Historic Sites to Visit in Morocco
A visit to Morocco is an intoxicating journey back in time where you’ll find snake charmers and bustling bazaars selling a dizzying array of exotic treasures alongside stunning architecture and ruins. Morocco lies along Africa’s northwestern coast with beaches stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The beautiful coastlines, combined with several mountain ranges and the Sahara Desert, give Morocco a diverse landscape. Given its strategic location just miles from Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco is awash in history with influences from Portuguese, Spanish, French, Roman, Arabian and Berberian cultures. You could spend weeks trekking and exploring Morocco’s multitude of historic sites, but these five shouldn’t be missed!
Ksar at Ait-Ben-Haddou
Founded in 757, Ait Benhaddou is an ancient earthen city constructed from clay bricks surrounded by thick, defensive walls and corner towers. The Ksar, which means a cluster of dwellings, has been a favorite of Hollywood producers — the Ksar at Ait Benhaddou was the backdrop in films and shows such as “Lawrence of Arabia," “The Jewel of Nile,” “The Mummy,” “Gladiator,” “Alexander” and “Game of Thrones.” Far more than just a film set, UNESCO added the Ksar at Ait Benhaddou to its list of World Heritage Sites in 1987 for its extraordinary examples of pre-Saharan earthen construction techniques and architectural authenticity. Although people still live in some of the dwellings, you can tour the buildings on your own or with a guide.
Medina of Essaouira
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Medina of Essaouira is an outstanding example of a mid-18th century fortified town loaded with European military architecture. Situated on the windy Atlantic coast, the Medina, or old part, has played an essential role over the centuries as a strategically significant international trading port. Originally called Mogador, Essaouira offers secluded alleyways, colorful fishing boats, ancient fort ramparts built by the Portuguese in the 1500s, abundant marketplaces, enticing food, exhilarating windsurfing and a vibrant music scene. You can also stop by the Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah Museum to see pottery, weapons, jewelry, tools and a fantastic collection of photographs of local architecture.
Medina of Fez
You may be starting to see a trend here, as the Medina of Fez has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list since 1981 (Morocco is home to nine World Heritage Sites). With roots back to the ninth century, Fez grew in importance during the 13th and 14th centuries when it replaced Marrakech as Morocco’s capital. Come to Fez Medina to see one of the best-conserved historic towns in the Arab-Muslim world.
You’ll find one of the world’s most complex city labyrinths and its oldest university, the University of Al Quaraouiyine, at Fez Medina. Be prepared to get a little lost among its tangled car-free alleyways and beautiful historic military, civil and religious monuments including palaces, leather tanneries, fountains, mosques and homes. You can even rent some of these exclusive properties and experience how people lived in the ninth century!
Historic City of Meknes
Continuing our UNESCO World Heritage Site trend, the Historic City of Meknes was added to the list in 1996 for its superb examples of well-preserved Spanish-Moorish architecture, including the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. The ambitious, ruthless Sultan Moulay Ismail had the imperial city built during the 17th century and is buried in the mausoleum. The tyrannical sultan ruled from 1672 to 1727 and housed as many as 60,000 slaves in a nearby prison whose sole job was to work on his final masterpiece: his resting place. You can visit the eerie, dank dungeons today.
You’ll find massive ramparts reaching almost 50 feet high and several amazing gates, with the largest and most impressive door to the city being Bab el Mansour. Believed to be one of the most stunning gates in Morocco, Bab el Mansour is well worth a visit to marvel at its elaborate patterns of green and white zellige tiles and engraved Koranic panels.
Archaeological Site of Volubilis
While yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, Volubilis dates back much further than many of Morocco’s other historic sites — Romans built this spectacular city around 40 A.D. on an old Berber settlement dating back to the third century. Volubilis served as the capital of ancient Mauretania and was one of the Romans’ southernmost cities.
Volubilis has seen 10 centuries of occupation, from pre-Roman to the Islamic period, until it was abandoned in the 11th century. Archeologists have discovered a substantial amount of artistic material, including marble and bronze statuary, beautifully preserved mosaics and hundreds of inscriptions. Many Volubilis residents were believed to be wealthy due to the rich agricultural opportunities the surrounding fertile land offered — and their homes reflect this. Be sure to visit the House of Orpheus, a large private home filled with stunning mosaics as beautiful today as the day they were created. The house also includes a private hammam (steam bath) with a solarium and hot and cold rooms. Although long-ago looters have taken the granite and marble to build structures in nearby Meknes and Moulay Idriss, many of the structures are incredibly well-preserved.