Northern Atlantic Coast
This windswept coast is home to Morocco's cultured capital, Rabat, and its economic hub, Casablanca. The refined Moorish architecture and liberal attitudes on display in both cities are a far cry from the medieval medinas and conservative lifestyles of inland cities such as Fez and Marrakesh.
There's more to see than these big cities, though. Vast swathes of golden sand, small fishing villages, historic ports built by the Portuguese and fortified towns with vibrant medinas are scattered along the ocean's edge. Outside the towns, farmland rolls gently down to the sea and wetland reserves showcase rich migratory birdlife in autumn and spring.
The region is bookended by Asilah and Essaouira, famed for their medinas and surrounding beaches. There’s art to view, delicious seafood to eat and an extraordinarily rich history, from the Phoenicians to the protectorates, that is begging to be explored. Don't miss it.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Northern Atlantic Coast.
This opulent mosque, built at enormous expense, is set on an outcrop jutting over the ocean with a 210m-tall minaret that's a city landmark. It's a showcase of the finest Moroccan artisanship: hand-carved stone and wood, intricate marble flooring and inlay, gilded cedar ceilings and exquisite zellige (geometric mosaic tilework) abound. It's one of two Moroccan mosques open to non-Muslims; multilanguage guided tours are conducted outside prayer times for modestly clad visitors. There’s also a small museum showcasing the craftwork involved.
Don't miss a boat trip on the Merja Zerga (Blue Lagoon), roughly 1km south of town. Part of a 70 sq km namesake national park (4 sq km of water, the rest marshland) it attracts myriad migrant birds, including flamingos, making it one of Morocco's prime birdwatching habitats and North Africa's most important wetlands. Best times to visit are spring and autumn, but there are about 75 species year round. Enlist an expert guide; they'll pick you up from your hotel.
Surrounded by dramatic, wave-lashed ramparts, the narrow streets, hassle-free souqs, street vendors and vibrant galleries of Essaouira's walled medina make it a wonderful place to stroll. Dating from the late 18th century and added to Unesco’s World Heritage list in 2001, it was famously used in the opening scene of Orson Welles’ 1951 film Othello and, more recently, Game of Thrones.
Asilah’s compact medina is surrounded by sturdy stone fortifications built by the Portuguese in the 15th century. Enter through the Bab Al Kassaba and wander along its warren of alleyways, where the brilliant-white buildings punctuated with blue paintwork that match the sea and sky – many of which have been bought and restored by foreigners – are dotted with boutiques and galleries. Colourful murals painted each year during the Asilah Festival, as well as by local schoolchildren, make it exceptionally photogenic.
Head through the main entrance gate of the Unesco-protected Cité Portugaise off Place Mohammed Ben Abdallah, and on the left are the early 16th-century Church of the Assumption and the Grande Mosquée de Mazagan boasting a unique five-sided minaret. Stop off at the atmospheric vaulted cistern – La Citerne Portugaise (adult/child Dh60/25) – before scaling a steep slope up to the hefty ramparts, where the Bastion de L’Ange makes an excellent photo stop, with views out to the ocean and the port.
Conceived and funded by the present king, this museum opened in 2014 as the country's first national museum of modern and contemporary art. Alongside a permanent display of Moroccan artists dating from the 1950s to the present day, it plays host to temporary exhibitions from big-name international artists.
Set on a hill with spectacular views over the Loukos Estuary, the Carthaginian and Roman ruins of Lixus are evocative reminders that settlements on this coast are among the oldest in the country. And while it lacks the grandeur of Volubilis – much of the ruins have been eroded by time and the elements – you’ll be able to wander without the crowds. And now there’s a contemporary visitor centre with a fascinating display charting what’s known of the site’s history.
First came the Phoenicians, then the Romans took control of this beautiful hilltop site above the fertile Bou Regreg river plain around 40 CE. From 1154, it lay abandoned until the 14th century, when a Merinid sultan built a necropolis on top of the Roman site. An elegant minaret, now topped by a stork’s nest, is all that's left of a once-impressive mosque and behind it, the sultan's tomb, complete with stone carving and mosaic traces.
When the French arrived in the early 20th century, this walled medina by the sea was the full extent of the city. Built on an orderly grid in the 17th century, it is small enough to be easily explored in half a day, but tangled enough to make getting lost inevitable. The main market street is Rue Souika, with local shopping on its western stretch and shops geared largely to tourists in the covered Souq As Sebbat to its east.