Chefchaouen: Planning Your Trip

Blue buildings in Chefchaeoun

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

Chefchaouen is undoubtedly one of Morocco's most picturesque towns and one of the world's most colorful cities. The locals simply call it Chaouen but to foreigners, it's known as "the Blue City." The streets and most of the buildings in the old part of town are painted sky blue, giving the entire city a postcard-like quality that is stunning to see in person. It's located in the Rif Mountains and is relaxed compared to other Moroccan cities, so it's a nice way to take a break from the commotion of Marrakesh or Casablanca. The blue buildings are what attract travelers to the city, but it's the laidback lifestyle and mountain backdrops that make them fall in love with it.

A Brief History

The city of Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 as a kasbah, or citadel, to fight off Portuguese invasions coming from the north. Soon after the city grew and became a hub for Moors and Jews who were forced out of Spain during the Reconquista.

The origin of the city's painted houses isn't clear, but it started sometime in the 20th century. There are various theories, some more romantic than others. One is that blue symbolizes the sky and heaven, and residents painted their homes to reflect that. Another theory is that newly arrived Jewish residents who were fleeing Europe during World War II started the tradition of painting their homes blue. Still others say that blue helps repel mosquitos or even that the government mandated the change to attract tourists. Whatever the reason, it's created one of the most idyllic cities in the world.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The best time to visit Chefchaouen is from May to September when the weather is warm and the skies are clear. Chefchaouen doesn't get as hot as other inland cities like Marrakesh or Fez, so summertime isn't quite as brutal. During the Christmas and Easter holidays, the city fills up with Spanish students on break from school.
  • Language: Moroccan Arabic is the language spoken by locals, but because of tourism many residents can converse at least partially in English, Spanish, and French.
  • Currency: The currency used is the Moroccan dirham. Market stalls and local eateries may not accept credit cards, so definitely carry cash with you (ATMs are available in the city).
  • Getting Around: Chefchaouen can be explored on foot, although many roads are narrow and steep with lots of steps. Taxis are also available for moving around outside of the historic center.
  • Travel Tip: The bus station is about 15 minutes downhill from the historic center, which can feel like an odyssey if it's very hot or cold or you have luggage. Taxis are always around the bus station to make the journey easier, just be sure to settle on a price before you get in the car.

Things to Do

The best part of visiting Chefchaouen is getting lost in the labyrinth of blue-tinted streets. The color of the houses against the mountain backdrop makes the entire city feel dream-like, and whether you're a photographer or not you'll want to bring a camera along. Get lost in the medina, which is the name for the old part of town, where you can shop for souvenirs, get scrubbed down in a hammam, or get a hand-drawn henna tattoo. The Plaza Uta el-Hammam is the heart of the medina and is the spot to take a break, drink some mint tea, and watch the world go by.

  • Shopping in the Medina: Chefchaouen is a dream to shop in especially if you're on a budget. There are loads of little stylish handbags, lampshades, and loose cotton clothes to enjoy. There are always stalls to browse, but the souk—or market—on Mondays and Thursdays in the medina is especially worth visiting. If you're looking for something more specific, you'd be better off shopping in Fez or Marrakesh where there are more options.
  • Kasbah Museum: Kasbah means citadel or fortress, and this museum explores the city's history when it was once used as a base to protect the region. For travelers who like to learn more about the cities they visit, this should be a stop on your Chefchaouen itinerary.
  • Spanish Mosque: The Spanish Mosque isn't just an important place of worship in the city, but it also offers some of the best panoramic views of the Blue City. It's about a 45-minute hike to reach it from Chefchaouen's eastern gate, but the views are worth the endeavor (especially if you get there for sunrise or sunset).
  • Hiking: The Rif Mountains that surround Chefchaouen are ideal for setting out on a day hike when the weather is nice. You can book a guided hike or just set out on your own right from the city. However, most of Morocco's marijuana farms are in the Rif Mountains, so don't stray too far from the path.

What to Eat and Drink

Traditional Moroccan cuisine is easy to find around Chefchaouen, especially the national dish of tagine. Tagine is stew of vegetables and meat—oftentimes lamb or sheep—that's slow roasted and served in a ceramic pot also called a tagine. Other typical menu items to try include couscous and harira, a tomato soup with chickpeas. The Chefchaouen region is known for producing olive oil and goat cheese, and you'll see both items for sale in the souk market from local producers.

Beer and wine are served at many restaurants that cater to tourists, but you won't find them widely available. To wash down your meals, you'll be served a a kettle of Moroccan mint tea, which is ubiquitous across the country. The tea is sweetened and includes fresh mint leaves to steep with the tea and can be enjoyed morning, day, or night.

Restaurants and cafes line one side of Plaza Uta el-Hammam with views of the Grand Mosque and the walls of the medina. Food stalls are set up as the sun sets, offering all kinds of delicious snacks. The restaurants and cafes offer traditional Moroccan fare as well as Western food.

Where to Stay

Where to stay depends on what type of experience you're looking for. Most accommodations are located in the hustle and bustle of the medina, which is right in the epicenter of the city's activity but isn't the most relaxing. If you're looking for a place to disconnect and enjoy the scenery, look for a room in the nearby mountains around the Spanish Mosque. The good news is that no matter where you stay, everything in the city is easily accessible by walking or a short taxi ride.

One thing to look for in your accommodation is a rooftop terrace. They're common in most hotels and hostels around the city, so make sure your selection has one. There's truly no better way to start the day than by having breakfast overlooking the Blue City as the sun rises.

Getting There

Getting to Chefchaouen is easy as there are daily buses to and from Tangier, Casablanca, and Fez. Tangier is the closest major city and about three hours away, while Fez is four hours away by bus and Casablanca is six hours. Cities off the main tourist circuit like Tetouan and Meknes are even closer.

From Tangier you can also take a grand taxi, which is a shared vehicle used for traveling long distances. You'll just pay for your seat and it's a very inexpensive way to travel around, but if other passengers are going to different places and you're dropped off last, it may take a while.

Culture and Customs

  • In Chefchaouen and most Arab cultures, the left hand is considered unclean. When you're eating or pointing to something, always use your right hand to do so.
  • In Islam, Friday is the holy day of the week and many shops or restaurants may be closed down, so plan accordingly.
  • Even though Morocco is generally a safe country to visit, women walking alone are likely to receive unwanted attention from men.
  • Amateur photographers often snap photos of locals without asking permission and the residents have understandably become averse to having their pictures taken. If you want a picture of someone, always ask first and don't feel snubbed if they decline.

Money Saving Tips

  • To have access to cellphone data, buy a local SIM card in any tobacco shop or electronics shop. You'll be able to access maps or look up places to see at a fraction of the price you would pay for international roaming.
  • Taking a grand taxi from Tangier is the most affordable way to get to Chefchaouen. They aren't always the most reliable method, but it's sure to be a memorable experience.
  • Bartering isn't just for the markets, but pretty much everywhere (apart from restaurants). If you're paying for a taxi, car rental, or tour, always try and lower the price before you accept.