Insider’s Chefchaouen (Chaouen)
In Chefchaouen (often abbreviated as “Chaouen”), you’ll be welcomed to one of the most chill, laid back towns in all of Morocco. Long famous on the backpacker trek, this small mountain town is now really blossoming into its own as a travel destination. Chaouen is far enough off the beaten track to dissuade most tourists, which makes it quiet enough for those visitors brave enough to venture to the edge of the Rif Mountains. The narrow, Chaouen-blue pedestrian streets give ways to wide squares and breathtaking views over the lush valley below.
Chaouen is a respite of quiet after the busy medinas of Fez and Marrakech. However, it has enough of what is quintessentially Moroccan to be of interest to travelers looking for something a bit more authentic. Nature lovers will enjoy the easily accessible day hikes into the mountains. And shoppers will enjoy the hassle-free boutique shops for everything from hand-spun pottery to artisanal soaps made right in the city.
Whether you spend a couple of days wandering the clean medina streets, enjoying a hike through the Rif Mountains, or just want to relax with a book and a fresh mint tea, like most visitors to Chefchaouen, you will walk away having experienced something magical.
Notes from the History of Chefchaouen
When you come into Chefchaouen, take a good look at its placement between two tall mountains peaks. This is where Chefchaouen takes the root of its name. “Chef”, a derivation of the Arabic word “to look” and “Chaouen,” meaning “antlers” or “horns.” Between the two protective horns of the looming Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen has long been a strategic mountain town. It has a storied history that began shortly after the Portuguese conquest of Morocco in 1471 AD. A local tribal leader, known as Abu Youma, needed a protected, secret location from where he could launch attacks against the Portuguese. Abu Youma died in one of the battles and his cousin, Ali Ben Rachid, took over custodianship of the nascent city.
Right at the end of the 15th century, Ali Ben Rachid began moving his family and friends from Granada (in modern day Spain) into Chaouen. By the middle of the 16th century, an established route was established for those seeking refuge from the Spanish Inquisition. This new immigration greatly increased the size of the city. The refugees brought with them their knowledge of art and architecture, as they did in larger cities such as Fez and Marrakech. All of this had an influence on the look of the city. However, it wasn’t until the Sultan commanded the creation of the mellah (Jewish neighborhood) in 1760 AD that the special light blue, now associated with the old city of Chefchaouen, came to be used.
Chefchaouen Travel Guide: What To Do
Wander the Medina — Chefchaouen boasts one of the most enjoyable, funky medinas in all of Morocco. Though trekking up and down the hillside can make for some sore legs at the end of the day, luckily there are plenty of cafés to plop down and recharge. Unlike the medina of Marrakech or the Kasbahs of Tangier and Rabat, foreigners haven’t really been able to purchase old houses and convert them to upscale riads so many of the local populace still actually lives in the Medina. The people of Chefchaouen are, for the most part, really pleasant and foreigners can stroll through the blue walled medina without being harassed by touts and venders too much. Most of the shop keepers have a relaxed attitude and will not hassle you. Children play in the streets and, unlike Fez, they will generally not ask you for money. If anything, the children of Chefchaouen might ask you to play with them, which is not a bad way to spend an afternoon. While wandering around, take a look at some of the placards which give information on some of the long, torrid history of this great city.
Ras el-Maa — Located outside of the medina walls, to the east, “Ras el Maa” (or “Head of the Water”) is a small (slightly overrated by guidebooks) waterfall. Many locals gather here during the hot months to cool off and, oftentimes, to do laundry. There is a small café nearby
to relax with a coffee or tea, which is pleasant, particularly in the hot summer months.
Hammam — Sitting just off the main square, Place Uta el-Hammam, two hammams of interest for those looking for a real Moroccan experience in cleanliness. The public hammam, used by many of the local men and women, is located just across the square from the large mosque, Jama’a Kabir, next to the Pension Castellana. The times allowed for men and women differ and changes regularly. Historically, Chefchaouen, like many other Moroccan cities, had hammams for men and women. Today, many hammams share a space and have separate times for the two genders to bathe. You can expect to pay about 25 dirhams, but you will need to bring plastic sandals, soap, a shower scrub and a towel.
For a more luxurious experience, head to the Art du bien-être (Art of Good Living), located one street west off the Place Uta el-Hammam, behind the mosque. Though not traditional, this is a more upscale “spa” with massages, foot soaks, facials, and exfoliations. This business operates with a local women’s cooperative to create all of their all-natural products. Many of them are for sale in the entryway. Reservations are required for the hammam. However, they can often accommodate same-day requests. Expect to pay 100 dhs or so for a facial. 150 dhs for a hammam. And 250 dhs or more on a more “full spa” experience.
Chefchaouen, Morocco a Child runs through the rainy streets
Souvenir Shopping in Chefchaouen
One of our favorite place to shop is the Hat Man. This funky shop is located toward the top of the medina on the main thoroughfare, Rue Targui on your way uphill from the main square. Hand knitted hats are available in many shapes, sizes and various levels of ridiculousness. There is a sign that reads “Hat Man.” You can’t miss it.
