10 things to know before you go to Morocco

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on May 17, 2017. It was updated with details from a recent trip taken by TPG Credit Cards Editor Benét J. Wilson.

A trip to Morocco had been at the top of my travel bucket list for years. As I explored Tangier, Chefchaouen, Meknes, Fes, the Dadès Gorges, Merzouga, and finally, Marrakech, I was most impressed by the diversity of this fascinating country, especially its varied geography and dynamic people. Here are 10 lessons I learned as I navigated this colorful and hospitable country.

1. It’s a land of many languages

Due to its geographic location, colonial background and religious history, Moroccans speak many languages. During the rule of King Hassan II, Arabic and French were the official ones, but when he died in 1999, his son Mohammed VI became king and made Arabic and Berber — the language his mother spoke — the country’s official languages. As this shift occurred in just the last 21 years, many locals speak all three, if not more. Today, students learn Arabic and Berber in school, while also having the option to study a third language of their choosing, which is typically French or English. I was surprised at how many people also spoke Spanish.

To mix in with the locals, you
To mix in with the locals, you’d better brush up on your Arabic. (Photo by Leo Patrizi via Getty Images)

2. You’ll see the influence of many religions

While Morocco is considered a majority-Muslim country, there is a rich diversity of religions practiced here and you can expect to see mosques, churches and synagogues in all major cities. Additionally, about 40% of Moroccans identify as Berber, an ethnic group native to North Africa that predates its Arab inhabitants — their religious beliefs lie in nature and their symbol, as seen on the Berber flag, is the free man. You’ll see this symbol, as well as the flag, most frequently in the southern part of the country.

The Berber symbol for the free man can be seen painted across buildings in Morocco, but most notably found on their flag. Image courtesy of Gerard Puigmal via Getty Images.
The Berber symbol for the free man can be seen painted across buildings in Morocco, but is most notably found on their flag. (Photo by Gerard Puigmal via Getty Images)

3. Dress modestly

Ahead of my trip, I was advised to dress conservatively — advice I’m glad I heeded and will continue to perpetuate. As a woman, I was consistently covered from knees to elbows, and you’ll rarely see women dressed less conservatively than this, except for maybe some Westerners in Marrakech. I also chose to wear a scarf around my neck each day in case the opportunity arose to visit a mosque, but otherwise it was not required — nor expected — that I wear a headscarf. However, wearing a scarf came in handy when I later spent a night in the desert, as our guide expertly wrapped the scarf around my head Berber-style to simultaneously secure my hair from whipping in the wind, protect my head from the sun and shield my nose and mouth from the sand.

Yours truly traversing the Sahara in my Berber-style head wrap.
Lori Zaino traversing the Sahara in her Berber-style head wrap. (Image courtesy of the author)

4. You can’t drink alcohol, but there are workarounds

Aside from the arid climate of the Sahara Desert, Morocco’s agricultural industry thrives thanks to its otherwise fertile terrain. Driving through the countryside, you’ll find orchards of oranges, cherries, apples, peaches, bananas, olives, figs, dates and of course, Argan, next to neat rows of roses, thyme, rosemary, saffron, mint, strawberries, lentils and most palate-pleasing of all, grapes.

Morocco is a wine-producing country, with vineyards and wineries primarily operating in the Meknes region. As this is a majority-Muslim country, the opportunity to purchase wine is scarce — it can still be found in some grocery stores and restaurants that are geared toward tourists, but it’s illegal to sell alcohol to Muslims. So Moroccan wine is produced primarily for export to France.

However, our guides from Trips To Morocco were able to secure us wine and beer during our stay. You’ll also have ample opportunity to grab a few bottles from duty free as you exit the country.

If you eat it, it probably grows in Morocco. Image courtesy of Pavliha via Getty Images.
If you eat it, it probably grows in Morocco. Image courtesy of Pavliha via Getty Images.

5. Rock the kasbahs — and the riads

Many of the buildings you’ll explore or spend the night in Morocco are designed with two principles in mind: protection and modesty. Kasbahs, for example, were fortresses built to protect the family or a group of families living inside them. Their high walls were designed to be impenetrable and uninviting, while the inside was a calm and safe environment for family life.

