We have another proof that Morocco is a country of contrasts in Ifrane, also known as Ifran. Located in the Middle Atlas at an altitude of about 1700 meters (5500 feet) and just 70 km (40 miles) from Fez, it’s really surprising, especially if you come from the desert with its dunes, palm trees and camels, to find this city with its architecture that’s completely distinct from the rest of Morocco. It’s impressive that in a single day, and in the same country, you can see desert, snow and beach.
It was founded in the early 1930s, during the time of the French Protectorate, as a mountain spa resort and therefore has a marked European character. It’s known as the “little Moroccan Switzerland”: houses with sloping roofs, wide avenues and well-kept parks are the reason why Ifrane can easily be confused with a city in the Alps. It’s a total contrast to the crowded medinas, narrow alleyways, donkeys and the characteristic chaos of the rest of Morocco.
It’s a well-to-do town and one of the preferred destinations of affluent Moroccans in winter, due in large part to the two ski resorts it has: Mischiffen and Jebel Hebri. Also in Ifrane is the most important (and most expensive) private university in the country, Al Akhawayn University.
What to do in Ifrane
All Ifrane’s places of interest are located in its downtown area, and the rest of the city is almost entirely residential. Although it doesn’t have the characteristic maze-like layout of other cities in Morocco, it’s still worth it to take a walk through its streets to appreciate the architectural contrast and its peculiar houses with peak-shaped roofs.
Several hotels, restaurants and a tourist information point are distributed around its central square. At its southern end it has a Royal Palace with an approximately 3 km perimeter, which as tradition dictates cannot be visited. It’s said that this is King Mohammed IV’s favorite vacation home, and that he spends part of his summer holidays here and also comes in winter to go skiing.
Probably the most interesting thing about its downtown area is its spectacular gardens. Possibly the climatic conditions contribute to their lushness, as well as how well cared for they are. I highly recommend spending some time here or at least checking it out a little before going back to the highway.
The garden that borders the palace is called Parc La Prairie, which also has a beautiful artificial lake.
At the far west are the much larger Mohammed V Gardens. At the entrance we’re welcomed by a carved stone sculpture dedicated to the Atlas Lion, one of the big cats that lived in this area, which has become the emblem of the city. It’s a sculpture that arouses interest and mystery in equal parts. It’s common for locals and travelers to take a photo with it, but the sculptor is unknown.
What to See in and around Ifrane
Although Ifrane is well worth a visit because of how unusual it is among Moroccan cities, its most charming feature is probably the Ifrane Nature Park: mountains, forests, springs, lakes… it’s undoubtedly the ideal place for lovers of nature and fresh air. And regardless of the season, it’s a good starting point for many excursions.
Perhaps it’s more beautiful to visit in the fall or spring because of the colors and the good weather. But of course, it all depends on your personal tastes. If you enjoy the snow, Ifrane is great in the winter.
The Cedar Forest
Ifrane National Park is mainly covered with forests of impressive cedar trees, with some specimens that are thousands of years old. The Cedrus atlantica is found in the Rif, the Middle Atlas and some parts of the High Atlas. We also find other species here such as holm oaks and walnut trees. In the shadow of their lush foliage, it sometimes seems like it’s nighttime even in the middle of the day.
Probably the most notable specimen is the Gouraud cedar, considered the largest in the entire region, with an approximate height of 110 feet (35 m) and a diameter of over 30 feet (10 m) at its base. Although it’s now dried up and withered, apparently due to a plague of pine processionary, it still stands and is considered a tourist attraction with numerous souvenir stalls nearby.
Another object of tourists’ interest is the Barbary Macaque. These monkeys make these forests their home. They are very used to people and it’s very normal for them to interact with you, although if you’re a little careless they might steal anything they can grab.
There are many trailheads in this forest for hikers and cyclists.
Springs and Waterfalls
From Ifrane you can take a two- or three-hour hike to the Vittel Spring, surrounded by a forest of maple and poplar trees, and the Cascades des Vierges. It’s a marked pedestrian path, about 3 km (2 miles), that runs along the banks of the Tizguit river and you can go on foot or by bicycle. Along the way there are also some caves that, apparently, were inhabited in the Neolithic era. In the summer months you can go horseback riding in the area.
Dayet Aoua is one of the most beautiful lakes in the Middle Atlas and is located about 15 km (10 miles) from Ifrane. It’s surrounded by a meadow and a forest of different species of trees with several great trails for hikers.
It’s a great place for bird watching because of its abundance of fauna: wild ducks, eagles, kites, woodpeckers, herons, and even turtles.
Visitors often rent boats, bicycles, horses and even donkeys to ride around on. There are picnic tables and you can also take a dip.
It’s the biggest lake in the area, although it’s not the only one. There’s an established route, called the dayets (or lakes) route of about 100 miles (65 km) that starts at Dayet Aoua and ends about 10 miles (7 km) south of Ifrane.
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Coordinates: 33°32′N 5°07′W (see location)
Population: 75,000 approx.
Climate: Average low and high temperatures by season: Spring (1-17 ºC; 34-62 °F), Summer (9-29 ºC; 48-84 °F), Autumn (3-20 ºC; 30°- °F), Winter (-1-8 ºC; 30°-47 °F). From May to September there is a 30% probability of rain, so it’s best to bring an umbrella. The rest of the year the probability of precipitation is even higher with the possibility of snow.
Where to eat: Most restaurants are located in the immediate vicinity of the stone lion. All the cuisine on offer is international, at a high price compared to the rest of the country.
Ifrane is located near Fez. If you want to know more about this city, visit our Fez guide.