I have really fallen in love with Morocco. There is so much to see, especially outside of Marrakech. It is a country rich in history, beautiful in scenery, and so peaceful. The food is also extremely delicious and fresh. Spending one week there was not enough to see everything but enough to touch on the major highlights.
I've had a few friends ask me whether I felt safe there and if I traveled in a group. I felt very safe in Morocco, particularly outside of Marrakech. However, if you are a woman traveling alone, I do recommend having at least one travel companion. It is the dark alleys (of which there are very many) in Marrakech in the evenings that felt sketchy. I try to avoid tour groups as much as I can. In this case, I was celebrating a bachelorette party with a few of my girlfriends, so it wasn't so bad but we made sure to always know where we were going and had maps saved on our phones. I was the navigator of our group.
Because I often travel alone or with a friend, I am used to figuring out public transportation on my own. It often isn't difficult unlike New York City's public transportation system. However, this time, my friends and I hired a private driver who also acted as our tour guide for the entire trip. I cannot say enough good things about him (Hassan) and his company (Agdez Adventures). While there are trains and buses that can transport you between cities, having a private car may be the more expensive option albeit a very convenient one. If I had to take a bus or train though, I would opt for a bus (particular a tour bus) mainly because I have heard that trains can be very slow. There is so much more to see beyond big cities like Marrakech and Casablanca. The problem is that these small towns are very far and driving there, depending on your location, can take anywhere from 4 to 10 hours. The scenery along these routes are breath taking and makes the drives easier to endure. We saw massive gorges, valleys, mountains ranges. Our driver was completely trustworthy - he took us to all the must see places (time permitting) and was honest with us about places he did not recommend to visit and whether he felt it was safe for us to be out at night. He truly is the best (plug: he's given tours to the former Prime Minister of Morocco and supermodel Rachel Hunter!).
Our least enjoyable experience were the many racist remarks thrown at me and my Asian American girlfriends. The amount of "ni hao's", "konnichiwa's", and "sayonara's" hurled at us was more than in any country I've ever experienced, including in the US. But it did not come from a hateful place. In fact, it was very harmless. They primarily have had Asian tourists from China and Japan, so it comes from a place of not knowing about other different Asian cultures and ethnicities. When I travel and I am asked where I'm from, I always respond "the US" and when people pry ("but you don't look American" or "where are you really from"), I empathize and tell them of my ethnic descent. People will not learn unless they are educated. So that's what we did - we told them what our ethnicities were. This mainly happened in the more crowded, big city of Marrakech. In general, the people there are very friendly and we never felt threatened.
Casablanca should just be treated as an airport hub. It is often cheaper to fly into Casablanca than Marrakech so many people fly in and out of this city. Unfortunately, there is not much to see there. It is a financial hub with skyscrapers. Most people will just visit the mosque and venture off to Marrakech and other more interesting towns. I didn't even stop to see the mosque myself, simply due to lack of time. Marrakech, on the other hand, has a lot more to offer. The street food offers authenticity and there are many museums and a few gardens to visit. The mosques there are only for Muslims so we were not allowed to enter. Museums are small but I found the La Maison de la Photographie to be the most fascinating. The leather tannery is very interesting but it is in one of the poorest parts of the city so be prepared to be harassed for money. There is a building off the tannery that sells tons of leather goods and is very intersting to see. Just make sure the leather good you buy is completely treated (hint: make sure it doesn't smell both inside and outside the bag) and ALWAYS bargain - start on the low side even if it feels uncomfortable. Don't pay more than 50% of THEIR asking price and generally you can only bargain if there isn't a listed price. The Majorelle Garden, aka the "YSL Garden" is a must visit, especially if you are a fashion fan. Late fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurant, and his partner Pierre Berge bought the garden in 1980. There is a memorial for the designer in this very pretty garden as well. Jemaa Elfna is the main square that is alive at night. It's filled with street entertainers and food vendors but if you even attempt to capture the acts on camera, you will be aggressively asked to tip. Food in this area is OK. I recommend the hole in the wall restaurants (Oscar) or street vendors in residential neighborhoods over those in the square. Those in the square also often over charge ($4 USD in the square vs $1.50 USD in residential areas). There are also Henna artists insistent on drawing a henna on your hand. The products they use are usually natural free of chemicals, but only leaves a faint red mark afterwards. The designs are also VERY different from Indian hennas. I personally prefer Indian henna, so you can leave this off your to do list.
Chefchaouen, the Blue Pearl as it is known, is a magical place. Its history includes Jewish settlement from European countries as well as a heavy Spanish influence, even though the country as a whole is known for its French influence. So those in this very small town speak primarily Arabic and Spanish. Initially, doors were painted blue to identify Jewish residents but eventually became a trend and the entire town was painted blue. The extreme cleanliness of the city also struck me - alleyways are often free of trash and every evening a sweep happens. Needless to say, Chaouen (as locals call it) is a very photogenic city. A local restaurant called Sophie's came highly recommend to us. Unfortunately, we did not have time to enjoy a meal there.
One of the many highlights was the Sahara Desert. This was definitely one of the longer drives lasting about 8-9 hours from Marrakech but there were many scenic stops to and from here. They include Drai Valley and Gorge, Todra Gorge, driving through the Atlas Mountains, Ouarzazate, Rose Valley, Ai Ben Haddou Casbah (Gladiator's opening scene was shot here) and we also stopped by Hassan's mother's home for a home cooked lunch (the BEST cous cous I've ever had).
Essaouira was our last stop before flying out of Casablanca. I did not expect much from this coastal town but it definitely charmed us unlike the other ones we visited. It is a big fishing town, known for its seafood and is quiet, quaint, and much more laid back than Marrakech. And for some reason, souvenirs were the cheapest here than other places we visited. I highly recommend staying at least one night here in a riad. For the fans out there, scenes from the Game of Thrones were shot here. It definitely has an "ancient" vibe to it because many of its old structures still stand. The coastal drive from Essaouira up to Casablanca is also gorgeous and a much different terrain than the inland routes we had been taking for most of the road trip.
Unfortunately, there was not enough time to see some of the other interesting and historical places we had heard about like Fez (the country's "cultural capital") or Tangier (the Moroccan part of the gateway between Africa and Europe). I definitely want to make another trip back to see these places and spend more time in Chefchaouen and Essaouira.