Disclaimer: My weeklong stay was fully hosted by the United Nations World Tourism Organization and Visit Morocco, as part of the annual Executive Council meeting in Marrakech in November 2022. As always, all opinions are my own.
Hotels and activities that I recommend in this piece are linked to an affiliate account, which allows me to earn a tiny bit of change for the insider knowledge I share at zero cost to you.
Within two days of my first visit to Morocco, I knew I’d return and stay longer on a future trip. I’d bring a large suitcase, too. As an Ethiopian by heritage, there were many aspects of Moroccan culture that felt familiar and hit deeper: the mint tea ceremony (for Ethiopians, it’s coffee, but we also love spiced tea), the Berber musical groups and their acoustic instruments and chanting, the artisanal talent—from the textiles to ceramics and wood—and the traditional clothing.
But then there were the intriguing cultural differences, from the multiple course meals that were an interesting mix of sweet and savory, with almonds and olives making a frequent appearance, to the hammam spa treatment, and the breathtaking architecture of the riads that are tucked inside the Medina (the old walled city).
We spent our days in Marrakech, as well as in Agafay desert—just an hour drive outside of Marrakech—and Essaouira, which was a longer three-hour drive to Morocco’s western Atlantic Coast. By far, Essaouira was my favorite, but all of these five experiences provided a fully immersive experience in a short time, and a solid glimpse of Moroccan culture and history, as shared by local guides and 100% locally-owned businesses.
Here are five experiences and places to stay that you should consider on your next visit to Marrakech or to Morocco generally.
Lounge and Dine at Riad Kniza in the Marrakech Medina
While our hotel during the week was the Jaal Riad, a beautiful resort in Marrakech with leafy gardens and stunning architecture, but with an impersonal feel if I’m honest. I fell more in love with the riads turned guesthouses that we saw during our stay.
Riad Kniza is one of them—tucked inside the medina and belonging to the same family for more than 200 years, this luxury home turned hotel is where we enjoyed a lavish two-hour Moroccan lunch. There’s a rooftop as well for more relaxing areas with views of the Medina.
Throw in the live music performances in the courtyard and I could have stayed at Riad Kniza for days. I plan to return for a couple’s trip because Morocco truly oozes romance.
Get a Moroccan Hammam at Les Bains Du Lotus
In December, I alluded in this Bloomberg story to my first time experiencing a Moroccan hammam, and the transformative moment of having to let go of my cultural inhibitions as a woman scrubbed, washed, and then full-body massaged my near-naked body during what felt like a four-hour treatment. At the hammam, your hair is normally washed as well, but I begged for a shower cap as we had an opening UNWTO gala to attend that same evening after the spa. The staff found me one, thankfully.
We paired up for our treatments and I went in for my hammam with Samira, our lovely representative from the Morocco tourism board. I’m pretty sure neither one of us will forget that day. Goodbye modesty and shame.
If you’ve never experienced one of these treatments before, let go and let it happen. It’s part of the culture here and you’ll come out feeling like you’re a newborn. I am deliberately not sharing all the details so you can experience it for yourself.
The hammam we enjoyed is called Les Bains du Lotus, inside the Marrakech Medina— a luxury version of the otherwise public bathhouses that most locals frequent. It’s a beautiful space and you’ll forget all about the discomfort of a stranger washing your near-naked body clean.
Experience a Locally-Owned Luxury Camp in Agafay
Yes We Camps in the Agafay desert is owned by two Afro-Moroccan brothers. It was refreshing to see an African-owned luxury camp. The tents are cozily furnished with Moroccan crafts, heaters (it gets cold at night), en suite baths and separate twin beds for families.
But the show stoppers are the main outdoor lounge where you’ll enjoy dinner, drinks and traditional performances under the stars, and on the other hand, the infinity pool and bar area. One is removed from the other and offers a completely different vibe.
The pool and bar area is removed from the main restaurant and outdoor terrace area, and you’ll find techno sounds echoing over the desert and locals hanging out at dinner or staycationing. Yes We Camp’s is the perfect place for groups or for couples, and welcoming to all whether tourist or local.
Yes We Camp’s in Agafay desert, outside of Marrakech.
The camp also helps arrange tours in the area, including camel rides at sunset, which I’m not a fan of but did at the local guide’s insistence to try at least once (and they did look well cared for). There are also ATV rides which I’m often opposed to because they can be intrusive to surrounding communities and tourists entering these areas has a negative influence on them. But Agafay offered the perfect space to ride because there were no homes and at sunset, it was even emptier as most tourists had returned back to Marrakech.
