This 8-day itinerary starts in Marrakech and combines culture, adventure, and relaxation. Wander Marrakech's souks and fondouks, discover the ornate mosques and madrasas, and experience lively Jemaa el-Fna Square. Cross the High Atlas mountains and spend a few days exploring Morocco's desert, filled with fortified villages and old caravan routes through hidden oases, before ending your stay in the seaside town of Essaouira.

Highlights

  • Watch dancers, henna artists, and acrobats in animated Jemaa el-Fna
  • Explore old fortified kasbahs and desert oases featured in your favorite films
  • Enjoy traditional Berber music beside a Saharan campfire
  • Relax in seaside Essaouira, enjoying the sunset and freshly-caught seafood

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Days 1-2 Exploring the Red City of Marrakech Marrakech
Day 3 Over the High Atlas to Ouarzazate Ouarzazate
Day 4 Zagora and camping in the Sahara Zagora
Day 5 Aït Benhaddou Aït Benhaddou
Day 6 Return to Marrakech Marrakech
Day 7 Marrakech to Essaouira Essaouira
Day 8 Return to Marrakech; Departure  

Detailed overview

Day 1: Arrival & Marrakech's Medina

Jemaa el-Fna Square, Marrakech, Morocco
Jemaa el-Fna offers entertainment and food for everyone

Welcome to Marrakech! Nicknamed the "Red City" for its 1000-year old red sandstone city walls and buildings, Marrakech is a major economic center. Marrakech has Berber rather than Arab roots and was once an important trading capital for tribes of the Atlas mountains. Orient yourself around Marrakech's bustling Jemaa el-Fna Square: the souks (markets) are to the north, the Koutoubia Mosque and Gardens to the west and the kasbah (fort or fortification) area with the Saadian TombsBahia Palace, and El Badi Palace are to the south. In the Ville Nouvelle, you will find the Majorelle Gardens

For a unique way to tour the medina (old quarter), board a calèche (French for horse-drawn carriage) and begin to adjust to your surroundings. Notice the fondouks—medieval inns that provided merchants and travelers with shelter and supplies. Today some have been converted into residences or large shopping areas and workshops that you can explore. Find your way to the Koutoubia Mosque and take a respite from the heat in its gardens amid fountains and palms. Though the mosque cannot be entered by non-muslims, it's worth checking out its 12th-century foundations and minaret. 

As the evening progresses, Jemaa el-Fna comes alive with musicians and storytellers, acrobats and dancers, and even snake charmers. Wander the many rows of food stalls serving anything from full meals to fruit drinks, dried dates, and small snacks. Grab a bite, or for a more relaxed experience, look for one of the many cafés that sit above the square to enjoy a meal while you watch the show below.

Day 2: Marrakech: Palaces & Souks

Ben Youssef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco
Ben Youssef Madrasa offers fine examples of Moroccan architecture and craftsmanship

Meet your guide for a half-day tour and discover the exquisite detail of the Ben Youssef Madrasa school of Islam for a taste of 16th-century architecture. Admire the traditional Moroccan artisanship: carved cedar, sculpted plaster, arabesques, Islamic calligraphy, and colorful zellij (mosaic tilework). Wander the old dorms where up to 800 students once lived and visit the prayer hall.

Spend time exploring Dar Di Said Museum (also known as the Museum of Moroccan Arts) to see exhibits of clothing, antiques, jewelry, and beautifully carved Hispano-Moorish decorations. Afterwards, indulge your senses as you explore the complicated labyrinth of souks, tucked behind ordinary restaurants and shops. Check out Souk el AttarinSouk Chouari, and Souk Smata for a selection of spices, woodwork, and babouche (traditional Moroccan slippers). Visit Souk des Teinturiers (the dyers’ souk) to see firsthand how leather hides and cloth are dyed.

Day 3: Over the High Atlas to Ouarzazate

Taddert, Morocco
The village of Taddert rests in the High Atlas near Tizi n'Tichka

 Leave the busy city behind and head east toward the desert, ascending the High Atlas mountains. See if you can spot Mount Toubkal, the highest peak at 13,671 feet (4,167 m). Along the way, you will pass many Berber villages—made up of traditional mud-brick buildings. Lunch in Taddert and tour the local Argan Oil Cooperative and discover how the local women extract the precious oil from the argan nut for the health, food, and cosmetic industries. Follow the winding road to the Tizi n'Tichka pass and stop to appreciate the panoramic view. 

Continue east to the popular desert hub and filming location of Ouarzazate. Made popular by the growing movie industry, you will have the option to tour one of the two movie studios and envision how the nearby regions have been featured in many movies. Some popular film credits include Gladiator, 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.

