Morocco is a country filled with snow capped mountains, barren deserts, maze-like medinas, and brightly colored souks. France, Spain, and Africa have all had an influence on Morocco so you’ll find a wide diversity in the people, the spoken languages, the landscape, and the architecture.
In just a few hours you can go from hiking in the Atlas mountains to riding a camel through the desert to lounging on the beach. In the bustling cities you’ll get lost in the narrow alleyways of the ancient medinas which were designed to confuse potential invaders. You’ll be surrounded by shops selling gorgeous leather bags, colorful rugs, intoxicating spices, and ornate metal lamps.
But with all the spectacular beauty you’ll find in Morocco, you’ll also encounter some unexpected challenges and surprises. So check out my list of must-know travel tips prior to visiting Morocco to prepare for your upcoming visit!
But first, a few fascinating facts about Morocco
- Morocco is one of the world’s largest producers of illicit hashish and you’ll likely be asked if you would like to purchase some more than a few times.
- The mint tea, lovingly referred to as Moroccan or Berber “whiskey” is the national drink of Morocco. It is brewed green tea with a handful of mint leaves and a ton of sugar.
- It is tradition that the higher the host pours the tea, the more important the guest. The king of Morocco has official tea pourers that stand on ladders when pouring his royal beverage.
- The “djellaba” is the national Moroccan costume. It is a hooded, one-piece, unisex, calf-length garment. You’ll see pretty much everyone wearing them in cold weather.
- 2004 was a big year for women’s rights in Morocco. The Moudawana, which is the country’s personal status code, was reformed and now women are able to have custody of their children and must give approval if their husband wants to take a second wife.
- However many women are still required to prove their virginity after the consummation of their marriage by showing some blood on their white underpants. Sometimes the panties are paraded around the wedding celebration on a platter for all of the guests to see. If the blood is not produced, it can mean very serious consequences for the woman including an annulment of her marriage and banishment from her family and community.
- Many older Moroccan Berber women have geometric tattoos on their faces which were used as tribal identification in case one of them was carried off during a raid.
- Many Moroccans Don’t Want you to Take Their Photo
- Non-Muslims Aren’t Allowed in Most Mosques in Morocco
- It can be Incredibly Cold in the Winter
- Trains in Morocco are Reliable and Affordable
- Government-Run Tourist Attractions are a Great Value
- Moroccans Speak less English Than you Might Expect
- Visitors Should tip at Riads (and not Just for Housekeeping)
- Most Moroccans do not Consume Alcohol but Excellent Wine can be Found Here
- Grand Taxis are an Easy way to get Around
- The Government is Investing in Upkeep
- You Can’t Trust Men Attempting to Give you Directions
- Leave Your Drone at Home
13 Tips for Visiting Morocco
Many Moroccans Don’t Want you to Take Their Photo
Of course it is polite to ask prior to snapping a photo of anyone in any country. But we’ve found throughout the course of our travels that many people are happy to have us take their photo. In fact, in countries like Egypt, Myanmar, and Turkey we had locals constantly requesting to take photos of us and with us. They loved our “exotic” blonde hair and blue eyes.
But in Morocco we’ve found (and read) that this is rarely the case. It could be due to many factors but it seems that the most common reason is referred to as “aniconism in Islam”. Aniconism is a proscription against the creation of images of sentient beings (humans and animals). Most Islamic art is dominated by geometric patterns, calligraphy, and occasionally foliage patterns rather than of human or animal figures due to aniconism. So essentially many Moroccans believe that if they are in a picture, it creates an image of a human being and is not permitted in the Quran.
While we’ve visited many Muslim majority countries, Morocco is the only one we’ve encountered to date where locals seem to be offended about photos, even if you aren’t even meaning to take a photo of them. If they even think your lens is pointed in their general direction some will block their face or even get angry.
Of course, many Moroccan’s may be happy to have their picture taken, but it’s best to make sure you obtain permission in advance. Or keep your photography to the stunning architecture rather than the people.
