Before travelling to Morocco, I was drawn to the amazing photos I saw online. The packed and traditional markets. The beautiful blue hues and doorways of Chefchaouen. The rolling burnt orange sand dunes of the desert. The spectacular backdrop of the Atlas Mountains. There isn’t a doubt that there is so many things to see and do in the country!
It’s easy to be taken in by the charm and allure of Morocco. You can spend one day shopping in the souks for carpets and lamps. Or another day riding a camel and sleeping under the stars in the desert. Then there’s all the sites steeped in history and culture.
Are you ready to dive into the Moroccan experience? Here are 20 things you need to know before travelling to Morocco.
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There are numerous stories about how tourists get lost in the souks and medinas as maps often don’t cover all the small lanes and there are no clear street signs. They then get approached by a group of kids or teenagers who will offer to bring them to their destination or tell them that the lane or riad that they want to go to is closed. Tourists who choose to go with them are often led to riads where there are “available” rooms or they are led astray before the kids and teenagers demand money to bring them to the right destination.
Don’t worry, all you need to do is be aware of your surroundings. As impolite as it is, ignore the calls from the children and be firm in telling them “no”. If you need to look at directions on your map or mobile phone. Stand with your back against the wall so no one can sneak up behind you.
Lastly, if you can’t make heads or tails of where you’re going, ask directions from shopkeepers. They have to man their shop and won’t be able to lead you off on the wrong path.
When there are big crowds, you always have to be a bit wary of your personal belongings. Personally, I didn’t lose anything or get anything stolen. However, just be cautious when you’re out and about, especially when squeezing your way through the souks, at tourist hot spots and market squares such as Jemaa El-Fnaa.
There tends to be massive groups of people congregated around such areas and it’s difficult to keep your bearings. Keep your wits about you, hold your belongings close (particularly any cameras or loose items you have!) and watch the people around you. If anything does happen, approach the tourist police who are around to help in situations like this.
3. How to Dress?
As a conservative Muslim country, you will see everyone (both men and women) dressed in modest wear and sometimes in traditional Moroccan clothes. While you may see some tourists in bigger cities (such as Marrakech) wearing sleeveless tops and short dresses, it is still not a common sight. You will get stares from locals if you dressed that way.
As a visitor to their country, respect the customs and dress modestly when you’re out. For women, keep your hems at least knee-length, always have your shoulders covered and avoid showing off excessive cleavage. For men, wear bottoms that are knee-length and sleeved tops are the best way to go.
4. Closed Currency in Morocco
The Moroccan dirham is a closed currency. That means that you won’t be able to change your money into dirhams until you arrive in Morocco. Additionally, you are not allowed to bring more than 1000 of dirhams out of the country.
My advice would be to plan ahead the amount of money you will need for your trip and prepare the necessary cash amount. Once you reach Morocco, head to the money changer at the airport to change your cash into dirhams. Keep the transaction receipt and envelope provided so that you can change any spare dirhams back! Try to use up your spare coins as the tellers may not accept them.
If you really need additional cash, there are ATMs typically located in the main squares of the bigger cities. Ensure that your banks have activated your cards for overseas withdrawals and that you are aware of any charges that may be incurred when you make withdrawals overseas.
5. Experience a Traditional Riad Stay
Hotels and resorts are great but when in Morocco, riads are the best places to stay in. Even if you only do it for 1 night, you should definitely experience it for yourself. Riads are traditional Moroccan houses that has a central courtyard garden with a fountain. Typically, there will be a few families that live in one riad.
Nowadays, many riad owners have converted these beautiful houses into unique hotel alternatives. You might come across another type of accommodation which are dars. Dars are also houses but with a big garden surrounding the property. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably but you have my word that some of the best places to stay in would be the unassuming riad.
6. When to Go?
Summer in Morocco means intense and stifling heat. That might be fine if you could wear sleeveless and clothes with as little cloth as possible. However, with the more modest dressing favoured by Moroccans (and one you should respect as a visitor to their country), the heat will get to you.
