View upwards to palm trees, sky, and architecture from a hotel courtyard in Morocco

Morocco Is a Perfect Family Adventure — With Desert Camps, Motorcycle Rides, and Camel Rides

On a whirlwind family adventure through Morocco, one writer watches as her children’s horizons broaden.

I'd always wanted to go to Morocco, but in my head it was stubbornly coupled with cumbersome labels like honeymoon or bucket list — that is to say, it didn’t seem like the kind of place where I might take my kids on their spring break for a bit of sun and relaxation. But earlier this year, I realized that tickets from our home city of New York to Casablanca were cheaper than tickets to San Francisco, the flight was just under six hours, and the time difference a mere five.

At the ages of nine and five, our children, previously so unsuited to long-haul flights, now run through airport terminals animated by the excitement of travel and the prospect of unlimited in-flight screen time. As parents, my husband and I are in the briefest of sweet spots between diapers and adolescence, with children who are increasingly independent but still young enough to happily spend time with us.

And so, we decided upon a family trip to Morocco. Working with Michael Diamond of Cobblestone Private Travel, we put together an itinerary. It was a miracle of planning, fitting neatly inside the nine-day window of our school’s spring break and encompassing city, desert, mountain, and sea. There were activities pitched to the interests and attention spans of our children. There were afternoons for swimming and relaxing. No car journey was longer than three hours, and all were broken up by a diverting stop of one kind or another. 

Two photos from Morocco, one showing fishing boats in Essaouira, and one showing the view looking onto straw umbrellas at the Medina
From left: Fishing boats in Essaouira; looking down on the Marrakesh medina from Café des Épices.

Alex Crétey Systermans

In the weeks leading up to our departure, I began to live almost entirely inside my anticipation. I made packing lists and researched the cities and attractions we would be visiting. In the age of Instagram and Tripadvisor and the countless travel blogs that proliferate on the Internet, all recounting with precise detail every contour of a hotel stay or flight, you can begin to feel as if you’re traveling before you’ve even left for the airport.

Luckily, our kids are young enough to live almost entirely in the present. The day before our departure, I carefully packed our suitcases and went through my list one last time. Swim goggles, extra masks, sunscreen, children’s Benadryl — the list of a person ready for any contingency. My five-year-old observed me solemnly. “Are we going?” she asked hesitantly. “Tomorrow,” I replied. Excitement flooded into her face. “Tomorrow!” she repeated.

I watched my son, I knew he was experiencing the disjunction between the world he encounters
in his imagination and the world as it actually exists.

By the time we landed in Casablanca, I too was excited, and that was despite the overnight flight. Within minutes, we were in a car, barreling through an empty landscape, bound for Marrakesh, the first stop on our itinerary. My nine-year-old gazed out the window, eyes still bleary from the flight. His third-grade class had recently completed a curriculum on the history and culture of Islam, through which he had absorbed a surprising amount of information. He can rattle off the architectural elements of a mosque and trace the expansion of the caliphates on a wipe-clean map, from the Arabian Peninsula, across the Maghreb, and northward into Europe.

But as I watched him, I knew he was experiencing the disjunction between the world he encounters in his imagination and the world as it actually exists. Beside him, his sister was lightly snoring. He continued to stare out the window, doggedly fighting off sleep. “I can’t tell if I’m dreaming or not,”
he muttered, and rubbed his eyes again.

As we entered Marrakesh and the rest of the family roused itself from sleep, our guide, Badr el Khatari, pointed out the palm groves, the dusty red buildings, the walls encasing the medina. Tall and jovial, Badr was a consummate guide: a history buff with deep knowledge of his country, meticulously organized, preternaturally attuned to the disparate interests, energy levels, and needs of our family. 

Two photos from Morocco, on showing the blue and yellow buildings of the Jardin Majorelle, and one showing men making tea at a restaurant
From left: Jardin Majorelle, near the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, in Marrakesh; making tea at Dar El Bacha, a palace and museum in the medina.

