In the western world, Morocco has this intriguing, mysterious and romantic reputation. It is often on travel bucket lists and a great backdrop to many Instagram-worthy photos. But what is the reality of travelling to Morocco? Do you listen to the negatives or the positives? And where is the middle ground? How do you figure out whether Morocco is right for you? I have been travelling to Morocco since I was three or four, with my parents, visiting friends, touring the country and experiencing its magic. Understandably, I am also aware of its annoyances. I travelled there again recently, on a road trip covering a lot of ground, revisiting places I knew already and discovering new ones.
To me, Morocco is a beguiling and diverse destination, with a rich culture and lovely people. To help you in your decision on whether this is the right destination for you, I would like to set the record straight and discuss 20 things you need to know before travelling to Morocco.
Love it or Hate it
If you are planning a trip to Morocco in the future, you will probably come across some very contrasting opinions. The majority of travellers are very complimentary of Morocco and highlight its beauty and diversity. Indeed, Morocco is a very exotic travel destination and is certainly beguiling. However, some travellers have negative experiences… Negative travel experiences happen everywhere but, with a lifetime of travelling to Morocco, I am still very positive about it. Remember, the more exotic a destination is, the more polarising it can be. In my view, the right position to take on Morocco is to be prepared and to manage your own expectation.
It’s a Muslim Country
Morocco is a predominantly Muslim country and a number of travellers concerns are connected to this, especially for women. When travelling through Morocco, you will notice that the day is punctuated with prayer calls, some of them very early in the morning or late at night, and Fridays are a holiday. If you love your sleep, this is something to bear in mind! People also observe the month of Ramadan, which means that a lot of places are closed, which may be inconvenient at times.
The consumption of alcohol is disallowed in Islam and it can be hard to find. For restaurants, obtaining a license can be difficult so you may want to check beforehand. Having said that, Morocco does produce its own wine and has done so since Roman times… Wine is available in supermarkets and there is quite a large selection. In restaurants, the selection can be limited and you may need to ask for the wine list, but I’ve never felt a negative judgment on consuming alcohol. Look for brands such as Guerrouane, Epicuria and Volubilia. In principle, only licensed venues can allow you to bring your own wine but I have found this to be flexible.
The important thing to remember though is that Morocco is a conservative society. Men are dominant and women are in their place, so to speak. Generally, there is an expectation from tourists that they will respect the customs and Muslim identity of their country.
Due to its history, Morocco is quite a diverse country, and the languages spoken are Darija Arabic and Berber (Amazigh). French is quite widely spoken and Spanish in almost dominant in the north of the country. Spain still has some disputed territories on the Mediterranean Coast, including some islands. English is more and more available in tourist centres, including in restaurant menus. Speaking a little French will help you appear more knowledgeable about the country but English will get you by.
It Can Be Very Hot or Very Cold
From mountains to deserts and beaches, Morocco is characterised by a broad range of climates. As an example, Marrakesh can get well over 40 degrees Celsius in summer and below 10 during winter nights. Generally, Morocco is quite sunny and has a mild winter, but the north gets quite a lot of rain in autumn. This is something to research before you go, depending on your itinerary: on my last trip, I started in chilly Tangier and spent a few hot days in Marrakech, before continuing to Chefchaouen, so I was glad to have something for every occasion!
It’s a Cash Economy
Morocco is still very much a cash economy. Major hotels and restaurants may accept international credit cards but anything else will be cash. And you certainly can’t pay otherwise in the local markets. So, be prepared to carry cash, with lots of small denominations. Tipping is expected in a lot of situations and sometimes, a tip is someone’s only income. The good news though, it that there are ATMs readily available in medium towns and large cities and airports. Personally, I preferred to use ATMs from French banks such as Credit Agricole (Credit du Maroc) or Societe Generale, or the main Moroccan bank: Attijariwafa. Also, there are plenty of money changers around.
