Think of Morocco and you’ll invariably picture the souks of Marrakesh, the whitewashed walls of oceanside Essaouira, the High Atlas trails of the dramatic Toubkal Massif. Trouble is, so does everybody else. This well-trodden triangle is Morocco’s most popular tourist route – for good reason – but in a country that welcomes nearly ten million visitors a year, venturing just slightly off the beaten track can make all the difference to your trip. Here are five of our favourite low-key alternatives and unheralded highlights to get you started.
Morocco’s forgotten imperial city is more intimate and manageable than Marrakesh, Fez and Rabat, but in many ways just as rewarding. The souks of carpet traders, basketmakers, silversmiths and sweet sellers are on a smaller scale, which means there’s less hassle and the bargaining is more fun. But the Medina is only half the story. Just south of the old town lies the other half: the Ville Impériale, an immense walled complex of ceremonial gateways, subterranean vaults and vast granaries that once housed over fifty palaces. The lavish ensemble was the work of one man, Sultan Moulay Ismail, whose tranquil mausoleum (pictured above) is one of only three active shrines in the country that are open to non-Muslims.
Until the late 1990s, the only way into the glorious Aït Bouguemez was on the back of a mule. Tarmac is still something of a novelty here, and while a highly spectacular road now wends its way down to the lower end of the valley, the villages that dot its barren slopes still feel wonderfully remote. The hordes may flock to Toubkal, but trekkers in the know head northeast out of Marrakesh instead – the Aït Bouguemez’s peaceful trails include a variety of mountainous day-hikes, or you can tackle the multi-day ascent of Jebel M’Goun, one of Morocco’s highest peaks.
Taroudant was fleetingly Morocco’s capital before the Saadians upped sticks for Marrakesh five centuries ago, but while the Red City has become Morocco’s number-one tourist attraction, its predecessor has slipped slowly off the radar. Performers gather in the evening at the main square, Place Assarag, just like they do in Marrakesh’s more famous Jemaa el Fna, and there are a couple of interesting souks selling spices and jewellery from the Anti-Atlas. But Taroudant’s defining feature is its majestic ramparts, which encircle the town in its entirety – rent a bike and head out in the late afternoon, when the walls glow like toasted flapjacks.
Few tourists make it to Sefrou, an ancient market town near Fez that actually predates its more illustrious neighbour. Even fewer make it to Bhalil, five minutes’ further down the road and believed to be even older still. Suffice to say, you’ll have this intriguing little village pretty much to yourself. Bhalil is built on top of a network of caves, many of them still in use as troglodyte dwellings, and chances are you’ll be invited in for mint tea, pancakes and a large helping of genuine Berber hospitality.
Spending a night under Saharan stars is one of the real draws of the Moroccan south. Most people head to Merzouga, where the mighty Erg Chebbi dunes roll out to the border with Algeria. It’s a special place, deservedly popular, but the resulting clamour for camel trips – in high season, at least – can leave you wondering if there’s ever a crescent that's free of footprints, or a panorama that doesn’t feature bobbing tourists clad in blue. Instead, follow the Drâa Valley south to M’Hamid, a desert outpost beyond Zagora, and venture deep into the Erg Chigaga, 60km southwest of town. Camped in the lee of a dune, with just your camels for company, you’ll begin to appreciate what pure isolation really feels like.
Keith Drew is a co-author of The Rough Guide to Morocco.