Morocco and Tunisia: Essentials of a North Africa Vacation

People & Culture

Camel walking on a Tunisian beach, Tunisia

There are a lot of reasons to make North Africa your next travel destination. First of all, the region is accessible. Also, both Morocco and Tunisia are only a short flight away from Europe and make an easy add-on to European or Middle Eastern vacations. They’re also stunning, with tall mountains, sweeping deserts, and picturesque coastlines defining their landscapes. Most significantly, they’re bursting at the seams with fascinating histories and cultures. There is so much to discover in Morocco and Tunisia, making them ideal travel destinations for the savvy globetrotter on a North Africa vacation.

Spice and Sand in Morocco

Morocco is the gateway to the continent of Africa, and only a short flight away from Spain, Italy, or France. Few countries serve as a better introduction to Africa, so if you’re looking to deep-dive into this massive continent, Morocco is a great place to start. However, Morocco is not just a stopover destination. It has a lot of cultural and geographic diversity, making it a worthwhile place to explore all on its own.

Long seen as an exotic getaway, Morocco has lost little of its allure over the centuries. Mountains loom in the country’s north, the vast Sahara Desert stretches across the south, and the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastline runs along the nation’s western and northern flank. There are several spots in the country where you could spend the majority of a trip, so you should be happy wherever you end up here. However, to enjoy the essential Moroccan experience, you ought to try for a combination of historical capitals, mountains, deserts, and beaches. Luckily, it’s not hard to find these things when on a North Africa vacation.

There are many historical cities in Morocco, but none command as much attention as Marrakech. Formerly one of the imperial capitals of the Islamic Empire, Marrakech has retained a dizzying amount of its classical charm. In parts of the city, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve walked through a time warp and ended up in the Middle Ages. The central square, Djemaa el-Fna, is the best spot to get acquainted with the old city and start to explore its winding corridors. At nighttime, the many cafes and food stalls in the square come to life with music and dance. You should also head to the city’s medina to see where the medieval lifestyle is still very much alive; the labyrinthine streets and overflowing souks selling spices, carpets, and trinkets are like something out of a North African fever dream. Also be sure to check out Bahia Palace and El Badi Palace for excellent examples of Islamic architecture. Koutoubia Mosque and the Saadian Tombs are also incredible treasures in their own right.

El Badi Palace and landscape at sunset in Marrakech, Morocco
El Badi Palace and landscape at sunset in Marrakech

Fez is the other major historical capital within Morocco. Its medina is even more impressive (and overwhelming) than Marrakech’s. Around 70,000 people live within its tangled web of medieval streets. If you’re brave enough to explore the medina, you’ll find gorgeous Islamic artworks and minarets alongside the donkey carts and street vendors that lend the old quarter a perpetual bustle. Fez is also a great spot to indulge in some Moroccan cuisine like mouthwatering lamb tagine, which is cooked with lemon and olives for a savoury, sour flavour that’s incredible over couscous. Outside of the cities, one of the best historical sites is Volubilis, an ancient Roman city that remains in enviable condition compared to other archaeological sites in North Africa. It’s easy to connect to the ruins as a day trip from Fez or Meknes.

The nation’s other cities deserve attention as well. Casablanca not only has the French colonial and Moorish architecture that harkens back to visions of exotic Morocco (and the film, Casablanca) but is also the most modern and business-savvy of Morocco’s cities. The beachside suburbs of Ain Diab are a great spot to enjoy some sun and sand while on a North Africa vacation. You can also head to the smaller coastal city of Agadir to find incredible beaches.

Aerial view of Agadir from Agadir Kasbah (Agadir Fortress), Morocco
Aerial view of Agadir from Agadir Kasbah (Agadir Fortress), Morocco

Apart from Casablanca, Morocco is also home to Rabat and Meknes, which attract fewer visitors than the other cities mentioned. Rabat is the nation’s capital and offers a great place to get away from the crowds and experience an authentic (and shockingly clean) Moroccan city. Meknes is more historical than Rabat or Casablanca, but it’s similarly laidback and quiet. The Tomb of Kings and the Place el-Hedim, which is essentially a smaller version of Fez’s Djemaa el-Fna, are both worth exploring.

Outside of the cities, you’ll have the Atlas Mountains and Rif Mountains to explore. The Rif Mountains are a forest-covered range in the north of the country, while the High Atlas Mountains are to the south and comprise the nation’s highest peaks. You can even find a world-class ski resort in Ifrane, which clashes with the vision of Morocco as a desert nation. Best of all the sites in the mountains is Ouarzazate, an incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its incredible historical streets. To the south of the Atlas Mountains, you’ll enter the stretches of the Sahara Desert, where you can go on 4×4 tours through the sand dunes or ride camels like an ancient Berber trader. As you can see, you’ll have no problem filling your Morocco vacation package with all manner of great activities and excursions.