4G is Pretty Good
Morocco is pretty well connected these days, and mobiles phones are everywhere. I bought a SIM card from the French mobile company Orange for 30 Dirhams and only required one recharge in three weeks. You can buy cheap SIM cards in phone shops and they will set it up for you. The only thing I found confusing initially was the fact that you need separate recharges for data and calls, and the instructions were in Arabic! Overall, the coverage was pretty good and the speed was very good.
Google Maps are Quite Reliable
I travelled to Morocco with my father, who carries a GPS with him. But with good a 4G network, I was able to rely on Google Maps and they worked out really well. Sometimes, a hotel may not be well located on Google Maps so it’s a good idea to call ahead and make sure you have the right directions.
Progress and Development
I first went to Morocco in the 70s, and I remember the lack of air conditioning, the dodgy tap water and the terrible roads… I’ve been back many times, but on my last trip, I noticed a clear improvement. For many years, the Moroccan authorities have been funding large development projects and it’s really paying off. The railway system is being upgraded, with the French-style TGV being built. The roads are also being upgraded everywhere and I found driving in Morocco a lot more comfortable than I initially expected. Some of the biggest issues I previously had in Morocco were the inefficiencies and waiting times when booking a train ticket or withdrawing money, however, I noticed improvements in that respect.
Hassles & Scams
The main reason why travellers may dislike Morocco is to do with the insistence of touts and fake guides in large tourist centres such as Marrakesh or Fes. Sellers in the markets (or Medina) can also be quite pushy. I won’t lie, it can be tiring and it does require a certain resilience. Scams happen in every country and as a traveller, you have to have your wits about you and not rely too much on the “kindness of strangers”.
As for fake guides or people approaching you on the street for no other reason than to get some money out of you, my advice is to walk purposefully and know where you are headed. Moroccans respond quite well to firmness, so saying no clearly yet politely is usually enough. Thankfully, you don’t get so much pressure in smaller towns and I have had many opportunities to wander around unbothered. In large tourist cities, like Marrakech or Fes, the tourist police is there to ensure travellers are safe and enjoy their stay. In some cases, it is usually enough to mention your awareness of this police force to get some peace.
Finally, bear in mind that Morocco is still a relatively poor country. The combination of poverty and seemingly cash-rich tourists is sometimes tricky to navigate…
Moroccans are Lovely People
In spite of all the hassles and scams, and the possible language barriers, a trip to Morocco can bring some lovely encounters with genuine and gentle people. As a lifetime visitor of Morocco, I find Moroccans generally polite, helpful and kind.
They are truly appreciative of whatever compliment you may pay to their country and are quite happy to share a bit of conversation with you. However, genuine encounters are more likely to happen away from the main tourist attractions.
The dress code is sometimes a concern for travellers to Muslim countries, including Morocco. This is important, especially for women, as you don’t want to offend people around you. In Morocco, there is no pressure on foreign women to be veiled but it is better to dress modestly. Dressing as you would for the beach may attract unwanted attention. T-shirts with short sleeves and pants are fine. I prefer to avoid shorts, short skirts and sleeveless shirts. I always wear long pants and a t-shirt and I get no trouble. Whilst this issue is more pressing for women, a dress code also applies to men. In Morocco, you will rarely see men wear shorts, and no man will be shirtless. So you need to bear that in mind and be respectful.
Almost Everything’s Negotiable
A more challenging part of visiting Morocco can be the fact that you have to negotiate the price of everything. There is a way of going about this and I will be writing about this in the future, however, there is plenty of things to buy in Morocco.This is daunting for a lot of people and it can be hard to shake the impression that’s you’re getting ripped off… However, it is very much part of the experience and it can be fun! Of course, some prices are set, usually in shops outside of the medina.
There is no figurative representation of humans in Islam and Moroccans can be quite camera shy. It can be difficult to get people to pose for you and you may upset people if you “steal” photos. This is also to do with the fact that tourists will photograph anything and anybody without permission. It is best to ask, as not everyone minds you taking their photo. If you are looking to do some street photography, I would recommend working out a “secret spot”, such as a car or a cafe terrace.
