Morocco’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Morocco’s landscape is awash with ancient architecture; incredible structures which tell stories of this multifaceted country’s past. From fort to fountain, mosque to medina, every corner of Morocco is steeped in bewitching architectural history. Since 1981, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has been awarding sites around Morocco its official seal of approval, naming them World Heritage Sites, and we have chosen our five favorites.

Quick glossary

 Medina: A distinct section of a city, often North African. Typically walled and with labyrinthine streets and alleys.

 Kasbah: Sometimes used in the same context as ‘medina’. It can also mean a type of Arabic fortress.

 Souk, or souq: An open-air market, either in North Africa or the Middle East. Souks are divided into specialist quarters e.g. gold souk, spice souk, etc. These are collectively known as a souk.

 Ksar: North African Arabic term for a castle.

 Madrasa: Any type of educational institution.

1. Medina of Fez

The Medina of Fez gained recognition by the UNESCO World Heritage Organization because “[It] is considered as one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world.”¹. Fez, Morocco’s third-largest city, is in fact home to two phenomenal old medinas. Fez Medina, MoroccoFes el Bali is the larger, and the oldest. It was established as the capital of the Idrisid dynasty between 789 and 808 AD. During the rule of the Marinids, in 1276, a new town, Fez Jedid, was constructed. Both areas gained UNESCO status in 1981.

The Medina of Fez is gifted with ornate madrasas, palaces, mosques and fountains, and is also the largest motor-free city anywhere on earth. The University of Al-Karaouine was built inside the Medina of Fez in 859 AD, and is still going strong to this day – as such, it is recognized as the oldest university in the world.

2. Historic City of Meknes

Though Meknes was built in the 11th century (it was actually a military settlement at first, created by the Almoravids), it only saw true greatness during the late 17th and 18th centuries. At this point, Sultan Moulay Ismaïl arrived on the scene, and transformed it into the Spanish-Moorish gem it is today. Ismaïl decided he would protect Meknes with a series of steep defensive walls (they stand at an imposing 15-meters-tall), peppered with nine wonderfully ornamental gates.  Bab el-Mansour Meknes, Morocco, arabic mosaics

From its dusty, sand-colored exterior, Meknes could almost be a mirage of an age gone by, yet this is a city that becomes even more dazzling once you venture inside the walls. Architectural survivors from days of extravagance gone by include a handful of palaces, a collection of ten hammams, and no less than 25 mosques.

3. Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou

If you don’t recognize the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou from tourism promotion, you’ll certainly know it from the various movies and TV shows. This striking community of earthy buildings is located in Ouarzazate province, on the southern slopes of the High Atlas. Although the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou looks like it could date back to biblical times – indeed, it has Kasbah Dades Gorge LG 553201505_703b6bba59_bdoubled for the Holy Land in a number of movies – the oldest dwellings here dates back no earlier than the 17th century.

What makes Ait-Ben-Haddou so unique is the uniformity of the building material, juxtaposed with the uniqueness of each individual structure. The vivid clay brick from which the city is formed makes it see as though the entire place has been carved into the High Atlas itself; quite a sight to behold. Some of the houses are humble, while others are small palaces. The complex is surrounded by defensive walls, punctuated with a baffle gate and angle towers. Once you have seen the Ksar in the flesh, you’ll never forget it.

4. Medina of Marrakesh

Marrakesh’s famous medina is without doubt among the most enchanting in the world. The city was founded between 1070 and 1072 by the Almoravids, and became a major hub of commerce, religion and power in North Africa and beyond. As such, Marrakesh’s medina grew to become a vast and impressive walled metropolis of palaces, mosques, schools, markets and more.

Marrakesh Medina, Narrow Street Medina, MoroccoMuch of the ancient city survives today. Among refulgent highlights in the Medina of Marrakesh is the Koutoubia Mosque, the Saâdian Tombs, and Bahia Palace. The architects of the medina also recognized the need for lush green space within the medina, so idyllic retreats such as Gardens of Aguedal, Ménara and the Palm Grove were planted – and still exist now. Marrakesh’s ‘main stage’ is Jamaâ El Fna Square, am intoxicating hubbub of musicians, storytellers, snake charmers, and hucksters. Few UNESCO World Heritage sites anywhere in the world are able to transport visitors into the past so readily.

5. Archaeological Site of Volubilis

Much of what the Romans constructed in North Africa has long succumbed to the ravages of time. Yet the Archaeological Site of Volubilis offers a fascinating window into how a Roman settlement in Morocco looked and functioned. Volubilis was originally constructed as a Phoenician-Carthaginian settlement in the 3rd century BC, and under the Romans in the 1st and 2nd centuries BC, Volubilis flourished with the addition of walls, basilica, Archeological Site of Volubis, Morocco, Romans, Roman Ruinstemples and triumphal arch. A healthy olive crop was harvested from the surrounding countryside (close to the city of Meknes), and this is where much of Volubilis’ wealth came from. This afforded residents large town houses with grand mosaic floors, and decadent bronze and marble statues.

Such things are still being discovered by archeologists in Volubilis today. In this respect, Volubilis is akin to a mesmerizing open-air museum, with a fresh surprise around every corner. UNESCO deems Volubilis “an exceptionally preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire”, making it a must-see for anyone visiting this part of Morocco.

