A Digital Nomad’s Travel Guide to Morocco
The ultimate digital nomad’s travel tips, cultural itinerary, and style guide to Morocco including Marrekech, Essaouria, Atlas Mountains, and Sahara Desert.
Morocco is a fascinating country defined by its contrasting elements: a third world nation with first world tourism, a North African country heavily shaped by Arabic and European influences, and an Islamic nation that welcomes the West with open arms.
Add to that an extreme landscape that includes the Sahara Desert, Atlas Mountains, and Atlantic Ocean, and you can see how its overwhelming diversity is both its curse and its charm.
My partner and I decided to spend most of the month of January in Morocco in order to escape the gray skies of Berlin. We chose Morocco because it was relatively inexpensive and easy to get to, promised sunny and moderate weather (despite it being winter during the time of our travels), and fit in with our newfound mission to discover more of Africa.
Our trip included travel to Marrekech, the Sahara Desert, Essaouria, and the Atlas Mountains (I discuss each segment in depth in the itinerary section of this guide). I’ve divided this travel guide to Morocco into five sections for ease of navigation:
HISTORY AND CULTURE
When traveling to an unfamiliar place, I always like to educate myself about the history and culture. Your experience is much different when you have historical context.
Morocco is so diverse and has been defined by so many disparate influences that it would be a shame not to understand the basics before you go, particularly:
History of the Berber Culture
Arabic and Islamic Influence
French and Western Influence
Current president and his policies
Western Sahara politics
Morocco’s unique aesthetic
Winter has what would be considered spring-like temperatures to North Americans and Europeans but is mostly sunny. It tends to be mild during the day (60-70F) and cool at night (35-45F).
However the mountains have snowfall at this time and are much colder (I was freezing the entire time during our Atlas Mountain segment). Desert days are moderate given the glaring sun but the evenings are very chilly.
My personal experience is that it is generally safe in Morocco except for the aggressiveness of vendors and others who try to take advantage of tourists. It’s intense. That means you still need to be on guard.
The most common scam seems to be one where young men notice you are a tourist looking lost and confused, offer to help you in some way, lead you to some tourist trap shop, and then turnaround and demand a “fee for service.”
I also would not advise women to walk around alone. Not necessarily because something bad will happen to you but because you will be considered even more of a gullible target.
I spent half a day walking around alone and it was exhausting. I was approached by men every few minutes trying to give me directions I didn’t need, asking if I wanted to buy something I didn’t want, or most commonly offering to marry me.
Nomadic Matt has an excellent article about safety in Morocco that I can completely relate to. Additionally, please review any safety alerts provided by your country (see here for the US Department of State assessment).
Arabic and Berber (don’t confuse the two) is spoken on the streets, French seems to be spoken mostly by young educated Moroccons and used in academia and business, and English is widely spoken particularly anywhere tourists frequent.
Islamic and tolerant but please be sensitive to their customs specifically around drinking (in some place you can, but remember they don’t) and modest dress (which I discuss below).
I highly advise modesty in order to be respectful of local culture and religion but also not to draw undue attention to yourself (especially if you are a woman).
Women, at the least, should keep their thighs and shoulders covered. Men shouldn’t wear tank tops in public and no shorts in nice establishments. A swimsuit is ok at a pool or beach.
Lastly, be mindful of the weather and see my style and packing tips later in this guide.
There are no special vaccinations but make sure you are up-to-date on any essential immunizations recommended by your country, especially if you are a frequent traveler.
For many countries a visa is not needed for stays under 90-days but check your country-specific resoures to make sure.
At the time of our visit 1 dollar = 9 Moroccan dirham and 1 euro = 11.4 Moroccan dirham. Cash is king and there will be many instances where a card isn’t accepted. I advise you to withdraw money from the airport or any of the major national or international banks.
Morocco is inexpensive relative to the Western world but, with the exception of high end establishments, almost everything will be a negotiation. I’ll address shopping later in the guide but be ready to haggle. At first it will be exciting, then it will become annoying, and finally you’ll just come to accept it for what it is.