Day 4: Zagora and camping in the Sahara

A desert camp in the Sahara near Zagora
A desert camp in the Sahara near Zagora

Today you will meet your driver and continue east to the small, but grand, city of Zagora. Cross up and over the Jebel Sarhro mountains through the Tizi n'Tiniffifft pass. Along the way, you will pass through Agdz, a busy service center, before your route continues into the Draa River valley. The Draa River produces fertile soil and allows for intensive farming. Notice the prolific date palmeries and stop at one of the many stalls for a road trip snack. Continue to follow the Draa River valley southwards through dense palm tree clusters until you reach Zagora.

Zagora's wealth, achieved from successful date cultivation, is obvious in the wide central avenue and the quality of many of its buildings. Explore Zagora before you make your way to your accommodation outside the city. You will have the option to switch gears and ride a personal camel to trek into the desert and to your campsite, traveling between sand dunes paralleling the faces of high rocky mountains. Enjoy the sunset and your evening meal before settling around the campfire to listen to traditional drumming and singing. Retire to your Bedouin-style tent, sleeping under a blanket of stars.

Day 5: Aït Benhaddou Kasbah

Aït Benhaddou Kasbah
Aït Benhaddou Kasbah

Rise early to experience a desert sunrise before riding your camel to meet your transfer. Stop in nearby Tamegroute. An unassuming city on the edge of the desert, its houses colored the same as the sand, is worth exploring. Discover the Islamic Library. Home to almost 50,000 volumes collected from around the world, the library was once considered to be the richest library in North Africa. For a unique lesson on pottery, visit one of the oldest family-run pottery workshops and discover why Tamegroute's pottery is the color green.

Make your way back toward Ouarzazate and travel further north to the nearby Aït Benhaddou Kasbah.  A protected UNESCO site, Aït Benhaddou is the most famous kasbah in Morocco and once held an important position along the trans-Saharan trade route between Marrakech, Ouarzazate, and the southern desert. Spend the night in the old town and wander the empty alleys after the day-crowds have left. Pay a nominal fee to enter a few of the kasbahs and climb up to the rooftop for pretty views of the surrounding ksours (individual kasbahs) and Ouarzazate Valley

Day 6: Return to Marrakech

the view from the Tizi n'Tichka Pass, Morocco
The view from the Tizi n'Tichka pass

Before the crowds filter into the old kasbah, explore the narrow passageways and alleys to get a real feel for this 11th-century fortified city. Leave Aït Benhaddou behind, and return to Marrakech, traveling one more time up and over the High Atlas mountains and through the Tizi n'Tichka Pass. As you descend the north facing slopes of the High Atlas you will notice a dramatic change in climate and landscape. After all the tranquillity of the mountains and the desert, soon you will be in lively Marrakech. 

You may want to spend the rest of the afternoon at a slower pace. Visit Jemaa el-Fna and grab a bite to eat at one of the many food stalls. Take an evening stroll and walk the short distance to admire the floodlit Koutoubia Mosque, before retiring to your accommodation.

Day 7: Marrakech to Essaouira

Essaouira's seafront ramparts 
Essaouira's seafront ramparts 

After breakfast, make your way west to the Atlantic coast and to the charming beach town of Essaouira. The route along the way takes you over extensive rolling plains and through endemic argan forests. If you're lucky, you may see goats in the trees grazing on the argan fruit, a sight seen when grass pasture is limited or unavailable. Along the way, there is an option to stop at an Argan Oil Cooperative to see how the precious and expensive oil is extracted from the nut.

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 canons 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 freshly caught seafood.

Day 8: Return to Marrakech

Almoravid Koubba, Marrakech, Morocco
The only remaining remnant of the Almoravid dynasty, the Almoravid Koubba

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. 

Depending on your flight details you may wish to explore the kasbah area south of Jemaa el-Fna. Check out the Saadian Tombs and discover the 500-year old craftsmanship that went into its construction. Visit the sunken gardens of the 17th-century El Badi Palace as you work your way through the Mellah (Jewish quarter) and to the 19th-century Bahia Palace. Visit the only surviving Almoravid monument, the 12th-century Almoravid Koubba, before spending some time in the Marrakech Museum, housed in the 19th-century Dar Mnebbi Palace, and enjoy modern and traditional Berber and Moroccan art.

Map

Map of Marrakech, Quick Desert Tour & Essaouira - 8 Days
Map of Marrakech, Quick Desert Tour & Essaouira - 8 Days