Non-Muslims Aren’t Allowed in Most Mosques in Morocco
While many mosques around the world open at least a portion of their interior to non-Muslims, foreigners will find that in Morocco most are off-limits. One of the few exceptions to the rule is the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca where you can wander around the courtyard or pay to take a tour of the inside.
But for the most part you’ll only be able to peek into Morocco’s many beautiful mosques through the open door from the outside. It should also be noted that some Muslims do not find it respectful to photograph the exterior of mosques so don’t be surprised if you are requested to refrain.
It can be Incredibly Cold in the Winter
When you think of Morocco you probably think of vast deserts, towering mountains, and a very hot, arid climate. But if you draw a line from Northern Morocco to the US, you’ll find that it is at a similar latitude to Washington DC, a region that experiences very cold and often snowy winters. And Morocco is no different.
In Morocco there are very few places for tourists to warm themselves in the winter. Many places in Morocco are designed to take advantage of sunny weather but have virtually no plan for dealing with the cold. Riads have central courtyards and are poorly insulated, restaurants are open air, and taxis don’t have (or maybe just don’t use) heaters. It seems that when temperatures get below freezing, Moroccans simply put on more layers of clothing.
If you choose to visit the Northern region of Morocco between the months of November and March, come prepared with clothes that you can bundle up in. And avoid any accommodations (riads, hotels, and AirBnBs) if former visitors have complained that it’s cold.
Trains in Morocco are Reliable and Affordable
Having visited several countries where the rail transportation is overcrowded, outrageously expensive, or completely unreliable (ask us about the train we took in India that was 15 hours late), we are generally cautiously pessimistic. But we’ve found that trains in Morocco run on-schedule and are not only comfortable but also incredibly reasonably priced.
A first class train ticket from Casablanca to Fes will run you just 195 Dhs/person (~$20 USD). You’ll sit in a large, comfortable seat in a 6-person cabin with plenty of leg room and storage space. If you want to save some dough you can opt for second class but you won’t get an assigned seat and it can get very crowded.
There is often a line for the ticket counter in the train station but they offer automated ticket machines in a variety of languages so you don’t have to wait. Still, it’s best to arrive early to the station and give yourself some extra time to purchase your ticket and find your seat.
Government-Run Tourist Attractions are a Great Value
Museums, madrasas, royal palaces, and gardens are some of the most popular tourist attractions in cities such as Marrakech, Fes, and Casablanca. While the museums can be poorly signed and the exhibits occasionally uninspiring, the actual buildings housing the artwork are spectacular! And the architecture of the palaces and madrasas are some of the most intricate and elaborate in the country. You can view most of these tourist attractions in Morocco for around 10 Dhs/person (~$1 USD).
This is in sharp contrast to countries like Egypt and Jordan where tourists pay up to 10 times what the locals pay to see the attractions. You’ll find yourself visiting museums that you don’t know anything about or aren’t particularly interested in just because they are so inexpensive! And you’ll most definitely find some unlikely hidden gems in the process.
Moroccans Speak less English Than you Might Expect
There are a number of languages spoken in Morocco but the two official languages are Modern Standard Arabic and Amazigh (Berber). The second language for most Moroccans is French. English is not used as widely so if you don’t speak French, you’ll likely be challenged at times to communicate.
The bigger communication issue for us was the broad expectation by Moroccans that foreigners will understand French. For us that meant that a lot of people would begin speaking to us rapidly in French as we stared at them dumbly. And they seemed to think we were being rude by not responding.
But on the bright side, written French and English use the same characters. So while you may not be able to properly pronounce your hotel or riad name, you can show it to your taxi driver on your phone and they can decipher where you’re trying to go. And, of course, nonverbal queues go a long way.
The Google translator app can help a lot as well.
Visitors Should tip at Riads (and not Just for Housekeeping)
Generally at hotels you would be expected to tip the bellboy, the housekeeper, and any restaurant waitstaff if you dine-in. Riads are similar except that generally it’s just one person that is taking care of everything for you. And they are usually willing to help with anything and everything – breakfast, laundry, directions, recommendations, tour reservations – you name it.
One tip for your main contact is standard and they will split it up among the entire staff. Depending on the amount you rely on their assistance, plan on tipping around 30-60 Dhs/day.
