It's been over four years since I visited Chefchaouen, Morocco, or "Chaouen," as locals call it, yet the experience remains an evocative memory that surely won't fade anytime soon. When I think about the time I spent in Morocco, a smile subconsciously appears on my face, and I find myself feeling incredibly nostalgic for a place that made me fall head over heels in only a short 72-hour period.
I visited Morocco while I was studying abroad in Spain, and without knowing what to expect from this North African nation, I was incredibly taken aback by its beauty, culture, history, and people -- especially in Chefchaouen.
While Marrakesh, Fes, Casablanca, and Tangier are undeniably Morocco's most popular tourist locales, Chefchaouen is an off-the-beaten-path destination offering a more authentic experience that is hard to come by when traveling in the country's major cities. If you really want to get a feel for what Moroccan culture is like with less commotion and more tranquility than other cities, book a trip to this colourful city now.
Here are 8 reasons that Chefchaouen, Morocco should be at the top of your bucket list.
The history behind the name "Chefchaouen" is interesting enough, with the root word "chef" deriving from the Arabic word "to look," and "chaouen" meaning "peaks." These words describe the city's location between the protective "peaks" of the Rif Mountains. Thus, a direct translation of the word Chefchaouen means "look at the peaks."
Chefchaouen's history began shortly after the Portuguese conquest of Morocco in 1471 A.D., directly following the conquest of Ceuta, a Spanish autonomous city on the north coast of Africa.
The town then expanded with the arrival of Muslim and Jewish refugees from Granada in 1494; they built much of the town's architecture that still remains today.
Chaouen's most prevalent feature is undeniably its blue-washed streets, walls, and buildings, a fact that makes this charming Moroccan town a popular destination for experienced travelers looking to go off the grid.
There are many different theories about the history behind Chaouen's distinct blue hues. When I visited, locals told me that, though the hues were apparent in the 15th century, they became more vibrant and visible in the 1930s in order to welcome Jewish communities who were fleeing the Nazis during WWII.
According to Business Insider, the city got its distinctive color in 1492 when it received an influx of Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition, who brought a tradition of painting buildings blue.
Regardless of the reason, Chefchaouen's blue hues are what gives it character and beauty like no other city in the world.
Though Chefchaouen has a small population of fewer than 43,000 inhabitants, the city center, known as a medina in North African towns, is bustling with locals and tourists shopping for quality goods, feasting on delicious Moroccan cuisine, and simply strolling through and gazing upon the city's mesmerizing blue-washed buildings and streets.
Chefchaouen boasts one of the funkiest and most laid back medinas in all of Morocco, giving visitors a nice break from the chaos found in larger Moroccan cities. If you want to stay in the heart of the medina while traveling through Chefchaouen, book a room at Bab El Ain, a popular historical landmark and hotel.
Insider Tip: When you exit the medina and walk uphill past Hotel Atlas (one of the city's largest buildings that can't be missed), there's an obvious trail that takes you up a hill to a lookout point with stunning views of the Rif Mountains.
One of the things I remember most about Chefchaouen is how welcoming its people were. Though there were instances where I was reminded that this was, in fact, a conservative Muslim nation, the people in Chefchaouen always made us outsiders feel welcome and at home, and I couldn't believe how often I was greeted with a smile, friendly handshake, or kisses on the cheek (from other same-sex locals).
While I was in Chefchaouen, I was working on a school project with young Moroccan locals and had the pleasure of being housed by a local family. I couldn't keep track of how many times they asked if I was comfortable, or how often they did everything in their power to make me feel at home.
I remember listening to one of my classmates tell the Chefchaouen locals we were working with that the only way our trip could have improved is if we were able to stay longer, and it was clear that everyone agreed. The warmth and hospitality we were given by the people here made our experience an unforgettable one.
Coinciding with Chefchaouen's funky and vibrant medina, the markets located within are just as colorful and unique as the rest of the town.
Popular souvenirs, trinkets, and handicrafts found throughout the medina's markets include hand-knitted hats, colorful mirrors, paintings, "Baja Jerga" hoodies, lanterns, Argan oil products, artisanal soaps, spices, hand-carved Moroccan furniture, and wool carpets -- just to name a few.
Most travelers can likely agree that diving into a given country's local cuisine is one of the most exciting parts about travel as a whole, and let me tell you, Chefchaouen did not disappoint when it came to mouthwatering, authentic eats.
There are some foods I first tried in Morocco over four years ago that I still make at home today, such as orange slices topped with cinnamon, a simple yet delicious and common Moroccan dessert.
The best part about Moroccan cuisine, though, is the way in which you eat it. When eating a typical Moroccan meal, the food will be served in large bowls and every person at the table will be handed a spoon. You are then expected to simply dig in and eat as much as you want, putting a whole new twist to the idea of family-style eating!
Situated at the foot of the Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen is ensconced in endless scenic beauty, with lush forests, mountaintop views, and rippling rivers.
Chefchaouen's fresh, crisp air and natural beauty offer some great hiking opportunities for outdoorsy types, with a good mix of casual and challenging treks. Valleys, gorges, picturesque peaks, arid landscapes, and mountain streams abound in Chefchaouen and its surrounding scenic areas.
For a short hike out of the city center, Targa sits atop a hill just outside of the medina, featuring a castle and mosque dating back to the 1200s.
Camel rides are a popular activity found throughout most of Morocco, a unique experience only to be had while visiting North Africa.
If you want to visit Chefchaouen on a quick day trip, Camel Trek Merzouga offers camel rides from Fes to Chefchaouen with ample photography opportunities and time to stroll through the Blue City while exploring the medina and its vibrant markets.
We hope this article convinced you to take a little trip to Chefchaouen, the sapphire of Morocco!