A Family Trip to Morocco in 12 Days
A family trip to Morocco has been on my wish list for well over a decade. When the schedules of my husband and I, plus our three 20-something kids fell into a rare moment of alignment, the time was finally right. We left in late May for a 12-day adventure. Here you’ll find details of our itinerary and what we did along the way. Keep in mind that I’m a first-time traveler to Morocco and by no means an expert. This is simply an accounting of our family’s experience (spoiler alert: we loved it). P.S. I will write a follow-up post to cover all things food.
How to Get to Morocco from the US
My first question when planning the trip was, “how do we get there?” Morocco is far, particularly coming from California, where I live. We happened to be on the east coast just before the trip, which cut our travel time and meant a five hour time difference instead of eight hour. We flew on Air Maroc from New York direct to Casablanca, a seven-hour flight. From there, we hopped a plane to Marrakech, which is under an hour. Currently there are no direct flights to Marrakech and Air Maroc appears to be the only non-stop option to Casablanca. We were able to use credit card points to secure the tickets, which made a significant dent in the cost of the trip.
Where to Travel in Morocco
Morocco has a lot to offer and it was tricky honing in on what was doable (and sane) in 12 days. After chatting with folks who’d spent time there, including one Moroccan friend, I settled on a combination of city time, adventure in the mountains and desert, and R&R at the beach. While both Rabat and Fez are brimming with interesting history and Chefchaouen looks dazzling with its blue and white architecture, we decided to skip those spots this time around and landed on the itinerary below:
A 12-Day (11 Night) Moroccan Itinerary
Marrakech – 3 nights
High Atlas Mountains/Toubkal – 2 nights
Erg Chigaga Desert Experience – 4 nights (which includes travel to and from the desert)
Essaouira – 2 nights
We spent three nights in Marrakech (and could have used an extra half day). It’s a bustling and vibrant city that’s much smaller than Casablanca, Fez, and Rabat. We stayed at Ryad Dyor Hotel, deep in the winding maze of cobbled streets and alleys of the Medina (the old town), many of which are accessible only by foot (and unruly motorbikes). The city is teeming with riad hotels like ours (houses built around a central courtyard that have been converted to hotels). We found Ryad Dyor charming, tastefully decorated, relatively budget-friendly, with terrific rooftop breakfasts and very helpful staff (including Abdul, who kindly walked us from a central meeting point after dinner each night). Marrakech recommendations:
- Visit a hammam – This is Morocco’s version of a sauna, an experience that is typically accompanied by a vigorous scrub and massage. You’ll find hammams all over Morocco, from inexpensive public baths to luxurious options at five star hotels. We went to the very pretty Les Bains de Marrakech for a one-hour hammam (about $50). We did this the afternoon we arrived and found it a terrific way to reboot after our long stretch of travel.
- Hire a guide – Hiring a licensed guide in Marrakech was money well spent. Our guide, Abdelleh Amghar spoke perfect English and was immensely knowledgeable and helpful in giving us a sense of place and culture that we wouldn’t get otherwise. He shared insight on historical sites, helped us find our way in the chaos of the Medina, and brought us to visit artisans in the souk (Morocco’s shopping bazaar).
- Take a cooking class – The whole family enjoyed a group class at Najlae’s Workshop that included a visit to the local food market, followed by a cooking class and lunch. Najlae, who was delightful, hosts the class in her home, where we tackled four different tagines, salads, and a lesson in the art of making tea.
- Have drinks at a fancy hotel – There are some seriously opulent hotels in Marrakech, some of which are former palaces. While too pricey for our budget, we stopped in for a drink and a peek. We had a sunset visit to La Mamounia (which may look familiar if you watched the docudrama Inventing Anna) and drinks at lovely El Fenn.
- Wander – Honestly, so much of what we enjoyed about this city was wandering the narrow streets, stopping by vendors for a handful of apricots or bag of walnuts, hearing the call to prayer ring out from the mosques, taking a rest for yet more mint tea, marveling at all the colors, poking in the souk for glassware, leather slippers, and textiles, and spying the city’s ubiquitous kitties
- Things we didn’t get to do – We opted to visit the YSL Museum and Jardin Marjorelle, which is where famed designer Yves Saint Laurent once lived. While the gardens were glorious, we felt we could have skipped the museum and wished we had made time for the Maison de Photographie and/or Del Barcha Museum (and coffee shop).