Driving is Easier than it Used to Be
I have many memories of uncomfortable trips in cars with no air-conditioning and pot-holed roads… And I have left driving to others on my previous trips. However, this time, I took a road trip and did most of the driving. I was pleasantly surprised by the state of the roads. You still have many roads in bad condition but the building of infrastructure in Morocco has brought some new roads everywhere and some of them are really beautiful.
I would describe driving as fairly competitive but certainly not as crazy as it was before. Road rules are enforced and better understood by people these days. Vehicles are in better condition and on some thoroughfares, animal-drawn carriages have been banned as a security measure. Read about my driving experience in Morocco here.
Strong Police Presence
When travelling through Morocco, you will notice a strong police presence. The police, the “Gendarmerie Royale” and in some places, the army, are quite visible on the road. They tend to hang out at large intersections and roundabouts. It is quite common for Moroccans to be stopped, asked for licence details and to even have their cars searched, as there is a strong focus on drug running and illegal migration in Morocco. However, this is unlikely to happen to foreigners, I was always waved through when coming to a police roadblock. Tourism is a very important part of the Moroccan economy, and the authorities are there to make sure that no unnecessary hassle comes their way. There is a clear effort on enforcing road safety rules, so make sure you drive safely.
Shop Till You Drop
Morocco is a dizzying shopping experience! Compared to other countries in North Africa, Morocco has maintained a strong tradition of traditional manufacturing and there is an incredible selection of things to buy, ranging from spices, leather bags and shoes, ceramics, clothes, rugs, antiques, souvenirs, cosmetics, homewares and many more. In order to shop smart, it is worth researching what you can shop for and what quality to expect. I have a comprehensive shopping guide for Morocco and some tips for successful haggling. Bringing a spare bag to carry your purchases is the first step to take when planning a trip to Morocco!
A Fantastic Food Experience
Morocco has very refined food and you should definitely make that aspect part of your experience. A lot of small and local restaurants have a limited menu but the quality tends to equal that of a home-cooked meal. In larger tourist centres, such as a Marrakech, you can find more upmarket restaurants and experience fusion and fine dining.
Moroccan food is rich in tradition, made with care and based on the freshest ingredients. Spices are essential and mixing sweet and sour is quite common. In Morocco, you are guaranteed to challenge your taste buds and discover new flavours!
Sensory & Visual Experiences
My earliest memories of Morocco, at the age of three or four, combine the Atlas Mountains around Marrakech, the intoxicating smell of orange blossoms in the garden and leather manufacturing in the medina, and the taste of homemade honey crepes… So look out for those sensory experiences… Morocco is a beautiful and diverse country, with beautiful and diverse landscapes. Travelling through Morocco, with its exotic scenery, rich culture and ancient history will definitely give you a sense of adventure.
Something for Everyone
Ever since I have been visiting Morocco, I have seen many different types of travellers discover and enjoy this beautiful country. From single millennial travellers to active retirees and families, there is something for everyone. Travellers have been coming to Morocco for several generations and there is a strong tradition of hospitality. There are accommodation, food and touring options for all budgets and interests, so with a bit of research, you are guaranteed to find something to suit your needs.
You Will Make Unforgettable Memories in Morocco
Because I have been going to Morocco for so long, always in the context of visiting lifelong friends, this country occupies a large place in my memory. I even suspect that my memory tells me I have been there more times than I’ve actually been… There is a reason for that: Morocco is a striking experience. A visit to Morocco can be challenging and will very likely take you out of your comfort zone, but it will leave a strong mark on your memory.
The experience of Morocco is complex: it involves discovering a diverse and beautiful country, learning about a foreign culture and language, connecting with people, tasting new foods and generally having a travel experience you can only have there… Putting Morocco on your travel bucket list requires preparation and setting some of your fears aside. I will be writing more about my experiences in Morocco so stay tuned! If you are thinking of travelling to Morocco and have some questions, please contact me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and feel free to ask questions.
Have you been to Morocco? I would love you to share your experience in the comments below.