I visited Morocco in Spring and found the weather to be comfortable. There were days when the weather was slightly cooler and that meant putting on a jacket and scarf, and there were days when a loose flowing summer dress was just the right thing to wear in the heat. Fair warning, Morocco is mostly a desert country and that means temperatures will dip once the sun sets. Be prepared with a jacket or shawl for those chilly nights!
7. Navigating the Souks
No matter how good your sense of direction is, the likelihood of you getting confused when navigating the souks is quite high. “Wait, did we come from there? I thought we took a right turn?” are questions that will spring to your mind as you gingerly walk through the souks.
Don’t worry, it’s a typical experience and one that you should try! To find your way back, try using Google Maps or maps.me or ask for directions from shopkeepers. Shopkeepers are unlikely to lead you astray as they have to be with their store and can’t lead you off. Besides, the whole thing could be an adventure and you might end up discovering the spice area or a section for unique clothes.
8. Desert Adventures
You’ve probably seen the postcards and photos of the Sahara. Fine burnt orange sand, camels in the distance and a blazing sun overhead. Picturesque isn’t it? Before you get too excited, the journey to the desert takes a minimum of 8 hours by car. Be ready with a bunch of movies on your iPad or laptop to pass the time away as you make your way into the desert. Don’t worry, most trips would involve stopping at villages along the way for you to have a look around, take a couple of photos and stretch your legs.
9. Love It or Hate It
The experience in Morocco can be overwhelming at times. The various sounds coming from the medinas, the powerful scents that you come across and the throngs of people, both locals and tourists. Some people find it all too much and don’t enjoy themselves, particularly if they have been badgered by shopkeepers the entire day.
As with any experience, just take it all in and breathe. Immerse yourself in the moment and try to find the beauty in the things that you see, smell and hear. I found that staying in a riad or hotel that is further away from the main parts of the medina and souks helps. You’ll have a quiet space to return to at the end of a bustling day.
10. Multilingual Morocco
You might be surprised to hear French being spoken, alongside Arabic when you’re in Morocco. Or you could be hearing Spanish or Berber in their conversations! The official languages are Arabic and Berber but French is widely used in the country. It’s common to find people speaking two of these three languages.
Being able to speak a bit of French will go a long way. You’ll get by with English in the touristy areas but we found it insufficient even in some places in Marrakech. Some riad and restaurant staff would speak French to us and we would have to use an app to translate whatever we wanted to say. So pick up some French and Arabic phrases and have a phrase book or app handy!
11. Holy Days
Thinking of heading out and making a full day visiting the souks on a Friday? Before you get excited to make your purchases, just note that Friday is considered a Holy Day in Morocco as people head to the mosques for Friday prayers. This means that some of the shops will only be open for half a day. If they remain open the whole day, don’t be surprised if a large number of shops close for a few hours in the afternoon as the shopkeepers go for their prayers.
12. Cash is King
Another factor that you will need to consider is that cash is king in Morocco. We found it difficult to find places that accepted credit card. There were days when the café or restaurant we went to accepted credit cards but their terminals were down! We were also sometimes charged 2% fees for payment by credit card.
Before your trip, call your bank to make sure that your credit/debit cards will work in Morocco and that your transactions will be put through. Some banks bar their customers from making any transactions in countries that they think pose a security and fraud risk.
13. Using Your Left Hand
Doing anything with your left hand in social settings is considered unclean in the Muslim country. The left hand is used only when visiting the toilet, with the right hand being used for things like shaking hands and eating. Be aware of the cultural nuance and stick to using your right hand in public!
If you’re expecting to find cheap alcoholic drinks in the country, you might find it a challenge. Larger establishments such as high-end restaurants and bigger hotels will have alcoholic drinks on their menus but it’ll be harder to find outside the big cities. However, you’ll still be able to get a drink or two in bars and clubs in places like Casablanca or Marrakech.
