Morocco’s biggest city, Casablanca, is a cosmopolitan urban hub known for its Mauresque architecture and impressive selection of restaurants, shops, and cultural venues. It’s also a great base for exploring the surrounding area, including the fishing villages and beaches of the central Atlantic coast and the Imperial Cities of the interior. If you plan on taking multiple day trips, renting a car is probably the most convenient way to get around. Otherwise, take advantage of Morocco’s safe and efficient train network, or sign up for guided tours that include transport to and from Casablanca.
Rabat: Eclectic Architecture in the Capital
Rabat is Morocco’s capital and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Expect beautiful architecture that ranges from 12th-century structures like the Almohad ramparts and gates to the French-era Ville Nouvelle. Unmissable attractions include the Hassan Tower and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, conveniently located opposite one another on the Yacoub al-Mansour esplanade. The tower was commissioned to be the world’s tallest minaret in 1195 but never completed; while the mausoleum acts as an ornate final resting place for King Hassan II, his brother, and his father. Don’t miss the historic citadel known as Kasbah of the Udayas with its beautiful Andalusian Gardens; or the shops of the peaceful medina.
Getting There: If you have your own car, Rabat is one hour’s drive northeast of Casablanca along the coastal road. Alternatively, there is a direct train service that takes just under an hour and costs 40 dirhams for a second-class ticket.
Travel Tip: Save your souvenir purchases for Rabat, where the souks are much less touristy and prices are more reasonable than in the other Imperial Cities.
Salé: Authentic Moroccan City on the Coast
The coastal city of Salé is separated from Rabat by the Bou Regreg river. Founded by Berbers in 1030, it has played many roles in the almost 1,000 years since. Once a haven for Barbary pirates and an independent Republic, it’s now a commuter town for Rabat with a traditional atmosphere and a refreshingly slow pace of life. The medieval walled city, or medina, hosts several authentic souks perfect for relaxed souvenir shopping. It is also home to a series of important religious shrines and the 11th-century Great Mosque; the third-largest in Morocco. After exploring the medina, wander down to the shore to watch fishermen unloading their catch from brightly painted wooden boats.
Getting There: It takes roughly one hour and 15 minutes to drive in a northeasterly direction from Casablanca to Salé. It’s also just one stop further than Rabat on the direct train service from Casa Voyageurs.
Travel Tip: The medina’s Souk El Ghezel is particularly interesting on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, when Moroccan women use it as a stage for auctioning traditional arts and crafts.
El Jadida: Medieval Portuguese Fortifications
The coastal city of El Jadida was seized by Portuguese settlers in 1502 and became the site of a European citadel and fortification known as Mazagan. It remained under Portuguese control until 1769, and is now protected by UNESCO as one of the earliest examples of a Portuguese settlement in West Africa. Come to admire the grand Renaissance-style bastions and ramparts of the fortification, and the impressive old town and ocean views from atop the patrolman’s walkway. Other important Portuguese landmarks include the vaulted, subterranean cistern and the Church of the Assumption. Afterwards, discover the town’s abundant seafood restaurants and beaches for swimming and surfing.
Getting There: The drive from Casablanca to El Jadida takes around one hour and 20 minutes. It takes roughly the same time to travel by train, with second-class tickets costing 37 dirhams.
Travel Tip: If you come in peak summer and want to spend time on the beach, El Haouzia beach (half an hour outside El Jadida on the road back to Casablanca) is a cleaner and less crowded option for those in the know.
Oualidia: Lagoon-Based Birdwatching and Oysters
Oualidia is an idyllic, sleepy coastal village located roughly 65 miles south of El Jadida on the edge of a natural lagoon. This lagoon creates the perfect conditions for the village’s two main claims to fame: oysters and birdwatching. The oysters you can sample in Oualidia’s quality seafood restaurants, while the bird list includes more than 400 species (many of them migrants en route to and from Europe). Keep an eye out for blush-colored flocks of greater flamingos, golden plovers, and a critically endangered subspecies of the common buttonquail. In addition, Oualidia’s lagoon is ideal for families, with a perfect crescent of golden sand and waters that are protected from the surf by a rocky breakwater.
Getting There: Oualidia is approximately two hours and 20 minutes from Casablanca by car; simply follow the A1 southwest out of town. If you don’t have a car, take the train to El Jadida and travel onwards from there via taxi.
Travel Tip: Spring and fall are the best seasons for birdwatching. You can arrange kayak-based birding tours through La Sultana Oualidia hotel.