Since the 1990s, many traditional Moroccan houses, known as riadshave been turned into guesthouses. Like kasbahs, riads are built with a modest exterior, but once you are welcomed into the inner courtyard, you’ll soon discover an ornate oasis. All guest rooms open to the center, encouraging a communal environment with your fellow guests — many riads also offer a rooftop terrace view that can’t be beat.

My view from the roof of the Riad l’Orientale in Marrakech. Those are two orange trees. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

6. Stay where the action is

While most cities offer a wide range of accommodation options, I’d recommend staying in riads that are located within the walls of the medina. Additionally, you should choose a riad close to the babs — or doors — of the medina, as medinas are winding passageways and you don’t want to have to travel too far dragging your suitcase over tiny cobblestone streets packed with people, donkeys and motorbikes. Also important to know: Wi-Fi, while pretty much universally available, is almost always based on the ground floor reception of your riad, so the further upstairs you stay, the weaker your connection will be.

Staying in the medina means quicker access to the souks. Image courtesy of xavierarnau via Getty Images.
Staying in the medina means quicker access to the souks. (Image courtesy of xavierarnau via Getty Images)

7. A local’s guide to tipping

In Morocco, you won’t find yourself short on opportunities to leverage locals for their advice. Most times, I felt inclined to offer compensation for their assistance, but at first I wasn’t sure of the custom, so I asked a trusted local in the tourism industry. He advised that for a nice service, a tip of 10% is typical. If you spend even a short time with a tour guide, a small tip is customary. The same applies in restaurants and for anyone who has generally gone out of their way to help you. For an artisan or craftsperson — someone you’d meet on a visit to the Fes tanneries, for example — purchasing their wares is preferable to a tip, however if you don’t want to buy anything, a small tip is always appreciated. Make sure you break down your Moroccan dirhams so you’ll have the proper amounts for tips.

Local artisans are happy to explain their creative processes–especially if it helps make a sale. Image courtesy of Hadynyah via Getty Images.
Local artisans are happy to explain their creative processes, especially if it helps make a sale. (Image courtesy of Hadynyah via Getty Images)

8. Go beyond Marrakech

If you only see Marrakech on your trip to Morocco, the journey is still well worth it. But there’s so much more to Morocco. To immerse yourself in the Berber culture, spend a night or two in Merzouga, a town on the fringe of the Sahara Desert’s dunes where you can venture via dromedary (a one-humped camel) to a one-of-a-kind slumber party in the desert. To experience a bustling medina, head to Fes where you can purchase everything from Berber rugs to mosaic pottery to authentic leather goods. And you’d be remiss to skip the dazzling blue city of Chefchaouen — not just for its Instagrammable photo opps, but also for the chance to catch the sun set over the Rif Mountains from the rooftop of your riad.

Explore more than Marrakech, such as Morocco’s Blue Pearl, Chefchaouen. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

9. Just say no to henna

If you do find yourself staying put in Marrakech, you’ll likely spend a decent amount of time navigating busy Jemaa el-Fnaa Square. Among the snake charmers and shop keepers, you’ll also be hocked by women offering, some very aggressively, to apply henna art to your hands. Our local guide advised us to avoid these women as this is usually just a setup for tourists — the ink they’re using isn’t the typical henna ink; instead, they’re using quick-dry chemicals that may irritate your skin.

Avoiding henna in the Jemaa el-Fnaa Square will save your sensitive skin. Image courtesy of Dave G Kelly via Getty Images.
Avoiding henna in the Jemaa el-Fnaa Square will save your sensitive skin. Image courtesy of Dave G Kelly via Getty Images.

10. Buy your spices at a Berber pharmacy

The towers of spices are beautiful, but your best bet is to buy them in the Berber pharmacies. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

In every medina, in every city, you’ll find rows upon rows of colorful spices. Your first inclination will be to snap a photo. Before you do, it’s respectful to ask the shopkeeper if you can take a photo of his or her shop. Fair warning: some may want you to pay a small fee to do so, or you may be excepted to buy something once you take your photos. Your second inclination will be to purchase some of these spices to take home. Instead, I was advised to buy them at the Berber pharmacies because, unlike the photogenic spice towers in the souks, these spices are kept in sealed containers and aren’t exposed to air pollution. I ended up buying cumin, harissa, Berber 44 spice mix (a cousin to curry), paprika, cayenne pepper, turmeric and coriander.

Additional reporting by Benét J. Wilson

Featured image by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy