Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, Morocco – Travel Guide
History of Moulay Idriss
Haven’t heard of Moulay Idriss? I am not surprised. You probably haven’t heard of it because it used to be forbidden for tourists to visit. Just 13 years ago, non-Muslim people weren’t allowed into the town after 3 PM. Moulay Idriss is the burial place of the great-grandson of the prophet Muhammad, considering it to be a holy Muslim pilgrimage site. They wanted to keep the town pure and make sure all that were present were Muslim. In 2005, the rules were lifted, allowing travelers of any religion to come and visit, in hopes to grow their economy. Moulay Idriss is now an unexplored, hidden jewel of a town, nestled in a small crevice of the Atlas Mountains. It has just recently hit the map for travelers and is becoming more popular to visit every year.
Moulay Idriss is a small town with only 12,000 residents. This number surprised me, as it seems much smaller than this when you’re there. If you want a break from the hustle and bustle of the more popular Moroccan cities, Moulay Idriss is a great place to take refuge while still exploring Morocco. Here, everyone knows everyone, and most everyone is related in some way. These people make their money mostly off of olive oil. They are also famous for their goat cheese. I’ve never had fresher or more delicious goat cheese in my life. It is a place that feels completely suspended in time, and they are slowly trying to catch up.
When we booked our hotel, the confirmation email stated that depending upon how much luggage we have to carry up, using a donkey might be a good option for us. This gives you an idea of what this little town is like. It is an old fashioned, traditional Moroccan town that is much less developed and modernized than any other city in Morocco. We didn’t have much luggage with us, so we opted out of the donkey option, unfortunately.
What to Wear
Moulay Idriss is a very conservative town. It is probably the most conservative and holy town in all of Morocco. The people here are not used to seeing skin or seeing westerners whatsoever. What you wear is crucial here, where in bigger cities like Fez or Marrakesh, they are more liberal and don’t care as much. Women, when visiting Moulay Idriss, make sure you wear long pants. Make sure that your shoulders are always covered and that you aren’t showing any cleavage. Men also need to dress modestly, with long pants, and sleeved shirts. You’ll be treated overall much better by the people if you are dressed appropriately.
Getting Into Town
We drove into Moulay Idriss from Tétouan, Morocco in our rental car. It was a gorgeous drive with rolling hills and beautiful scenery. We saw so many herds of sheep and goats on the side of the road with real sheep herders guiding them away from our car. Such an amazing cultural sight. Driving into town was quite the experience. We attracted a lot of attention, not only from our nice car, but also with our westernized skin and hair color. All eyes were on us! We were the talk of the town. We were greeted by a man who said that he could help us park, so we followed him in our car. Moroccans are always trying to make a buck off of you, but are generally quite helpful. We parked a little ways down the road, paid, and were off to find our hotel. Two guys saw that we were looking lost and obviously knew we weren’t locals. They were kind enough to show us the way to our hotel because they said they were headed there anyway. They even later refused our tip. That sort of thing would only happen in a small town like Moulay Idriss. In Marrakesh, they would complain, saying they need a bigger tip.
Hotel – Dar Zerhoune
Moulay Idriss has six hotel options in the whole town. Only six. Out of those six, I personally would only feel comfortable staying at two of them, especially with a child. Because this town is new in the tourist department, the hotels are also new to the tourist scene and it seems like the town is still learning how to handle it.
We stayed at the best hotel in the town, Dar Zerhoune, owned by a Briitsh woman named Rose. She was the first foreigner to purchase property in the city. Staying there wasn’t an awful experience, but it wasn’t the best experience either. Using the word “hotel” to describe it is really not accurate. It is actually just an old 5-bedroom home that has been made into a hotel.
When we arrived, a friendly worker greeted us and welcomed us warmly. She showed us our room and then invited us up to the terrace when we were ready for Moroccan mint tea. We sat and enjoyed the view while she prepared the tea for us. The view from the hotel is incredible and probably the best part about the whole place. She brought us our tea along with some homemade sweets that were delicious. She also gave us a map of the town and some pointers of what to see during our stay.