Safi: Epic Surfing in Morocco’s Ceramics Capital
If you’re willing to spend five hours round trip in the car, Safi is another rewarding day trip option. It’s one of the oldest cities in Morocco, having been founded during Carthaginian times. Its medieval fortress tells of a period of Portuguese rule that lasted from 1488 to 1541; after which it became a major Moroccan port. Nowadays, Safi is most famous for its wild Atlantic surf breaks and brightly colored ceramics. If you have your heart set on an authentic, hand-painted tagine pot you will find one in the medina stalls; or in the workshops of Potter’s Hill. Here you can watch as the potters craft their wares in traditional earthen kilns.
Getting There: Safi is located 2 1/2 hours by road from Casablanca; simply continue along the A1 from El Jadida. CTM also offers a bus service to Safi, but it takes too long to be viable for a single day trip.
Travel Tip: If you’re an experienced surfer, try and visit between December and March when big winter swells ramp up the action on the Atlantic coast.
Meknes: Imperial Grandeur and Excellent Cuisine
The Imperial City of Meknes delivers the best of both worlds: all the grand architecture befitting an erstwhile national capital and home of the Moroccan sultanate, with fewer crowds and overzealous touts than Fez or Marrakesh. The remains of three different fortifications allude to its historic importance, while the 11th-century medina is another of Morocco’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Be sure to bring your camera to photograph stunning Moorish landmarks including Bab El Mansour (a striking monumental gate covered in geometric tiled patterns), the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, and the remains of the Royal Stables. In the evening, El Hedim Square is the place to be for street artist performances and stalls selling mouthwatering Moroccan cuisine.
Getting There: The drive from Casablanca to Meknes takes two hours and 40 minutes one way. You can also take the train; the direct service takes three hours and 10 minutes and costs 95 dirhams.
Travel Tip: Meknes is known for its abundance of quality restaurants. For exquisite French fare and floor-to-ceiling views of the city, try Bistrot Art & Le Wine Bar.
Marrakesh: A Feast for the Senses and Shopping Galore
Another of the four Imperial Cities, Marrakesh is probably the most popular tourist destination in Morocco. It offers a gloriously chaotic cultural immersion, defined by the myriad sights, sounds and scents of the medina souks. Here you will find stalls selling everything from jeweled slippers to stacks of exotic spices, manned by vendors who quote sky high prices at first but will happily enter into lively negotiations. In between shopping sprees, look for architectural gems like the Saadian Tombs and El Badi Palace; or stop to watch the snake charmers and acrobats in Djemma el-Fna. Marrakesh restaurants serve a full spectrum of cuisines from around the world, from Moroccan tagines to pizza and sushi.
Getting There: Marrakesh is also two hours and 40 minutes by road from Casablanca. The direct train takes the same time, with second-class fares starting from 121 dirhams.
Travel Tip: If you’re planning to travel in June or July, check to see whether your time in Marrakesh coincides with the annual Popular Arts Festival, held in Djemma el-Fna and El Badi Palace.
Volubilis: Amazingly Intact Ancient Roman Ruins
Twenty-five miles north of Meknes lie the partly excavated ruins of Volubilis, a previous capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania and one of the southernmost cities of the Roman Empire. The king responsible for building Volubilis, Juba II, was Berber but his wife was the daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Her Roman influences are clearly visible in what is left of the capital’s forum, basilica, and triumphal arch. Before being lost to local tribes in 285 AD, Volubilis became an important outpost of the empire. The wealth of its citizens is evident in the magnificent floor mosaics of its excavated townhouses – the most impressive belonging to the House of Orpheus.
Getting There: If you have your own car, you can drive to Volubilis in just over three hours. Otherwise, take the train to Meknes and arrange a taxi from there.
Travel Tip: If you’re willing to get up before sunrise, you can make it to Volubilis in time to see the ruins painted gold by the soft light of early morning. This is the best time for photography.
Fez: The Oldest of Morocco’s Imperial Cities
Founded in 789 by the first sultan of the Idrisid dynasty, Fez is the oldest of the country’s imperial capitals. It’s famous for its atmospheric medina, Fes el-Bali. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site with a reputation for being one of the best-preserved historic towns in the Arab-Muslim world, it constitutes a labyrinth of winding alleyways lined with stalls selling artisan crafts from all over Morocco. The leather souk is known for its traditional tanneries, where hides are cured and stained in vast vats full of colorful dye. Fez also has more than its fair share of architectural wonders. Amongst them is ninth-century Quaraouiyine Mosque, home to the oldest continuously functioning university in the world.
Getting There: The drive from Casablanca to Fez takes around three hours and 15 minutes. There’s a direct train service, too; but at almost four hours, it may be unrealistic for a day trip.
Travel Tip: There’s so much to explore in Fez. Why not make it an overnight trip with a stay in a traditional riad like top-rated Riad Le Calife?