Morocco lies in the far northwestern corner of Africa, across the fabled Straits of Gibraltar from Spain, and was once the western frontier of the known world, called el-Maghreb el-Aksa, or "the Far West." Not including its disputed southern province of the Western Sahara, Morocco is slightly smaller than France or Spain and slightly larger than California, covering an area of 446,500 sq. km (172,395 sq. miles). It's bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and shares borders with Algeria to the east and southeast and Mauritania to the south. A nation of coastline, fertile plains, mountains, and desert, Morocco is a country of distinct geographical regions that have influenced the culture of its inhabitants for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. These geographical and cultural differences, however, are to be found within a relatively compact area, making this country a pleasurable and rewarding place to explore.
Marrakech -- This city is not exactly a region of Morocco, more of a world unto itself. The jet-setting sister of Morocco's four imperial cities, Marrakech is on every traveler's itinerary, and for good reason. Nowhere else is the country's crossroads of cultures more evident than here. This exotic, sexy, pulsating, and confronting city is well and truly on the international scene, and nowadays offers a mesmerizing palette of accommodations, restaurants, festivals, and shopping.
The High Atlas -- Part of the greater Atlas chain that stretches across the country from the Atlantic coast to Algeria and beyond, the High Atlas mountain range is featured on most travelers' itineraries if only because it's the natural barrier between Morocco's coastal, fertile plains and its vast, desert-fringed oases. The "Land of the Berbers," the High Atlas are home to North Africa's highest peaks, including the climber's favorite, the 4,167m-high (13,671-ft.) Jebel Toubkal, along with some of its most beautiful valleys and friendliest people. This is also where many of the country's outdoor activities (trekking, hiking, mountain biking, and even skiing) can be enjoyed.
Central Morocco -- This region of gorges, valleys, and desert is perhaps the quintessential Morocco that most travelers imagine. Like the High Atlas, also inhabited by the country's Berbers, central Morocco offers vistas of mountain gorges and desert valleys, cut deep with lush, green oases called palmeraie. Both the Todra and Dadès Gorges are easily accessed, and along their winding valleys are some of the most scenic areas of the country. Heading away from the mountains, the land flattens out into the stony, pre-Saharan hammada before finally arriving at Morocco's Saharan-fed seas of sand, Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga. Out here you can ride a camel into the desert, watch the sun setting over towering sand dunes, and sleep under a starlit African night.
Middle Atlas, Fes & Meknes -- The Middle Atlas is perhaps the prettiest of the country's ranges, covered for its greater part with aromatic forests of pine and cedar. These are broken up by carpets of green pasture, where Berber communities -- some still nomadic -- tend to the herds of cattle and flocks of sheep that feed the country. The Middle Atlas stands watch over the spiritual heart of the country: the former imperial capitals of Fes and Meknes. Fes's ancient walled city, Fes el Bali, is the world's most complete medieval city and is where the first Moroccan dynasty, the Idrissids, built their empire. As with Marrakech, Fes is a popular destination for travelers, many of whom stay in a traditional riad or dar located down one of Fes el Bali's 9,500 alleys and lanes.
Sixty kilometers (37 miles) west of Fes, Meknes was the imperial home of the country's longest reigning and most ruthless ruler, Moulay Ismail. Combined with a visit to the excavated ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis and the pilgrimage village of Moulay Idriss (burial place of the country's "founding father"), Meknes is a hidden gem that delightfully lacks the tourist intensity of Fes.
Northwest Morocco -- The country's northwest sees fewer travelers than the regions to the south, although history records a long list of other visitors, including invaders and rulers, culminating in the Spanish occupation of the first half of the 20th century. Tangier, a seething, sleazy free-for-all between the 1920s and 1950s, has cleaned its act up recently, and is fast creating itself a niche as a vibrant, affordable Mediterranean resort.
The fishing village of Asilah is home to one of the country's most popular festivals, where artists paint murals on the walls within its quaint medina. Asilah still exudes a village charm, and is a great first stop for those traveling south from Tangier.
The Rif mountain range is the natural border between Europe and Africa. The mountainside village of Chefchaouen resisted Spanish occupation for 8 years, and before that resisted all Western influence for more than 400 years. Today this picturesque, blue-washed village is a backpacker favorite, thanks largely to its kif (hashish)-induced relaxed vibe.
Atlantic Coast -- Morocco's Atlantic coastline is its most populated region, home to the nation's political and business centers. From the mouth of the Bou Regreg river, Rabat's inhabitants have seen conquerors (which have included pirates) come and go. It's a pleasant city that betrays its title as the country's capital, and its medina and kasbah are remarkably easy to get around.
Most travelers only stop in Casablanca to connect to other destinations in the country, but it is the nation's heaving, gritty, working heart, home to more than three million people, all looking for work in a city built by the French due to Tangier's "internationalization." The coastline south of Casablanca is packed with Moroccan holidaymakers every August and delightfully quiet for the rest of the year, other than the large flocks of birds making a stop on their migration between Europe and Africa. Casablanca is also home to one of the world's largest places of worship, the Hassan II Mosque.
The village of Oualidia overlooks a large natural lagoon and is fast becoming a summer destination for in-the-know European holidaymakers. To the south are the country's best surf spots, including the windsurfing town of Essaouira, home to perhaps the country's prettiest medina and one of its major music festivals.
Southern Morocco -- Besides the beach resort city of Agadir and the popular surfing spots to the city's north, much of this region sees few travelers. It's a pity, because beyond its coastline is the Anti-Atlas mountain range, dotted with villages and palmeraie surrounded by a unique mountain/desert landscape.
The walled town of Taroudannt is dubbed "Little Marrakech," but is much more than just a facsimile of its better-known big sister to the north. Taroudannt is perhaps the one major town in Morocco that's still largely unaware of its attraction to, and therefore its reliance on, tourists. Wandering around its streets and lanes opens up a window on the everyday lives of Moroccans that is hard to come by in the country's better-known spots.