My biggest complaint about our room was that the bathroom wasn’t attached to it. I had to walk outside of my room and across the hallway to get to the bathroom. This was a tad awkward in the mornings when I was getting out of the shower and wearing a towel only. It definitely wasn’t luxury, which we didn’t expect, but it was clean and comfortable. They were also very accommodating to us having a child. When we first came into the room, they had a portable bed all set up for Jimmy as requested, which we greatly appreciated. When we checked out of the hotel, they added some fees to our bill that we weren’t prepared for and the whole situation seemed dishonest. She wanted us to pay the fees for something that her booking system messed up on. We thought about fighting her on it because it was obvious they were ripping us off, but we needed to hurry and get going and didn’t feel like it was worth the trouble.
Overall, I wouldn’t love staying here again. But the problem is, where else would I stay? There aren’t that many choices in this small little town. I’d say, if you want a nicer hotel experience, spend the day and evening at Moulay Idriss and then leave and head for Meknes. Meknes is a surrounding town that is much more developed and comfortable with tourists. They have nicer and many more hotel options. If you really want the experience of staying the night in Moulay Idriss, which is pretty special, then unfortunately this is the nicest hotel that you can get here. For now at least.
Visiting the local market in Moulay Idriss was a very special experience. I am being completely honest when I say that I have never seen such gorgeous produce in my life as I did at this market. Nate and I were both so impressed. Move over Whole Foods! And besides being beautiful, it was so cheap. Since they aren’t used to tourists, they don’t try and rip you off with prices. Everyone seems more honest here than I’ve seen in other Moroccan cities, and they charge you what they would charge everyone, tourist or not.
There was a little of everything at this market – produce of all kinds, cheap plastic toys, traditional Moroccan pastries, dates, spices, and meat. The meat was a little disturbing to me as there were whole skinned goats hanging out in the open air with flies buzzing all around them. Stuff like this is what makes me want to go full vegetarian. But, I know seeing sights like that adds to the cultural experience of Morocco and enhances the travel experience in my opinion. I know Morocco is not America, and I have to stop and remind myself that what I am seeing is completely normal to the people of Moulay Idriss even though it isn’t normal to me.
The people of Moulay Idriss depend so much upon their donkeys. Riding donkeys is their way of life. There were donkeys everywhere here, even more so than in Marrakesh, Fez, or anywhere else that we visited in Morocco. Most people here don’t have cars or motorcycles, but instead they depend upon their donkeys for transportation. They also use their donkeys as a method of caring loads of goods up and down the mountain where the town is located. Most of the town of Moulay Idriss consists of either downhill or uphill narrow passageways with lots of steps and sharp turns. A donkey is really the only way to transport heavy things up and down the steep paths. The donkeys gets worked very hard here with little food, and it shows. Speaking of lots of steps and uphill walking, parents, leave your stroller in the hotel. A baby carrier is a much better choice for this town.
There was a man that we met with his donkey at the market. He was so kind to allow Jimmy to come up and pet his donkey and see it up close. We tried hard to convince Jimmy to sit on the donkey for a quick picture, but Jimmy was just too scared. He liked the donkey as long as he was safe in Nate’s arms. We even tried to bribe Jimmy with some toys that he expressed interest in from the market. He thought about it hard, but still couldn’t get up the courage to do it. When Nate tried to put Jimmy on it anyway just to see if he would be ok with it, the tears started to flow so we removed him right away. Oh well, maybe next time!
Even though non-Muslims are now allowed into the town of Moulay Idriss they still are not allowed inside of the mosque. The mosque here is simple and quite plain looking, at least from the outside. However, it is very holy and sacred to the people of Moulay Idriss. This is a picture of me standing outside of the entrance of their mosque. It was so interesting to watch the people enter and exit as the day went on, especially during the call to prayer. Every time we passed by this entrance I thought to myself, what in the world would I do if Jimmy ran into the mosque? Luckily, it never happened.
The people of Moulay Idriss are fabulous. They are simple, down to earth, honest, devote, loyal, hard working people. The ones that we met and interacted with were so kind and happy to see us. I never once felt unsafe.
After roaming the market and exploring the main street a bit, Jimmy spotted some oranges and requested orange juice. We approached the guy selling them and asked for some juice. He was a young guy and so full of life. He juiced Jimmy some orange juice right in front of us, and gave him a big glass with a straw. Later, he gave Jimmy a small loaf of bread to eat. This man became our friend. We chatted with him and his dad for quite a while. They both spoke very good English. He told me that he learned English just by interacting with the tourists that come around which is very impressive since they don’t have many. He was a natural at learning languages. Everyone in Morocco speaks French and Arabic fluently, and some speak English as well. This young man spoke those three as well as others that he said he had picked up here and there. I was so impressed by him and his excitement for life. After we chatted for a while and Jimmy finished his snack, the dad was so kind and invited us to dine with his family for the breaking of the fast for Ramadan later that evening. We politely declined because we were headed to go see the Roman ruins of Volubilis, but we were touched by the offer.
