There are several important facts about one of the world’s most popular and fascinating travel destinations that you should take into account when planning a visit.
Rabat – Morocco is a captivatingly beautiful travel destination in North Africa, attracting nearly 13 million tourists in 2019 alone. Its renowned diversity lies in a splendid blend of cultural influences, religion, and a wide range of iconic landscapes.
It is a different world compared to the West, which is why it is important to learn about Morocco’s culture, customs, and major sites before visiting the country.
Morocco’s culture is greatly influenced by North Africa’s native people, including the Amazigh (Berber) tribes, and, through history, by visitors from the East (Arabs, Jews, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians), the North (Romans, Andalusians, and Moors), and the South (sub-Saharan African peoples). The colonial legacy left by both France and Spain is also tangible.
The country’s essence derives from a mix of Amazigh, Jewish, and Arabic culture, as well as religion. Islam is the official state religion in Morocco, although Christians, Jews, and other devotees enjoy freedom to worship in their respective ways.
You might want to visit Morocco because of the countless times you’ve seen it on screen in Hollywood films or the magical tales you’ve been told by your friends that have visited.
Having said that, those films and tales may have missed certain elements that are important for you to know as you plan your visit. These are some key pieces of knowledge to absorb before traveling to Morocco.
Most Moroccans are multilingual, with Arabic and Amazigh as the official languages. The country’s Amazigh use three main dialects: Tachelhit, Tamazight, and Tarifit, while the rest speak Moroccan Arabic, or Darija.
Besides standard Arabic, Darija, and Amazigh, many Moroccans also speak French, considering it the first foreign language. English is the second foreign language, while Spanish is commonly spoken in the North.
Because of the diversity in languages, Moroccans may switch languages mid-sentence or use three different languages in one remark, which can be a bit confusing for monolinguals. Nonetheless, Moroccans are also very friendly and will typically do their best to communicate with you despite any language barrier.
Generally, you can get by with English or French in large cities, but when heading out of urban centers you will probably need a translator to communicate with rural residents.
Important Darija terms that you must know are:
– Shukran: Thank you;
– La, shukran: No, thank you;
– Aafak: Please;
– Smaahli: Excuse me/Sorry;
– Balak: Watch out/Move out the way. You won’t necessarily use this last word but you will likely hear it — it is mostly used in souks (traditional markets) by hagglers, hustlers, mule-drivers, and people on motor scooters to caution you to step out of harm’s way.
Just like its language, Moroccan cuisine also involves variety. Colorful and delicious dishes and a mix of meat, vegetables, spices, and sweets will keep you wanting more and may even prompt you to integrate them into your own diet in the long term.
Among Morocco’s most famous foods are couscous, tajine, harira (a tomato-based soup), and pastries made with almonds and honey. In each Moroccan restaurant you will likely get the chance to sample most of these dishes, and others, at affordable prices.
Spices, especially cumin, are essential on every Moroccan table and feature in almost every Moroccan dish, including tajine, roasted lamb, fish, eggs, and others. Most common Moroccan foods contain meat or gluten, so if you are vegetarian/vegan or have a gluten allergy, it’s good to be careful and ask for specifics about your chosen dish. You can ask “Wash fih elham?” (Is there meat in this?) and “Wash fih elgluten?” (Is there gluten in this?) to make sure you’re in the clear.
Restaurants will typically also serve non-Moroccan food, such as Chinese, Spanish, or Italian cuisine, or just plain burgers and fries. Bread also plays a significant part in the Moroccan cuisine: Moroccans have bread at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Fresh squeezed orange juice is sold almost everywhere in Morocco, from its rural towns to its bustling new cities to its ancient medinas, alongside other refreshing drinks such as avocado and banana juice.
Read also: 10 Most Delicious Moroccan Foods
Mosques and monuments
Morocco is ornamented with different architectural styles, reflecting the country’s rich history. Every group that passed through Morocco throughout history has left its mark in the form of monuments.
There are fascinating monuments in almost every city in Morocco, especially Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, Rabat, Tangier, and Essaouira. Moroccan mosques are grand and captivating, but unfortunately, most of them are not open to non-Muslims.
Other structures that feature impressive Islamic designs are the Ali Ben Youssef Madrasa museum and Bahia Palace in Marrakech, Al-Attarine Madrasa, and the Dar Batha palace-turned-museum in Fez, and the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail in Meknes.
