Things to Do in Northern Morocco
There’s really nowhere quite like Gibraltar: a little piece of England looking out from Spain to the coast of Africa with a rock fabled in ancient mythology and the only wild monkey population in Europe. Gibraltar was handed over to the British by Spain in the 18th century, and British it has remained ever since, despite Spain's best efforts to get it to accept its sovereignty. The famous Rock of Gibraltar is a chunk of limestone rearing up over the city and overrun by Barbary macaques—legend says that if these monkeys leave the rock, so will the British leave Gibraltar.
Located 7 miles (14 kilometers) west of Tangier, near Cape Spartel, the Caves of Hercules is one of the area’s top attractions. Discovered in 1906, the cave extends for 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) and is both natural and man-made. It features two openings, one to land and one to sea, with the latter known as the “Map of Africa” for its distinctive shape.
Located west of Tangier, Cape Spartel is the northwesternmost point of Africa, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea. Rising 1,000 feet (305 meters) above sea level, Cape Spartel is known for its stunning views and dramatic coastal roads, and includes a lighthouse dating from 1864.
The historic core of Fez and the seat of the Moroccan government until 1912, the Medina of Fez (Fes el-Bali) remains the city’s biggest draw – a sprawling district of jumbled souks and snaking alleyways, dotted with grand mosques, palace and madrassas. The old medina is now a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, still surrounded by its 13th-century city walls and reached via a series of monumental gates, most notably the 20th-century Bab Boujeloud, celebrated for its striking blue tilework.
With the medina largely pedestrianized, the best way to explore Fez Medina is on foot and there’s plenty to see, starting with the rambling souks, home to the famous Tanner’s Quarters, the soul of the city’s leather trade, where animal hides are soaked in gigantic pots of natural dye. Additional highlights of Fes el-Bali include the Kairaouine Mosque University, known as the world’s oldest university and dating back to 859; the exquisite Madrassa Bou Inania and Al-Attarine Madrasa; the Talaa Kebira water clock; and the Mellah Jewish Quarter.
Bab Bou Jeloud (also written Bab Boujeloud and Bab Boujloud) was built by the French during their occupation of Morocco in 1913. The word Bab means "Gate" in Arabic and it serves as the gateway into the heart of the bustling streets of the Fez medina. Right next to it stands the original 12th-century gate, built with an indirect entrance on a slant to block battering rams from entering.
Bab Bou Jeloud is Mauresque-Andalusian in style. Its grand horseshoe arches are decorated with Fassi mosaic blue tiles on the outside and green ones within. From the main archway, two minarets are revealed in the distance: one is part of the crumbling 20th-century Sidi Lazzaz mosque, while the smaller one, topped by two golden orbs, belongs to the recently restored 14th-century Bou Inania Medersa.
Throughout the day, the area around Bab Bou Jeloud bustles with local life, and as such this is one of the best spots in the city to observe everyday life in Morocco, with mules, and mopeds filling the streets as much as the locals. There are several cafes and restaurants on both sides of the gate, providing a relaxed setting from which to soak up the local atmosphere.
Formerly the main residence of the sultan, the Royal Palace of Fez (Fes Dar el-Makhzen) is still used by the King of Morocco when he is in the city of Fez. Surrounded by high walls, it spans an area of 195 acres (80 hectares). It is closed to visitors, who can only admire the imposing and ornate main entrance from the outside.
As Morocco’s second-largest mosque and the oldest Islamic building in Fez, it’s hardly surprising that the Kairaouine Mosque (Mosque of al-Qarawiyyin) is one of the city’s most admired monuments. Founded in 857, the mosque adjoins the historic university of the same name, and is considered Morocco’s holiest mosque, making it an important spiritual center for Muslims.
Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the mosque, which can hold up to 20,000 people at prayer, but it’s still worth a visit to admire its exquisite façade, with its striking green roof and ornate minaret.
The youngest of Morocco’s four imperial cities, Meknes makes a less-crowded alternative to nearby Fez or Rabat, and the comparative lack of tourists means you’ll be able to explore free from the chaotic pace and over-zealous vendors of its neighbors. Don’t let its lesser fame stop you from visiting though—Meknes’ striking landscape of palaces, gardens and mosques is well deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status.
Start your tour at the Place el-Hadim, the lively central square that fronts the grand city walls, and then explore the walled medina, with its winding souks and array of architectural gems. Sultan Moulay Ismail erected many of the city’s most impressive buildings and his most fanciful designs include the monumental gate of Bab Mansour, the Koubba el Khayatine Ambassador’s Hall and the Heri el Souani stables. The opulent Tomb of Moulay Ismail is another fitting tribute to his legacy, while additional attractions of Meknes include the Museum of Moroccan Arts, the ornate Grand Mosque and the Madrassa Bou Inania.
Stretching atop the Jebel Zerhoun plateau in northern Morocco, the Roman ruins of Volubilis are a striking sight, especially in summer when its abloom with wildflower Some of the best-preserved ruins in Northern Africa, this UNESCO World Heritage site offers a glimpse into ancient Morocco—and makes for a nice day trip from Fez or Meknes.
This well-restored former fondouk – a place where traders took lodgings and stored and sold their goods during the 18th century – is now home to the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts (Musée Nejjarine). Opened in 1998, the museum allows visitors to marvel at such artefacts as craftsmen’s tools, prayer beads, ancient chests, and musical instruments.
