Picture a 90s French Riviera that has been neglected for a couple decades and then add a Maghribi flavor to it: elegant but run down colonial buildings, gritty-chic medinas, vast but littered promenades, white-washed mosques, plastic sit-up chairs under striped parasols, and kilometers of packed sand beaches on which bikinis have been replaced by hijabs. The nature and climate are very similar, and the views are just as spectacular, with dramatic cliffs on the Atlantic side and verdant hilly landscapes along the Med. This is the northwestern tip of Morocco, also known as the Moroccan Riviera.
Many visitors rush through Tangier to get to Fez and Chefchaouen, but, actually, this less traveled part of the country has enough charm, character, and colorful history to make it worth your while to linger a bit longer and explore it.
So where can you start?
An ancient port-city and a gateway to Africa, Tangier can be gritty and rough, but it is also bohemian, artistic and cosmopolitan. Wedged in between the Atlantic and the Med, it has some fantastic landscapes. To get a good feel for the city, stroll along the corniche and spend some time exploring the Medina filled with old coffee shops, tiny restaurants and quaint teahouses. If you are in a mood for an exhibition, check out the American Ligation or the Kasbah museums.
For a pleasant beach experience, head out of town. City beaches tend to get overcrowded, and they are not suitable for female travelers who have an expectation of quiet enjoyment. But the ones just outside Tangier are much nicer, with fewer people and less unwanted attention. We enjoyed Achakkar beach on the Atlantic side only 15 mins away from the town center. Another reason to choose Achakkar is its proximity to Grottes d’Hercules, prehistoric caves, known for their mythical history and the unusual cave opening in the shape of the African continent.
Did you know that “Tangerine” takes its name after Tangier, from which it was originally imported into the UK?
Tangier is a great hub for exploring smaller villages and towns along the coasts. Many of them are less than 50km away, making them perfect one-day destinations.
Once you are in Tangier, you have to visit Tetouan – the white city at the foot of Rif mountains! It’s less than an hour away, but it has a very different feel to it. If you were blindfolded and transported to Ville Neuve (the New City), you’d think you are somewhere in Spain, in the midst of broad boulevards, beautiful white-washed facades and Spanish-style cafes, where servers take your orders in Spanish. The old Spanish church, Iglesia de Bacturia, still rings the bell every hour.
When you are in Ville Neuve, make sure to stroll along Avenue Mohammed V to the Spanish Theatre & the Royal Palace. Tetouan Museum of Modern Art set in a beautiful former railway station and the artisan center, Dar Sanaa, are also worth a visit.
Because Tetouan sees much fewer tourists, it has a more authentic, more relaxed vibe about it. This is the town where you get to experience a medina in its traditional sense with “butchers, and bakers, and candlestick-makers” going about their everyday tasks completely unpreoccupied by tourists. The medina is divided into ethnic quarters – Andalucian, Jewish and Berber, — testimony to Tetouan’s multicultural history.
Where to Eat?
Food: A friend from Tetouan treated us to a delicious lunch in La Esquina del Pescado, one of his favorite joints, which serves great value seafood dishes.
By Grand Taxi from Tangier ($3.5), Findeq ($2.5) or Chefchaouen ($7). (If you can spare a couple bucks, buy an extra seat; otherwise you will be squashed amongst 5 other passengers and a driver.)
By taxi. If you are traveling between Tangier & Chaouen, add an equivalent of $20 for a quick stopover in Tetouan.
Martil, M'diq & Cabo Negro
Tetouan is only a few kilometers away from the Med, making for an easy trip to the coast. Laid-back fishing port of Martil is just a 10 min drive. To the north of it are beautiful beaches of Cabo Negro, an upscale resort with tennis courts, horse-riding facilities and premier golf courses. M’diq with a long scenic promenade lined with cafes and ice cream parlors lies a few kilometers to the West. These coastal towns are similar to their European counterparts with long boardwalks, summer entertainment and, naturally, big crowds. So if you are looking for secluded beaches and remote resorts, you’ll need to head to the Atlantic coast.
If you are traveling from Tetouan, you can take a Grand Taxi directly to Martil, M’diq or Cabo Negro. From Tangier, take a Grand Taxi to Findeq and then transfer to your destination.
Continue a bit further, and Ta-Da – you are in Spain! You’ve probably heard of a town regularly stormed by asylum-seekers on the news. Well, this is it – Ceuta, a tiny Spanish enclave in the midst of Morocco. Because of its location, Ceuta is, of course, a blend of cultures, with Spanish and ethnically Moroccan residents split roughly in half. Many of them shuttle back and forth across the border on a daily basis.
To me, visiting a European oasis in Africa is exciting enough on its own, but travelers also come here for more practical reasons, namely quick visa runs. (More on that in the Things to Know About Morocco.) If you do visit, keep in mind that Ceuta is in the Spanish time zone and Euros are the local currency. Prices are also European 🙁
Ceuta sits right in between Tangier and Tetouan and can be reached by winding mountainous roads, which offer the most spectacular views. Crossing the border by car may take a few hours, so many people arrive by Grand Taxi or park just outside and cross the border on foot.
If you have an extra day to spare, pick Asilah – a unique fortified town on the Atlantic only 30km south of Tangier. Its beautiful white-washed medina is adorned with modern artwork and colorful murals that change every year. During the annual arts festival that takes place in August, artists from all over the world contribute to mural creation. Asilah’s ramparts encasing the medina further add to the town’s charm. Apart from its esthetic appeal, Asilah makes for a great beach experience, with a long strip of almost secluded sand beaches only a short ride away.
You can catch one of the dozen trains that run from Tangier to Asilah daily. The trip takes about 40 mins and costs around $3. Your two other options are a Grand Taxi ($2) or a regular taxi, which should not cost you more than $20 from Tangier city center.