Morocco is like Disneyland for history buffs. Sprawling bazaars overflowing with aromatic spices; imposing kasbahs nestled among high mountain peaks; majestic minarets towering above ancient city streets. Or, to put it another way, there’s a lot to see. So if you want to scratch beneath the North African country’s historic surface, it can be tough to know where to start. Fortunately, we’ve made your trip planning easier by rounding up the six best historic sites in Morocco.
There’s no shortage of claimants to the title of Morocco’s most fascinating medina — the typically walled old section of a town or city — but if you’re going to put us on the spot, Fes Medina gets our vote.
Take a second to close your eyes and picture Morocco, and you’re basically imagining Fes Medina; a maze of narrow winding streets, madrases, palaces, mosques, caravanserais, and fountains. It’s the historic heart of Fes, which was founded back in the 9th century. The city reached its zenith in the 13th – 14th centuries under the Marinid sultans, who made it their capital.
Today, Fes Medina is recognized as one of the largest and most perfectly preserved of all the Arab-Muslim world’s historic towns. As well as its stunning architecture, the site speaks to a culture and way of life that still survives and thrives despite the encroachment of the modern city of Fes, with its population of more than a million people.
Citadel of Ait Ben-Haddou
Nicknamed “the door of the desert”, the town of Ouarzazate is practically overflowing with historic gems. And two of those have made it into this article.
First up is the Citadel of Ait Ben-Haddou, which truly needs to be seen to be believed. Clinging to the side of a hill, this jumble of red earthen houses huddled behind impressive clay defensive walls is a classic example of south Moroccan desert architecture. Although the oldest parts of the citadel date back to no earlier than the 17th century, the construction techniques and materials have been used in the country’s southern valleys for hundreds — if not thousands — of years.
If Ait Ben-Haddou looks familiar, that could be because it appeared in Game of Thrones as the Yellow City, Yunkai.
Portuguese Fortress of Mazagan
Not all of Morocco’s historic sites are specifically Moroccan. The fortress of Mazagan, for instance, was built by the Portuguese as a colonial stronghold on the Atlantic coast to safeguard their trade routes between West Africa and India. Dating back to the early 16th century, it was captured by the Moroccans in 1769. And it now forms part of the city of El Jadida.
With its thick ramparts and jutting bastions, Mazagan is a textbook example of how Europe’s Renaissance architects designed military structures. As well as the vast walls, the fortress is still home to a host of historic Portuguese buildings. Examples include the late-Gothic cistern and the Church of the Assumption.
Volubilis Archaeological Site
One of the most well-known historic sites in Morocco is the archaeological site of Volubilis, which houses remains dating back to the pre-Roman period.
Serving as the capital of the Mauretanian kingdom from AD 25 – 40, Volubilis in its prime was a city of vast wealth. This fortune was largely earned through its extensive olive groves and oil production. These riches are apparent today in the excavated houses of the site’s northeast quadrant, which are decorated with elaborate mosaic floors and painted walls. In their heyday, many of these homes even boasted their own bathhouses. The most impressive of these buildings is the House of Orpheus. Here, important mosaics of the Ancient Greek hero Orpheus and a dolphin can still be made out.
Beyond the residential properties, visitors to Volubilis can see the remains of Galen’s Thermal Baths with their sophisticated underfloor heating. Not to mention the marble Triumphal Arch built in AD 217 to honor Emperor Caracalla and his mother.
Hassan Tower, a major historic attraction in the north of Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, is undeniably impressive. But it’s equally fascinating as a representation of what might have been.
The tower was commissioned in the late-12th century by Almohad Caliph Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur. He had ambitious plans for the structure. Under his vision, it was destined to become the world’s tallest minaret and the crowning glory of the largest mosque in the western Muslim world.
History had other ideas. Al-Mansur died in 1199 and work on the mosque was halted. What you see today is the unfinished tower, consisting of the minaret, 348 columns, and the beginnings of several walls.
Built entirely from sandstone, the Hassan Tower stands at 44 meters tall. This is well short of its intended height, which could have been as tall as 80 meters. Had it reached those proportions, it would have been slightly taller than the original Giralda of Seville’s Great Mosque, which was the tallest building in the world in its day.
Despite its height, the tower was built without stairs. Instead, the summit is reached by a series of internal ramps, which are wide enough that the muezzin could ascend on horseback to give the call to prayer.
The second of our recommendations in historic Ouarzazate is the Kasbah of Taourirt, which — for want of a better description — looks like a giant sand castle. Venture a little closer and you’ll see it’s not actually made from sand at all. It’s actually built from a mixture of straw and earth, which makes its continued survival all the more impressive.
Believed to date back to the 17th century, the kasbah was taken over in the 19th century by the Glaoui — a militaristic Berber clan who played a powerful role in Moroccan political life up until the mid-20th century.
While many kasbahs of its era fell into abandonment and inevitable decay, Taourirt still shines today. This is thanks in part to its role in a series of Hollywood blockbusters, including Gladiator and Prince of Persia.
Something Extra: Wellness Retreats
After you’ve toured these incredible sites and before you return home, indulge in one of Morocco’s specialties, the wellness retreat. It’s an ideal transition between the sensory overload of Morocco’s bazaars and historic sights and the busy “real life” that awaits you back home. Before you return to a world that places endless demands on your time, take a few days to reclaim peace and serenity through meditation, yoga, or spa experiences in one of the dozens of sun-baked, palm-fringed desert oases that help make Morocco one of a traveler’s most memorable destinations.
Explore the best historic sites in Morocco on one of their group tours to the country, such as the nine-day Totally Morocco tour, which takes in Volubilis, Ouarzazate, and the Imperial Cities of Fes, Rabat, and Meknes, as well as the vibrant hub of Marrakech.
Phil Norris is a freelancer who writes about travel (and sometimes also about marketing). Beyond travel, he loves his cat and wearing a vest under an open shirt. Take a look at Phil’s travel writing portfolio here.