carpets, argan oil, spices, lanterns, and artisan items. The streets of the medina are an experience with noises and life at every turn. Moped drivers effortlessly dodge pedestrians, gorgeous Islamic doors meet the eye, and the Call to Prayer bellows over the city five times a day.
See historic palaces, idyllic gardens, and sip mint tea in a cafe on the bustling Jemaa el-Fnaa square. When you visit Morocco, a trip to Marrakech cannot be missed. It’s not a place for everyone, but you won’t know until you step foot and breathe it all in.
It’s popular to take day trips to smaller destinations like the ancient UNESCO village of Aït Benhaddou, the Atlas Mountains and Ourika Valley, and the seaside town of Essaouira.
Located centrally but a little more north than Marrakech, Fes (or Fez) is home to Africa’s largest in-tact medina, and it’s a dream to explore. Calmer than Marrakech, the souks of Fes are vibrant with colorful carpets on display and the smell of leather in the air thanks to its famous tanneries – like the 11th-century Chouara Tannery.
Beyond that, the city offers beautiful old-world architecture, palaces, riads, and many more relics of North African history.
Geography of Marrakech
Situated in the northwestern corner of Africa, Morocco boasts dry deserts, chilly mountains, and fertile plains. It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Algeria to the south and east, and Western Sahara to the very south. Morocco also still shares borders with two enclaves that are considered part of Spain — Ceuta and Melilla. And to put it in perspective, Morocco is roughly the size of California.
The lush Atlas Mountains stretch from central Morocco down through the southwestern portion. Here the air is much cooler and snow in these parts is not unusual. In fact, it’s especially common on Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in Morocco, which rises to 13,665 feet above sea level.
Then, the southeastern portion is blanketed by the Sahara Desert, the world’s third-largest desert. Here you’ll find massive sand dunes, sunny weather, and high temperatures during the daytime. Its arid climate creates a drop in temperatures at night, meaning that the Sahara can go from an average high of 100°F (38°C) during the day to an average low of 25°F (-4°C) during the night. On that note, let’s dive deeper into Morocco’s climate.
What is Morocco’s climate like?
While Morocco’s climate varies slightly depending on location, most of the country experiences a typical Mediterranean climate, with mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers.
In the summer, temperatures on the coast range from 64°F (18°C) to (82°F) (28°C) and can reach up to an average high nog (95°F) (35°C) in the interior, such as in Marrakech of Fes. In the winter, temperatures on the coast range from 46°F (8°C) to 63°F (17°C) and can drop below freezing in the mountainous areas.
Summers in the interior are very dry with little to no rainfall. As a result of such little humidity, the temperatures drop in the evenings making it pleasant to be outside. It’s not uncommon to find families sitting in the park together past sunset.
Religion in Morocco
Hearing the Call to Prayer bellow over the cities of Morocco is one of the most captivating experiences. You’ll likely hear this five times a day as more than 99 percent of the population practice Islam.
The religious population is then followed by less than one percent of the population practicing Christianity, Judaism, and Baháʼí Islam.
Islam is seen throughout daily life in Morocco. It’s not uncommon to see Moroccans praying in the streets or in a grassy patch at the park. However, their practice is still considered to be quite private. Unless Muslim, visitors are denied entry into the country's mosques, apart from the tourist-friendly Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca (pictured above).
With that in mind, some women may wear a hijab or another type of headscarf along with a long Moroccan kaftan robe. Others may wear jeans, long-sleeved shirts, and no headscarf. Either way, conversationism is at the forefront of apparel in Morocco, as aligned with Islam. Keep this in mind before traveling in Morocco.
One of the most important Morocco travel tips for women is to consider your wardrobe before you travel. As Islam is so significant in the country, we highly recommend wearing longer items of clothing and a lightweight scarf to cover up your chest. You don’t have to dress like a local at all, but you’ll feel better wandering around if you’re a bit more covered up.
Economy & Major Exports in Morocco
Morocco’s economy is ranked 6th among 14 countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, giving it some economic freedom. Historically, Morocco’s economy was greatly based on agriculture, and this is still true today. However, it is also heavily dependent on the export of raw materials. Plus, of growing importance to the economy are modern sectors like tourism and telecommunications.
Morocco’s main trading partner is the European Union, thanks to negotiations in the 1990s calling for a Euro-Mediterranean free trade zone. With that, the largest exports are agricultural produce such as citrus fruits and market vegetables, consumer goods such as textiles, and phosphates and phosphate goods.
What is Morocco known for producing?
