Surely the blue was temporary, I thought. Maybe the walls had been painted that way for a few photos or a special celebration. Maybe there was a vacation that involved the color, very similar to the Chicago River turning green per annum for St. Patrick’s Day.
I couldn’t imagine that there was a place where these winding and sloping streets that seemed made with photographers in mind were splashed in every cool shade of aqua and royal and sky every day of the year. But there is Chefchaouen, the blue pearl of Morocco.
The landscape of Morocco varies greatly from the golden dunes of the Sahara to the verdant coastal plains to the imposing High Atlas Mountains. In a spot in northern Morocco that feels fairly far from anywhere, Chefchaouen (or, simply Chaouen to the locals) sits in the Rif Mountains—a blip of blue in a country that is largely green and tan.
Over two hours from Tangier and over three hours from Fez, Chefchaouen isn’t the easiest Moroccan city to get to. It’s also not a place where you spend your days checking off a list of “things to do in Chefchaouen.”
Why is Chefchaouen blue?There are several different explanations for why Chefchaouen is blue.
Now one of the prettiest towns in Morocco, Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 as a point of defense against the invading Portuguese. Just two decades later, the city expanded with the arrival of Muslim and Jewish refugees fleeing forced conversion to Christianity in Granada, Spain.
These new residents built Chefchaouen’s signature whitewashed houses and courtyards with citrus trees, giving the city its European flair, which still exists today.
Regardless of where the tradition of painting Chefchaouen blue came from, today’s residents continue the practice by regularly refreshing the colors of the gorgeous walls and doors to preserve its unique tint.
What to do in Chefchaouen
Chefchaouen is a photographer’s dream come true. Largely shut off from the world for over 400 years beginning in the 15th century, the city feels like it’s from another time. The small streets and alleys are quiet, not teeming with shops and the frenetic energy that defines other cities in Morocco. One path intersects another in the pleasantly confusing area that is the Chefchaouen medina.
At every turn, there is a new subtlety to the shades of blue, a new mosaic pattern by which to be entranced. Light and colors shift throughout the day, making it possible to walk the same streets over and over again and see something new each time. Even in the rain, the paint makes the city feel bright.
Wander up and down the stairs. Seek out new murals. Pause by the fountains. If it’s Monday, Thursday, or Saturday, don’t hesitate to head to the morning market to see what the local farmers have brought for sale. Grab a coffee and sit for a minute. Just watch.
the blue pearl morocco
After lunch, take a walk to the edge of town to see the small waterfall. Consider a hike in the mountains rising above you or just pause for mint tea at the café near the rushing water. A good scrubbing at a hammam is always an option, or you can visit the Kasbah Museum if you’re feeling anxious about not having seen enough “sites.”
Evenings in Chefchaouen are just as relaxed as the rest of the day. They’re about finding a spot for sunset, scoping out the best dinner option (ideally with a terrace), and people-watching in the square.
The good thing about having no agenda in a city this pretty is that there is no bad choice.
Visiting ChefchaouenChefchaouen is not close to any major city in Morocco, so getting there does take some time if you don’t have a car or a driver (we chose the private transportation route for our two weeks in Morocco).
Tangier has the closest airport, and then you can take a 3.5-hour bus ride from the CTM Tangier station to Chefchaouen followed by a taxi to the city.
The bus ride from Fez is 4.5 hours. Many people visit Chefchaouen as a day trip from Fez (though we highly recommend staying a night), and many private or small-group tours can cut a bit of time off that journey.