Much care has been taken with regards to the presentation of the displays, and the Nejjarine fondouk is almost an attraction in itself, although photography is now allowed. Displays are presented within an attractive inner courtyard, in rooms through intricately-carved wooden archways, and beneath cedar ceilings.
The Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts is located in the picturesque setting of Nejjarine Square. Here you’ll find one of the medina’s best-known mosaic fountains, plus small alleys that lead off to the Nejjarine Souk, where carpenters still chisel, carve, and sell their cedar wood items.
More Things to Do in Northern Morocco
Established in 1438, the Fez Mellah (Jewish Quarter) was the first of its kind in Morocco, a walled Jewish quarter that segregated the Jewish community from the predominant Muslim communities, and was locked during the evening hours to ensure the safety of its residents.
After WWII, the majority of Fez’s Jewish population left, with the quarter’s schools, synagogues and markets falling into disrepair, but a small, yet vibrant Jewish community still remains and the district is being slowly restored thanks to UNESCO funds. For visitors, a walk around the mellah offers a glimpse into one of Fez’s most unique neighborhoods, with contrasting architectural styles to the rest of the old medina. Highlights include the newly restored Ibn Dahan synagogue, which dates back to the 17th-century, the Jewish Cemetery and the Gold souk, as well as a number of quality antique furniture stores.
In the heart of the medina, close to the carpenters’ souk, Nejjarine Square (Place Nejjarine) is one of Fez’s most beautiful historic squares, best known for its distinctive centerpiece – the Nejjarine water fountain. Elaborately decorated with ornate carvings and zellij tilework, it’s the kind of drinking fountain normally seen fronting mosques or palaces.
Also taking prize place on Nejjarine Square is the exquisite Fondouk el-Nejjarine, an impressively preserved 18th-century funduq (historic traveler’s inn), now home to a fascinating carpentry museum, the Nejjarine Museum (Musée Nejjarine). Inside, the interiors are decked out with magnificent wood-carved balconies and sculpted pillars, while the permanent exhibition houses a remarkable collection of wooden arts, crafts and carpentry tools, dating back as early as the 14th century.
Located at the entrance to Fez’s sprawling spice and perfume market, the exquisite Al-Attarine Madrasa (the ‘Madrasa of the Perfumers’) paints a striking picture against the ramshackle stalls and timeworn cobblestones of the surrounding souks.
Built by the Marinid Sultan Uthman II Abu Said in the early 14th century, the madrasa was once an important center for learning and spirituality. The show-stopping central courtyard is the main highlight of a visit - a sumptuous example of Islamic architecture, with ornate pillars, expertly carved stuccos and magnificent zellij fashioned from hand-cut glazed tiles. Visitors can also peek into the lavish prayer hall and the comparatively sparse student quarters that look out over the courtyard.
A sea of startling blue buildings set against a backdrop of the rugged Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen (pronounced “shef-sha-wen”) is a real gem in Northern Morocco. There’s no mistaking where the “Blue City” gets its nickname—with its brightly painted walls, doors, and stairways and red-tiled roofs, it’s a city begging to be photographed.
One of Fez’s most notable museums, home to a vibrant collection of Moroccan arts and crafts, the Dar Batha Museum (Museum of Moroccan Arts) makes a worthwhile additional to any sightseeing trip, offering a unique insight into Fez’s artistic heritage.
The vast permanent collection includes everything from hand-painted ceramics to antique Berber carpets to gold-plated astrolabes, alongside traditional jewelry, leatherwork, earthenware, woodwork and embroidery, with artifacts dating from the 14th century to modern-day. The surroundings are equally impressive, with the museum housed in a beautiful Hispano-Moorish palace built by Moulay el Hassan in the 19th-century and featuring a tranquil garden and café.
Please note: The Dar Batha Museum is temporarily closed for renovations.
Built in the 9th-century to house the tomb of Moroccan ruler and city founder Moulay Idriss II, the Zaouia Moulay Idriss II was completely restored in the 14th century and now stands as the city’s holiest shrine. The zawiya is an important place of pilgrimage for Moroccans, who believe that its blessings can bring good luck and fertility.
Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the mausoleum, but it’s worth a look if only to admire the elaborate exteriors, including exquisite wooden arches, carved plasterwork and an ornately tiled mzara, where alms are passed through a brass slot. A peek through the door offers a glimpse of the richly decorated tomb, often surrounded by freshly lit candles and incense.
A mound of whitewashed buildings framed by lush mountains and olive groves, the hilltop town of Moulay Idriss, also known as Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, is a striking proposition, and it’s a suitably picturesque setting for one of Morocco’s most important pilgrimage sites. The town takes its name from one of Morocco’s most revered saints, Moulay Idriss I, famous for bringing Islam to Morocco and founding the country’s first dynasty. Today, the grand Mausoleum of Idriss I is the focal point of pilgrim’s visits and plays an important role in celebrating the annual Festival of Moulay Idriss.
Although traditionally non-Muslims were unwelcome at the holy site, attitudes have relaxed considerably in recent years (although non-Muslims are not permitted access to the mausoleum) and Moulay Idriss has become a popular addition to tourist itineraries, often combined with a visit to near Meknès and Volubilis.
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