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.