15. Getting Phone Data
Purchasing a local SIM card is pretty easy and relatively inexpensive in Morocco. You’ll definitely be able to save some money buying the SIM card versus purchasing an overseas data plan from your own provider. There are a few telco providers in Morocco but we heard that Maroc Telecom has the best coverage and service.
We bought a Maroc SIM card at the aiport in Casablanca and it cost us around 50 MAD which gave us enough data to last 10 days! We also opted to stay at riads where there was free wifi provided and that made it easy for us to stay connected and do our research for the next day!
16. Photographing the Locals
There is no doubt that Morocco is a beautiful country and you will definitely find many opportunities to take a snapshot or maybe 10. However, be careful when photographing locals. They typically avoid being photographed by tourists and may even get offended and angry if you took their photo without their permission. Always ask if it’s okay for you to take a picture and don’t forget your smile!
17. Traveling During Ramadan
During the fasting month, otherwise known as Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Just bear in mind that businesses will shift their hours during this month. Shops may not open in the early morning and will close before sunset to prepare for prayer and eating times. Some tourist sights and attractions may also adjust their opening hours. Do your research and ask locals about when places are open so that you can plan accordingly.
18. The Shopping Experience – Haggling Wars
Ever hear of a “local price” and a “tourist price”? Well Morocco is one place where the tourist price is universally applied to anyone that does not look Moroccan. The minute you step into a shop, prepare to be approached by the shopkeeper who will pepper you with questions and offers to show off his products. The trick is to walk around and try to not look too interested.
The prices in souks are incredibly marked up. Start bargaining by slashing the prices to a third and working your way from there. You’ll likely settle on a price which is half of the one the shopkeeper quoted. But remember, if you’re not comfortable on paying that price, walk away! You’ll be able to find another store selling the same or similar item. I also found that the minute you start walking away, the shopkeeper might drop the price to entice you to buy the item.
There are no mandatory vaccines that you need to get before travelling to Morocco. Get the typical shots for hepatitis, rabies and flu (that you should have before you travel) to be on the safe side. For anything else, I usually carry medication with me just in case I get hit by a bug or virus when I travel.
20. Arriving in Morocco
Morocco has several airports located in the various cities. Most international flights originating outside of Europe will travel into Casablanca. For those coming from Europe, there are several budget airlines that fly into other major cities in Morocco like Marrakech and Fes.
For citizens of most English-speaking countries, no visa is required to enter Morocco and you will be able to stay for up to 90 days. Just ensure that your passport is valid for at least 6 months! However, a quick check with the Moroccan embassy online or in your country is your safest bet.
Now you’re all set to start planning for your Moroccan adventure!
Where to Stay in Morocco
Fes: Riad Verus – Great hostel that’s value for money. The selling point of this riad is its courtyard where guests will mingle and have amazing breakfasts. Book your stay here to make new friends and for an affordable night’s stay.
Chefchaouen: Dar Baibou – Traditional rooms with beautiful tile décor. Take this chance to go for a hammam or soak in the sun (and views) on their rooftop terrace! A wonderful place for you to start exploring the blue-hued city of Chefchaouen.
Marrakech: Riad Vert – This quiet riad provides plenty of space for you to get a good night’s rest, away from the hustle and bustle of Jemaa El Fnaa. The rooms are big and the common spaces are well-decorated to give you the feeling of staying in a Moroccan home.
Riad Dar Attika – Quaint riad with charming rooms. Have a home-cooked breakfast before heading out to tackle the city. Located within walking distance to Badi Palace, Bahia Palace, the Jewish Quarter and other amazing sights!
Scarabeo Camp: The luxury Agafay Desert camp of Instagram fame. Escape Marrakech to this nearby stone camp and enjoy your night sleeping under the stars! Read my review of our stay at Scarabeo here.
Casablanca: Movenpick Hotel Casablanca – Modern hotel with a touch of Moroccan design. Take in the views by requesting for a room on the higher floors. The hotel is located in a central location with all the facilities you could need.