Discover imperial cities and desert adventures with this 12-day circuit from Tangier in the north to Essaouira in the south.  Experience culture and history of  Meknes, Fes, and Marrakech as you navigate narrow and winding streets in ancient medinas, shop artisanal wares in animated souks, and admire the intricate tile work of historic mosques. Explore the desert as you ride a camel over shifting sands in the Sahara, delve into mud-brick fortressed cities, and cross the high rocky peaks of the Atlas mountains.

Highlights

  • Wander the quiet, blue-washed streets of Chefchaouen
  • Discover souks, tanneries, and artisan workshops in medieval Fes
  • Enjoy classic Berber music beside a desert campfire under the stars in the Sahara
  • Follow old caravan routes through the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs
  • Experience Marrakech's lively Jemaa el-Fna - the busiest square in Africa

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Welcome to Tangier! Tangier
Day 2 Explore Tangier and Caves of Hercules, Onward to Chefchaouen Chefchaouen
Day 3 Chefchaouen to Fes, Visit the Roman Ruins of Volubilis & Meknes Fes
Days 4-5 Fes: Exploring the Imperial City & Medieval Medina Fes
Day 6 Over the Middle Atlas from Fes to Erfoud, Merzouga & the Sahara Merzouga
Day 7 Desert Adventures Around Merzouga, Rissani Market & Todra Gorge Todra Gorge
Day 8 Todra Gorge to Aït Benhaddou, Stopping at Dades Valley & Ouarzazate Aït Benhaddou
Day 9 Aït Benhaddou to Marrakech, Tizi n'Tichka Pass over the High Atlas Marrakech
Day 10 Marrakech: Explore the Red City Marrakech
Day 11 Marrakech to Essaouira Essaouira
Day 12 Essaouira to Marrakech, Depart  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Welcome to Tangier!

The historic port city of Tangier
The historic port city of Tangier

Welcome to Tangier, the gateway between Europe and Africa. Lying on the Maghreb coast at the western entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, Tangier offers a unique blend of cultures and influences that have for centuries shaped the city attracting artists, spies, and eccentric foreigners. While the port city was once dismissed as being a not-so-hot place to visit, Tangier today has undergone a makeover and gleams with pride.

You'll likely want to get out and explore your surroundings after checking into your hotel. Depending on your arrival time, head to the medina (old quarter) to explore the labyrinth of commercial and residential alleyways, noting the 15th-century Portuguese fortress. Find a café in the hip Zoco Chico square for something to eat and do a little people watching and cap off the day with a late afternoon paseo to enjoy the sunset as you stroll along the seafront promenade of the bustling corniche.

Day 2: Explore Tangier and Caves of Hercules, Onward to Chefchaouen

The Africa-shaped opening of the Caves of Hercules
The Africa-shaped opening of the Caves of Hercules

Begin the day early to see more of Tangier and opt to hire a guide to take you through the kasbah (old fortification). You'll enter through the beautiful Bab Haha gate at the northeast end of Place du Mechouar and into the medina's Dar Baroud neighborhood. The kasbah is small and compact enough to allow for self-guided exploration, though a guide will offer further insight into some of the fortification's highlights.

Meanwhile, just 20 minutes outside of the city, along the most northwestern point of mainland Africa, are the unique and beautiful Caves of Hercules—so named for its mythical connection to Hercules himself. Close to the mid-19th-century Cape Spartel lighthouse, you can enter the cave complex through the opening that faces the sea and resembles the shape of Africa, thought to have been created by the Phoenicians. If you’d like, you can pay for a guide to give you some additional information about the site.

When you're ready, travel straight on to the blue-hued city of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains. Enjoy the scenic route, stopping along the way to hike (2-3 hours) to the Cascades d'Akchour (Waterfalls of Akchour) if time allows. Chefchaoen offers endless winding narrow streets and picturesque buildings. Find Plaza Outa el Hammam for a restaurant or café and enjoy a meal as you people watch.