Alex Crétey Systermans

The Koutoubia Mosque’s soaring minaret came into view. “It’s definitely the tallest building in the city,” my son excitedly announced as he craned his neck to take in the tower’s arches and crenellations. Built in the 12th century, its minaret rises some 250 feet in the air and is visible from across Marrakesh. For this reason, the mosque serves as a compass, a form of orientation for locals and visitors alike. After a little break at our hotel — coffee for the parents and cakes for the children in one of the tearooms of the exquisite La Mamounia — we followed Badr into the Djemaa el-Fna, the city’s famed main square.

He gave us a whistle-stop tour of the square and adjacent souk, pointing out architectural details, helping our five-year-old count the cats patrolling the street, and explaining why cats “owned” the medina (in Islam, dogs are traditionally considered haram, or forbidden). Then he suddenly came to a halt. “This way,” he said, motioning us through a darkened doorway to show us where the fires for a local hammam are stoked.

The children were humming with delight, chitter-chattering back and forth from their respective camels.

As Badr led us through the busy streets, he stopped to greet vendors, English expats, and an old man with a heavy cart, who he casually helped, pushing the cart along as the two caught up. “He knows everyone,” my son whispered. Maybe Badr’s ease and knowledge was contagious. The medina is often described by visitors as overwhelming and labyrinthine, but our prevailing impression was of a place structured by a profound sense of community and continuity.

“Many of the stalls have been passed down through generations,” Badr explained. “These things — the shoes and rugs and baskets and ceramics — represent skills and knowledge, passed from parent to child.” He enumerated the central components of social life in the medina: the hammam, the madrassa, the mosque, the communal bakery, the fountain. “These elements draw people together,” he said. “They provide everything you need. You eat, you bathe, you learn, you worship.” In Badr’s words, the logic of the city, its individual neighborhoods, started to come into focus, more illustrative than any map. 

A person riding a motorcycle in the desert of Morocco
Motorcyling in the Palmeraie, a palm grove outside Marrakesh.

Alex Crétey Systermans

One striking aspect of the medina is how rapidly it moves between noise and silence, public and private. Walk through an unmarked door and the bustle of the street gives way to a tranquil world of courtyards and fountains. We saw this the following morning when we visited Dar el Bacha, once the residence of Thami El Glaoui, who was pasha of Marrakesh in the early 20th century. Behind a plain and unassuming entrance, the palace was a showcase of intricate geometries: zellige tilework, carved cedar doors, and elaborately decorated columns. 

As we wandered the rooms, Badr related the story of El Glaoui’s rule, one of conspiracy, controversy, and collaboration with French officials. My husband and I were engrossed, but it was around that point that we learned there’s a limit to our children’s appreciation for geometric patterns. 

More to their taste was the motorcycle sidecar tour. After lunch, we met our guides, Hussein Belaid and Marc Emery, near one of the gates to the medina. We donned helmets and hunkered down in the sidecars, and soon we were speeding through the medina streets. We stopped outside a small school, where Hussein pointed to its sign. “Do you see how it’s in three languages? Arabic, French, and Tamazight,” he said. “Tamazight is the language of the indigenous Amazigh population. It’s spoken by many Moroccans, including my mother, but it only became an official language in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring.”

Born and raised in the medina, Hussein spoke of the history of Marrakesh and how it remains, like all cities, profoundly in flux. We continued on to the Palmeraie, the vast palm grove outside the medina, and stopped at one of the wells in the khettara — the 11th-century irrigation system that brought water from the High Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh, allowing the city to flourish for centuries. Now the well is a barren gash in the soil. “The khettara has collapsed,” Hussein explained, “because of intense urbanization.”

Two photos from Morocco, one showing the city of Essaouira, and one showing a family in a window at a college
From left: The old fortified city of Essaouira, on the coast of Morocco; a family enjoys an architectural lesson at Ben Youssef Madrasa, an Islamic college in Marrakesh.

Alex Crétey Systermans

Of course, tourism has made no small contribution to that overdevelopment, even as it remains critical to the local economy. It’s a matter of growing concern, and the following day, we traveled to Kasbah Bab Ourika, a hotel in the High Atlas Mountains conceived as an ecologically conscious retreat. But first, our journey was broken up by lunch in the Agafay Desert, some 45 minutes outside Marrakesh. The landscape, when we arrived, was stark but dotted with encampments serving a variety of needs: cocktail parties for some, camel rides and lunch for others.

