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Morocco is home to nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This is more than any other country on the African continent. Visiting Morocco UNESCO sites will offer exceptional insight into the vast history and culture of the country.
RABAT: CAPITAL OF MOROCCO
Rabat is the capital of Morocco and is located on the Atlantic coast in the northwest of the country. It is an administrative city known for its Islamic architecture, landmarks, and French colonial heritage. The city offers a fascinating blend of both traditional and modern culture. Founded in the 12th century, Rabat was made the capital of the empire with a fortress built by an Almohad ruler.
Rabat became part of the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2012. It was chosen for its unique blend of modern Imperial palaces built in the early 1900s by the French, ancient citadels, and Islamic structures dating from 800 years ago.
Rabat is an important city to include when planning a trip to Morocco. Its colonial architecture, wide boulevards, and medina lend to a stately yet authentic ambiance. The city boasts several monuments and architectural features from earlier dynasties, including the 17th-century medina and the Hassan Tower. One of the highlights is to watch the sunset by Rabat’s kasbah near the sea.
An excursion from Rabat to Salé located on the opposite side of the Bou Regreg river can expand your discovery of the region. In Salé, you will find the Grand Mosque, one of the oldest in the country, revered shrines, and atmospheric souks.
EL JADIDA: PORTUGUESE ARCHITECTURE
El Jadida is a stylish and beautiful town often referred to as Mazagan. This Portuguese city dates back to the 16th century and was built as an outpost in the trading route down the west coast of Africa. Its vibrant medina, large stone walls, and ramparts were awarded UNESCO status in 2004.
Located on the Atlantic coast two hours south of Casablanca, El Jadida has influences that beautifully embrace both European and Moroccan culture. This historic Portuguese city can be explored in less than a few hours and is a wonderful place to wander. The city has dozens of charming alleyways with a host of interesting landmarks, including the Manueline Cistern renowned for its stunning mirror image of the expansive, vaulted ceiling reflected in a thin film of water that covers the floor. The Church of the Assumption built in the Manueline style during the 16th century with Gothic architecture is also worth a visit along with the Grand Mosque and the abandoned synagogue.
If time is limited and you would like to include El Jadida as part of your trip then there are two options to consider. You can take a day trip from Casablanca or visit El Jadida during a trip that takes you down the Atlantic Coast between Essaouira and Casablanca.
FEZ: INTELLECTUAL & ARTISTIC CAPITAL
Fez is the oldest of Morocco's Imperial cities founded in the 9th century. A walk through its labyrinth streets and alleys takes you back in time. Fez reached its peak in the 13th and 14th centuries under the Merinids when it replaced Marrakesh as the capital of the Moroccan kingdom. Mosques and residences found in the Fez UNESCO medina date from this same period. Fez is also the largest car-free urban area in the world. There are two iconic tanneries, tiled fountains, leather, pottery, and brass souks, local bread ovens, restaurants, and cafes that coexist with the local bustling population. Fez also hosts the annual Sufi festival and World Sacred Music Festival. The city has retained its status as the country's cultural and spiritual center to date.
TETOUAN: THE WHITE CITY IN THE NORTH
Tetouan stands on a rocky plateau in Northern Morocco between the Rif Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. The city is known for Andalusian influences and its Hispano-Moorish character. Home to a population of Andalusian and Moorish refugees who arrived and revived the city in the 16th century, Tetouan today is known primarily for its crafts, national museums, school of music, and arts. Tetouan's medina gained UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Morocco status in 1997 thanks to the preservation of its original structures.
On Mondays, the weekly market is held on the lower streets and its stalls spill out through the gate and into the surrounding area. Tetouan is an easy day trip from Tangier. Make sure to visit on a Monday to experience the local market.
MEKNES: IMPERIAL CITY
Meknes is a 17th-century Imperial city, on the quiet side, with architectural wonders and an olive souk. It was once the capital of the Kingdom during the rule of the notorious Sultan Moulay Ismail. It is only a one-hour drive from Fez yet often remains neglected by travelers.
In the 18th century, Christian slaves and local tribesmen labored for years to execute Moulay Ismail’s grandiose plan to build an Imperial city that would rival the Palace of Versailles. The city is comprised of a complex of 24 royal palaces with mosques, barracks, and gardens, surrounded by four sets of massive defensive walls. The sultan now rests in a lavish mausoleum complete with brightly colored courtyards and ornately decorated interiors that are open to non-Muslim visitors.
Bab Mansour, the monumental gateway of Meknes, is the crown jewel of Moulay Ismail’s architectural legacy. The Koubba el Khayatineis is where Ismail used to receive foreign ambassadors. When visiting Meknes, a must is to visit the tomb of Moulay Ismael since it is one of the very few holy places that non-Muslims are allowed to enter. Another highlight is the Heri el Souani, a large 17th-century high vaulted building, which served as both a granary and feed store for the 12,000 steeds in Moulay Ismail’s vast stables.
