As the most traditional imperial city in Morocco, Fez can be difficult to penetrate. The maze-like streets and dark alleyways can have you spinning like a top, but it rewards like nowhere else.
Souk aficionados love getting lost here – and you will. In so doing you’ll discover the hole-in-the-wall ateliers of the country’s master craftsmen, who create beautiful things the way they always have: exquisite carved plaster and intricately painted wood, prettily glazed hand-cut tiles (zellije) and delicate pierced brass lanterns, as well as brightly coloured woven textiles, high-quality pottery and natty basketware.
It’s a place to find eclectic home furnishings, but it’s also a place to eat. The markets are resplendent with fresh produce and the cooks here – particularly in the riads - are some of the best in the country, which makes it all the more extraordinary that this is still feels like one of the world’s great undiscovered secrets.
Average November temperatures: cool and sunny, around 15ºC, chilly at night.
Where to stay
Karawan Riad (21 Derb Ourbia, Makhfia, Fez Medina; 00212 614 701 345; karawanriad.com; doubles from €170 low season, including breakfast): A lavish palace on the edge of the Andalous Quarter, a neighbourhood undergoing rapid regeneration with new plazas, a riverside walk and easy taxi access. At Karawan Riad, a unique addition to Fez’s limited five-star category, the focal point is a contemporary stone courtyard criss-crossed by tiny water channels, with tea rooms, a sunken lounge and luxury hammam in surrounding salons. The owners have gathered furniture and artefacts from all over the world to combine with traditional Moroccan savoir faire; the results are dazzling.
Staff are elegant, respectful and invest lots of time getting to know guests. Karawan’s seven suites are among the biggest and most lavish in Fez, with one-off pieces of furniture, antique textiles and original artworks. The vast first-floor Africa Suite has a sultry mezzanine bathroom of gleaming black marble overlooking a lounge with an elegant, hanging fireplace that opens on to a private terrace, but for maximum privacy book the rooftop terrace room.
Afternoon tea is one of the highlights of staying here, with sensational Moroccan patisserie made in house and Mariage Frères teas. Sunday brunch offers a selection of dishes cooked on the spot (€25), while lunch goes bistro style with grilled fish kebabs, minute steaks and salads (two courses with a glass of wine €17.50). When the restaurant opens later this year, gourmet French and Fassi dishes will take centre stage (from €29 for two courses with glass of wine). Read the full review: Karawan Riad, Fez
Riad Anata (Derb El-Hamia, Boulemane, Fez Medina; 674 764 202; riad-anata.com; doubles with breakfast from €95 in low season, €125 high season; whole house rental, €475 a night): In a quiet part of the medina within easy striking distance of the two main shopping streets, this funky newcomer takes its inspiration from Andalucian townhouses and the riads of Marrakesh. Creamy tadelakt walls are offset by dove-grey paintwork on the doors and window frames. Hot-pink easy chairs in the courtyard lend a splash of colour and globe-like pierced brass lanterns cast a soft light in the comfortable library. Staff are friendly, laid-back and love nothing more than sharing their inside knowledge of the city.
Five peaceful bedrooms have terracotta floors, crisp cotton sheets and antique painted wood doors refashioned as bed heads. Unusually, most also have windows to the outside world, letting that magical Moroccan light flood in. Food includes creamy b’sarra soup made with dried broad beans and spiced with cumin, luscious smoky aubergine salad and tender beef tagine with prunes - all well worth staying in for (evening meals €25 a head plus wine). Read the full review: Riad Anata, Fez
Essaouira's old fort (Photo: Fotolia)
The grooviest of Morocco’s cities, Essaouira, has long been a favourite among hippy revellers (Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens both hung out here in the 1960s), but these days it’s catering to well-heeled urbanites looking for a hot spot to chill out and do nothing in. Today cosmopolitan cafes and stylish eateries spill out of every square, smart bars and restaurants are de rigueur and beach clubs rule the golden strand that was once the preserve of touts and camels. The gloriously hassle-free souks are a great source of cotton blankets in Farrow & Ball colours, carved wooden boxes and psychedelic paintings. You can easily explore the whole town in a morning or afternoon, but combine this with a few long, lazy lunches, a trip out to the excellent Val d’Argan winery (run by a winemaker from Châteauneuf-du-Pape) and a visit to an Argan oil co-operative and it's easy to see why the foodies are claiming Essaouira as their own. Average November temperature: pleasant sunny days in low 20s, cool at night.
Where to stay
Dar Adul (63 Rue Touahen, Essaouira Medina; 524 473 910; dar-adul.com; doubles with breakfast from €55 a night for the smallish Rabaa room to €120 for the Séta Room; worth every penny): Right at the heart of the action, yet cunningly tucked just behind the sea wall so you’re never far from the sound of crashing Atlantic waves, this is the creation of artist Didier Spindler, who is known for his colourful oils and eclectic taste. Everything is for sale, whether you’ve taken a shine to a painting, a velvet chaise-longue or an embroidered tablecloth. The small courtyard has been turned into an intimate dining room filled with bowls of fresh flowers and cute teapot candelabras, with a patchwork of multi-coloured tiles on the floors, a life-size statue of a man in glittering pants in one corner and giant fish hanging down through the central atrium. There are shaded day beds on the rooftop with great sea views.