Ouarzazate city and High Atlas Mountains panoramic view, Morocco
Ouarzazate city and High Atlas Mountains panoramic view, Morocco

Islamic Marvels and Mediterranean Idylls in Tunisia

Back in the nineties, Tunisia was a favoured getaway for European vacationers wanting to enjoy sumptuous food and relax on sandy beaches. Then came the Arab Spring and the terrorist attacks of 2015 and tourism dropped off a cliff. Luckily, things have turned a corner and Tunisia is rapidly becoming one of the most stable countries of the Arab world, and once again one of the best spots to head to on a North Africa vacation.

Like so many of the nations in North Africa, Tunisia has many parent cultures. Originally home to the Berbers, the nation came to prominence under the Moors until it fell under European colonial control in the 19th century. Today, Tunisia is firmly a member of the Arab world, but it retains its pre-Islamic, Mediterranean, and European influences.

History is one of Tunisia’s top draws. Few spots get more attention on a Tunisia vacation than Carthage, the historical city that was home to the famous conqueror, Hannibal, and the capital of the Carthaginian Empire. Sadly, the ruins of Carthage are not in a state befitting of the city’s historical importance. Much of this is due to the Roman Empire eviscerating the city at the end of the Third Punic War. However, you can still find remnants of its old streets and basilicas, as well as the occasional Roman bath house or other ancient sites. The Carthage Museum shows off the best findings of the archaeological site, including the entirety of the Byrsa Quarter, one of the oldest parts of the ancient city. Aside from Carthage, Tunisia also has prominent Roman ruins around Dougga, Bulla Regia, and Chemtou. In El Djem, you can also find a massive Roman amphitheatre that was built in 238AD. It remains the third-largest ancient amphitheatre in the world.

Ancient Carthage, Tunis, Tunisia
Ancient Carthage in Tunis, Tunisia

The capital, Tunis, demands some attention when on a Tunisia vacation. Generally laidback as far as capitals are concerned, Tunis delicately balances between the old Islamic medina and the new colonial city built by the French during the 19th century. As such, it’s a good introduction to the country, showcasing remarkable old Islamic palaces and markets, as well as the romantic charms of the colonial boulevards with their cafes and bakeries. The city’s position next to the Mediterranean also makes it easy to connect to the beach while visiting.

The holy city of Kairouan is one of the best cities in Tunisia in which to explore the country’s history on your North Africa vacation. As the fourth most important pilgrimage site in Islam (after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem), Kairouan attracts a lot of visitors. As such, you’d think that the city would be overwhelming to many travellers, especially non-Muslims, but that is not the case. If you head to Kairouan, you can experience the country’s traditions and enjoy a low-key, classical atmosphere without compromising the amenities and comforts of the modern world. The city’s most popular sites remain its Islamic pilgrimage spots. The Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba, built in 670AD during the height of the Islamic Empire, is at the centre of the pilgrimage, while the Mausoleum of Sidi Sahab is another site absolutely worth visiting.

Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba, Kairouan, Tunisia
Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba, Kairouan, Tunisia

Tunisia’s other urban centres also have their charms. Douz serves as the gateway to the Sahara Desert. It’s great for shepherding travellers onto the sand dunes and helping people live out their dreams of riding a camel and experiencing the desert come to life under the stars. Sfax is the second largest city in the country and offers a chance to experience a typical modern Tunisian city, even if it doesn’t have the world-class historical sites of the other Tunisian centres. However, its medina is one of the most interesting in the country.

Aside from Carthage and Kairouan, probably the most appealing sites to travellers on a Tunisia vacation are Matmata and Hammamet. Matmata is a small town showcasing stunning and rather-bizarre Berber homes carved out of the earth in the midst of the unforgiving desert. One of the hotels was famously used as the Tatooine home of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Hammamet is the most popular vacation spot for Europeans. With some of the clearest waters in the Mediterranean and a gorgeous array of resorts that don’t overwhelm the traditional Islamic centres of the city, Hammamet is a great place to enjoy a beach vacation without sacrificing culture. It’s probably one of the only places in the world where you’ll be able to lounge on the beach in a swimsuit, enjoy a cocktail, and hear the Muslim call to prayer emanating from the minaret of a nearby mosque, without feeling like one element of the city betrays the atmosphere of the other.

View of the beach, fishing boats, and sea in Hammamet, Tunisia
View of the beach, fishing boats, and sea in Hammamet, Tunisia

Both Morocco and Tunisia offer a lot of history and culture to explore on a North Africa vacation. They’re also beautiful countries with gorgeous beaches and enchanting stretches of desert to discover. Few countries are better at catering to both the culture hound and beach bum. Plan a North Africa vacation to Morocco or Tunisia in your near future and experience their exotic diversity for yourself.