Drive Through the Deserts and Ancient Cities of Morocco

Plus green mountains and ocean towns along the way.

Travelers, start your engines: You are now entering The [Scenic] Route, a rip-roaring exploration of the world’s most incredible international road trips, from lush Rwandan jungles and ancient Peruvian mountains to seaside Irish villages, dreamy Japanese forests, and twisty Romanian hillsides. For more reasons to hit the pavement—plus tips, interviews, and a custom road-ready playlist—cruise over to the rest of our coverage here.

If we said you could drive from green mountains to red deserts to blue oceans—as well as blue cities and ancient, maze-like villages—you might think we’re being overly ambitious for one vacation. But Morocco’s wide-ranging landscapes are packed into a country about the size of California, and can be seen over just a few days on an easy road trip.

Starting at the northern tip near the Mediterranean Sea and within eyeshot of Spain, you’ll want to spend about a week driving south to Marrakech. Verdant mountain scenery covered in wildflowers transforms into starry desert vistas, leading to chilled-out surf towns by the ocean, followed by dusty walled cities full of bustling souks. Morocco is an all-out feast for the senses scattered along a 935-mile-long route.

where to go in morocco
There's more ocean, mountains, and greenery than you might think for a desert area. | Crevous/Shutterstock

Few countries pack the hospitality, versatile landscapes, and culinary trifecta punch of this storied North African land. Wind along curved roads surrounded by cliffs, indulge in heaping platters of fresh oysters along the coast, and get lost in medinas before kicking back in wind-swept coastal towns with mellow surf vibes.

From Tangier to Marrakech—with stops in Fes, Chefchaouen, and Essaouira—here’s how to drive through Morocco to see the most of the country.

morocco road trip
Don't expect burning heat all year. | franckreporter/E+/Getty Images

Best time of year to visit Morocco

Morocco has been called the “cold country with the hot sun.” And if you’ve ever visited here during the winter and wished you’d packed another layer despite the streaming sunshine, that saying will make a lot of sense.

Visitors are often surprised by just how chilly Morocco can be, particularly from November through January. Summer, on the other hand, ushers in absolute hair dryer-style heat, with June through August bringing the mercury to the max. Temperatures tend to stay warm bookending that period, from late spring into fall.

Moroccans will often tell you their favorite season here is spring, particularly March through May. Temperatures are mild, the sun warms instead of sizzles, and orange blossoms perfume the air. Spring is also the perfect time for a windows-down roadtrip, with cool star-filled nights still in the mix. But luckily Morocco is a year-round kind of place.

how to drive in morocco
Driving in Morocco is pretty easy for Americans. | T. Schneider/Shutterstock

How to drive in Morocco and rent a car

You can rent a car in major Moroccan cities at airports and ports of entry, including in Tangier, Fes, Casablanca, and Marrakech. One-way rentals are widely available and cheap (sites like Orbitz and Expedia tend to offer good deals). Opt for a major international rental car company–Avis, EuropCar, Budget and the like–and be prepared that a hold will be placed on your credit card (required for rental) as a deposit.

Most roads in Morocco are paved and safe for non-4x4 vehicles. But be aware that most car rental companies rent primarily manual (stick shift) cars. If you require one with an automatic transmission, expect rental rates to be considerably higher, and be sure to specify that in advance of your arrival. Be sure to take photos of your rental car before leaving the lot and make the company aware of any damages (even minor scratches) to avoid any problems when you return it.

Avoid driving at night in Morocco as streetlights are not widespread and there might be animals on the road, as well as surprise pot holes. Have your paperwork handy for any police stops on the road. Driving is on the right side of the road, same as the US, and seatbelts are mandatory throughout the country. Cell phone use is not allowed while driving unless you have a hands-free system.

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Chefchaouen is also known as the Blue City. | Kanuman/Shutterstock

Tangier to Chefchaouen

Whether you land in Tangier by ferry from Southern Spain (boats leave from Gibraltar, Tarifa, or Algeciras) or fly into Tangier Ibn Battouta International Airport, prepare for sensory overload in the best way upon arriving in Morocco. The port city straddles the line between continents, with a whitewashed medina overlooking the deep blue Mediterranean sea.

After you’ve toured the city’s impressive Kasbah and shopped for lanterns, spices, and the ubiquitous Berber carpets in its souks, settle in to feast on the fruits of the sea at Le Saveur de Poisson, a seafood restaurant casually tucked inside an 18th-century palace with a fixed menu and killer fish soup and tagines.

From Tangier, you’ll want to start heading to Chefchaouen, Morocco’s famous blue-colored city, where you can get your Instagram fix in fifty shades of cerulean. It takes about two hours to drive the 70 miles south along the N2 highway and up into the beautiful Rif Mountains.

But don’t rush this part of the journey. Before leaving Tangier, detour just west of the city to see the Hercules Caves and Cape Spartel, near the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet.

