After a month in Morocco, I can tell you the last place you want to stay is a hotel or Airbnb
- Traveling to Morocco is different from vacationing in most other countries.
- While major hotel chains have outposts in all major Moroccan cities and Airbnb is easy to use, the best way to see the country is by staying in riads, traditional Moroccan homes that have been converted into guesthouses.
- There are hundreds of riads throughout Morocco, most with unique and exquisite interior decoration, excellent locations in the heart of the old city, and run by Moroccan locals who provide excellent hospitality.
People often visit Morocco for a glimpse of an exotic past.
There are snake charmers and monkey tamers putting on a show for tourists in the central square of Marrakech and shop owners serving piping hot mint tea to passerby. There are remote mountain villages that make you feel like the first foreigner to have ever stepped inside, and golden, timeless seas of sand.
The best way to see the Morocco of old is to stay in the numerous riads that that lay hidden in the winding labyrinths of the country's old medinas.
Once the townhomes of wealthy Moroccan citizens, riads are traditional Moroccan houses. They often date back hundreds of years and are characterized by an inner courtyard and fountains, with rooms arranged around the center. The name riad comes from the Arabic word for "garden."
As tourism has exploded, hundreds of riads have been restored and converted into small guesthouses or bed and breakfasts.
Major hotel chains like Sofitel, Mandarin Oriental, the Four Seasons, and Fairmont all manage luxurious hotels in different parts of Morocco and it's easy enough to find a relatively cheap apartment to book on Airbnb. But I found while visiting Morocco in January that half the fun of visiting the country is staying in different riads.
Each riad is unique, from the interior design to the architecture to the style. Some are homey, some are chic, others look like an Islamic palace, and some are former Islamic palaces. Some are owned by Moroccan families, while others have been snatched up by Europeans looking to mesh modern hospitality with a taste of the past.
Prices ranged from $50 a night for budget riads up to $250 a night for the most luxurious. Hotels and Airbnbs tend to fall along the same range.
"There is extraordinary diversity among Marrakech riads, whose aesthetics range from the ornate flourishes of traditional Moroccan style to ultra-modern interiors that wouldn't look out of place in a New York City loft," Cyrus Bozorgmehr, a Brit who manages numerous Marrakech riads, told CNN.
Take, for example, Riad Mimouna in the seaside site of Essaouira, where I stayed around New Year's. The style was lavish and classic, featuring painted and carved wooden ceilings, Islamic geometric tile work, and stone pillars and walls.
Like almost all riads - and unlike most hotels and Airbnbs in Morocco - Riad Mimouna was located in the heart of the old medina of the city. It was both an oasis from the bustling marketplace nearby and a gateway to it.
As with most riads, each room of Riad Mimouna was designed differently.
My first two nights I stayed in this sea view suite ($230/night), which was so close to the Atlantic Ocean that the waves kept hitting the wall below my bedroom window. I could see seagulls fishing for sardines in the morning.
My last night I switched rooms to a room that was cozier and provided views into the old walled city ($85 /night).
Moroccan design is a visual feast of Arabic, Andalusian, Berber, and French influences.
I met many a tourist who, wandering through the souks of Marrakech or Fez, commented that they wanted to buy everything - the furniture, the pillows, the tiles, the lamps, and intricate patternwork - and decorate their home with it. I felt the same.
Staying in a riad gives you an opportunity to see how Moroccan designers bring all those elements come together in harmony.
Take for example, this two-bedroom suite ($171/night) that I stayed in at Dar Akal, a riad in the heart of Marrakech.
Lastly, riads actually are the dream that Airbnb is selling - a tangible connection with the city you visit. As many riads are owned and operated by one or two Moroccan families, it is a chance to get to know locals, eat a home-cooked meal, and hear about the country and its culture.
Moroccans take their hospitality seriously. As soon as you enter any riad, you will be immediately served mint tea and given the opportunity to sit and have a conversation.
Without fail, all of my hosts provided me with excellent restaurant recommendations, tips about which tourist sights to prioritize and which to skip, and what scams to avoid.
When I stayed at the Imlil Lodge in the Atlas Mountains ($23/night), my host arranged a tour guide to take me on a day hike through mountains within minutes of my arrival. As someone who rarely plans in advance, my riad hosts were an invaluable resource.
If you're planning on heading to Morocco anytime soon, take my advice: Skip the hotel and the Airbnbs. Opt to stay in a riad.
You won't regret it.
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