Why Tangier, Morocco Is an Underappreciated Destination

Old Tangier has an atmosphere incomparable to anywhere else. It was a booming trading center long before more-famous Marrakech was even a camp for camel trains, and yet this historic city is inexplicably overlooked by visitors who seem to view it as Marrakech’s poor relation.

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Bab el-Assa (literally the gateway of the stick). one of the entrances to Tangier’s old Kasbah. Photo © Mark Eveleigh

The coast of Spain lies just 9mi (14km) from my breakfast table and all of Africa lies spread out behind me. This is my 10th visit to Tangier, and I get the feeling that here, on the “balcony of Africa”, I’m in one of the most delightfully, and unexpectedly, cosmopolitan spots on our planet.

I’m aware it’s best to order my thé à la menthe (mint tea) in French at the Hotel Continental. Down the road, in the bustling Petit Socco, the waiters at Café Central tend to speak Spanish, so that’s how I order my café con leche. Almost all the shopkeepers along Rue Siaghine, which runs through the heart of the medina (the old walled city) speak English but farther up, in the French-built Ville Nouvelle, Arabic is more common. Even when two Moroccans meet in the street, Arabic might not be the common language because the Tangerine dialect, called Darija, is unique, borrowing many words from neighboring Andalucía.

As befits the mysterious old International Zone, Tangier is a city with many facets to its character. Fleeting visitors rarely catch the magic of the place but if you take time to soak up the atmosphere, you’re likely to spark a fascination that will lure you back time after time.

The key to getting to know Tangier lies in getting to know the various quarters.

Petit Socco

One of the world’s most evocative literary hangouts, this tiny triangular plaza has seen literary greats such as Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, and Tennessee Williams. It’s one of the best places in Africa to simply sit and people watch. The upper floor of Café Fuentes (now a basic and noisy – but wonderfully located – hostel) is like a balcony box over the living theatre of Tangerine street-life.

Tangier medina

As with most Moroccan cities, the real lure of Tangier lies in the old walled medina (the historic quarter). Rue Siaghine is the main pedestrian thoroughfare that connects the Petit Socco (literally the small souk) with the Grand Socco and this is the focal point for souvenir hunters. However, if you turn towards the coast at any point, you’ll find yourself in a mindboggling maze. Smaller in scale than the great labyrinths of Marrakech and Fez, Tangier’s advantage is that you’ll begin to recognize alleys within a couple of days. These backstreets are studded with cafes and terraces – look out for Café Baba, Tangier hangout of everyone from the Rolling Stones to Barbara Hutton (socialite and heir to the Woolworths’ fortune, who lived in the house next door).

Steps lead through a whitewashed alley in Tangier's old medina.
Tangier's old medina. Photo credit: Getty Images / Ruben Earth

The Kasbah

Unless you have a guide – or are blessed by sheer luck – the most logical way to reach the Kasbah (the old fortress) is by following the road that sweeps northeast from Grand Socco. Standing in the great courtyard of the Kasbah you can see the main facets of Islamic life lined up in front of you: mosque, palace, treasury, and prison. Bab el-Assa (literally the gateway of the stick) is so-called since it was here that a very rough form of justice was once meted out. The old palace is now a fascinating museum – well worth a visit even though displays are only in Arabic and French – detailing the history of a city that is being considered for UNESCO World Heritage status and dates back more than 3,000 years.

The coastline

Tangier beach sweeps eastwards in a great curve from the port and the sparkling new marina. Take a walk down the beach and past the Corniche Gardens in the late afternoon and you’ll see friends, families, and courting couples strolling happily in the Mediterranean sunshine. For a couple of euros, you can even hire a horse (often surprisingly spirited gallopers) for a canter along the waterline. Follow the coast in the opposite direction (west of the old town) and you’ll arrive at the stepped terraces of Café Hafa, a Tangier icon and a wonderful place to watch the sun set onto the Spanish coast.

Trip notes

Getting there and onward

Ibn Battuta International Airport makes Tangier the ideal starting point for a Moroccan adventure. Who could have imagined the day when sleepy Tangier would be the destination for Africa’s first high-speed train line (connecting the city with Casablanca, 211mi (340km) away, in two hours and 10 minutes)? The old Marrakech Express (immortalized in the 1969 song by Crosby, Stills, and Nash) is best taken as a leisurely and romantic overnight sleeper train which arrives around dawn.

Where to stay

Budget Petit Socco:

Pension Fuentes (+212 5399-34669) is ideally located with balconied rooms (from only US $22/MAD 201) looking right onto the cafes of Petit Socco. It can be noisy at night, but the evocative charm of the prayer-call is hard to beat.

Mid-range Kasbah:

Kasbah Rose is a charming five-room guesthouse in the tangled alleys at the edge of the Kasbah, with wonderful views from the rooftop breakfast-terrace. This is the sort of place you might book in for a quick visit and end up staying 1001 nights.

High-end waterfront:

Hotel Continental was once the ritziest hotel in Tangier and an element of faded charm and a wallet-friendly price tag (at US $40/MAD 366 for a sea-view room) inspires a romantic mood of International Zone sophistication.

Hire a guide

Koumila Marrakchi Mohammed was born in Tangier and four years of training has made him one of the most knowledgeable and reliable guides in the city. Ask for Mohammed when you book a tour to Tangier – or beyond – through tangier-private-tours.com.

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