High Atlas Mountains
Our next stop was Imlil, a mountain town about 90 minutes from Marrakech. We loaded our luggage onto donkeys for the 15 minute uphill trek to Kasbah du Toubkal, which felt more like a base camp or guest house than hotel. The place is a stopping off point for folks hiking Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak. We opted to do day hikes and found our experience in the mountains fairly enchanting.
The hotel was rustic and charming, with simple rooms, a cozy public space, its own DIY hammam and cold plunge, soul-satisfying Moroccan food in keeping with the mountain environment, with an earnestly respectful approach to living in harmony with the Amazigh people who populate the mountains. A highlight was a day of hiking through the rocky landscape, learning about Amazigh customs, and having a tagine lunch in the home of a local family in a small village. While on our hike, we came upon three boys of about age ten out for a day off of school. They had stopped to make themselves lunch, building a fire to brew mint tea and preparing a from-scratch tagine that included peeling potatoes and pulling tiny packets of spices from their backpacks. Wow!
We debated whether or not to commit to a desert visit. The Sahara is far and not easy to get to. Plus, we worried that by late May, it would be too hot. But friends had raved about their experience visiting Erg Chigaga at Desert Camp Morocco, so we decided to go for it. We settled on a four day trip, which involved long stretches of driving to and from the desert with one night at the Hara Oasis Hotel at the front end and the lovely Palais Oumensour in Taroudant at the tail end. Along the way we stopped to visit crumbling Kasbahs, vista points, Morocco’s version of 7-11 for good espresso and mint tea, and roadside vendors to buy melons and apricots for car snacks. We also stopped at the home of our driver, Mohammed, where we shared a lunch with his family of couscous, vegetables, and lamb prepare over an open fire by Mamma, his gracious mother. Desert Highlights:
The place – The camp was just lovely. It featured comfortable communal spaces, a big outdoor fire pit, dining under the stars, cozy bedrooms with flush toilets, games, and remarkably tasty food. We didn’t want to leave.
The activities – We climbed atop the dunes for sunset cocktail hour and sand surfing, rode camels at sunrise, and visited the home of a nomad family to share tea and learn about their remarkable way of life. The midst of the day was quite hot, so we took cover to read, play games, and nap in shaded hammocks.
The people – Bashir, who manages the camp, and his crew were wonderful. They made us feel at home. On the eve of my daughter Virginia’s birthday, they managed to scare up a cake and present it while singing what sounded like Happy Birthday in their mother tongue. When we expressed an interest in sleeping under the stars (which were mind-blowing, by the way), they set up our beds outdoors, complete with fluffy pillows and bedding.
My husband is a passionate surfer and we are collectively superfans of the sea, so I figured closing the trip at the beach made sense. We spent two days in Essaioura, which is a walled city with a bustling souk (and less aggressive vendors than in Marrakech), plenty of cafes and restaurants, and a mashup of Moroccans and expats, along with tourists. Essaouria has a wide horseshoe shaped shoreline that is more city beach than white sand wonder. That said, it was great for a cool dip and is famous for kite surfing (the city can get quite windy). Highlights:
Our hotel – We stayed in Villa Maroc, a small hotel tucked in the walled city. The Villa is a maze of stairways, well-appointed rooms, cozy nooks with fireplaces, and a rooftop deck where we had breakfast each morning. The hotel has a sister property called Le Jardin. We took a van there on our final day to lounge at the pool and enjoy an abundant and very delicious lunch, all for about $30 a person. One warning, some of the rooms can be noisy thanks to Essaouria’s night life, so either ask for a quiet room or prepare to wear earplugs.
Fish shacks – There are a dozen or so small fish shacks near the port in front of the walled city. You pop in at lunch time to choose among the fresh seafood they’ve brought in that day, which they cook on the spot and serve with salad and french fries on cheap tables with piles of napkins for the mess you’re bound to make We shared shrimp, calamari, and two kinds of whole grilled fish all for about $10 a person.