Though non-muslims are not permitted to enter, the Grand Mosque is still worth a visit. From there, explore the nearby kasbah and tour the garden, museum, and some of the old prison cells. Follow a path outside of the city walls to Hotel Atlas and climb to the rooftop to enjoy a panoramic view of the Blue City. For the slightly more athletic, follow the street east to pass over the Ras el Ma Spring and ascend the path (20-30 minutes) until you reach the abandoned white Spanish Mosque. Enjoy one last view over Chefchaouen as the sun sets behind the mountains.

Driving time: 2-2.5 hours

Day 3: Chefchaouen to Fes, Visit the Roman Ruins of Volubilis & Meknes

Impressive Roman Ruins still stand at Volubilis
Impressive Roman Ruins still stand at Volubilis

Rise early and you may be treated with an hour of quiet as you wander the streets in the morning. Many travelers leave in the morning, and others don't arrive until the afternoon. Use this time to snap your unobstructed photos. If you're looking to do some last-minute shopping, many shops don't open until 10 am or so. Leaving Chefchaouen behind, you'll drive toward Fes and can opt to take a short detour to explore the Roman ruins of Volubilis and the imperial city of Meknes.

Volubilis (a UNESCO world heritage site) contains Morocco’s best-preserved Roman ruins and makes for a nice detour from the hustle and bustle of nearby Meknes. Wander the massive complex, exploring large merchant homes with still-intact heating systems, temples, and many colorful mosaics in situ. Once the Roman Empire's farthest reach in Africa, Volubilis was ruled over for about 200 years before its people leaving in 285 CE when the empire grew too large to control and their focus had to be directed elsewhere. Wheat was grown and exported to the rest of the empire, and exotic animals (lions, bears, and elephants) were captured and sent to the capital for feasts, celebrations, and sacrifices, soon wiping out much of the local population.

Continue on to the smaller, less busy version of Fes, Meknes, for an optional detour and introduction to your first historic imperial city. The two main points of interest are the Ville Impériale (Imperial City) and the medina. In Ville Impériale, you can visit the Bab al-Mansour gate, the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, and the Royal Stables. Meanwhile, just outside of the imperial city, you may want to explore the medina—a smaller and easier to navigate version compared to Fes and Marrakech. Other than the scattered souks, you may like to visit the 14th-century Bou Inania Madrasa and the Dar Jamaï Museum, a beautiful 19th-century palace-turned-museum.

Continue east to your second imperial city, Fes. With its impressively large (and somewhat confusing) old medina, Fes is a city worth getting lost in. Before venturing into the medina, drive up the hill to take the time to visit the Merenid Tombs located just north of the city and enjoy the all-encompassing view of historic Fes and the surrounding area. Descend the hill and find your way to your riad (a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden) where you can enjoy a delicious meal and relax for the evening.

Driving time: 4.5 hours (3.5 without stops in Volubilis and Meknes)

Days 4-5: Fes: Exploring the Imperial City & Medieval Medina

Chouara Tannery
Chouara Tannery

Today you'll learn about Fes, the oldest of Morocco's imperial cities and perhaps the most interesting and exciting to explore. Its medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the most complete of its kind in the Arab world. Because the city never experienced much colonial development, much of Fes feels like stepping back through time hundreds of years. How you tour Fes and its highlights is up to you, so consider some of these options or ask your local specialist for ideas that speak to your interests.

If you're inspired by history and culture and have time to spare, you could spend a couple of days wandering the medina, visiting madrasas (Arabic for any type of educational institution), and exploring beyond the medina walls. If you have a shorter trip, a full day exploring the medina and a few highlights outside may be enough. Either way, it's recommended using an expert guide for a half-day tour to learn more about this stellar city and help you navigate the medina.

Fes el Bali ("Old Fes") is a great place to start your adventure. Founded in the 8th century, Moulay Idriss I welcomed refugees from Cordoba in southern Spain and Kairouan in Tunisia (both capitals of western Islam at the time). Their skill in architecture and craftsmanship played a large role in the organic development of Fes over the next hundred years, creating the maze-like narrow streets.