To move around Morocco you can choose from several different methods of transport that are accessible in every city, from small taxis to buses to trains.
In Morocco there are two different types of taxis: Small taxis (petit taxi) and big taxis (grand taxi). Small taxis only have the right to move around within one city and are usually fitted with meters. Each city has a different small taxi color, and you can hail one either by waving or by hiring one from their post in the city.
Note that small taxis are shared by up to three passengers, so if you and a travel companion choose a small taxi, another passenger may join you along the way.
Big taxis are big, often old Mercedes Benz cars or vans that can transport passengers both within and between cities. They are often the cheapest way to travel from one city to another but not necessarily the most comfortable. Usually, the driver has to wait until all the six seats in the car are full, but you also have the option to pay extra to have the taxi all to yourself.
Trains are safe, cheap, and comfortable. The first class is air-conditioned and has reserved seats. Taking the train to travel in Morocco is a great choice because you will get to watch the country’s landscapes from a comfortable seat, with the option to pull down the shade and drift off for a nap.
High-speed rail is also available for certain routes, and comes with special amenities such as in-seat chargers for your devices. Tramway transport is only used in Casablanca and Rabat-Sale.
Folk music and dancing
While visiting Morocco you are bound to hear different music genres and see various dance performances, either in the ancient medinas, at a special show, or during a festival.
Moroccan music and dances are an integral part of the country’s culture and heritage. They are rooted in the Arab, Amazigh, and African cultures. Moroccan music showcases variations of Amazigh folk, Gnawa, Rai, Chaabi, and Andalusian styles, all telling different stories that vary from one region to another, which gives the fabric of Moroccan rhythm its magical texture.
The Amazigh folk music and dances are very distinct. They are colorful and tell stories and traditions of different Amazigh tribes in Morocco, accompanied by the sounds of flutes, tambourines, and rhythmic hand clapping. Some famous traditional Amazigh music and dances are Taskiwin, Ahwash, Ahidous, Ouais, and Guedra.
Gnaoua is another famous spiritual Moroccan music that has sub-Saharan roots. It is usually performed by men as they jump and perform acrobatic movements to the sounds of “Qarqab” and “Ghaita” while chanting and singing. Morocco hosts “The Gnaoua World Music Festival” annually in Essaouira, with thousands of people attending every year.
Chaabi pop music is the music you will mostly hear in humble coffee shops or in markets, but also at weddings and celebrations. Its singers usually employ Darija, telling stories of love, life, and loss.
Sufi music is important in religious rituals, considered a way of meditation and coming closer to God through chanting and dancing.
Morocco’s classical Andalusian music is a genre of Arabic poetry chanted in different styles and using instruments such as the oud and rabab (both similar to the lute), darbouka (goblet drums), taarija (tambourine), qanun (zither), and kamancha (a bowed string instrument). You will often hear this type of music in eid celebrations or at Moroccan parties.
Morocco is more than just Marrakech
Marrakech is justifiably popular for its status as an oasis desert city, the labyrinthine alleyways of its medina, the high mountains in its surroundings, and its many memorable monuments.
Fortunately you can venture beyond Marrakech for most of your trip, and you will get to explore and see even more than the ochre city’s offerings.
Other cities you must visit during your Moroccan trips are Fez, for its maze-like medina; the gorgeous seaside town of Asilah on the northern coast, known for its vibrant street art; Chefchaouen, with its striking blue houses and green and brown mountain scenery; and Essaouira, Sidi Ifni, and Taghazout for their stunning beaches.
Ifrane is also an appealing destination for its beauty and position in the mountains, offering great hiking opportunities and even the chance to ski during winter. Merzouga in the golden Sahara desert and the traditional Amazigh city of Taroudant, in the Souss Valley of southern Morocco, are also well worth the trip.
Visiting Morocco can be a magical experience that you will remember for years to come. Perhaps you will visit on a solo soul-searching journey or for nature exploring, or you may travel with your friends and family.
However you come to Morocco, knowing more about the country and those elements that distinguish it from other destinations is a wise move. Keeping these things in mind will definitely impact your experience, making your trip even more interesting as well as helping you connect with Morocco’s people.