The gateway to Africa and a country of dazzling diversity, Morocco is home to ancient cities, mountain ranges, vast deserts, and warm hospitality. Its predominantly Arab and Berber population represent a country which has experienced a changeable history. Palaces, mausoleums, minarets, and citadels are just a few of the sites any visitor can expect when enjoying the ‘Maghreb’ – the Arab West. Here’s our pick of 10 of the best sites that Morocco has to offer.
1. Citadel of Ait Ben-Haddou
The Citadel of Ait Ben-Haddou in the southern Moroccan town of Ouarzazate is a stunning example of North African pise clay architecture which dates back hundreds of years.
In recent times, the site was featured as Yunkai (aka the Yellow City) in Game of Thrones – the centre of slave-trading and one of the three great Ghiscari city-states in the show. Access to the walled village is free, and for the most amazing views, try and go at sunrise or sunset. The town of Ouarzazate is almost permanently full of tourists and location researchers so hotels, restaurants, and cafes are plentiful and of a high quality.
2. Hassan Tower
The Hassan Tower is a grand reminder of a mosque that was never completed. The Hassan Tower is actually a 140-foot red stone minaret built during the reign of Yacoub El Mansour, a sultan of the Almohad Dynasty who ruled from 1184 AD.
Inside the Hassan Tower are six levels, each with a solitary room connected by ramps.
Volubilis in Morocco is a UNESCO-listed ancient Roman site housing extensive ruins dating back to the first century BC. Amongst the ruins of Volubilis, visitors can see an array of public buildings, olive mills, houses, temples, and defensive walls with many mosaics dotted throughout.
One of the most famous structures at Volubilis is the Triumphal Arch of Caracalla, built for the Roman Emperor upon his death in 217 AD. The Triumphal Arch of Caracalla is very well-preserved, and although its top section is now gone, it is still an incredibly impressive structure and a treat for any history enthusiast.
The Moroccan city formerly known as Mogador has a rich and vibrant history dating back two and a half millennia. The Atlantic coastal city of Essaouira is full of narrow alleys, and the pungent smell of spices, thuya wood, and sea air fully immerses you in the ancient north African town. The influences of Portuguese, French, Berber, Dutch, Jewish, and Muslim cultures are evident as you make your way around the town. Because of the ‘vents alizés’ – the trade winds that sweep inland off the Atlantic – it’s known as the ‘Wind City of Africa’, and is a favourite spot for hardcore windsurfers.
Around the harbour, the fishermen and artisan woodworkers continue the tradition of their predecessors, and the art scene is vibrant and thriving. For Game of Thrones devotees, Essaouira was used as the location for Astapor, home of the Unsullied, and the southernmost of the three city-states of Slaver’s Bay.
5. The Saadian Tombs
The Saadian Tombs in Marrakesh are the final resting places of the around sixty of the rulers and members of the Saadi Dynasty including Sultan Ahmed El Mansour (the sixth sultan of the dynasty) and his family. The good state of preservation of the Saadian Tombs may be attributable to the fact that they were sealed off by the sultan Moulay Ismail.
Visitors to the Saadian Tombs can view the tombs amidst the colourful backdrop of the two mausoleums which house them. One of the most interesting rooms is the beautifully decorated Hall of the Twelve Columns. A visit to the Saadian Tombs can be quite a clinical experience, but only because the large number of tourists overwhelm this small site and mean that a visit might seem rushed.
6. El Badi Palace
El Badi Palace was once the magnificent royal palace of the sultan Ahmad al-Mansur of the Saadi Dynasty. Having taken twenty five years to build, El Badi Palace was a lavish complex of buildings with over 350 rooms, courtyards, gardens, and a large pool which dates to the sixteenth century.
Today there is no sign of the gold which once adorned the walls of El Badi Palace. Indeed, the whole complex lies in ruins in the centre of Marrakesh, having been utterly destroyed by the sultan Moulay Ismail. Visitors enter through its gatehouse and can view the remnant of much of this site. Some of the highlights include its sunken gardens, its subterranean passages, and the Koubba el Khamsiniyya or ‘main hall’, which has fifty columns.
7. Mausoleum of Mohammed V
The Mausoleum of Mohammed V in Rabat is the grand tomb of one of Morocco’s kings and his two sons. Mohammed V was the sultan of Morocco for two periods – 1927 to 1953 and 1957 to 1961. In between these times he was exiled (1953-55), although he is now remembered for his contribution to the attainment of Morocco’s independence.
Commissioned by King Hassan II in 1962 and completed in 1971, the Mausoleum of Mohammed V is a white building crowned with green tiles. Inside, the mausoleum is lavishly decorated and adorned with a wealth of traditional artwork.
Ouarzazate (pronounced ‘war-za-zat’) is a Berber phrase meaning ‘without noise’ or ‘without confusion’. It is famous for being the location of the Kasbah-town of Aït Ben-Haddou, which is home to one of the world’s finest examples of North African pisé clay architecture, dating back a thousand years.
In the 1920s, a modern garrison town was established to look after France’s colonial interests in the region, and after the French protectorate left in the 1950s, the movie business took over and hasn’t looked back. The port of Pentos, one of the Free Cities in Game of Thrones, and the Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate – the world’s largest film studio complex – have been used to depict places as diverse as ancient Rome, Tibet, Egypt, Somalia, and dozens of Middle Eastern locations. It is colloquially known as ‘Ouallywood’. It is boiling hot in the summer (36°C – 40°C), but thanks to the icy winds that shank off the High Atlas Mountains, the winters can get down as low as 1°C – 3°C. Since the eyes of the world’s film location scouts are permanently there, the area has developed quickly and now includes hotels, restaurants, shops, apartments, and public spaces and with plenty of small businesses offering the hire of cars, motorbikes, and even camels.
9. Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail
The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail in Meknes is the final resting place of one of Morocco’s most notorious sultans. Moulay Ismail was a member of the Alaouite Dynasty and the ruler of the country from 1672 to 1727.
The Mausoleum is a good example of the opulence of the sultan’s building style. Built around grand courtyards and fountains are rooms with intricate tiling and stucco walls adorned with fine objects, such as clocks gifted to the sultan by his friend, the French king Louis XIV.
10. Telouet Kasbah
Telouet Kasbah in Morocco is the former seat of the powerful El Glaoui family, who effectively ruled much of the surrounding area in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The remains of this fortress, which lies on the old caravan route over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh, can still be visited today. Although the complex is beginning to show signs of disrepair, there is still much to see and many of the more ornate decorations are still intact to view.
A trip to Telouet Kasbah is not necessarily a journey for the faint-hearted – but in a way the journey is the adventure and, as you drive from Marrakesh and wind through spectacular gorges and mountains, you can’t fail to be inspired. There are restaurants at the site, many of whom will offer trips to the Kasbah, and two small hotels nearby offer an option for those wishing to stay in the local area.