The charming medina will likely draw most of your time and focus. The roads are much narrower, windier, and steeper than those of other imperial cities, making it almost impossible not to get lost at least a few times (part of the fun, just keep walking until the flow of people increases and you find yourself on one of the main streets). Shop the iconic souks (markets) for a variety of spices, vegetables, leather goods, ceramics, pewter, shoes, scarves, medicines, and more. Many are concentrated together and you're bound to see artisans at work in their small shops.

Be sure to also check out the famed Chouara Tannery, which still implements traditional techniques from centuries ago. Find a local leather shop for a rooftop view (giving the tanner a small donation may help you gain access) to watch the masters at work. The process starts with soaking the animal hide in a mixture of pigeon droppings and limestone to strip away any remaining fur as well as soften the leather. Next, the leather is dyed in color in large stone vats for about a week before being set out to dry on nearby rooftops or hillsides. To guard against the pungent scent, grab some mint leaves to have onhand during your visit.

Find your way to one of the oldest still-operating universities in the world, Al-Qarawiyyin University (859 CE) next to the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque. Though the mosque is only open to Muslims, there are a few places where you can glimpse inside to its decorated interior. From there, make your way to the 14th-century Al Attarine Madrasa or the Bou Inania Madrasa, beautiful examples of Moroccan architecture and artisanship showcasing intricate zellij tilework contrasted with dark cedarwood. Head upstairs to see old student dorm rooms with great views. 

From here, enter through the famous Bab Boujeloud, the large gate that welcomes you into Fes el Bali from the west. The outside is blue (the traditional color for Fes), and inside is green (the color for Islam). Heading through the gate to the main thoroughfare of Talâa Kebira, which is packed with shops. Treat yourself to some retail therapy or pop in the Musée Batha, home to many Moroccan arts—including carved wood and traditional pottery (its highlight)—and a beautiful central garden.

Southwest of and uphill from the old city, is Fes el Jedid (“New Fes”),  built in the 13th century when the Merenid Dynasty came to power. Visit the Batha Museum. Housed in a 19th-century palace, the museum is home to a collection of traditional Moroccan arts and crafts, including carved wood, zellij, and local pottery (its highlight). Spend time in the Andalusian-style gardens before walking to the Mellah (old Jewish quarter and cemetery). Take advantage of its location for a stunning panoramic photo of the city. Continue south to Ville Nouvelle and discover the dramatic change in architecture. 

Tour a Ceramics and Tile Collective to learn how local artisans make wares, from shaping the clay to painting the designs. As well as watch the tile masters at work: fitting together small pieces of tile to form intricate mosaics.

No matter how you choose to explore Fes, consider enjoying the sunset from the Merenid Tombs in the north or Borj Sud in the south; both viewpoints offer fantastic views of this dynamic city with timeless roots.

Plan your trip to Morocco
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

Day 6: Over the Middle Atlas from Fes to Erfoud, Merzouga & the Sahara

Ride a camel to your Bedouin-style camp in the Sahara
Ride a camel to your Bedouin-style camp in the Sahara

Get an early start today as you'll be covering a lot of ground. From Fes, you'll travel south toward Merzouga to arrive at the Sahara dunes for a sunset camel ride. Along the way, you will drive through the town of Azrou and climb an elevation of 7,146 feet (2,178 m) over the Col du Zad pass and through the cedar forests of the Middle Atlas mountains. Here you can enjoy sightings of the local Barbary macaque monkeys before stopping for lunch in Midelt (the 'apple city'), relishing the nearby Moulouya River and its surrounding fruit orchards.

Continue over the Tizi n'Talremt pass and into the Ziz Valley, known for its hidden oases and palm tree clusters. Along the road, you will see many fortified houses known as ksars—built by merchants to protect precious wares, including gold, salt, and spices. 

Just before reaching Erfoud, you'll see the early signs of the ever-shifting Saharan sand dunes. You'll also see an ancient method of water mining, an ingenious way to transfer water to farmland before modern pump as well as nomadic shepherds and their settlements. If time allows, you might be able to enjoy a cup of tea with a local nomadic Berber family.