For some incredible spices and artisanal soaps, stop by El Jabon Arte Con La Abuela (Soap Art with Grandma) on Zanka Targhi, just a few steps up from the central Place Uta el-Hammam. Soaps in delicious combinations — such as chocolate, thyme and lemon — are on offer here as well as fresh cumin, fragrant saffron, and other spices from Morocco.
Dar Salam on Rue Taylia has a wide variety of hand-carved Moroccan furniture and a wide selection of handspan and woven wool carpets from different regions of the country. Hassan, the owner, will be happy to tell you a bit about the chunky Berber jewelry, the different tribes who still weave carpets and other pieces of Moroccan history and culture. There are no hard-sells here. Just a tea if you want it and some friendly chit-chat.
Trekking and Hiking in Chefchaouen
With its location at the foot of the Rif Mountains, surrounded by beautiful forests and gurgling rivers, Chefchaouen is ideal for those looking for to get out an enjoy a bit of the outdoors. There is a good mix of casual trails and more challenging trails, offering up an experience for all fitness types. Here are a couple of short trails to consider:
Lookout Point – If you exit the medina and walk uphill, toward the Hotel Atlas (one of the largest buildings in the city, you can’t miss it), there is an easily found trail that takes you up the hill toward a beautiful lookout point towering over Chefchaouen and the surrounding mountains. If you want, you can continue to hike deeper into the mountains, but remember to pack a water bottle and a bite to eat.
Targa – For another short hike out of the medina, visit nearby nearby Targa. Located on the hill just south of the medina, this old castle and mosque dates from the 1200s. The Spanish rebuilt the minaret. Though the entire mosque has been restored, it is not yet open for worshippers. However, visitors are welcome to climb the minaret and enjoy the views over Chefchaouen and the valley below. The surrounding patio is a great spot for a picnic.
For a longer trek through the Rif, Agharass Tours has a great relationship with Gite Talassemtane who arranges trekking in Chefchaouen. You can feel free to email the founder Fatima at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her directly at (+212) (0) 672 743 347. These guided treks will take you to some beautiful mountainous scenery and you are guaranteed to meet some wonderful people along the way.
Chefchaouen Travel Guide: Where To Eat
Jasmine Café Teteria — Opened in the summer of 2017, this fresh café offers an ingenious blend of foods from around the world, including crowd favorites such as spring rolls, veggie pizza and ramen noodles. Don’t miss out on the chicken and cheese briouats, homemade following the original recipe of the mother of the store owner, Youssef. Iced lattes, a summertime necessity, are thankfully available to go. A new café that gets at the international spirit of Chefchaouen like no other. 151 Avenue Hassan I (Lmdakka). Open daily, 8am – 10pm.
Casa Hassan — Come for the panoramic terrace views but stick around for some of the tasty tajines in Chaouen! Tajines are thrown over an open fire, adding a certain smokiness to the saffron-rubbed chicken and lemon deliciousness. Vegetarians will be ecstatic with the veggie pastilla, a phyllo dough stuffed with finely chopped veggies and spices. Indoor seating is thankfully non-smoking. 22 Rue Targui, +212 (0)5 39 98 61 53, www.casahassan.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner, reservations recommended.
Casa Aladdin — With incredible views over the Place Uta el-Hammam, shrouded in shabby chic blue and orange decor, this is truly the house of Aladdin. Vegetarians will be thrilled to find a veggie bastilla on order, delicious layers of peppers, tomatoes, and others veggies wrapped carefully in crunchy philou-dough. The anchovy tajine, a northern speciality, makes for a tasty lunch or dinner. Rue Tangier, +212 (0)5 39 98 90 71, open daily for lunch and dinner, reservations recommended.
Lala Mesouda — For homemade Moroccan cuisine, it might not get any better in Morocco than Said Bakkali’s tucked away gem along the upper slopes of the Chefchaouen medina. Besides the exquisitely prepared tajines and a Friday couscous, ordinary staples for any Moroccan restaurant, the chefs at Lala Mesouda dig deeper into traditional Moroccan cuisine served at home. They include salads such as Baqula (a cooked, spinach-like green) and Chardon (cardoon cooked in olive oil), as well as Sfarjel (quince and beef) and ox penis, slow cooked for the more adventurous diners. Avenue Hassan I, Quartier M’Daka +212 (0)5 39 89 91 33, reservations recommended.
Restaurant Populaire — Need a quick bite? Grab a mouthwatering bocadillo from this locally famous sandwich joint. The “Tangier” is almost always on offer, a mouthwatering slow cooked strip of tender beef seasoned with garlic, onion and cumin and layered in a sharp yogurt sauce. Vegetarians can find sautéed mushroom caps to stuff in their baguette sandwich. Rue Elkharrazin, next to Bab Sour, +212 (0)6 60 26 11 28, open daily, 9am-11pm or so, no reservations needed.