Most Moroccans do not Consume Alcohol but Excellent Wine can be Found Here
If you’re anything like me, you probably believe that a glass of succulent red wine enhances every meal, even if that meal is just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But 93% of the population in Morocco is considered to be religious with the primary religion being Islam. And the consumption of any intoxicants is generally forbidden in the Quran.
A dated law forbids the sale of alcohol in any business that has a line of sight to a mosque (which is pretty much everywhere). Approximately 91% of Moroccan men and 97% of Moroccan women do not drink alcohol and those who do certainly do not do it in public. Although they do find it hilarious to refer to their mint tea as “Moroccan whiskey”.
Which is a bit of a shame for foreigners who do enjoy the occasional adult beverage as Morocco has some of the best conditions for producing wines in North Africa. Meknes is the area that is most known in Morocco for wine production and you can visit a few wineries while visiting; Domaine de la Zouina and Château Roslane are both lovely options.
You’ll find a few restaurants and/or hotels in the old city that serve alcohol, but not many. It is more common in the new city. And a few large grocery stores have liquor sections although you may feel a bit ashamed to be seen walking into it.
Grand Taxis are an Easy way to get Around
Most cities in Morocco have “petit taxis” which only drive around the city, and “grand taxis” that cram more people in and go further distances. If you’ve done a bit of traveling in the past you’ve probably taken your fair share of buses and minibuses to travel longer distances. Buses leave on a set schedule and minibuses generally don’t leave until they are full (which can take upwards of an hour at times).
Grand taxis are really quite “grand” in that they fit fewer people than either a bus or a minibus so you generally don’t need to wait for longer than a few minutes before setting off. And you can get to many cities and small towns in grand taxis without the hassle of buying bus tickets or adhering to a set schedule. You’ll also rarely pay more than 60 Dhs (~$6 USD) per person for a ride.
When making your plans to travel around Morocco, be sure to check out grand taxis as a cheap and easy option!
The Government is Investing in Upkeep
Which is great! But it also means that you’ll encounter a good amount of construction during your visit. In Marrakech one of the most popular tourist attractions, the Ben Youssef Medersa, is currently closed for repair and will not reopen until October of 2020. The beautiful Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail in Meknes will similarly be closed for 2 years for upkeep.
Of course there are still many amazing sites that you can visit during your trip so don’t be discouraged. But also don’t be surprised if you are unable to see a few top sites on your list due to repair. And check in advance, especially if the attraction is far away and/or difficult to get to.
You Can’t Trust Men Attempting to Give you Directions
Consider how people act in large, bustling cities. They mind their own business and generally don’t go out of their way to try to help strangers. Imagine if someone in New York City just came up to you and asked what you were looking for and then offered to walk you there. You’d probably think “um, why are you being so nice? What do you want?” And it would probably never happen unless they were planning to walk you to a dark alley and rob you. I’m exaggerating a bit but, you get the point.
So when you’re walking through the medinas of Marrakech or Casablanca or Fes and a man approaches you to ask what you are looking for or offers information like “don’t go that way, it’s closed” or “that museum is closed today”, you should be wary of their motivation. While they are probably not trying to rob you, they are likely either going to lead you the long way to your destination or take you somewhere else entirely and expect a tip.
In fact, you should avoid asking for directions from anyone in the old city unless they are a shop owner (and preferably not a souvenir shop owner) or a woman.
Moroccan law requires that any driver or passenger of a private car wear a seatbelt, although they are not required in Grand Taxis. If you hire a driver or rent a car during your visit, be sure to buckle up or face a fine on-the-spot if you get caught.
Leave Your Drone at Home
Morocco enforces a strict “no drones allowed” policy so if you bring one you’ll be forced to leave it at the airport until you depart. If you plan on flying into one airport and out of another, this could cause some issues. Better to just leave it safely at home.
And most importantly, take everything with a grain of salt. Some people won’t treat you very kindly, transportation will be difficult at times, you’ll be stone-cold-sober for much of your trip, but you’ll get to experience a beautiful culture, one you won’t soon forget!