Continue to Erfoud, a bustling market town known for its date festival and famous for its fossil mining and artisan factories (you may have already seen some fossils in the markets). En route, you can see hillside mines where large rocks are taken from the earth. While in town, stop at a local artisan collective where you can learn about the types of fossils found in the area and see the full process of how the fossil-rich rock is transformed into beautiful objects, large and small.

Soon, you will see the sand waves of Erg Chebbi, an extensive sea of sand dunes covering an area of 13.5 square miles (35 square km). Never stationary, the massive dunes shift and travel depending on the changing wind as well as appear to change color depending on the time of day and are especially enriching just before sunset.

Near Merzouga you can take a short break and switch gears to ride a camel through the dunes to your already-prepared-for-you camp, arriving just before sunset. Climb a nearby sand dune to watch the sunset before returning to camp for a delicious dinner, relaxing by the campfire. Enjoy an evening of Berber music followed by a night in a bedouin-style tent under an expansive night sky chock-full of unhindered twinkling stars.

If four walls and modern comfort are more your style, you can opt to spend the night at a comfortable hotel/auberge in Merzouga.

Driving time: 7-8 hours

Day 7: Desert Adventures Around Merzouga, Rissani Market & Todra Gorge

ATV riding on the sand dunes
ATV riding on the sand dunes

Wake up early to catch a spectacular desert sunrise, then spend the morning exploring more of the Sahara. You can rent a sandboard and test your skills on the dunes, take the Erg Chebbi tour (around the dunes), join a quad ATV tour, or relax for a bit by a pool. From there, visit nearby Khemliya, a typical Saharan village (its people originally from Mali), and enjoy traditional drumming music and dancing before taking a short walk around the settlement.

As you leave the Merzouga region and dunes behind, stop in the market town of Rissani, entering through its impressive gate. Known for its livestock auction, it's worth your time finding the 'donkey parking lot' to delight your senses as well as take a walk around its traditional market.

Continue to Tinerhir. This desert town offers fantastic views of neighboring towns hugging the length of the extensive river oasis (30 miles or 48 km of palm trees). The surrounding desert landscape reveals impressive buttes, mesas, and plateaus. Next, you'll reach today's final destination, the Todra Gorge. Almost 1000 feet (305 m) high and carved by the Todra River through red limestone, here you can enjoy a leisurely walk in and around the gorge and relax in the cool waters of the shallow river below. The rest of the evening is yours to explore or unwind.

Day 8: Todra Gorge to Aït Benhaddou, Stopping at Dades Valley & Ouarzazate

Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO world heritage site in Morocco
Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO world heritage site in Morocco

Today's journey takes you west along the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, many in disrepair as the kasbahs were constructed of pisé mud (rammed earth). As you head towards Aït Benhaddou, you will pass many small towns where you can see traditional farming methods in use. Be on the lookout for nomads tending to their animals as you make your way through Boumalne Dades, a major town and bridging point over the Dades River, and on to Kela'a M'gouna, the "Valley of the Roses." Here you can admire the cultivated rose bushes and visit a rose collective to see the process of converting rose petals into rose water and rose oil used in the cosmetic industry.

Next, you’ll enter the growing town of Ouarzazate, which is a common stopping point along the desert routes, as it offers a bit more accessibility than some of the nearby smaller towns, such as Ait Benhaddou. The town was made popular by the growing movie industry, and you have an option to tour one of two movie studios if you’d like–Atlas Corporation Studios or CLA Studios–including an up-close look at some props and sets.

Continue west to the desert hub and popular filming location of Ouarzazate, stopping first with a quick visit to the el Mansour resevoir—an important source of water for the local farming community. Made popular by the growing movie industry, you'll have the option to tour one of Ouarzazate's two movie studios and envision how the nearby regions have been featured in many movies. Some popular film credits include Black Hawk Down, Prometheus, American Sniper, and Game of Thrones. To learn more about the history and filmmaking process in the area, stop at the Musée du Cinema.