Go to the Maroc Telecom kiosk in arrivals hall of airport to get a SIM card because they have the best coverage. Have them install and make sure it works before leaving desk. They have a 100 dirham package for 5GB of data with international talk and text included.
We rented a car for a portion of our trip and typically use Sixt because of the quality of their vehicles.
The thing to know about driving is that Morocco is a police state. There are checkpoints on the roads all across the country which present a perfect opportunity for police corruption.
You can probably decrease the odds of being stopped by not having a flashy car and always going below the limit. There are also a lot of hidden radars right at the time of speed limit changes not always even giving you enough time to slow down before you are caught by a radar.
En route to Essaouira from Marrekech we got stopped on a bogus speeding charge when we clearly never went over the limit (nor did we have a flashy car). No proof was presented or even a receipt or piece of paper for the so-called ticket.
The police originally asked for 300 dirham and we “negotiated” basically by saying “oh wow that just seems like such a lot of money, we’re so sorry and won’t doing again” (really indirectly begging but never outright asking for a lower price). It helped that one of us spoke French because I’m not sure how this would have played out otherwise.
The police came down to 200 and then to 150 and eventually 100 dirham (his final price) that had to be paid in cash on the spot.
We also got pulled over again departing Essaouira but the police just checked our documents and let us go that time.
I use a variety of different resources to research accommodation but ultimately book on Booking.com because their rates are almost always the lowest.
Definitely stay at a riad or dar. The riad is a traditional manor home that has a garden in the center and is protected by high windowless walls to create a sanctuary of serenity.
In Marrakech and other towns many of these riads have been restored and converted to beautiful “authentic” accommodation for visitors
Dars are similar in concept but may not have the space for a full garden, though they often have a indoor pool.
Do not drink tap water and be extra sure that you only eat well done meat and cooked vegetables (unless they have skin/peels). I never get sick (this is not an exaggeration) but shockingly fell ill after dining at an upscale restaurant, so it’s worth being diligent about.
Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the local cuisine particularly because there are many vegetable-based options. My favorites were:
Moroccan mint or Verbana teas
Freshly squeezed juices
Tajine — Maghrebi dish named after its earthenware pot
Tangier — Typical Marrakechan dish
Harira — traditional lentil or bean soup
Avocado and date smoothies
Note that alcohol is not readily available. Many restaurants don’t have a liquor license so you may have to go to a specific bar or lounge in order to drink. Your riad may also have some basics in-house or can arrange any special requests.
We used dozens of sources to pull our itinerary together but if you are looking for a travel guide try Lonely Planet Morocco. I also reference useful segment-specific information in the itinerary section.
Segment 1: Marrakesh
I recommend spending 4-5 nights in Marrakesh to fully explore the Medina (i.e. the Old Town) and a bit of the new town without feeling rushed. I think any length of time beyond this could become exhausting.
We stayed at the Dar Assiya which is a small but gorgeous luxury riad in the middle of the Medina with stunning interiors and a beautiful rooftop terrace. They arranged to pick us up from the airport, breakfast was included in our stay, and dinner can be cooked by their in-house chef upon request.
Below is a sample itinerary with additional details that is modeled after our original agenda.
Arrive at Riad Dar Assiya — an elevated accommodation in the heart of the Medina.It was once an ancient Moroccan estate that has been expertly renovated to preserve its antique beauty while offering modern comforts.
Explore Jamaa el Fna, the famous and rowdy all-in-one market, open air theater, museum, market, square, and more in the middle of the Medina. It’s wild especially at night.
Later on walk over to NOMAD for dinner, which offers modern Moroccan healthy cuisine. Weather permitting, sit on the rooftop terrace and overlook the hustle and bustle of the Medina. Make a reservation beforehand via their website as they do book up quickly and note they currently do not serve alcohol.
After dinner, go right next door to Chabi Chic and purchase gorgeous handmade terracotta homewares. I picked up four beautifully handcrafted tea cups with gold leafing.