During the evening when we were wandering around lost, a group of about four young boys came to our rescue. We asked them for help and they excitedly guided us around the winding paths. They knew the place better than anyone. They were born there and play throughout the streets on a daily basis. They were so sweet to help us and so kind to Jimmy. When we parted ways, we thanked them and gave them a small tip. You would have thought that we gave them the world.
Volubilis – Roman Ruins
Going to Volubilis and seeing the Roman ruins was one of the highlights of our week in Morocco. We went right before sunset making for gorgeous photos. We were there all alone with our tour guide, making it special to have the whole place to ourselves. It was amazing to imagine such a huge group of Roman people ruling that area of the world and then now having them all be completely gone. And there we were, Nate, Jimmy, and I, walking through their homes and community centers. Make sure to check out my post here for more details about visiting Volubilis. A lot of tourists visit Volubilis, skip seeing Moulay Idriss, and head back to Meknes or Fez for the night. I am so glad that we decided to stay in Moulay Idriss that evening, because it ended up being such a special experience for us. Fascinating to say the least.
Where to Eat?
The restaurant options in Moulay Idriss are slim to none. Like I said before, this town is just barely adjusting to life with tourists and doesn’t quite know how to feed them. With that comes very little dining options. If you’re traveling strictly for gourmet food, Moulay Idriss might not be your best travel destination.
A Hotel -
Eating at your hotel, or any hotel, might be your best bet for food. What is better than a local Moroccan woman making your food out of her house? We didn’t eat at our hotel, Dar Zerhoune, but supposedly it’s a great dinner option. Make sure that if you plan on eating dinner at a hotel that you let them know ahead of time so they can begin preparing the food for that evening. Even if you aren’t staying the night at Dar Zerhoune, you are still welcome to eat there for dinner as long as they know in advance that you are coming.
Scorpion House –
The owner of this restaurant, Mike, only lives here part of the year. He owns the popular Candle Café in Fez and supposedly makes delicious and fresh Moroccan food. After buying a vacation home in Moulay Idriss, he decided to open a restaurant here as well. We searched far and low to find his place, Scorpion Café, (GPS doesn't work very well here and it is very easy to get lost) and when we finally found it, sadly, it was closed. There were no hours listed online. Later we talked to Mike on the phone, and he said that he only opens the restaurant when people call with three days advance notice to let him know they are coming to eat. He said it takes him that long to gather all the ingredients he needs for the meal. If he gets no calls, then the restaurant doesn’t open. Locals never eat here, only tourists. If you plan on going, make sure you call beforehand to let him know. We were there during Ramadan, which is even a less touristy time of year than normal. We were so sad that we didn’t get to try it during our time there.
Local Street Café –
After finding that Scorpion Café was closed, it was late and dark and we were starving. The only dinner choice was to go find some street food. We walked back to the area that we met our friend with the orange juice and asked him for a recommendation of where to eat. He walked with us, introduced us to people, found us a table, and helped us order. He was so kind, and asked us over and over what else he could do to help us. He made sure that the restaurant knew that we were his friends so that they would take good care of us.
This place wasn’t the most hygienic food in the world, but again, that was just something that I had to personally get over. In Morocco, you eat as the Moroccans eat, and then you move on. The food ended up being surprisingly delicious, so much so that we ordered seconds after it was gone. They grilled up some meat skewers with different marinades and veggies on them. We also ate Moroccan bread and some green olives. My favorite part of the meal was the fried potato fritters with who knows what else was in them. They were really tasty though. After we had paid, I saw the cook making fresh ones and excitedly made a comment to Nate about it as I watched him. This guy then gave me three more hot potato fritters for free. So kind! Everything hit the spot and in the end, I was glad that we had this experience because it was definitly one to remember.
Next time you’re in Morocco, save a day for a quick trip to Moulay Idriss. I promise that you’ll be thoroughly entertained. Now that I’ve left, it feels like a dream that I was there. Please feel free to leave me a comment or question below. I’d love to hear from you!