Next, you'll reach medieval Aït Benhaddou, Morocco's most famous kasbah and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old ksour dates from the 11th century when it held an important position along the trans-Saharan trade route between Marrakech, Ouarzazate, and the southern desert. Settle into your accommodation in the old town (if you can) before setting out to wander the empty alleys and passageways in the late afternoon after the day crowds have left.

Climb up to the old Granary—an excellent vantage point to see the kasbah and surrounding area, including the historic camel caravan routes. There are a couple of old kasbahs you can pay a nominal fee to enter and climb up for additional pretty views. Game of Thrones fans may want to trek down to the river to see the gates featured in the popular HBO series where you might recognize scenes from popular movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and Jesus of Nazareth.

Once your exploration is over for the day, enjoy a quiet dinner overlooking the valley.

Driving time: 3 hours

Day 9: Aït Benhaddou to Marrakech, Tizi n'Tichka Pass over the High Atlas

The winding desert roads lead through the Tizi n'Tichka pass
The winding desert roads lead through the Tizi n'Tichka pass

Leave Aït Benhaddou behind to begin winding ascent over the High Atlas mountains through the Tizi n'Tichka pass. Near the top, you can enjoy sweeping vistas over the mountain range, noting its highest peak Mount Toubkal which clocks in at 13,671 feet (4,167 m) as well as the road ahead, which snakes down the mountainside.

Stop in Taddert, the first town after the pass, and visit the Argan Oil Cooperative to learn how the local women extract the precious oil from the argan nut to make oil used in the health, food, and cosmetic industries.  As you descend the High Atlas, you will notice a dramatic change in the climate and landscape as the rocks change to foothills and transition again into flat plains. Soon you will be a part of the hustle and bustle of vibrant Marrakech.

After a long day on the road, settle into your hotel and spend the rest of the afternoon as you like. In the early evening, Jemaa el-Fna Square comes alive with musicians, performers, snake charmers, games, and food stalls, a catch-all of entertainment. If you want to enjoy the spectacle from a distance, choose one of the many cafés surrounding the square and enjoy a cup of mint tea and a savory meal.

Driving time: 4-4.5 hours

Day 10: Marrakech: Explore the Red City

Ben Youssef Madrasa
Ben Youssef Madrasa

Marrakech,  Morocco's second-largest metropolis, is also known as the "Red City" (due to the natural red ochre pigment in its walls). Prepare for the shock of vibrant sights, sounds, and smells as you explore this bustling imperial city. To best understand the layout, orient yourself around Jemaa el-Fna. From here, you'll find the souks are to the north, the Koutoubia Mosque and Gardens to the west, and the kasbah area with the Saadian Tombs, Bahia Palace, and El Badi Palace are to the south.

Until Jemaa el-Fna comes to life later in the day, you can request a guide for a half-day tour to show you the history, culture, and hidden gems of the Medina, or you can hire one of the Caliche Horse Carriages found at the southwest corner of the square. No matter what you decide, you'll want to check out a number of the below sights to further explore Marrakech:

  • The Koutoubia Mosque and Gardens: West of Jemaa el-Fna, you’ll see the striking minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque. Although non-Muslims are not permitted inside, you can admire the 253-foot (77 m) minaret, the oldest tower built under the Almohad Dynasty. On the north side of the mosque, you'll see the 12-century foundations of the original mosque, rebuilt to align with the direction of Mecca properly. Walk around the back of the mosque to the beautiful Koutoubia Gardens, filled with fountains, pools, palm trees, and flowers. It’s the perfect place for a late afternoon stroll when the late-day sun glows on the minaret.

  • The Medina, Souks, and Fondouks: There are enough small alleys and markets in the medina to occupy you for a couple of days. Take in the various sights, sounds, and smells as you wander. A few markets worth exploring include Souk el-Attarin (spices), Souk Haddadine (blacksmith wares), and Souk Smata (babouches or slippers). Keep your eyes peeled for Souk des Teinturiers, the dyers’ souk, where you can watch people dying cloth and yarn and hanging them above the streets in the afternoon to dry.

