Travel Guide to Morocco : Marrakech and the Sahara Desert

We recently got back from an epic week long trip to Morocco. It was everything I had imagined and more – exotic, vibrant, chaotic, bustling and of course incredibly magical. The country itself is very diverse and you can have multiple experiences in one trip, which is something I always look for especially in long trips. Unless you are spending atleast 2 weeks in Morocco, it is hard to cover all the stunning tourist spots in the country since its so vast. From Casablanca to Marrakech to Fes to Tangier to Chefchaouen to Essaouira to Merzouga and so much more – you have a lot of gorgeous locations to choose from. It just depends on how much time you have and what you want most from your trip. Since we had only a week we chose to split out time in our top two locations we had in mind – Marrakech and the Sahara Desert (Merzouga), so in this post I will only be covering these two locations in Morocco. Don’t forget to checkout my video highlight at the end of the post!

 

WHY MOROCCO ?

As I mentioned above, Morocco is incredibly diverse and such a beautiful country. Here are a few more reasons why you must consider adding Morocco to your list :

  • old historic cities like Fes and Marrakech that have stunning architecture and so much character.
  • gorgeous North African beaches (even though we personally didn’t go here I have heard incredible things about Tangier and Agadir)
  • biggest hot desert in the world – the beautiful Sahara Desert! (my personal highlight for why Morocco was so high on my list)
  • vast mountain ranges – like the Atlas mountains.
  • shopping at one of the best souk markets in the world in Marrakech.
  • experiencing diverse cultures – from Arabic to Berber.
  • and of course – the amazing food!

Erg Chebbi Dunes in Sahara

 

HOW TO GET THERE?

We took a long connecting flight from San Francisco to Marrakech via Amsterdam. Keep in mind that you might need a visa to visit Morocco, it is best to check with your local consulate if you need one and give sufficient time in advance to obtain a tourist visa.

Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech

 

BEST TIME TO VISIT ?

In my opinion – the best time to visit is during April – May or September – November, the country’s shoulder seasons where temperatures are also comfortable. We went in early September where it was the end of summer, so it was a still hot in some places but we were able to manage.

Medina of Marrakech

 

HOW TO GET AROUND ?

For Marrakech if you are staying in the Medina area you don’t really need a car. We were able to manage everywhere by just walking or taking taxis. Even if you stay on the outskirts, most resorts have shuttles to the Medina region so you should be fine.

If you choose to go to the Sahara Desert – you can either rent a car and drive it yourself if you are adventurous (its a long 10 hr drive) or opt to go with a car+driver arranged from the camp. We opted for the latter – more details in my blog post here.

 

Red alleys of Marrakech

 

WHERE TO STAY IN MOROCCO ?

In Marrakech :

I would recommend trying to stay at both a conventional resort as well as a traditional riad to get two diverse experiences. Staying at one of the beautiful resorts on the outskirts of the resort or in the city centre will be a lot different than any other big resort you have stayed at in the past, cos these resorts themselves are beyond stunning in their architecture, some of which are historic spots themselves.

Three of my favorite resorts in Marrakech that are all beyond incredible and are part of the Leading Hotels of the World :

1 ) Fairmont Royal Palm Marrakech – we stayed here for 2 nights and it was so amazing. Read more in my blog post here.

Fairmont Marrakech

2 ) Royal Mansour Marrakech – voted one of the best hotels in the world year after year! If you can afford to stay here it is an absolute must. Even if not try and go in for a hammam at their world class spa.

3 ) La Mamounia – another world’s best; either stay here or opt for a day pass visit.

Staying at a traditional riad is an incredible feeling – you feel like you are staying at your Moroccan friends old home and its such an authentic way to experience Moroccan culture.

Three of my fave riads in the heart of the Medina area :

1 ) Angsana Riads Collection – a collection of 6 beautifully restored riads. We stayed at Riad Bab Firdaus for 3 nights and absolutely loved it. Read more in my blog post here.

Angsana Riads

 

2 ) Riad BE Marrakech – spent an afternoon here and got the chance to tour their stunning riad. They have a beautiful terrace, yoga classes and so much more in this peaceful retreat.

Riad BE Marrakech

 

3 ) Le Riad Yasmine – another super cute riad where some of my friends have stayed at in the past and loved it.

 

In the Sahara Desert :

If you are headed to the Sahara, chances are you will be going with one of the camping companies. Glamping in the Sahara was always a bucketlist experience for me and I am beyond grateful to have been able to do it with Desert Luxury Camp. This was undoubtedly the highlight of our trip. Read my full blog post here about our stay in the camp.