Shortly before arriving in Chefchaouen, the Akchour Waterfalls make for another worthy detour. Just 45 minutes northeast of town, a short jog east off the highway leads you to a big, clear pool, where you can sink in to refresh from the road.

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Fes is a labyrinth of a city. | Mitzo/Shutterstock

Chefchaouen to Fes

The next stretch is a 3.5-hour drive to Fes. Here, the journey unspools along ribboning mountain roads with stunning views of the Rif. These peaks are particularly beautiful in spring time, when they turn emerald green and flutter with red poppies springing up in idyllic meadows.

It’s worth staying a few nights in a fabulous riad in the heart of Fes’s medina, where there’s only foot traffic (as well as donkeys, and the occasional daring moto) to contend with. You’ll want to park your car in one of the lots outside the walled old city, and walk around the endless shops, market stalls, and mosques.

Ifrane is like the Little Switzerland of Morocco. | Marouane Hammou/Shutterstock

Fes to Ifrane

You could break west from Fes and make straight for the coast, but we love this option to head south into the surprising cedar forests of Ifrane in Morocco’s Middle Atlas mountains.

A tidy little university town, Ifrane is dotted with peaked-roof, alpine-inspired architecture and is often called Morocco’s “Little Switzerland.” During the winter months, you can even get in some casual downhill runs via the two ski lifts at Michlifen Ski Station, a few miles outside of town.

Year round, you can spot barbary apes along the hiking trails within Ifrane National Park, or stroll easier trails to see waterfalls at Source Vittel.

Essaouira is a beautiful coastal city. | streetflash/Shutterstock

Ifrane to Essaouira

This part of the trip is about the road, with plenty of stops along the way. You’re in for a big driving day (count on eight hours without stops) as you depart Ifrane’s forested surrounds to head west to Morocco’s Atlantic Coast. You’ll have a chance to pull over in Rabat and Meknes, which is often likened to a mini Fes and has a particularly appealing medina.

Bypass busy Casablanca in favor of stopping for lunch along the pretty lagoon in Oualidia, a scenic spot that’s considered the Moroccan oyster capital and where they’ve been farmed since the 1950s. There’s no shortage of restaurants in Oualidia hawking oysters along with massive lobsters, mussels, clams, and sea urchin eggs. But it’s hard to top the ocean views from La Table de la Plage, a seafood restaurant at the spectacular lagoon front beach hotel, La Sultana Oualidia, where you might be tempted to stay the night in one of the 12 rooms.

If you do continue on to Essaouira, aim to arrive in time to enjoy sunset from a perch along the city walls or at the chic rooftop at Taros Bar. Here you’ll often find live music, and you can sip a Moroccan wine or an inexpensive cocktail for a sundowner.

Taghazout is Morocco's surf town. | zodyakuz/Shutterstock

Essaouira to Taghazout

Don’t rush your time in Essaouira. This is where one of Morocco’s prettiest and most laid-back, white-washed medinas meets the windy coastline. You can easily spend a few days soaking in the spectacular coastal scenery. Learn to harness the wind with lessons from Ananas Kitesurfing. Or feast on grilled sardines from casual kiosks right in the port. To save money, do like Moroccans do and buy your sardines straight from the fishermen. Then pay a modest sum at most any seafood restaurant in town to have them grilled up and served with Moroccan bread called khobz and tomato, onion, and cucumber salads.

On your way to Taghazout, Morocco’s coolest surf town, detour about 30 minutes south to the uber-chill coastal enclave of Sidi Kaouki to see if the swell is breaking at the reliable beach break. Sidi Kaouki Surf Station has boards for rent and offers lessons if you’re up for paddling out.

It’s less than 90 miles south from there (about 2.5 hours) to reach Taghazout, which has been luring the intrepid surf set since the 1970s. The city brims with boutique hotels and villas catering to the waves-meets-yoga niche (DFrost and Surf Berbere have affordable weekly package deals).

After a great day riding (or just watching) the waves, sip something frosty for a sundowner at World of Waves, a family-run hotel and restaurant right on the beach.

how to get to Marrakech
Marrakech is the bustling heart of Morocco. | Steve Photography/Shutterstock

Taghazout to Marrakech

The drive inland to Marrakech from Taghazout takes about four hours, passing through Berber villages and the rocky landscapes of the Agafay Desert as you approach the legendary red-walled city that’s the last stop on this road trip.

Consider spending a serene night in a Bedouin-style glamping tent under inky skies splattered with stars at a spot like Agafay Luxury Camp or Selina Agafay before finishing out your Moroccan adventure in the Marrakech fray.

In Marrakech, shop for textiles, leather goods, and mosaic works in the medina’s endless souks. Or set out on that vintage sidecar tour you’ve seen all over Instagram. Or just kick back and take in the human sideshow known as the Jemaa El Fna that takes place every night in the city’s main square—a circus of food vendors, snake charmers, storytellers, and more that feels like the very essence of why we travel the world, distilled.

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Terry Ward is a contributor for Thrillist.