Discover imperial cities and desert adventures with this 12-day circuit from Tangier in the north to Essaouira in the south. Experience the culture and history of  Meknes, Fes, and Marrakesh 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.


  • 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 Marrakesh's lively Jemaa el-Fna—the busiest square in Africa

Brief Itinerary

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

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in 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 & 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 Bab Haha gate at the northeast end of Place du Mechouar and into the medina's Dar Baroud neighborhood. Meanwhile, just 20 minutes outside of the city, along the most northwestern point of mainland Africa, are the unique 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..

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 (Akchour Waterfalls) if time allows. Chefchaouen 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.

Day 3: Transfer to Fes via the Roman Ruins of Volubilis & Meknes

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

Rise early to wander the streets in quiet, using this time to snap your unobstructed photos. Leaving Chefchaouen, you'll drive toward Fes and can opt to visit UNESCO-protected Volubilis, Morocco's best-preserved Roman ruins. Wander the massive complex, exploring large merchant homes with still-intact heating systems, temples, and many colorful mosaics in situ. 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 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 Marrakesh. 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.

Days 4-5: Explore the Imperial City & Medieval Medina

Chouara Tannery
Chouara Tannery

Today you'll explore Fes, the oldest of Morocco's imperial cities. Its UNESCO-protected medina is the most complete of its kind in the Arab world. It's recommended to use an expert guide for a half-day tour to learn more about this city and help you navigate the medina. Start in Fes el Bali ("Old Fes"). Founded in the eighth century, 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. Shop the iconic souks (markets) for a variety of wares (spices, leather, ceramics, pewter, etc).

Then visit Chouara Tannery, which still implements traditional techniques from centuries ago. Find a local leather shop for a rooftop view to watch the masters at work. 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 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.

From here, enter through the famous Bab Boujeloud. The outside is blue (the traditional color for Fes), and the 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. Then visit 13th-century Fes el Jedid ("New Fes") to discover the Batha Museum, housed in a 19th-century palace. Spend time in the Andalusian-style gardens before walking to the Mellah (old Jewish quarter and cemetery).

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. Then 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.

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Day 6: Over the Middle Atlas 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'll 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 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'll 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. 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. Soon, you'll see the sand waves of Erg Chebbi, an extensive sea of dunes covering an area of 13.5 square miles (35 sq km). Never stationary, the massive dunes shift and travel depending on the changing wind.

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.

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 are 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 Tinghir. This desert town offers fantastic views of neighboring towns hugging the length of the extensive river oasis (30 mi/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 1,000 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: Transfer 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 toward Aït Benhaddou, you'll pass 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 Kelâat 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 Aït Benhaddou. The town was made popular by the growing movie industry, and you have an option to tour one of two movie studios,including an up-close look at some props and sets. 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 Marrakesh, Ouarzazate, and the southern desert. Settle into your accommodation in the old town 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.

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

Day 9: Transfer to Marrakesh, 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 the 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'll notice a dramatic change in the climate and landscape as the rocks change to foothills and transition again into flat plains. Soon you'll be a part of the hustle and bustle of vibrant Marrakesh.

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.

Day 10: Explore the Red City

Ben Youssef Madrasa
Ben Youssef Madrasa

Marrakesh, Morocco's second-largest metropolis, is also known as the "Red City." 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. West of Jemaa el-Fna, you'll find 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. Walk around the back of the mosque to the beautiful Koutoubia Gardens, filled with fountains, pools, palm trees, and flowers. 

Take in the various sights, sounds, and smells of the souks and alleys 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. You'll also 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.

While in the area, visit 16th-century Ben Youssef Madrasa (Koranic school) to 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. And if there's time head farther out and check out the Saadian Tombs to admire the 500-year-old craftsmanship that went into the mausoleum's detailed construction. Then there's the 19th-century Bahia Palace, the largest and most luxurious palace of its day. And for a change of pace, wander Majroelle's lush, expansive gardens filled with sub-tropical plants, bamboo, lilies, and palms. 

Other sites in the area include the Almoravid Koubba, the only surviving Almoravid monument, the Koubba was rediscovered in 1948, the El Badi Palace, that has a sunken garden and an ornamental orange orchard you can visit. There's also the Marrakesh 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. And the 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: Transfer 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 Marrakesh, 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.

Day 12: Return to Marrakesh, Depart

Goats in the branches of Argan trees en route to Essaouira
Goats in the branches of argan trees en route to Marrakesh

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 Marrakesh.

Upon arriving in Marrakesh, 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. 

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Map of Morocco Highlights from North to South - 12 Days
Map of Morocco Highlights from North to South - 12 Days
Written by João Paulo, updated Nov 7, 2022