You know about Morocco, but do you know about Tangier? Rich in history, this important port guards the Strait of Gibraltar and is Europe’s gateway to Africa. For historical reasons, Tangier has a seedy reputation but this is no longer justified. These days, Tangier is a thriving and interesting city, with a multicultural identity and a relaxed lifestyle. I went to Tangier as a child and only have vague memories of it. However, on my recent trip, I had great pleasure in rediscovering this beautiful place and I have a list of the best things to do in Tangier, Morocco.
A Little History
Morocco has been influenced by both French and Spanish occupation. The French established a Protectorate in 1912 and in 1923, Tangier was declared an International Zone. Semi-independent and administered by the Sultan of Morocco, Tangier attracted a wild crowd during those years: socialites, artists, speculators, sexual deviants and various eccentrics. Expats made half of the population and Tangier was also rumoured to be a safe haven for spies…
This earned Tangier a reputation as a cultural hub but a pretty wild place. Morocco became an independent country in 1956 and Tangier’s special status ceased. Years of sanctioned neglect followed, public funding was cut and the cultural scene and its expats moved on. Indeed, it was a long decline for Tangier, tourists turned away and criminals remained.
However, since 1999, Tangier has seen an influx of investments: a new marina, a TGV train line to Casablanca are being built and a major industrial complex called “Tanger-Med” is just 40 km on the Mediterranean coast. Today, Tangier is a popular destination for day trips from Spain and is a good entry point to Morocco. I thoroughly recommend spending several days in Tangier in order to soak up the atmosphere, a subtle mix of Mediterranean and North African vibes.
Explore the Medina
With its protective walls, the Medina can feel a little claustrophobic if you’re not used to it but you will soon discover charming little squares enjoying the shelter of a large tree. I found the Tangier medina really pleasant, less cluttered and clean, with freshly painted white and blue walls. Activity doesn’t start until late morning, so if you get there early, you get to enjoy the quiet streets. A great way to visit the medina is to enter through Bab Kasbah and to walk your way down to the Petit Socco. You’ll probably get a little lost but nothing too serious… There are some quirky shops and galleries on the way. Having said that, the shopping is not as spectacular in Tangier as it is in Marrakech, and you still need to haggle.
On our first night in Tangier, we had a simple dinner at the Salon Bleu, a roof terrace overlooking the medina walls and the harbour. The sea breeze was so enjoyable and I loved being by the seashore again.
People Watch at the Petit Socco
The Petit Socco, or “Souq ad-Dakhil” used to be one of Tangier’s most notorious crossroads, where drug deals and prostitution took place. Now, there are cafes and restaurants and it’s a great place for people watching. During our stay in Tangier, we enjoyed several meals on the terrace of Le Bistro du Petit Socco. This charming little square reminds me very much of town squares in Southern France, like Nice for example. It’s also probably the most touristy Tangier gets so there are few scammers about. In my opinion, the Petit Socco is where the pulsating heart of Tangier is. It showcases very well the mix of local and expat life and is a great place to taste the unique atmosphere of the town.
Visit the American Legation
The American Legation is a three-storey building in the medina, now a museum. Interestingly, Morocco was the first country to recognise the barely established United States in 1777. It was also the first piece of American real estate overseas.
Be a Celebrity at the Hotel Nord-Pinus
Located in the street descending from Bab Kasbah to Bab Bhar, the Hotel Nord-Pinus is a hotel and restaurant, in a beautiful Portuguese-style mansion. If you are wanting to retreat from the medina for a few hours, the Nord-Pinus is the ideal place for a rooftop cocktail overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar or a fine meal. The service may be a little slow but the food is really delicious. The Nord-Pinus welcomed the Rolling Stones and the Beatles in their day.