Desert Luxury Camp

OUR ITINERARY 

Here’s a breakdown of how our packed 7 day 7 nights itinerary looked for reference :

Day 1 – Arrive late in Marrakech , stay in Fairmont Marrakech

Day 2 – All day in Fairmont Marrakech , cos we wanted a relaxing start to our trip.

Day 3 – Road trip from Marrakech to Merzouga stopping along Ait ben Haddou and Draa Valley on the way, stay in Desert luxury camp

Day 4 – All day exploring Sahara Desert and Desert luxury camp.

Day 5 – Road trip from Merzouga to Marrakech stopping along Dades Valley and Todra Gorge on the way, reach Marrakech late night to stay at Angsana Riads collection

Day 6 – Explore the Souks of Marrakech, relax in Angsana Riads

Day 7 – Historic tour of Marrakech, afternoon in BE Marrakech

Day 8 – More tourist spots in Marrakech, leave back to SF that late night!

 

THINGS TO DO IN MARRAKECH 

There are so many things to do in the magical city of Marrakech, here are some of my top suggestions :

1) Explore Jemaa El Fnaa and the souks in the Medina 

Jemaa El Fnaa is the main square of the medina. Its definitely worth a visit but to be completely honest it wasn’t my fave. You will pass through the square several times if you are walking around the medina, so you will have a chance to walk through it atleast once during your trip.

The real heartbeat of Marrakech is deep inside it’s vibrant souks in the Medina and exploring them is a sensory experience like no other! Whether you are looking to shop, window shop, practise your bargaining skills or go on a photo walk – you are guaranteed an unforgettable experience. Being the largest market in Africa it can be overwhelming and chaotic at first, due to the crowds, never ending stalls and the honeycomb maze of alleys within. But within a few minutes both Anush and I felt right at home, especially cos it reminded us so much of being back home in India. I absolutely loved the bustling atmosphere, the thrill of a good bargain and the overload on all five senses – it was certainly the highlight of our time in the city. I highly recommend doing it with a certified guide that way you are guaranteed an amazing (and pleasant experience). We did a private souk tour as part of the Marrakech Guided Experience with Mohamed from Marrakech trip tours and absolutely loved it. Read more about my experience in the souks in this blog post here. 

 

2) Take a walk down history visiting the beautiful palaces and madrasas 

Bahia palace, Ben Youssef Madrasa and El Badi palace are all must sees in your history hopping tour in the city. Unfortunately Ben Youssef was closed for renovation and I was very sick on the day I had planned to visit El Badi :(, so we only did Bahia palace. Bahia palace is one of the best preserved historical sites and is an architectural marvel with stunning tilework and impressive ceilings!

Bahia Palace

 

3) Visit the iconic Koutoubia mosque 

Unfortunately when we went to Koutoubia mosque it was closed, but we still got to marvel at the iconic location of the city from the gardens outside.

 

3) Get lost in the secret gardens of Marrakech 

Le Jardin Secret and Le Jardin Majorelle (the YSL gardens) are a must! Le Jardin Secret was my personal fave – felt like an oasis in the middle of the Medina and its never too crowded unlike Majorelle gardens that can tend to have long lines and big crowds – not my cup of tea especially when are expecting peaceful vibes in a garden.

Le Jardin Secret

 

4) Museums of Marrakech 

If museums are your jam – do not miss the YSL museum and the Berber museum (part of Majorelle garden). You can get a single ticket for the YSL museum, Berber museum and the Majorelle gardens.

 

5) Try a hammam experience 

We did this at Fairmont Marrakech and loved it, but there are tons of places in the city that offer it too. My recommendation would be to do it at one of the nicer hotels that way you can also get to visit the stunning property.

Spa at Fairmont Marrakech

 

6) Eat your way through Marrakech 

Some of my fave places to eat in the city :

  • Nomad Restaurant – delicious Modern Moroccan food and incredible views of the medina from their rooftop!

  • Cafe Des Epices – locate din the heart of the spice souk ; North African alfesco dining and people watching galore!

  • Naranj – excellent food! Mediterranean, Moroccan and Lebanese fusion.

  • Restaurant Angsana Si Said – in our riad, loved the samosas here and Moroccan salads.

THINGS TO DO ENROUTE TO THE SAHARA AND IN THE SAHARA 

Most people visit Marrakech and drive out to the stone desert (Agafay – beautiful in its own way) just about an hour away from the city. But if its the unreal golden sand dunes that you want to see, you must be prepped to make the scenic 10 hour drive out all the way to the town of Merzouga. The two main dune areas here that are popular to camp at are – Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga. We opted to do a 3 day, 2 night tour with Desert Luxury Camp. We did a package tour with them called “taste of Desert 3 days 2 nights tour” but did both nights in the desert instead of splitting our journey one day on the way. If you book with them you will have the option to also book a car and driver with them which I would highly recommend.

