Last Updated on March 15, 2024

Myriad shades of blue wash over the walls of Chefchaouen, a remote village cradled in the rugged Rif Mountains of northeastern Morocco.

Nicknamed Morocco’s “Blue City,” the town is one of the dreamiest places in this North African country. Smaller and calmer than frenzied Fez and Marrakesh, Chefchaouen’s arched doorways and maze-like alleys create stunningly blue photo backdrops.

In the heat of summer, tourists snapping selfies can overrun the medina, or old city. However, when I added a winter weekend to my three-week journey through Morocco, I encountered blue skies, friendly vendors and sparse crowds.

Visiting offseason also meant I could book a suite at Lina Ryad & Spa, a luxury guesthouse with breathtaking mountain views. In the riad’s spa, I enjoyed a rejuvenating hammam, or private steam bath, by candlelight.

Getting to Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen (pronounced chef-show-en) is a town of about 40,000 people in mostly rural northern Morocco. There is no nearby airport or train service, so it’s not included in most country tours.

The best way to get there is by bus or car on twisting two-lane roads from Tangier (nearly three hours) or Fez (more than four hours). Local companies offer day trips.

I hired a car and driver in the Mediterranean port city of Tangier. Once we left the coast, the road zigzagged into arid limestone mountains that rise to 8,000-feet. Olive groves, goats and sheep dotted the verdant valleys and rocky slopes. Along the road, vendors displayed multicolored pottery.

Chefchaouen History

Blue City of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains.
Blue City of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains. Photo by Barbara Redding

Near the turnoff to Chefchaouen, a collage of blue buildings appeared like a mirage on a steep slope between two peaks. Indigenous Amazighs, or Berbers, founded the town in the 1470s, building the still-standing kasbah, or fortress, to defend against Portuguese invaders.

Muslims and Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition settled in the remote outpost over the next few centuries, bringing southern Spain’s Andalusian culture and architecture with them. In the 1920s, the area became part of the Spanish Protectorate governing northern Morocco.

The country gained independence in 1956.

Backpackers started showing up in Chefchaouen in the 1970s, attracted by a form of cannabis called Kif grown in the Rif Mountains. Eventually, more mainstream visitors discovered the “Blue City.”

Origins of Blue City

Why blue?

I heard several different stories.

Some credit Jewish settlers who associated blue with the sky and heaven. Others say the walls were painted blue to keep houses cooler in summer; blue is also thought to ward off mosquitos.

Whatever the original reason, residents continue to wash the medina in dreamy blue hues to attract visitors.

Sights in Chefchaouen

A colorful fountain in Chefchaouen, Morocco.
A colorful fountain in Chefchaouen, Morocco. Photo by Barbara Redding

Getting lost in the pedestrian-only medina is unavoidable, as I learned on my first day. Disorienting walkways no wider than sidewalks spread over the hillside like spiderwebs, wrapping around picturesque buildings built of mud and stone bricks mixed with straw.

Some alleys twist and turn before ending at an elegantly arched doorway with stray cats lounging on the stoop. Others lead up narrow stairways to airy courtyards shaded by orange and olive trees.

Tiny cafes, street food vendors, and juice stands spill into walkways. Vibrant carpets, handmade leather goods, headscarves and traditional clothing hang outside craft shops. Artisans dressed in traditional djellabas, or loose-fitting robes with hoods, welcome passersby inside their studios for demonstrations.

Three-dimensional paintings adorn walls and stairsteps, creating irresistible photo backdrops. Shopkeepers may offer to take your picture, but they will likely request a tip or a visit to their shop. Expect a cup of tea and a sales pitch, but I never felt pressured or unsafe.

Kasbah Gardens

The next day, I joined Mohamed, a local guide, for a medina walking tour. The heart of the old city is a shady cobblestone square dominated by the kasbah and the Grand Mosque—the only structures not splashed with blue.

Orange trees and flowering plants fill the fort’s interior garden. A museum and old prison cells offer insight into life in the 15th century. I climbed the kasbah watch tower for city and mountain views. Only Muslims can visit the mosque and its octagonal minaret, which date to the 15th century.

Musicians and vendors gather in the lively plaza. Dozens of souvenir shops and cafés open onto the lively square, making it the ideal place to people watch.

Scenic Views

Water from the mountains rushes over the waterfall at Ras el Maa, the town’s water source. Residents wash clothes downstream in concrete tubs. Juice vendors store oranges in bowls of icy water before squeezing the fruit into juice for sale.