Have a glass of wine and browse the bookshelf back at Riad Dar Assiya before retiring for the evening.
Have breakfast on the rooftop terrace of Dar Assiya. They will provide a delicious spread with tea and coffee and a selection of breads and pastries. If you want a hot meal they have eggs but any special requests can be given the day before and they’ll be accommodating.
Get out early to start exploring the Medina (old town) again (note that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site). It’s best to wander aimlessly through the labyrinth of alleys (you will inevitably get lost).
Shop at the souks (“markets”) for an incredible array of carpets, bags, slippers, jewelry, scarfs, decor items, spices, beauty products, and anything else you can think of.
Be prepared to negotiate. A general rule is to let the vendor throw out a price, divide by half for your first offer, then work up from there.
That said, I personally chose to make the bulk of purchases at higher quality fixed price or low haggle shops (see mentions throughout itinerary) to get more unique, better made goods without the stress.
Once you work up an appetite have lunch at Le Jardin Restaurant, a lovely outdoor cafe with multiple terraces serving traditional Moroccan and European fusion (I believe it’s the sister restaurant of NOMAD).
After lunch, walk just a few steps aways to Byfaissal to pick up a few beautiful high-quality cotton, wool, and cashmere scarfs. This is a one-woman shop by designer/owner Faissal Bennouna. It’s also right next door to Le Jardin Secret Garden.
If you need a pick-me-up, go to Cafe des Epices for tea or coffee and sit on the upper terrace for the stunning view or sit on the lower patio to watch the market activities and see and be seen.
Finish exploring the souks, the Medina is one big market so you’ll have no choice. Then head back to Riad Dar Assiya to relax. Arrange for the chef to prepare you a special meal ater in the evening if desired.
Have breakfast on the rooftop terrace of Riad Dar Assiya.
Take a taxi to the new town to visit Jardin Majorelle, the lovingly re-designed garden by Yves Saint Laurent that houses exotic flora, trees, pavilions, pools and fountains.
It’s worth getting the garden, YSL museum, and Berber museum combo ticket as it allows you to skip the line and the museums are well worth it. Be sure to visit the onsite cafes and shops to round out your experience.
After the garden, walk across the street to a shop called Galerie Sangreal which has many of the artisanal goods you’d find in the souks but in better condition and more reasonably priced. I purchased a large wool floor rug for my office here.
Next, take a taxi to Grand Cafe de la Poste for lunch. This is in the new town which has a bit more of a western feel than the Medina.
Return to the Medina via taxi and explore the exhibits at the House of Photography. It’s a small but charming museum that has a private permanent collection of over 8000 photographs as well as rotating exhibits. It also has a lovely rooftop cafe.
If you are feeling active continue to wander the Medina for any unexplored treasures. If exhausted return to and relax at Dar Assiya. Borrow a book from the reading room, request a glass of wine, and have them light a fire.
Have breakfast on the rooftop terrace of Dar Assiya (no, it never gets old).
Book an appointment at Les Bains (des Marrakech). I personally recommend the Hammam, scrub, and seaweed wrap.
Right across the street from Les Bains are the Saadian Tombs. This is the final resting place of many members of the Saadi dynasty (you'll learn about them in your pre-trip reading). It is magnificently decorated with bright tiles, Arabic calligraphy, and intricate carvings.
Have lunch at La Famille Marrakech, a delightful vegetarian restaurant with stylish rustic decor. I believe they are only open during lunch hours.
After lunch, walk over to Le Jardin Secret. Plan to linger on these serene and enchanting grounds. The gardens are located in one of the largest and oldest riads in Marrakech and have been restored to the utmost of standards.
This was one of my favorite activities as it was a pleasant oasis and much needed retreat from the hectic souks and streets of the Medina. It was also pure eye candy with exotic plants, traditional architecture, towers, and waterways. There are also two cafes serving delicious snacks.
Return to Dar Assiya, have the chef prepare you dinner, then pack up and prepare for the next segment of the journey.