Here are our top fave things to do along the way to the Sahara and in the Sahara :

1) Visit the incredible ksar of Ait Ben Haddou 

This is also a very popular day trip to make from Marrakech. This “ksar” or fortified village is an ancient traditional pre Saharan habitat made from earthern clay and is filled with beautiful kasbahs ( merchant houses ). On the way while walking towards the ksar we also came across a quaint Berber village – it was so charming!

 

2) Stop at Dades or Draa Valley 

Depending on which route you take you will stumble upon either of these stunning oasis valleys filled with date palm trees. My personal fave was this lunch spot Chez Jacob at Draa Valley.

 

3) Live out your glamping dreams in a luxury camp 

Scenes from in and around our amazing camp at Desert Luxury Camp.

 

4) Go on a camel ride in the desert + picnic in the middle of nowhere 

An epic and unforgettable experience ! The vastness of the desert and the solitude and silence that comes with it was something that gives me all the feels when I think of it now – something you must experience at least once in your lifetime. It was even more magical and surreal than I had ever imagined with picture perfect dunes and it’s serene vibes.

 

5) Try your hand at sandboarding or go on a thrilling 4×4 desert safari :

Both so much fun! Most camps would organize these activities for you.

 

OTHER TIPS FOR TRAVEL TO MOROCCO 

We felt very safe everywhere we were in Morocco, but here are a few tips we can offer from our experience traveling around :

1 ) Even though it is westernized, it is still a conservative muslim country where women still wear hijabs for the most part, so be respectful of the culture and always carry around a scarf with you if need be. I was fine wearing whatever I wanted for the most part (especially within the hotel or in the Sahara). But while walking around in the Medina of Marrakech I always wrapped a scarf around my shoulders just to play it safe. Maxi dresses, loose fitting tunic dresses, pant sets, jumpsuits etc are your best options to pack.

2) Keep cash in handy, most people especially in the souks will only accept cash.

3) If you are new to busy chaotic cities – Marrakech will be a culture shock in the medina region :). Being from India, I knew exactly what to expect! The streets can be crowded, a little filthy and two wheelers zip past you like its no one’s business. It s just a lifestyle that you have to get used to and experience during your trip there :). Some shopkeepers are known to be super aggressive, they haggle and even get annoyed if you try and snap even an iphone pic ( even a photo without you in it!) Again for this reason, I highly recommend going with a guide if you are touring the souks for a long time.

But if you are just walking past the crowded streets to get from point A to point B, all I can say is be vigilant of your surroundings to avoid pickpocketers, any scammers ( who take advantage of tourists that might look lost), and ignore haggling street vendors or politely tell them la shukraan (no thanks). Keep your bag zipped and ideally in front of your body to avoid pickpocketers. Also one tip I can share is to download google offline maps in advance if you know where you will be headed. We always do this in every destination.

4) TMI but both Anush and I got a terrible case of food poisoning at the end of the trip (my worst nightmare :(). This also happened to 2 other friends in 2 separate occasion during their travels to Morocco! So always always have bottled water and avoid eating in any roadside stalls. We had bottled water and clean food everywhere and still fell sick lol, but its best to avoid anything that you think doesn’t seem clean/safe. Also keep in mind its very hard to come across 24×7 pharmacies. Most pharmacies will shut during the weekend! Something we didn’t know and totally struggled with cos I unfortunately fell sick on a Friday evening ; talk about bad timing ha! So lesson learnt – definitely carry your essential medicines with you.

 

GET INSPIRED TO TRAVEL TO MOROCCO 

Desert dreams are made of these – dunes for days!

Moroccan tea in the Sahara

Around Ait Ben Haddou

Living my best Glamping life

All the stunning tiles everywhere!

Moroccan rug galore ! Note to self : Book a trip back to Morocco when I buy a house :).

And all the jewels and spices too…

Inspo at every corner

Boho vibes at BE Marrakech

Stunning doors of Morroco (above at Bahia palace)

Charming little riads and their picture perfect pools (this one is at BE Marrakech)

 

We cannot recommend this North African gem enough! Its simply stunning and such an enriching experience to add to your travel history. Hope you find this guide helpful. Leaving you with this video highlight from our amazing trip.

 

Thanks for stopping by. xoxo

Jyo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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