In Meknes, you will also find a labyrinth medina with streets and alleyways comprised of exotic markets and handicraft shops. The population is smaller and the atmosphere more relaxed than the crowded and lively medinas of Marrakech and Fez. The buzz in Meknes is found at El-Hedim Square, the heart of the old city with theatrical displays of local life that rival Marrakech's better-known Jemaa el-Fna. The square can be entered through the main city gate that is adorned with mosaics and Arabic inscriptions.
VOLUBILIS: HISTORIC ROMAN RUINS & MOSAICS
Volubilis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Morocco located in the foothills of the holy town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoune. Dating back to the 3rd century BC, the Roman ruins of Volubilis are the best-preserved archaeological site in Morocco. Volubilis is known to have been occupied from prehistoric times through the Islamic period. The site was originally inhabited by Phoenicians and then the Carthaginians. During the 3rd century BC, the city was established as the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania. The Roman city of Volubilis was transformed into an important metropolis and the administrative and economic center of the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana. The surrounding fertile land was the main factor that made Volubilis economically important.
Excavations, which began in the late 19th century, discovered well-preserved beautiful mosaics. Just a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Fez, Volubilis can easily be explored on an excursion from Meknes or Fez. It is best to try and plan your visit during the spring months when the ruins are decorated with wildflowers and the surrounding fields are blanketed in green.
AIT BENHADDOU: OUARZAZATE’S ADOBE KSAR
Ait Benhaddou is one of the most spectacular sites in Morocco. This UNESCO World Heritage site and massive ksar is located in the region of Ouarzazate, along the former trade route between the Sahara Desert and Marrakech.
Ait Benhaddou is a red mud-brick adobe ksar with high defensive walls that have commanding corners and towers which surround ancient dwellings known as kasbahs. The outstanding earthen clay structure dates back to the 17th century and has been used as a location for various Hollywood blockbusters films, including The Mummy, Gladiator, and the Kingdom of Heaven. A few families still live in Ait Benhaddou today.
MARRAKECH: MOROCCO’S VIBRANT RED CITY
Marrakech is one of Morocco’s most important Imperial cities and was known for being an influential trading center during its political, economic, and cultural peak in the 16th century. Marrakech has remained one of the most popular cities in Morocco and has the highest rate of tourism in the country. The city was established in 1062 AD. Its terracotta-colored mud-brick walls and unique architecture earned Marrakech its nickname as the 'Red City'.
In 1985 the medina of Marrakech was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Morocco as the result of its impressive collection of monuments, including the Koutoubia Mosque, Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, El Badi Palace, and Bahia Palace. Marrakech has numerous souks, hammams, and foundouks that make it yet another Moroccan city where at leisure time is a must. Djemaa El-Fna, the city's main square, boasts an open-air theatre with snake charmers, henna artists, and food vendors. Marrakech has also become travelers' top bucket list place to visit for its design scene along with its rich artisanal heritage.
ESSAOUIRA: FASCINATING COASTAL TOWN
Located on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, the 18th-century fortified town of Essaouira made the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2001 for its impressive old medina, which is a historical and cultural landmark known for its architecture and past of coexistence of mixed religions: Muslim, Christian, and Jewish.
Essaouira is three hours from Marrakech. Its beautiful white and blue washed medina is packed with tiny streets that lead to colorful shops selling raffia goods, handicrafts, thuya wood products, aromatic markets, and charming ramparts. The town is a good choice for souvenir shopping with its mellow atmosphere and friendly shop keepers.
Essaouira offers an ideal vacation where visitors can experience stunning sunsets, dine on fresh seafood, and even try local wines in the countryside. Watching the fishermen from the Portuguese ramparts sail into the port with their daily catch is part of the scenic image of this coastal enclave.
Essaouira is famous for its Gnaoua music and art scene. Many local and foreign artists have settled here and continued the vibe that attracted visitors such as Jimmy Hendrix and Cat Stevens (Yousuf Islam) in the 1960s.
13 Anticipated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Morocco:
· Moulay Idriss Zerhoun (1995)
· Taza et la Grande Mosquée (1995)
· Mosquée de Tinmel (1995)
· Ville de Lixus (1995)
· El Gour (1995)
· Grotte de Taforalt (1995)
· Parc naturel de Talassemtane (1998)
· Aire du Dragonnier Ajgal (1998)
· Lagune de Khnifiss (1998)
· Parc national de Dakhla (1998)
· Oasis de Figuig (2011)
· Casablanca, Ville du XXème siècle, carrefour d’influences (2013)
· Le chapelet d'oasis de Tighmert, Région présaharienne du Wad Noun (2016)