For additional sites and activities:
As an alternative to Dar Assiya try the beautiful Riad & Spa Demeure Bois Precieux.
Visit MACMA (Musée d’Art et de Culture de Marrakech) to see Moroccan artifacts and European Orientalism.
Ali Ben Youssef Medersa was closed for renovations when we were there but it’s a 14th century Islamic institution with beautiful architecture.
For more restaurants and nightlife try:
Al Fassia — popular traditional restaurant duo (2 places) ran by two sisters
L’ibzar – pre-fixe menu serving three traditional courses
Le 68 — cozy bar where Moroccans and European expats frequent
Kechmara — hip Marrakshi crowd, local art, groovy music and a low-key cocktail bar
Kechmara is a cosmopolitan but relaxed canteen with excellent food and hosts a full schedule of live music (from jazz to reggae) many evenings, and has an outdoor terrace
Segment 2: Sahara
There are three ways to explore the Sahara but no matter how you approach it I think you need a minimum of 3 days and 2 nights because of the distance from the major cities such as Marrekech to one of the main gateway towns such as Merzouga:
You can drive yourself and set up your own camp in the desert.
You can drive yourself to one of the “gateway” towns and coordinate with your accommodation or a tour guide to arrange your stay at a camp in the actual desert.
You can do an all-in-one tour and work with a company to plan your entire trip including pick up and drop off in Marrakech (or whatever city you originate from).
To us the most attractive option was to drive to a gateway town but then work with a local company to arrange our stay in the desert. Below is a breakdown of a possible agenda.
Day 1: Drive from Marrekech to Dades Valley (7 hours)
Start from Marrakesh early in the morning crossing through the High Atlas Mountains via the Tizin-Tichka which will offer stunning views of the landscape and Berber villages. Right before you get to Ouarzazate stop at Ait Benhaddou, a famous Kasbah classified by UNESCO and used for filming major movies. Head on to Ouarzazate and stop for a meal.
Then continue through the Skoura Oasis wihich hosts numerous ancient Kasbahs that stand amongst palm trees. Cross the Valley of Roses with a stop in the local village (where they sell cosmetics made from the roses). Finally, continue on to Dades Valley and stay the night at beautiful Chez Pierre Auberge.
Day 2: Dades Valley to Merzouga (5 hours) then Erg Chebbi
After breakfast start heading to Merzouga (the gateway town) and visit some of the key sites along the way particularly the Todra Gorges which is a series of limestone river canyons. The small mining town of Tinerhir is a base for visiting the Todra Gorges and you can start a hike from there if you choose then continue driving to Merzouga.
Merzouga is a gateway town to the Sahara and and this is where you can arrange your journey into the desert to see the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi. Your accommodation will likely pick you up, arrange a camel ride into the desert to their camp, and host you in a traditional nomad tent including meals and local Berber entertainment. Be sure to explore the stunning dunes and watch the stars at night.
For a comfortable stay, consider either Luxury Camp Berber or Azaward Luxury Desert camp as an alternative. Both are high-rated for their professionalism and have ensuite tents with your own bathroom.
Day 3: Merzouga to Agdz (4 hours)
Appreciate the sunrise and have breakfast at your desert camp before riding back via camel to Merzouga. From there start your journey home. You’ll pass through Rissani, the origin of the Alaouit dynasty, then cross a rocky desert terrain, see the Berber village of Alnif, and journey through the Draa valley. Stop in Agdz and stay at Maison d'Hôtes Kasbah Azul for the night.
Day 4: Agdz to Marrekech (5 hours)
After breakfast continue the final stretch back to Marrekech where you can stop and rest for the evening before your journey to Essaoria the next day. Unless you have the energy and can continue straight on to Essaouria.
Segment 3: Essaouira
I recommend staying 4-5 nights in Essaouria. It’s such a pleasant little beach town that staying any longer might compel you to permanently set up shop! This is a beautiful seaside fishing city (fun fact: it’s often used as a backdrop to Game of Throne episodes).