Have an Espresso at El Morocco Cafe
At Bab Kasbah, El Morocco Cafe is sheltered under a large tree and offers Nespresso coffee. I’m not a coffee person but this is the place to get a proper espresso. Later in the evening, the Morocco Club next door is the place to get your groove on. As Tangier was my gateway into Morocco on this trip, I noticed they were serving mint tea with sugar on the side. This is a nice new development, as mint tea can be too sweet…
Take the Sun at the Hotel Continental
This beautiful hotel has a prime location overlooking the harbour and is synonymous with Paul Bowles, as some scenes of the Sheltering Sky were filmed.
Be Cool at Café Hafa
Established in 1921, Cafe Hafa was a major hangout for painters and beat poets such as Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and William S. Burroughs. It is a great place to watch the sunset on Spain, sipping a mint tea. Today, Café Hafa welcomes the youth of Tangier, sitting at mosaic tables and chatting away. And of course, the blue is reminiscent of Chefchaouen, the Blue Pearl.
Walk the Grand Socco
The Grand Socco is a large sloping plaza with a central fountain and palm trees. To get there, you need to take a 10 mins walk up the Rue Siaghine from the Petit Socco. The square is also called Place du 9 Avril 1947 and is just outside the medina walls. There is a fresh produce market on the way where you can buy olives to enjoy as a snack. Again, the Grand Socco is a good place for people watching and the Cinema Rif is a lovely art deco building, testimony to Tangier’s thriving cultural scene. In my opinion, the Grand Socco isn’t as interesting as the Petit Socco. Sure, it also makes for good people watching but I find it has a little less character.
Have a Cocktail at the Hotel El-Minzah
Why would you want to visit a hotel unless you’re staying in it? If it’s a mythical hotel where everyone that was someone stayed in Tangier’s seedy heyday, then it’s worth it. Here, Hollywood celebrities mixed with Winston Churchill and you can walk in their footsteps. Count the celebrity portraits in the Andalucian courtyard or sip a cocktail in the Caid’s Bar. And if you are in need of relaxation, there is also a wellness centre next to the hotel.
Stop by the Terrasse des Paresseux
Literally, this name means “terrace of the lazy”. Located in the modern city, or “ville nouvelle”, this is a great place to admire the view over the harbour and the medina walls.
Drive to Cap Spartel
Cap Spartel is 14 km west of Tangier and is worth a day trip, although it doesn’t warrant a full day. The road meanders along the dramatic coast and past some nice beaches. You can also do a camel ride if that’s your thing. The Cap Spartel is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the northernmost post of Africa but it’s still the northwestern extremity of Africa’s Atlantic Coast. The lighthouse is closed to the public and there is a restaurant, but we didn’t get to try it. We had our own car to drive to Cap Spartel because driving in Morocco is easier than it seems and there are some really beautiful roads. However, I’m sure local taxis can take you there.
Explore the Caves of Hercules
The Caves of Hercules are a grotto quarried for millstones, and also known as the Roman God’s sleeping quarters before he embarked on his eleventh labour (getting golden apples from the Hesperides gardens). It’s quite touristy but the grotto’s much-photographed opening onto the Atlantic ocean is reminiscent of a map of Africa and it’s worth a selfie… And of course, because this is Tangier, the place was used as a brothel in past times…
I recommend a leisurely drive back along the dramatic coast, the sun glistening on the ocean…
The Gateway to Africa
Tangier is a great place to start your journey through Morocco. Indeed, I’m really pleased we started our journey there. Most people go through Marrakech first as it is the most obvious tourist destination. However, if you have been travelling through southern Europe, you will appreciate the European connection of Tangier. Entering Morocco through Tangier is a bit like easing yourself into the country… Tangier is also a great starting point to start exploring the North of Morocco. After a few days in this great city, we hired a car and drove to Tetouan and Chefchaouen. Tangier should definitely be a reason to visit Morocco… I loved my time in Tangier, I found it easy going and quieter than other places such as Marrakech or Fès. Interestingly, a lot of people speak Spanish rather than French, which was a new challenge for me. Considering Spain still has some enclaves and islands in Morocco, this is not so surprising.
Is Morocco on your travel bucket list? If so, there are a few things you should know before travelling there.
Have I missed anything in my list of the best things to do in Tangier, Morocco? Please tell me in the comments below!
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