Service is fun, friendly and just the right side of laid-back. The four extravagantly decorated bedrooms ooze sex appeal; I love the linen-draped four-poster bed, leather armchairs and real wood fireplace in the Jouj Suite and the intimate private terrace off the Séta Room. Food is generally excellent - a mix of Moroccan and classically French dishes with huge portions; even if you’re not staying here it’s well worth passing by for the lunch menu (€15 for two courses, €20 for three) just to get a look at the space. Read the full review: Dar Adul, Essaouira
Dar Maya (33 Rue d’Oujda; 524 785 687; riaddarmaya.com); doubles from €120 a night including breakfast): A sleek renovation by English expat Gareth Turpin has turned this roomy townhouse into an elegantly modern space. Tucked away down a quiet side street, it’s less than a minute from Essaouira’s bars, restaurants and cafes, including the fabulous new One Up. Creamy tadelakt, graceful arches and Art Deco-inspired balconies provide a frame for modern Moroccan crafts. Flour-sack pouffes in the lounges add a quirky counterpoint to deep sofas in slate grey, while polished pottery and souk-finds give it a thoroughly Moroccan air. It’s also the only place in town with a heated rooftop plunge pool, with glimpses of ocean between gleaming white minarets. On extra blustery days, the pretty, pint-sized hammam is pure bliss.
Service is discreet and understated, yet someone always seems to appear just as you’re thinking a glass of rosé would be the perfect accompaniment to sunset. The five spacious bedrooms have a calming colour palette of chocolate, coffee and champagne. Egyptian cotton sheets on the beds and real wood fireplaces are a welcome bonus – when the wind blows – so it’s great to cosy up here after a hot bath. All bathrooms have deep tubs and underfloor heating. A three-course, traditional Moroccan menu of cooked salads, fish tagines and fresh fruit is available every day (reservations required), and there’s an all-day simple menu of light meals and snacks. Breakfast is a lavish affair of Moroccan breads and pastries, fruit, yogurt and eggs, and it is tempting to let it drift on for hours. Gareth can also arrange cooking classes on request. Read the full review: Dar Maya, Essaouira
A tiled alcove in the casbah, Tangier (Photo: Fotolia)
Tangier has come a long way since its days as an International Zone. Its naughty golden age may have been peopled by the likes of the American socialite Barbara Hutton and the writers Allen Ginsberg and Paul Bowles, when a whole lot of bad behaviour went on, but a recent influx of writers and artists, interior designers and antiques dealers is breathing a classy, upwardly-mobile life into the city. Money is being poured into a smart new port area and there’s a general vamping up of the centre to make way for high-fashion boutiques, bookshops and galleries. There’s always been a dash of the jetsetter lifestyle about the place thanks to its privileged position on the mouth of the Mediterranean, winking back across the strait to Spain – and these days it’s being hailed the Saint Tropez of North Africa. Newly tidy boulevards encase a gleaming whitewashed medina crowned by the streets of the kasbah at the top. The corniche is now brimming with fashionable beach clubs serving a glass of crisp Moroccan white and a platter of seafood, and a there is a growing roster of important festivals such as TanJazz in September and the Literary Arts Festival in May. This is Morocco at its most sophisticated. Average November temperature: can be wet and blustery, but temperate at around 17º.
Where to stay
La Tangerina (Riad Sultan 19, Kasbah; 539 947 731; latangerina.com); doubles from €45 a night (€120 for the suite), including breakfast): Designed to maximise a sense of space and light, La Tangerina has a nautical feel,accentuated by its position in a heart-breakingly lovely spot on the highest point of the kasbah, with rooftop views across the strait all the way to southern Spain. Hessian ropes serve as balustrades to a central, sweeping staircase and around the wrap-around balconies, and sparkling, Mediterranean-meets-Atlantic light pours on to terracotta floors. Snuggle into an armchair in one of the living rooms, or bask in the sun on the roof, taking in the Strait of Gibraltar in one direction and the rather incongruous sight of the Art Deco cathedral in the other.