Staying on for dinner at Yes We Camps meant that we had a more intimate and immersive experience, which is why I recommend you stay overnight at least once if you can.
The on site restaurant serves Moroccan meals—by now I was used to the four or five course presentations, from vegetable dishes as appetizers to stuffed Moroccan pastilla, a crispy sweet savory chicken (or other meat) stuffed pie topped with almonds, a tagine (clay cooking pot) filled with seasoned chicken or vegetables, couscous, and a myriad of desserts. Speaking of desserts, my favorite was the milk pastilla or “jawhara”— a crispy, layered pastry stuffed with custard).
The camp also brings in local musical groups who serenade you during dinner. My lifelong dream came true of seeing the Gnaoua perform in Morocco (although my original wish was to see them at the Gnaoua festival in Essaouira, one of the most unique events on the continent).
Visit the Marjana Argan Oil Women’s Cooperative
I will never again balk at the cost of Argan oil infused hair products sold in the US, after a visit to the Marjana Argan Oil Women’s Cooperative—a factory owned and run by Moroccan women for the extraction of Argan oil, located on the way to Essaouira.
An hour tour here teaches visitors how Argan oil is extracted from a tree that grows only in Morocco. You’ll watch the process that turns it into one of the most coveted beauty products in the world. As you meet the women and glimpse how they work, it’s impossible not to notice how much hard work and long hours go into this process.
The cooperative benefits the Moroccan women who work here: they get half of the profits from sales, which are then split among them. There’s a large on site shop as well where they sell all sorts of Argan oil based bath and body and hair products and even Argan oil-based dips and snacks. They ship online to the U.S. if you’d rather not carry or check in luggage.
The women have their own transport that takes them to and from work, and they are free to work overtime if they want to make extra money. Visiting women’s cooperatives is one of my favorite things to do when I travel, because it reminds me tourism isn’t just about living your best life — it’s also about economic growth and opportunity. With women-owned businesses, the revenue always goes farther into their families and host communities.
You are free to leave a tip for the women if you’re not buying products. You’ll appreciate that these women are not only of all ages but they also chant and play music while they work to add color to their workday and to your touring experience.
Tour and Shop in Historic Essaouira
From its scenic coastline and boardwalk to its colorful artisanal shops—vibrant carpets, basketry, textiles, and ceramics—and restaurants, Essaouira, which means “well designed,” is a delightful seaside town turned tourist and surfing hub. If you’re looking for an alternative spot to Marrakech to shop in tranquility while roaming around historic narrow cobblestoned streets, this is a great choice.
The Medina in this fortified city is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001. The port at Essaouira, built in the 18th century, played a significant role in linking Morocco to other parts of Africa as well as Europe and the world. Here coexisted multiple cultural groups, including the Amazighs, Arabs, Africans, Europeans, and folks of different faiths, including Jews, Christians and Muslims.
But the history isn’t all rosy: this is also where enslaved Africans were brought on ships and there is a cobblestoned square near the spice market where these poor souls would be traded openly for money. Essaouira is also where Gnaoua music was born and every year (see above reference on the Gnaoua). The Gnaoua festival takes place here (it has since resumed post-pandemic).
The presence of Jews dates back to 1492, when they were invited to settle here just as Spain was expulsing them. At one time there were 300,000 Jews living in Essaouira in peace. By the 1960s, however, Jewish residents “left” our guide said. But they were in fact driven out by anti-Jewish riots, looting, arson and overall anti-Jewish sentiment as a result of Israel being established in 1948. It’s worth visiting to dig into this aspect further as the Moroccan government has now normalized relations with Israel.
The vibe in Essaouira is family-friendly, shops are locally-owned and run, and there’s a lot of history here. We enjoyed lunch (after which I fell ill later in the day so I’m leaving that out), and an afternoon walking tour with a history guide, and the most intriguing aspect was the visit to the Jewish Quarter.
If you’re looking for more reasons, Game of Thrones was filmed around the port of Essaouira.
I ended up shopping quickly for three caftans for myself, my mother and my spouse since I was leaving the next day and wouldn’t have a chance to shop in Marrakech. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way—it was a lot calmer here, and smaller to navigate.
Last but not least, we did visit the Majorelle Gardens and the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech, but they were very difficult to enjoy because of the crowds (tourism is back indeed). I’d advise skipping these if you’re here for a short stay, unless you’re a die hard fashion fan. Save your time for the other locally immersive experiences that abound in and outside of Marrakech.