And not forgetting…

Morocco has four other UNESCO World Heritage sites, which didn’t quite make it into our top five list. Therefore, our runners-up are the picturesque Medina of Essaouira (formerly Mogador), the Medina of Tétouan (formerly known as Titawin), the Portuguese City of Mazagan (El Jadida), and glorious Rabat, which became a UNESCO World Heritage site in its entirety in 2012. Additional to those Moroccan sites already certified by UNESCO, there are many more than currently reside on the ‘Tentative List’. Keep your eyes out for the likes of Oasis de Figuig, Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, Mosquée de Tinmel and El Gour. The full list can be found here.

¹ Source:


Our small group tour to Morocco has been especially crafted to get to know the friendly people of Morocco and delve deeper into the culture and traditions of this fascinating country.  We’ll be able to get a sense of how the people live and how history and geography play a part in their lives. This small group tour (maximum 10 people) has been tailor made for Unique Backroad Journeys.  With this deeper, more meaningful travel experience you are certain to have memories for a lifetime. On our small group trip we will eat lunch with the Berbers, walk in the high Atlas Mountains, sleep in a first class tent in the Sahara, wander the palm groves of oases, while staying in boutique hotels and traditional guesthouses called riads. Our adventure will take us to two UNESCO World heritage sites including the famous square in Marrakesh, Jeema-el-Fna, to enjoy the carnival like atmosphere that comes alive at dusk with storytellers, musicians, acrobats, snake charmers and delicious Moroccan food stands.

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Lascaux – The Most Famous Painted Prehistoric Cave

Font-de-Gaume,, Painted Caves, Cro Magnan, Prehistoric, Reindeer, Dordogne, Culture, France

Discovered in 1940 by a teenage boy, the cave of Lascaux, located in the Dordogne region of France, opened the world’s eyes to the beauty and sophistication of prehistoric cave art.  Preserved for over 17,000 years, the images are life-like and depict the animals that roamed this area of France at the time the paintings were made. The paintings are striking not only for their rich color but also for the realistic reproduction of the animals, the shading to indicate form and shape, and the primitive attempt at the portrayal of perspective, something that would not be addressed, let alone mastered, until the Renaissance.

Since the discovery of Lascaux, many more sites have been found in this region.  In 1979 UNESCO designated the Vézère River Valley, of which Lascaux is a part, as a World Heritage Site that includes 197 prehistoric sites and 25 decorated caves.

According to Wikipedia, the original cave was closed to tourists in 1948 because of severe deterioration of the paintings due to the carbon dioxide humans introduced into the cave.  Since that time, the French government has made it possible for us to see the main part of Lascaux with an exact replica called Lascaux II.

A Day Visiting the Vézère River Valley

2013-01-05 St. Leon Sur Vezere TownDuring the upcoming boutique tour to the Dordogne, we will spend an entire day exploring the Vézère River Valley including a guided tour in English of Lascaux II.   During the day, we will visit a giant limestone cliff on which there is evidence that ancient, as well as medieval, man lived and a medieval village.  There will be an opportunity to visit Les Eyzies (considered the town of prehistory) and the famous Museum of Prehistory, which has the 3rd largest collection of prehistory artifacts in the world.  (Photo of St. Léon-sur-Vézère courtesy of Rob at

Lascaux II has a website where you can get an idea about what the cave looks like and some of the drawings and symbols seen in the cave.  Click here for the English language site.  The site is vast and takes a little time to get acquainted with it.  The music can be turned off by clicking the word ‘sound’ at the bottom of the page.  After clicking on ‘Visit the Cave’ just under the word ‘Lascaux,’ an informative map appears in the lower right hand corner indicating where in the cave the photos are located.  Also, a menu will appear by moving your curser to the left of the screen. Clicking on the separate photos will bring up a menu with links to additional, and more detailed, information.   Screen


  • Stepping-Stones: A Journey through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne by Christine Desdemaines-Hugon
  • The Cave Painters by Gregory CurtisThe first book I read about cave art was
  • Mapping Human History, Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins by Steve Olsen


The Bradshaw Foundation offers an interactive map showing the migration patterns of humans out of Africa with a timeline.  It also indicates periods of different ice ages.

Another Cave

There is an opportunity to see another splendid painted cave near Les Eyzies, Font-de-Gaume.  This beautiful bison is from that cave as did the tender painting of the reindeer above.  Font de Gaume, Painted Caves, Dordogne, France, BisonAll painted caves have similarities and differences.  In my opinion, would be well worth seeing this second cave to get a sense of how other caves differ.  Also, one day these beautiful prehistoric masterpieces may be closed to the public.  The following paintings are found in Font-de-Gaume.


France as it used to be.

An ancient land of lush valleys, majestic castles, soaring limestone cliffs, meandering rivers, painted caves and a star studded cuisine, the Dordogne is a place where you can lose yourself for a while.  It’s a place to step back in time while visiting fortified bastides, ancient pilgrimage sites and medieval towns and villages considered to be some of the most beautiful in France.

If you like slightly off the beaten path destinations rich in a culture and tradition that still thrives, join our small group of like-minded travelers to this unique area of southwest France.  It will be a journey to delight each and every one of your senses and bring your camera, there’s an award-winning photograph at every turn and from every vista.

Solo travelers are welcome.  We will be happy to match you up with another solo traveler if desired.  Single rooms are also available.

Each outing on the itinerary includes a professional, English speaking guide, van and driver.


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