We were, at least on this trip, firmly in the latter camp. Our son clambered aboard a camel and, with a herky-jerky movement of camel legs and joints, was suddenly sitting six feet up in the air. “It’s much higher than I expected,” he squeaked. “They’re much taller than I thought from the pictures.” My daughter and I were next, and after a little prodding our camel rose to its feet. I turned to look at my son. “You’re right,” I said. “It’s higher than I expected, too.”

Related: How to Plan a Family Adventure Vacation

The children were humming with delight, chitter-chattering back and forth from their respective camels, which they named Cutie and Back-Biter the Orphan Maker. After a parade through the desert and a lunch of tagine and couscous in the shade of a tent, we got back in the car for the second half of our drive up to Kasbah Bab Ourika. 

Two photos from Morocco, one showing a man with camels, and one showing the view of mountains from a hotel
From left: A guide with his camels in the Agafay Desert; overlooking the High Atlas Mountains from Kasbah Bab Ourika hotel, in the Ourika Valley.

Alex Crétey Systermans

The hotel is nestled in the Ourika Valley geographically, culturally, and economically. It draws the majority of its employees from the nearest village, the food is locally sourced, and the property itself was built using the traditional Amazigh rammed-earth technique. It also runs on solar power and biofuel, and has the kind of views people travel across the world to experience. The landscape is profligate with beauty: in every direction are snowcapped mountains, red-tinted cliffs,
and verdant valley.

In the morning, we embarked on a hike, led by Hassan Chouchalla, a local guide, accompanied by two donkeys for the children to ride. Or rather, three — to the delight of the children, one of the donkeys was trailed by its six-week-old foal. It cavorted alongside us as we walked down to the village, through orchards of quince, fig, and plum trees. The valley is dense with growth, in part because of an irrigation system dating back to the Romans. Onions grow thick beneath the trees, and the fields are bordered by sage, mint, and fava-bean plants. 

The medina is often described by visitors as overwhelming and labyrinthine, but our prevailing impression was of a place structured by a profound sense of community and continuity.

As we passed an abandoned salt pan, Hassan explained that salt has been harvested in the area since Roman times, but the difficult labor and relatively small monetary gain mean that only a handful of pans remain operational. He took us to one still in use, where a solitary man raked high piles of salt. Behind him, a soccer pitch stood against a backdrop of sheer red cliff: a landscape of multiple layers and uses, at once monumental in scale and thoroughly inhabited.

Despite its considerable activity, the valley was tranquil, so we could hear the noise of animal rustle or wind moving through the trees. It allowed us to have a different relationship to our surroundings, enabling a hyperacuity of the senses: the colors seemed brighter, the sounds more distinct. All of us, children included, fell into something of a contemplative mood, broken only when the donkey foal careened up the slope to chase a flock of disapproving sheep.

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After another soothing night at the Kasbah Bab Ourika, we headed for Essaouira, the windy beach town beloved by the Beats and bohemians, but primarily of interest to our family because of its 18th-century ramparts. Our son, enamored of history and military tactics, had been eager to see the fortified city, historically a key stop on trade routes running between Europe, Morocco, and the Sahara.

A mélange of European and North African architecture, Essaouira is blindingly beautiful. People often stay there for weeks and months rather than days, and the pace is noticeably slower than in Marrakesh. It felt at once relaxed and invigorating, the sun bright and the wind inhabiting the city like a living thing. 

Soon after our arrival, we went for a walk along the city’s ramparts, which are dotted with impressive guard towers and cannons. My son clambered onto the walls and pointed toward the water, running through defensive strategies and formations in his head, lost in his imagination. Blue fishing boats bobbed in the port, and a busy fish market was in full swing.

Overview of the djemaa-el-fna square in Morocco, at night
Djemaa el-Fna, the main square in the Marrakesh medina.

Alex Crétey Systermans

We ate some of that fish at lunch, on a rooftop terrace with sweeping ocean views, and then again for dinner, in fried, baked, and grilled permutations, all of it delicious. Between meals, we wandered the city. Numerous films have been shot in Essaouira, and obligingly, a shoot was in progress in the medina. A small crowd had gathered to observe, but the children were keen to move on. As they reminded us, there was still so much to see, as we found out that afternoon, when we explored the Jewish Quarter and numerous art galleries.