The friendly Moroccan staff have got the art of hospitality down to a tee; you’re not so much a guest as part of the family. The 10 bedrooms are of varying sizes, each is individually decorated in a mix of vintage finds from local markets and striped bed linens from the Rif Mountains. All have sitting areas, but the best is the Master Suite at the top, with its own vine-shaded terrace where you could sit and stare out to sea for days. You’ll get a simple Moroccan breakfast of pancakes, crumpets and hot flatbread with jams and honey, eggs, fresh juice and coffee. Traditional Moroccan fare is available in the evenings if booked in advance. Read the full review: La Tangerina, Tangier
Villa Josephine (Rue Sidi Mesmoudi 231; 539 334 535: villajosephine-tanger.com; doubles from €310 a night, breakfast not included): Tangier’s most exclusive address, perched high above the city with wide views across the Straits, Villa Josephine was built in the early 1900s as the home of Walter Burton Harris, correspondent to the Times. Later, it became the summer residence of the Pasha Thami el Glaoui of Marrakesh, a notorious playboy known for his lavish parties. It feels like a stately home with its luxurious textiles, rare and unusual antiques and deeply polished marquetry, but its setting within carefully manicured gardens surrounding a pool is pure Hollywood. Current clientele includes aristocracy, A-list artists, designers and writers.
The time-honoured "French-style" service can feel a little stiff but for those who enjoy unabashed pampering in the old-fashioned sense, no place beats it. There are 10 rooms, ranging from smart singles to deluxe suites, all are individually decorated with striped wallpaper, wood panels, thick drapes and sink-into carpets; the best come with a terrace and sea views. A cocktail and lunch on the pool terrace is the ultimate in laid-back glamour, while the evening is more Downton Abbey. Dress up for cocktails in the wood-panelled bar and library before wandering into a dining room glittering with crystal candelabras, a splendid winter fireplace and an excellent, classical French menu. Read the full review: Villa Josephine, Tangier
But if you insist on a bolt-hole in Marrakesh…
Marrakesh remains Morocco’s most popular tourist city and a great base for first-time visitors to the country. Here are five of the best hotels in and around the city.
Getting here is an adventure as you’re accompanied down a winding alley and through a tunnel to the front door — but once you get the hang of it, you’re just 12 minutes’ walk from Djemaa el-Fna (the main square). Room decor nods to ancient trade routes, with upturned boats as light fixtures and four-poster beds with Tuareg tent posts. Large bedrooms have seating areas and roomy showers; breakfasts supply enough pastries, Nespresso and freshly squeezed juice to fuel souk expeditions, and dinners range from a satisfying bowl of leek soup to elaborate beef and artichoke tagines. Doubles from £73 a night. Read the full review: Riad Tchaikana, Marrakesh
Riad Al Massarah
You’ll get a warm welcome at this medina riad, near the Bab Doukkala gate and a wonderful food souk and just 10 minutes from Djemaa el-Fna. The charming British-French owners Michael and Michel, and their in-house chef Abdelwahed, offer exceptional Moroccan-style dinners and magnificent breakfasts. They also offer spot-on shopping tips. Bedrooms have original art and handmade textiles; some rooms are narrower than others but five out of six have fireplaces, and luxuries like robes and rainfall shower heads are standard. There’s a cosy in-house hammam and a good library. Doubles from £100 a night. Read the full review: Riad Al Massarah, Marrakesh
Riyad El Cadi
This former ambassador’s retreat provides stylish accommodation, set in a quiet alley close to the Djemaa el-Fna. Breakfast, afternoon tea and sunset cocktails are served on the roof terrace, and with advance notice the in-house chef makes Moroccan and continental dinners. Bedrooms have museum-worthy framed textiles, but some are a bit dark. Service is professional and alert, and there’s a hammam, small pool and Jacuzzi. Doubles from £146 a night. Read the full review: Riyad El Cadi
Just a 20-minute drive from the souks of central Marrakesh, this rises from the Moroccan sands at the Palmeraie oasis. The emphasis is on quiet luxury, with beautiful landscaped gardens, walkways between pools and plenty of secluded spots so guests never feel crowded. Service is willing but in need of a little tightening up. Bedrooms are spacious, with walls of glass opening on to ornamental ponds; some have private terraces and pools. Restaurants serve French or Thai food with Moroccan influences, and there’s a wonderful rooftop bar. Doubles from £300 a night. Read the full review: Palais Namaskar, Marrakesh
Kasbah Bab Ourika
This Kasbah-style retreat, 45-minutes’ drive south of Marrakesh, is set in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. It’s the perfect antidote to medina hustle and its peaceful terraced gardens are a delight. At night, lantern light dances in the courtyard while fires are lit in the bedrooms. These are roomy and modestly furnished with wooden Berber furniture; many have their own private balcony.
The set menu for dinner changes daily, features plenty of home-grown produce from the hotel garden and features simple European dishes such as chicken breast with goat’s cheese, as well as excellent Moroccan tagines. Breakfast is hearty and tasty – the spicy Berber omelettes are a speciality. Doubles from £122 a night. Read the full review: Kasbah Bab Ourika, Marrakesh
Reviews by Matt Warman, Natalie Paris and Alison Bing
Reader offer: Explore Morocco with Telegraph Travel Collection, with prices starting at £599 per person for a five-night half-board escorted tour. Includes return flight, excursions and four-star hotel stays