The vibe is so relaxed that it’s not worth breaking things down into a day-by-day agenda. It’s better to just go with the flow.
We picked up our car at the Marrakesh airport and drove about 2.5 hours before we arrived in Essaouria. We parked at the harbor/main square called "Place Moulay Hassan” and negotiated a rate that was about 30 dirhams a nights.
From there it was only a 5 minute walk to the Riad Baladin where we were staying. Out of nowhere an old man with a cart appeared and pushed our luggage to Baladin in exchange for a few coins.
Riad Baladin is a stylish “shabby chic” hotel in the middle of the old town that seems to attract a lot of hip, young professionals (including the cool young Frenchmen that manage the place). It has cute and cosy rooms (ours had a fireplace) but the main attraction is the multi-level rooftop terrace with a sea view where a delicious breakfast is served every morning.
Baladin also has a hot tub you can reserve and a few other amenities. The managers are also keen on offering you local recommendations. Be aware that they only accept cash for payment.
Here are a few highlights that I recommend:
Most of your time in Essaouria will be spent strolling the old town — just like in Marrekech but much more pleasant and manageable. You’ll notice a stark difference between the vendors and locals who aren’t as keen on hustling and harrassing.
You will still have to negotiate, it’s just not as intense. In fact, if you plan on going to Essaouria I’d even recommend you do most of your Souk shopping here instead of Marrekech. A few of the more elevated shops with unique goods include:
Le Comptoir Oriental — this is a stunning vintage bazaar and luxury homeware shop with a heavily curated range of furniture, textiles, glassware, ceramics and handicrafts.
Galerie Jama — this small shop is run by a young man who has an excellent eye for aesthetics. He has a collection of antique rugs, clothing, textiles, ceramics and other works of art.
Sidi Yassine — we purchased our organic Argan Oil from this small but chic shop. They have both body and cooking oils that come beautifully packaged.
Be sure to explore the defensive walls along the coast for a photo opportunity or venture into the fishing port and market for the smelly rowdiness. In the fishing market you’ll see one or two shacks with men out there grilling freshly caught fish and seafood.
It is definitely worth having lunch at one of these spots. Just walk up to the shack, pick out the seafood they have available, and they’ll grill it on the spot. Agree on the price when you order.
If you want to do something super unique try L’atelier Madada which is set in a restored former almond warehouse. This is a cooking school where you can learn the art of making tajines, couscous, and more. The experience includes the cooking lesson, market shopping, and meal preparation.
To go a bit off the beaten path, take a half day trip to Sidi Kaouki which is a super sleepy little beach town (if you can even call it that) about 30 minutes away that’s frequented by surfers. We strolled the beach, took beautiful photos, and had a delicious fresh fish platter at Le Kaouki (which is also a lovely hotel).
If you want, there are also men out on the beach offering horseback or dromedar (one hump camel) rides. Supposedly, La Mouette et les Dromadaires is also a cute cafe right on the beach.
In terms of dining, I’d recommend:
Salut Maroc for rooftop non-alcoholic drinks (the Riad itself is also stunning with a colorful, ecletic design).
The Loft for fresh fusion cuisine in a quaint but cool space.
La Table by Madada a fine dining option offering seafood restaurant and a lounge.
Zahra’s Grill which is right next door to Riad Baladin. The menu is mediterranean and it changes daily.
Umia — a classy and quaint restaurant with a small but delicious menu and open kitchen so you can watch the chef in action.
Segment 4: Atlas
I’d recommend three or four nights in the Atlas Mountains to give yourself enough time to take in the sheer beauty of the landscape and to get a firsthand experience of the Berber culture. It is about a 2 hour drive from Marrekech and 4 hours from Essaouria.
We stayed in the newly opened Hiba Lodge in the small village of Imlil and absolutely adored it. The lodge is perched against the mountain and offers stunning views from the terraces in every room. Additionally the ensuite rooms are thoughtfully designed with traditional Berber textiles and double fireplaces.