Atop a hill about a 30-minute walk east of the city, the Spanish Mosque is the place to watch the sunset. The panoramic view of the blue city set against the green, scruffy mountains is spectacular.

Visitors with more time can also explore hiking trails in the Rifs.

Staying in a Riad

Entrance to Lina Ryad in Chefchaouen.
Entrance to Lina Ryad in Chefchaouen. Photo by Barbara Redding

When I added Chefchaouen to my itinerary, I wanted to stay in a riad, or ryad, as it is sometimes spelled. Riads are traditional Moroccan houses constructed around interior gardens or courtyards. Known for their authentic décor, many are now guesthouses.

Ryad Lina exceeded my expectations. A staff member guided me through the medina, or I would never have found the well-hidden riad. Lina’s manager, Lamia, welcomed me warmly with a pot of mint tea and a plate of sweets.

The riad’s arched doorway leads to a stunning interior decorated in bold cobalt blues and stark whites. Once three separate houses, Lina was transformed into a luxury boutique hotel a dozen years ago, Lamia told me. As a result, the riad is a warren of interconnected rooms, with 17 suites on four floors reached by three separate staircases.

Indoor Pool at Ryad Lina

Near the expansive foyer, three lounge areas resemble comfortable family rooms with blue velvet and white leather couches and chairs.

Handwoven Berber carpets soften floors, while local artwork and pottery adorn walls. Metal sconces enhance the soothing atmosphere, making the lounges peaceful places to sip mint tea, the country’s national drink.

A heated indoor pool open to the roof forms the centerpiece of the spa, which has a hot tub and hammam. A skylight above the blue-tiled pool filters light throughout the riad.

Ryad Lina Suites

My fourth-floor suite was a hike, but beautifully appointed. White-tiled floors, colorful rugs, and cobalt-blue fabrics mirrored décor in the public areas. A bedroom window overlooked the pool, while my sitting room window opened onto the rooftop terrace.

With a king bed, spacious bath and separate sitting area, my suite was so inviting I was tempted not to leave. Except, of course, to admire romantic city and mountain views from the terrace.

Moroccan food

Moroccan cuisine is a savory blend of traditional Berber dishes such as couscous and rich stews accented with French, Middle Eastern, and Andalusian flavors. Ryad Lina delivers authentic Moroccan dishes at breakfast, which is included in the stay. Other meals can be ordered.

Since I was traveling solo, I returned to the riad for dinner. The first night my meal started with harira soup, a rich blend of lentils, chickpeas and local spices. For my main course, I picked my favorite Moroccan dish: chicken, olives, garlic and preserved lemons braised in a tajine, a shallow clay pot with a cone-shaped lid.

I tried a local specialty, jawhara, for dessert. Crispy, paper-thin pastry sheets are layered with a custard filling infused with orange blossom water and garnished with cinnamon and pistachios. Everything was so delicious I returned the next night for couscous, another Moroccan favorite.

For breakfast, the fresh yogurt with caramel source and a crepe drizzled with chocolate were irresistible. Other options included eggs, fresh fruits, homemade bread, dark coffee and tea.

Hammam Experience

Luxury lounge in Lina Ryad.
Luxury lounge in Lina Ryad. Photo by Barbara Redding

I was apprehensive, but excited about my first hammam, a type of steam bath dating back to the Romans. In Muslim countries, bathers still gather by gender to cleanse one another in public bathhouses. Most luxury riads, like Lina, offer private hammam experiences for guests.

Mine began with a few laps in the pool, followed by a relaxing cup of mint tea in a changing room scented with incense. After I disrobed, an attendant invited me into a blue-tiled room lit by candles. Hot, dry air enveloped my body as I lay on a marble slab, breathing deeply and trying to relax.

The attendant returned with a bowl of thick black soap made in the Rif Mountains. She spread it all over my body. A hot rinse followed.

A Sandpaper Scrub

Then, what felt like torture began.

The attendant exfoliated my skin with a sandpaper-like glove while I gritted my teeth. After another rinse, she rubbed my skin with Morocco’s famously soothing argan oil.

Though my attendant did not speak English, her strong, skilled hands communicated effectively with my body. At the end of my hour-long hammam, I was so relaxed I returned to my suite for a nap.

My weekend in Chefchaouen was a late addition to an enlightening three-week journey through magical Morocco. The Blue City’s alluring charm and Lina’s warm welcome remain among my most vivid memories.

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2 Comments
  • Nancy Monson
    March 26, 2024

    Great story, Barbara, and so well written. I loved the photos, too. I may never go to Morocco, but you made me feel like I was there!