Marrakesh? Check. The souks of Fez? Been there, bought that. Jebel Toubkal? Climbed it, twice. So what else does Morocco have in store once you’ve ticked off its most popular sights? Plenty, according to Keith Drew, who selects seven places that are far from the madding crowds.
1. Uncover the Roman ruins of Lixus
Think of Roman sites in Morocco and you’ll probably picture the mosaic-floored houses of UNESCO World Heritage-listed Volubilis. Everybody does. Which is why you should head to the ruins at Lixus, 5km up the coast from Larache, instead.
This is one of the oldest inhabited sites in Morocco, at one time also occupied by the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians – and, as legend would have it, Hercules, who is said to have stolen the Golden Apples for his last-but-one labour here.
The site is not as visitor-friendly as Volubilis – there’s no signage, for example – but that’s half the attraction. With no modern-day markings marring the landscape and barely any other people around, it’s much easier to picture Lixus’ Roman inhabitants packing salt at its crumbling factories, worshipping in its deserted temple sanctuaries, or baying for blood at the Upper Town’s amphitheatre.
2. Trek across the Jebel Saghro
The majority of organised trekking in Morocco is concentrated on the Toubkal Massif, a hiking honeypot in the High Atlas mountains south of Marrakesh. So if you want to (literally) get off the beaten track, you’ll need to venture east instead, to the Jebel Saghro.
This is very different terrain – think dry river valleys and stark volcanic spires rather than snow-capped peaks – and a very different set-up. While guides can be hired in several of the trailhead towns, the Saghro region is much less geared up for tourism.
The recommended three-day traverse will have you hiking past weirdly eroded rock formations and across a barren landscape dotted with the black nets of local nomad tribes.
3. Explore the holy town of Moulay Idriss
It’s been little more than a decade since non-Muslims were allowed to even spend the night in Moulay Idriss, and foreign tourists visiting this holy town near Meknes are still few and far between.
Perched on the scrubby slopes of Jebel Zerhoune, Moulay Idriss is like a miniature Arabic version of an Andalucían White Town, its sugar-cube houses seemingly stacked on top of each other.
For views down into the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss himself, you should make a beeline for hillside Khiber – the town is named after the ruler of Morocco’s first independent kingdom. Otherwise, this is a sleepy place for aimless wandering rather than ticking off specific sights.
4. Take an epic road trip along the N2
Morocco’s forgotten mountains, the Rif see a fraction of the visitors who hike around the High Atlas. Partly, the range is more remote, lacking the accessibility provided by a big-town base like Marrakesh. And partly, the region – historically existing just outside government control and with a local economy still driven by the cultivation of cannabis, or kif – is altogether edgier.
But it is also quite beautiful, and with a bit of common sense, perfectly fine to explore by car. Drive the scenic N2 between Chefchaouen and Al Hoceima, and you’ll dip in and out of olive farms, cork oaks and cedar forests, travelling along the ridge of the mountains as they trace the Mediterranean for over 200km whilst enjoying spectacular views down towards the coast.
The route peaks at 1600m-high Bab Besen and leads through a couple of low-key kif towns (there’s no need to stop) before descending to the inviting waters of the Med.
5. Admire Art Deco architecture in Sidi Ifni
Heading to Morocco’s far reaches is usually a sure way of escaping the crowds, and the former Spanish enclave of Sidi Ifni, closer to the Canary Islands than to Marrakesh, is a case in point.
Characterised, like Casablanca, by its Art Deco architecture, Sidi Ifni’s location in the deep south of the country means that far fewer visitors clap eyes on its charming colonial buildings, bleached a pale cream by the sun and decorated in pastel-blue stripes and with floral motifs.
After admiring the eclectic ensemble – even the mosque is Art Deco – you can grab some fried squid at the hole-in-the-wall fish stands down by the market, or head 10km up the coast to Legzira Beach, bookended by dramatic rock arches the colour of burnt oranges.
6. Go back in time in Figuig
You’d be hard pushed to find anywhere further off the tourist trail than Figuig. This isolated oasis town is more than 380km from the nearest jumping-off points of Er Rachidia and Oujda, and in a dead-end corner of the country, on a border with Algeria that’s been closed since 1994.
Make the eight-hour journey through an unforgiving but bleakly beautiful landscape of red mountains and rocky desert, though, and you’ll find a place where time has seemingly stood still. Wander the parched, mud-brick alleyways, take shade under swaying palms and just drop off the radar completely.
7. Meet friendly locals in the village of Bhalil
Most foreign visitors see the Middle Atlas through the window of a bus, on the day-long drive down from Fez to Marrakesh. This means you’ll probably have the overlooked village of Bhalil pretty much to yourself.
In amongst the jumble of cockeyed pink and yellow buildings that stagger up its hillside are a number of dinky cave houses, cold and often cramped, but the home of local Berber families for as long as anyone round here can remember.
Berber hospitality is legendary, and anyone visiting these troglodyte dwellings will soon be sat in the “lounge”, wrapped in blankets and tucking into scaldingly hot mint tea with msammen pancakes.