We had one final day back in Marrakesh before our departure. Chief on the agenda was a family drum-making session with a local instrument maker. We returned to the souk, our daughter still counting cats, and entered a small stall inside the leather market. Drums and stringed instruments of all sizes hung from the wall. We were given a quick lesson by drum maker Zoubair Elarad — the wire placed across the ceramic frame, the damp hide thrown across the top and stretched tight before being affixed and trimmed. 

With the guidance of Zoubair, it was a matter of minutes before the children were holding their drums aloft. Once dried, the finished instruments would make a pleasingly resonant sound. After the lesson, the children explored the instruments hanging on the wall. Our son picked up and fell in love with a rebab, a stringed instrument that spread through North Africa via the trade routes he had studied in school. 

As we made our way to the airport the following morning, I was gripped by the inverse of the anticipation I had felt before we arrived. I started flicking through the photographs on my phone, revisiting the individual moments of our trip, as if I could scramble back in time through the screen.

Outside the leather market we came upon a record shop full of vintage 45s, where my husband had the idea to find examples of rebab music for our son. Soon, he and the shop owner were digging through bins. They chose a record; the needle was carefully lowered into the groove; and the deep, melodious sound of the rebab spilled out of the shop and into the market.

We returned to our hotel — this time, the sprawling and luxurious Mandarin Oriental — and slowly, reluctantly, packed for our flight back to New York. “I can’t believe it’s over,” my daughter said mournfully as she gathered her belongings and folded them into her backpack. As we made our way to the airport the following morning, I was gripped by the inverse of the anticipation I had felt before we arrived. I started flicking through the photographs on my phone, revisiting the individual moments of our trip, as if I could scramble back in time through the screen.

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As I scrolled, I realized that the children had commandeered my phone at some point during our stay at the Kasbah Bab Ourika and filled it with photos of the valley. The images followed a pattern: landscape, landscape, landscape, and then a sudden, shy little selfie, as if my children were saying, “Here I am” or “I was here.”

It was in front of that valley view, I now remembered, that my son had suddenly turned quiet. When I asked him what he was thinking about, he said, “Places like this make you realize how big the world is.” He paused a little self-consciously. “They make you feel small and insignificant. But not necessarily in a bad way.” 

It’s true, I thought as I put my phone in my bag and prepared to board our flight. We travel not just to see the world, but to understand our place in it. And to remember that we are all, in some ways, small, and the world we inhabit remains very big. 

Family-friendly Morocco 


La Mamounia: A storied hotel with beautiful grounds. The Pierre Hermé Tea Room — offering excellent macarons and memorable pastries — is a highlight.

Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech: This luxurious property is ideal for families, thanks to a kids’ camp and villas with courtyards and private pools.

Azalai Urban Souk: This hidden gem of a restaurant turns out excellent dishes that combine global influences. Ceramics and other household goods are also for sale.

El Fenn: The stylish rooftop restaurant of the popular El Fenn hotel is known for its cocktails. Order the Moroccan-style fish-and-chips for the kids.

Le Marocain: Housed inside La Mamounia, this restaurant offers traditional Moroccan cuisine, perfectly executed. The dress code is on the formal side.

Les Trois Saveurs: This dining room in the courtyard of the hotel La Maison Arabe is highly atmospheric, with a menu that fuses French, Moroccan, and Asian dishes.


Kasbah Bab Ourika: A spectacular resort in the High Atlas Mountains, situated only 45 minutes from Marrakesh.


Heure Bleue Palais: A traditional riad just minutes from the beach that captures the relaxed elegance of the city.

La Table Madada: This restaurant serves sophisticated, contemporary cuisine, such as sea bass in salt crust. It’s also accommodating toward families, with a children’s menu and patient staff.

Taros: Fresh, unfussy dishes with breathtaking views of the sea.

How to Book

Michael Diamond, a member of T+L’s A-List of top travel advisors, has been planning trips to Morocco for the past two decades. Diamond and his team at Cobblestone Private Travel can organize a range of experiences that appeal to adults and children alike, from a motorcycle sidecar tour of Marrakesh to cooking classes.; 646-434-1394.

A version of this story first appeared in the November 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "A Window to the World."

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