Morocco is known for so many unique products, which is why shopping in the souks of cities like Marrakech and Fes is so popular. It’s sensory overload with gorgeous ceramic and wooden decorations, colorful carpets, brass lanterns, aromatic spices, cosmetics, and so, sooo much more. Here are some of the most popular Moroccan products – ones that make excellent souvenirs, too!
Hand-woven by local Berber communities, each of these rugs is uniquely made with sheep’s wool. They are beautifully patterned with both traditional and modern designs. These carpets date back several millennia as patterns were once symbols for particular Berber tribes.
Often made from brass, silver, or wrought iron, lanterns are quite the symbol of Arabic culture. They are embossed in intricate patterns and holes, and many boast beautiful stained glass. They come in a variety of styles and shapes, from hanging lamps to tabletop or floor lamps. You’ll have no trouble seeing gorgeous lanterns when wandering the souks of Marrakech, Fes, and Meknes.
Native to Morocco, argan oil is a luxurious oil used on the skin, hair, Moroccan cuisine (more on that soon!), and even to soothe rheumatic problems. If you buy argan oil outside of Morocco, it often has a high price tag compared to buying it directly from a spice & beauty souk in Morocco. It’s a must-have Moroccan souvenir!
From Moroccan spice blends, solid perfumes, spices to keep you from snoring, and rich saffron, there are loads of unique traditional techniques and aromas to discover on a trip to Morocco. Easily one of the best Morocco travel tips is to step into a spice shop and let your senses have at it! A local will teach you about holistic Moroccan traditions and you’ll have a chance to encounter some of the finest spices. This is also where you’ll find extra-strong Moroccan coffee, argan oil, ceramic lipstick, and more delights.
Food in Morocco
One of the best parts about traveling in Morocco is all the fresh and delicious food you get to try! Here are a few of the absolute best foods to try in Morocco.
One of Morocco's most famous dishes, tagine is a stew-like mix of spices, vegetables, and a protein choice of poultry, meat, or fish. The one pictured above is lamb meat and pumpkin served with cous cous and salad. It also comes in vegetarian/vegan forms as well! A lot of Moroccan food is vegetarian. It is cooked uniquely in a ceramic cookware of the same name. The dish has a shallow bottom with a cone-like top. When you order tagine in Morocco, it will likely come served in this dish.
Couscous, a fine white wheat pasta traditionally rolled by hand, is originally from Morocco, and it's typically served as part of a meat or vegetable stew. Traditionally, they prepare couscous on the Muslim holy day (Friday) and for various special occasions, but you can still find it at most restaurants and cafes. You’ll often see this Moroccan dish garnished with a sweet raisin preserve and herbs, or in the Berber tradition, with a bowl of buttermilk.
As the country’s drink of choice, you might even hear a local call it their “whiskey.” Most Moroccans don’t consume alcohol so instead, they gather together to drink mint tea. This drink is a combination of fresh spearmint leaves, green tea, and sugar. Moroccans put on a beautiful performance — pouring it from well above their head — when mixing and pouring this sweet, warm drink into a glass.
One of the tastiest of Moroccan desserts, briouat is a sweet, gooey triangular pastry filled with finely chopped peanuts or almonds. You’ll find them available in bakeries and from street vendors.
One of the great things about staying in a hotel (or even a hostel oftentimes!) is the amazing Moroccan breakfast you’ll enjoy every morning.
This yummy breakfast typically includes fluffy Moroccan bread, crunchy Harsha bread, thin pancakes, boiled or fried eggs, yogurt, jams, and likely goat’s cheese and olives. It’s then served with juice and mint tea or fresh coffee. Yum! Filling, but somehow not too heavy.
Morocco Travel Tips
Now that you have a solid basis on all things Morocco, here are some of the travel tips you must know before visiting.
- The currency in Morocco is the Moroccan dirham (MAD). You can pay by card in many central places in Morocco, but it’s still a very cash society. Use a local ATM upon arrival.
- Morocco is a more conservative country, so keep this in mind when planning what to wear.
- Drinking is less common, so you won’t come across many bars. However, there are bars and alcohol legally available throughout the country.
- Locals will sometimes offer to help you find your way back to the center of the city or offer to show you a hidden gem. If you take them up on their offer, they will expect money in return.
- You can get around Morocco by train, bus, or taxi hire. You can also rent a car, but some roads — especially in the Atlas Mountains — can be a bit intimidating.
- You can haggle the price at many shops (such as this lantern shop in the photo above), particularly at the souks in Marrakech and Fes. The salesmen will typically offer you a higher price and it’s up to you to bring it down to a lower price – if you wish.
- Tap water is filtered and safe to drink.
- If you’re a woman traveling in Morocco, here are some more things to keep in mind.
- In the case of an emergency dial 15 for fire or ambulance, 19 for police.