How do you track down a country’s most interesting and memorable places?
A great way to start is with the World Heritage sites listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). As we tour in our RV, we make a point to visit these locations wherever feasible. We know we will experience something significant not only to the country we’re in but often to the development of modern civilization.
By comparison with many European countries, Morocco has relatively few UNESCO sites -- just nine, compared with 47 in Italy, for example. However, they offer something very different from those in most other countries -- a unique mixture of Arab, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and even Roman influences and cultures.
Distributed from the north to the south of the country, you may not be able to fit all of these into your itinerary. Adding some, however, will enrich your experience and memories of the wonderful country of Morocco. UNESCO has listed a number of medinas in Morocco, so prioritizing which ones to see is recommended to allow time for everything else that Morocco has to offer.
1. Archeological Site Of Volubilis
Here, we were surprised to find such extensive Roman ruins so far from Rome and were amazed at how far the Roman empire extended.
Although extensively damaged by the massive Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, restoration work has involved the partial reconstruction of many of the site’s structures. Of particular note is the preservation of the magnificent floor mosaics. We enjoyed the relative freedom to wander around the ruins for several hours. However, ideally I suggest you arrive early in the morning to avoid the masses of tourists. Allow four hours minimum for your visit. A reasonable level of walking is required throughout the vast site -- which, thankfully, is mainly flat.
You can take a tour to Volubilis from nearby Meknes or Fez. The neighboring historic hilltop town of Moulay Idriss is on the list of potential future UNESCO sites and is also well worth visiting.
2. Historic City Of Meknes
Originally founded in the 11th century, the current city dates back to 1601 A.D. and incorporates 25 mosques, 10 hammams (public baths), as well as numerous palaces, markets, and other historic buildings. The grandeur of the structures and monuments are due to Meknes being one of Morocco’s four imperial cities. The high walls around the city include nine monumental gates, which were some of the most impressive we found in Morocco.
Aside from the gorgeous architecture, we loved wandering the tiny alleys of the medina, sampling the street food, and checking out the local street art.
3. Ksar Of Ait-Ben-Haddou
The term ksar refers to a North African fortified village. Ait-Ben-Haddou is situated on what was once one of the most important Saharan trade routes for caravans of over 1,000 camels crossing the inhospitable desert. Ksars were built from rammed earth and straw, so they usually eroded over a few decades. However, Ait-Ben-Haddou, through fortunate circumstances, has been restored using authentic materials and architecture to give you a real sense of how such a settlement looked and how its inhabitants lived.
We spent half a day wandering the narrow passages leading to the summit of the hill. This site requires a moderate level of fitness as it’s steep in places. At one stage, we found ourselves in the house of one of the last residents left living in the town. Said welcomed us warmly and kindly gave us a tour of his house.
Pro Tip: these attractions invariably have unofficial tour guides who walk beside you and start telling you about the site. Before you know it, you are receiving a tour and then are expected to pay the guide. Either say politely that you don’t want a guide or negotiate the price at the start of the tour to avoid risking a huge overcharge at the end.
4. Medina Of Marrakech
The term medina is used for the historical Arab quarter of cities in North Africa, which usually involve a labyrinth of narrow alleys, shops, and houses surrounded by protective walls. In Marrakech, the medina is huge, covering some 1,700 acres.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Marrakech -- also known as the Red City -- is the capital of Morocco given its bustling vibe, both day and night, but the official capital of Morocco is Rabat, situated over 200 miles northwest on Morocco’s coastline.
Marrakech, the fourth largest city in Morocco, was founded in the 11th century, somewhere around 1062 A.D.
In 1985, Marrakech was awarded the prestigious honor of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its impressive architecture, ramparts, souks, hammams, and the unique main square, Jemaa El-Fnaa. Every day in the late afternoon, Jemaa El-Fnaa transforms from a market square filled with street hawkers, fortune tellers, snake charmers, and other interesting people into dozens of pop-up restaurants that run late into the night. The transformation is best viewed from one of the cafe balconies overlooking the square.
Pro Tips: If taking photos, particularly of snake charmers or other street performers, ask first and be prepared to pay for the privilege. This is how they make a living, and they can become irate if you try to snap a free photo. Also, always check your change after any purchases and don’t be shy about pointing out accounting errors.
5. Medina Of Fes
Not to be outshone by Marrakech, the medina of Fes, also spelled Fez, was a highlight of our trip to Morocco. Awarded UNESCO status in 1981, the medina was founded in the 9th century, making it older than Marrakech, and it preserves many traces of the original city.
We opted to hire a guide to help us navigate our way around this labyrinth. Travelers, more often than not, end up horribly lost in the 9,000 to 9,500 alleyways, some so narrow you virtually have to walk sideways. Fez displays a wealth of historic Islamic buildings and monuments that just seem to pop up in front of you as you wander wide-eyed trying to absorb as much as you can. Without a guide, you have little hope of understanding what you are seeing.
One of Fes’s claims to fame is that, within its walls, you will find the world’s oldest university (according to Guinness World Records and UNESCO), dating back to 859 A.D. You may find different spellings for this relic in your guidebooks: al-Qarawiyyin or Al-Karaouine.
Fes is known as the cultural and spiritual center of Morocco but lost its capital status to Rabat in 1912. Within the 55 miles of car-free alleys, this city has plenty to offer -- from historic buildings to shops, schools, mosques, antiques, restaurants, and traditional craftsmen belting out their wares from their workshops.
Medinas are not just about their historical and cultural significance, they are also great shopping destinations. Haggling for a better price is recommended as you pick up authentic Persian carpets, scarves, gorgeous hand-painted crockery, or even a real djellaba -- the traditional Moroccan loose-fitting outer robe.
6. The Portuguese City Of Mazagan (El Jadida)
In the 15th century, the Portuguese constructed a fortified port city on Morocco’s southern Atlantic coast. The original shape and massive construction of the fortress walls have been well preserved and provide unique insight into how military designers had begun to take the destructive power of artillery into account.
While visiting here, check out the Portuguese Cistern and the Old City as they’re worthy of a look.
7. Medina Of Essaouira
Just 170 miles south of Mazagan and 120 miles west of Marrakech lies the seaside town of Essaouira (formerly called Mogador).
Why would you want to visit Essaouira? Besides its excellent beaches, great windsurfing, and a nice climate, the fortified town has been recognized by UNESCO as an outstanding example of the influence of European design on the military architecture of Northern Africa in the 18th century.
Strong influences from the French, Portuguese, and Sephardic Jews add interest to the buildings. As with any major Moroccan medina, the narrow alleys, historic buildings, and interesting shops encourage you to just wander and enjoy the experience.
Pro Tip: Staying in a riad in the middle of a Moroccan medina is a recommended cultural experience. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house built around a central courtyard garden, and many have been converted to intimate owner-run hotels.
8. The Argan Trees Of Morocco, A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
UNESCO also lists areas of special biological significance to the planet, and about 6 million acres of southwest Morocco are identified as such a reserve. Morocco’s argan trees will only grow in this region, and over 1,000 other plants and animals depend on them for survival. Argan oil -- the most expensive edible and cosmetic oil on earth -- harvested by the local Berbers, provides vital income to the region.
We loved driving through this region, appreciating the magnificent scenery, and occasionally witnessing goats climbing into the argan trees to feast on the rich nuts.
We have yet to visit the last two Moroccan UNESCO sites: the Medina of Tetouanand the city of Rabat, so we still have new places to tick off the next time we visit our favorite country.