Our host Hassan, who manages the property, was 100% invested in our experience. He arranged our daily agendas which included delicious traditional meals and a few of the following options:
Guided mountain hikes
Hammam spa and bath
Traditional village walks
Skiing and snow sports
A highlight of our trip was that while on a hike we came across a shop carved out of the side of a hill with an amazing selection of traditional goods and textiles. It was ran by a man named Abraham and we had a lot of fun rummaging through his inventory and negotiating prices for these items we are sure to have for a lifetime.
We ended up taking home a leather pouf, oversized wool blanket, and large floor rug made from goat fur. Each of the pieces were handmade using cactus silk (an organic plant-based fiber) known for its quality used as a stronger and more environmentally-friendly alternative than silk made from silkworms.
All in all our mountain stay was a much-needed contrast to the hustle and bustle of the towns. From being invited to Tangine lunches in the homes of locals, to watching shepherds lead their sheep up and down the slope of the mountains to pasture, it was an unforgettable snapshot into the quiet, peaceful, and unassuming lives of the Berber mountain population.
We will return and I can’t imagine staying anywhere other than Hiba Lodge, but to offer a lovely alternative you can also consider Hotel Le Village du Toubkal.
STYLE AND PACKING GUIDE
As always, I try to pack light and smart. No matter where we go or for how long, we usually only take a small personal item and carry-on luggage.
However, knowing that we were going to want to bring home some local goods, one of us brought a larger checked piece of luggage. Our luggage is by Rimowa.
These capsule wardrobe travel outfit recommendations are based on the fact that the weather was sunny but still cool since it was winter time in Morocco. We both pretty much had daily uniforms to match the theme of each segment making it super easy to pack.
We went for a casual look that was comfortable for a lot of walking around but kept us still polished enough for the museums, gardens, and restaurants we frequented.
Aja — two pair of skinny jeans in white and denim, a few v-neck neck tees in different neutral colors, and a couple of lightweight cashmere crew sweaters all from Everlane. I also packed a pair of Birkenstock leather Yara sandals and the MZ Wallace Metro backpack (with an organizer insert).
Since we were in the car for long periods of time we adjusted our Marrkech uniforms by swapping in more comfortable bottoms and added a jacket since the weather dropped substantially at night.
The coast was similar in temperature as Marrkech. Dean didn’t change up too much from his Marrekech uniform. Just to mix it up a bit, I swapped into a heavyweight linen jumpsuit by Black Crane (from a few seasons back) and an oversized cashmere scarf I purchased from a shop in Marrkech.
It was cold and snowing in the mountains but we still wanted to hike so we wore heavyweight high-performance athletic gear.
DIGITAL NOMAD NOTES
Here are a few notes for fellow digital nomads to give you a sense of how I managed work during our Moroccan travels.
First, I organize the core tasks for my business by week (this includes planning, writing, creating, and promoting) so I can group similar activities for greater efficiency. That means every month I have a sense of what I should be working on during a given week.
Second, this foresight allows me to front-load important tasks before long trips to eliminate major interferences and distractions. It’s not worth traveling if you spend the whole trip working. So leading up to big trips I just commit a bit of extra time each day to cut down the load.
Frequent movement always tends to be the biggest disruptor to my ability to do work while traveling. To alleviate that, we designed this trip to spend longer blocks of time in each place we visited (4 days minimum) so we could feel a bit more settled.
When you travel with another person you have to be sensitive to their wishes so I let the itinerary for the day dictate where to fit in work. If we hadn’t already pre-planned our agenda, we’d pull some ideas together the night before just to have a little bit of structure.
Then I’d squeeze in about 2-3 hours of work either in the morning (preferred since I’m an early rise and my partner is not so this works out great) or in the evening while my partner is reading and relaxing.
Almost all of our accommodation in Morocco had wifi except for the Sahara Desert segment. I didn’t do any work during this period of time and was able to be fully present and enjoy the peacefulness of the desert.
I also have a go-to set of digital nomad travel tools that I rely on to keep me efficient no matter where I am in the world.