Where to go

The variety of landscapes, people and places in Morocco catches many visitors by surprise - you could be skiing or trekking in the mountains one day, sunning yourself on a beach or riding a camel across the desert the next. But although the landscapes are spectacular, it is the cities and their people that are the country's real shining lights. At the western extremity of the Arab world, and mixed with a good dose of ancient mountain cultures, as well as European influences, the human aspects of Morocco are never less than fascinating.

Most visitors to Morocco start in Marrakech, indeed many never see much of the country outside its thick red walls. It is a city which revolves around its ancient square, Jemaâ el Fna, which teems with snake charmers, musicians, storytellers and acrobats. Marrakech has Morocco's best shopping, and also its best accommodation, with countless riads, the old courtyard houses in the médina, converted into luxurious and often stunningly beautiful places to stay.

Away from the frenetic pace of Marrakech, Essaouira is a deservedly popular seaside excursion. An old fortified fishing port, its narrow whitewashed streets give it a cosy feel, while its high walls protect the old buildings from the crashing waves of the Atlantic. There is also a surfing scene here: predominantly windsurfing in Essaouira, but also boarding further south, towards Agadir and beyond.

Agadir itself is primarily a package resort, untypical and unspecial, but there is plenty of interest beyond it to the south, especially the crumbling old Spanish outpost of Sidi Ifni and the exceedingly hip Mirleft, both with wide sandy beaches and some good waves.

Inland from here, the Anti-Atlas are the most southerly of Morocco's four main mountain ranges, which run the length of the country. In early spring the red slopes are punctuated by blossom and, in winter, the high routes are usually passable, unlike those in the High Atlas.

Further north, and easily accessible from Marrakech, the High Atlas keep their mantle of snow until well into summer and offer the opportunity to go skiing in winter. North Africa's highest mountain is here, and there is plenty of scope for serious climbing and trekking.

Morocco's former capital, and an increasingly popular destination, Fès is an extraordinary place, where medieval life continues in many ways unchanged, despite the increase in European-run riads, cafés and restaurants. It also retains its sense of spirituality, and is the location for the Festival des Musiques Sacrées, one of the country's best.

Nearby, Meknès is another grand old imperial city. Between here and Marrakech there is a great route around the High Atlas, taking in palm-filled oases, spectacular sand dunes, rocky gorges and vertiginous mountain passes.

Back on the coast, Casablanca and Rabat are the two faces of modern Morocco: economic and political power bases. More interesting are El Jadida, just to the south, an old fortified Portuguese town, and Oualidia, which is being rapidly developed as a holiday destination due to its extraordinary natural lagoon.

Further north, Asilah and Larache are two more coastal towns with plenty of interest, as well as some ancient Roman remains.

Tangier, on the cusp of Europe, has an atmosphere all to itself. Filled with the decadent ghosts of times past it is a place of transition, with some unexpectedly beautiful corners, if you're prepared to seek them out.

East of Tangier, Chefchaouen is a popular and astonishingly pretty hill town, originally Andalucían and still painted from head to toe in white and pale blue. Nearby, there are walks in the Rif Mountains, which slope down to the Mediterranean. Along this coast are the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Melilla, especially, is a relaxed place to linger over beer and tapas if you're arriving or departing this way. There are also smaller Moroccan towns and villages on this coast that would repay exploration.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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Morocco Handbook: Marrakech - Essaouira - Fes - Atlas

Marrakech evokes images of labyrinthine souks, vibrant colours, and minarets stretching towards the...
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