The first thing you'll notice about arriving in Chefchaouen is the relative peace and quiet. Arrive by rickety bus into any other Moroccan city and you're surrounded by aggressive vendors, taxi drivers and hotel owners within seconds. They're all noisily clamoring for your sale, and as a result, it's hard to emerge from a journey without feeling overheated, overtired and remarkably unvacation-like. But after a (somewhat harrowing) drive through the winding roads of northern Morocco's Rif Mountains, you'll find that Chefchaouen is paradisical, and not just thanks of its sense of calm.
The entirety of the small city is painted in vivid shades of blue, and, really, it has to be seen to be believed. Founded in 1471, the tradition of painting the buildings stems from the Jewish community who settled there in the 15th century, having been expelled from Spain. Today, the walled city stands out proudly amongst the plethora of tan-colored towns and mountains around it. And it's pretty remote, which only adds to the charm – the biggest cities close by, Tangier and Fez, take two and four hours, respectively, to get to by public transport.
It's no exaggeration to say that every hillside street and alley in Chefchaouen is majestic. So, too, is the quaint medina. By no means Morocco's largest, the vendors and crammed antique shops still sell everything from woven blankets to brass teapots to leather goods. The old town is completely car free and laughably picturesque, but that's not even what makes it stand out. Most other sizable Moroccan towns are stressful and shrill, humid and hot. Chefchaouen also offers the freshest mountain air, the purest spring water and a beauty and pace more comparable to the Greek Islands than that of North Africa.
It's the perfect place to spend a few nights having explored more well-known, bustling cities like Marrakesh, as it offers not only downtime but a ton of activities for nature lovers. Journey Beyond Travel offers an incredible two-day trek that takes you quite literally off the beaten track, through Talasemtane National Park to God's Bridge, a rock arc 25 meters above the river. Also worth an explore are the gorgeous waterfalls under an hour away, Cascades d'Akchour, and the deepest cave in Morocco, Kef Toghobeit Cave.
And if it's more culture you want, it's more culture you've got. The beautiful town of Tetouan is an hour away, and even less touched by tourism. Don't leave without visiting the ancient medina, a UNESCO World Heritage site, or the acclaimed archaeological museum.
Back on home turf, however, there's only one activity that's a definite must do: a short hike to the nearby Spanish Mosque. Here, you get the most dazzling view of the city – surrounded by picture-perfect mountains, assembled in a dozen shades of blue. It's a half-hour uphill walk from the eastern medina gate, and promises even more awe-inspiring views during sunrise and sunset.
Another thing that may impress is that the Chefchaouen region is one of the main producers of cannabis in Morocco. We can't say for sure, but we have an inkling this relates to why the city is so delightfully laidback... And we do know that it means the best way to spend an evening in Chefchaouen is on one of its chilled rooftops (try Riad Baraka) with sweet mint tea and some of the good stuff to smoke. If you're extra keen, you can even take a short trip to the plantations and learn exactly how farmers produce hashish from kif, the crystals extracted from marijuana.
The mixture of hash's constant presence and the city's relative remoteness means that Chefchaouen attracts a certain type of traveler. There's little nightlife to speak of (the majority of the population is Muslim so dress modestly and don't expect to drink or club), but the vibe attracts a bunch of twenty-something, hipster-types looking for something unique.
Though that's not to say that foodies won't be satisfied too. Like most cities in Morocco, the tagines (slow cooked North African stews) are as delectable as they are widespread. The best of these can be found at Restaurant Tissemlal, where you should go for the lamb and chicken, or Bab Ssour, which boasts both veggie options and a panoramic view.
For the most legendary couscous, head to Restaurant Aladdin. As the name suggests, the decor is enchanting and romantic, resplendent with dim lights and pretty cushions. But it's the dishes that really stand out – fantastically fragrant and served unhurriedly.
And for when the food has been eaten and washed down with hot tea (fine, or hookah), there's one hotel that has no rival. Lina Ryad & Spa, surrounded by mountains, is the perfect combo of traditional and luxurious, a tranquil haven with a killer spa. Check out the oriental baths, dreamy pool and go all out with an authentic Moroccan scrub down.
When you're done, you'll feel all kinds of relaxed – the spa treatment and Chefchaouen's general vibe tend to have that effect. And therein lies the charm of Morocco’s hidden gem, the sapphire-tinged mountain city you won't forget.