Rooftop drinks – We stopped into the colorfully-tiled Salut Maroc hotel for a sunset drink on their roof. It’s has a spectacular view and on a Saturday night featured a terrific band and one very kind and gentle server. It was an excellent close to the trip.
Note: While I have no regrets about visiting Essaouria (it has a fun vibe), it’s a little gritty and two days was plenty of time there. Other beach spots to consider: the sleepier surf town of Taghazout that’s further south (we stopped into this cool hotel with Boho vibes) and Oulalidia further north (this lux spot seems worth a look).
What to Wear in Morocco
Morocco is a Muslim country and modest dress is the order of the day. In general, Moroccan men and women are fairly covered. You don’t really see men wearing shorts, for example, and most women wear head scarves. And while there are no hard and fast rules on dress for tourists, given the intense sun and respect for the culture, covering more than we do at home made sense. My daughters would wrap a scarf around their shoulders walking through the streets, but felt comfortable in a sundress within the confines of a hotel or restaurant.
A few essentials:
- A good hat and sunglasses – I bought this ombre hat from Target that took a beating and survived pretty well.
- Lightweight pants – These linen ones from JCrew were perfect for both mountains and desert (they run a little big).
- Button down shirts – I swiped a white button down from my husband’s closet and brought a blue Favorite Daughter one as well. The shirts doubled as swim cover-ups and to wear over sundresses (tied at the waist) for sun protection and modesty sake.
- Longer dresses and skirts – My girls skipped their usual summer wardrobe of shorts and short dresses and I pulled out my tea length and maxi dresses for the trip.
- Comfortable shoes – We walked a lot, including in Marrakech, so comfy sandals were key. I also brought a pair of nicer sandals with a low chunky heel for when I wanted to dress things up. For the mountains, sturdy sneakers sufficed, though more rigorous hiking may have required better gear.
- A small backpack and/or fanny pack (I like mine from Clare V; my daughter has one from Lululemon that’s a bit more budget friendly). I appreciated the ease of the fanny pack when making purchases in the souk and a backpack was useful throughout the trip.
- A lightweight scarf – I found it handy to have a scarf, as did my daughters. We didn’t feel compelled to cover our heads, but did use them for additional coverage when wearing a tank top or sundress. They were also quite useful in the desert to keep the sand out of our hair and faces. You can bring one or pick up an inexpensive one at the souk when you arrive.
- Something warm — Even in the heat of late spring, it cools down at night, particularly in the mountains. A sweater or fleece was essential. You’ll need to layer up more during colder months.
What to Buy in Morocco
I am not typically a big vacation shopper, but Morocco was hard to resist and the prices were kind of incredible (even for someone who wasn’t particularly interested in haggling). I broke my standard rule of traveling with a single carry-on and brought a larger suitcase, so I could bring things home. What I bought:
- Argon oil, prized for hair and skin
- A set of the everyday glasses used throughout Morocco for juice and tea
- Embroidered pillow covers
- Black soap (what’s used in the hammams)
- A few pieces of Tamagroute Pottery (be aware, it’s delicate)
- Ras al hanout, Morocco’s inimitable spice blend (I can get it at home, but couldn’t resist)
- Two pair of leather Moroccan slippers
- Hand-painted egg cups
- And yes, a rug, which I had shipped
A few surprises
Surprises are inevitable with travel to any foreign country. Here are a handful from Morocco.
- If hair conditioner is an essential for you, bring it from home. None of the hotels we stayed in stocked it.
- Same goes for tampons. We found it challenging to find pads. Tampons were even more rare.
- Public displays of affection are not common, so we kept it clean 🙂
- Stick to bottled water (even for brushing your teeth) and skip the ice unless you are in a place that is used to accommodating tourists and can confirm it’s made with purified water.
- There are cats everywhere in Morocco. Though we are more “dog people”, seeing tiny kittens on every street corner was both endearing, if not a little heartbreaking.
- Consider stashing a roll of toilet paper in your bag when traveling to more remote places.
One last tip: It can be overwhelming to put together a Moroccan itinerary, so a travel agent may be worthwhile. Since we were staying at the desert camp, I leaned on owner Nick Garsten for support in putting our trip together. I’ve since learned that in addition to overseeing the camp, he operates as a travel agent. I would recommend him if you don’t want to go it alone. You can reach him by emailing [email protected]