  • Fondouks: You’ll notice large open spaces and courtyards that extend off some alleys. These fondouks were once medieval inns that provided travelers and merchants with shelter for themselves and their animals. Those that were passing through slept on the upper floors while their animals stayed on the ground floor. Today, some have been converted into residences, while others are shopping areas and workshops that you can visit.

  • Ben Youssef Madrasa (Koranic School): Built in the 16th century, the beautifully renovated madrasa once housed students of the nearby mosque of the same name. Inside, you can appreciate the carved cedar, stucco plaster, and zellij tiling of the central courtyard, wander the old dorms where up to 800 students once lived, and visit the prayer hall.

  • Saadian Tombs: Hidden for centuries and only rediscovered in 1917 by interested French Authorities, the oldest tomb here dates back to 1557. Enter through a narrow passage to discover a small garden, graves, and three main pavilions where you'll also admire the 500-year old craftsmanship that went into the mausoleum's detailed construction.
  • Bahia Palace: Built in the 19th century, this was the largest and most luxurious palace in its day. Today you can explore the courtyard and gardens and take in the intricate woodwork and painted ceilings.

  • Majorelle Gardens (30-minute walk or quick taxi ride): Not far from the hustle and bustle of the medina, you can wander these lush, expansive gardens filled with sub-tropical plants, bamboo, lilies, and palms. It’s a great place to relax and beat the afternoon heat.

Other sites in the area include:

  • Almoravid Koubba: The only surviving Almoravid monument, the Koubba was rediscovered in 1948.
  • El Badi Palace: Meaning "Palace of the incomparable," the ruined 17th-century palace has a sunken garden and an ornamental orange orchard you can visit.
  • Marrakech Museum: Housed in the 19th-century Moorish Dar Mnebbi Palace, the museum offers a collection of modern and traditional art, including artifacts of Berber, Moroccan Jewish and Islamic cultures.
  • Dar Di Said Museum: Also known as the Museum of Moroccan Arts, you can see exhibits of clothing, antiques, jewelry, and beautifully carved Hispano-Moorish decorations of carved cedarwood.

Day 11: Marrakech to Essaouira

Fortressed Essaouira
Fortressed Essaouira

Say goodbye to the Red City, and travel to Morocco's west coast following a route that takes you over vast rolling plains. Along the way, you'll pass through an argan tree forest, endemic to this part of the world. You may even see goats dining on the argan fruit, up in the tree branches. Visit an argan cooperative to learn how argan oil is extracted from the tree and what it's used for in the food and cosmetic industries. 

Arrive in the port city of laid-back Essaouira, a nice contrast to frenetic Marrakech, and spend the rest of the day as you choose. Walk the Skala de la Kasbah (the 18th-century seafront ramparts) along the coast. Designed by European engineers, old brass cannons line the walls and offer viewing access over the Atlantic. Explore the UNESCO-protected medina before making your way to the windswept beach. Jimi Hendrix fans may want to take a short taxi ride to Diabat at the end of Essaouira's beach, where he reportedly spent some time. Walk back to Essaouira and enjoy a meal of fresh-caught seafood.

Driving time: 2.5-3 hours

Day 12: Essaouira to Marrakech, Depart

Goats in the branches of Argan trees en route to Essaouira
Goats in the branches of Argan trees en route to Marrakech

Known as the "Windy City" for its strong Alizée trade winds that hit its crescent beach, Essaouira is a popular kiteboarding destination. Take the morning to watch the windsurfers and kiteboarders or for the more adventurous, take a lesson, before saying goodbye and returning to Marrakech. 

Upon arriving in Marrakech, complete any last-minute gift and souvenir shopping. Though depending on your departure details, you may wish to check out Majorelle Gardens or an alternative attraction you have yet to visit. Not far from the commotion of the medina, a visit to these lush and expansive gardens offers the perfect place to escape the afternoon heat and noise. Leave the quiet behind and bring with you your memories as you make your way home. 

Driving time: 3 hours (including drive to the airport)

Map

Map of Grand Morocco Tour: North to South - 12 Days
Map of Grand Morocco Tour: North to South - 12 Days