Morocco Part I: A Day in Tangier
Start your Moroccan journey in tangier,
the gateway to Africa.
Tangier, the gateway to Africa, gave us a little taste and a teaser for what was to come over the next 9 days we would spend in Morocco. We chose Tangier as our starting point simply because there were great flight options from Dublin via Spain. I knew that we absolutely had to include Chefchaouen, the blue city, in our itinerary and I was looking for an entrance point close to this city in the north (more details on planning your Morocco itinerary forthcoming).
With no expectations and a few recommendations from a friend, we arrived early afternoon and had the chance to relax into our Moroccan adventure by exploring the small medina (old city) and enjoying some delicious meals. Tangier was a great place to start because it's far less hectic than the medinas of Fes and Marrakech and gives you the chance to feel comfortable in a labyrinth city with high walls and winding streets.
Over the next few weeks, I'm going to share city by city itineraries and then pull everything together in a "how to build your perfect Moroccan itinerary" post. Follow along as I share my first impressions of the country and what to do for a day in Tangier.
Tangier is in the north, closest to Spain. You can fly or take a ferry into the port.
My First Impression
If I had to describe Morocco in one word, it would be overwhelming. The country is an overload to the senses. The cities are loud and colorful and filled with foreign smells and lots of commotion. You will be exposed to new sites and a different way of life. You'll find the true beauty once you give yourself time to get used to the feeling. In contrast to the cities, the breathtakingly different landscapes you'll encounter as you drive through the country are peaceful and often desolate.
When we first started walking around the kasbah (fortress) to the medina in Tangier, I got quite panicked as we made our way through the narrow winding maze-like streets. First, there was a nice enough English-speaking young man who followed us out of our guesthouse. He was trying to sell us on a guided day tour for around $20, but I really disliked his persistence and he made us feel very uncomfortable. We finally shook him off and attempted to use Google Maps to find a restaurant for lunch. Turns out you absolutely cannot rely on the app for an accurate map of Moroccan medinas. We got terribly lost and frustrated with our inability to find the restaurant. Note to self, never walk around a medina hangry. As we walked around, it was actually quite empty and spooky with decrepit buildings except for the occasional random small group of men hanging on a corner. In that first hour, I couldn't wait to get out of there and was worried that I would feel the same way about the rest of the country.
We ultimately found a beautiful restaurant, Le Salon Bleu, with wonderful views of the Mediterranean. With a full stomach and a breath of fresh air, I was able to fully relax and appreciate my surroundings. We left lunch eager to explore and start the vacation on a higher note. We made our way back into the medina to walk the shops and wander the markets. At that point, the real excitement finally hit me as I witnessed the buying and selling of beautiful fresh produce right on the streets. I started smiling and was ready for more.
Looking back on the trip, I'm thankful that we were able to start our Moroccan adventure in the smaller city of Tangier. I'm not sure that I would have been able to truly enjoy Fes and Marrakech if I wasn't prepared. It was overwhelming, to say the least. From Tangier, it only gets better.
What to Do
Use Tangier as a way to slowly introduce yourself to Morocco, or bid farewell if that's the case. Wander through the kasbah, experience your first medina, and immerse yourself in the history of a city vastly different from those so close across the sea.
> Wander through the medina. You will inevitably get lost and that's ok. Walk through the shops on Rue Les Almohades (Boutique Majid being a tourist favorite). Find the Petit Socco and Grand Socco (squares). Just off the Grand Socco you'll find a produce market on the street.
> Make your way back through the medina for lunch and rooftop views at Le Salon Bleu (see below).
> Explore the kasbah after lunch and perhaps pop into the Kasbah Museum and admire the Sultan's Garden. Just make sure to look at the opening hours because it is not open every day and closes for a long lunch break.
> Continue out of the kasbah and walk to the classic tea house, Café Hafa, for glasses of sweet Morrocan tea overlooking the Mediterranean. I wrote about my experience at the café over on the tea blog, T Ching.
> Relax at your guesthouse before a delicious fish dinner at Le Saveur du Poisson (see below).
Where to Stay
We chose to stay in riads or guesthouses while in Morocco. Our first, Dar Nour, was a great choice in Tangier. The guesthouse is perfectly located in the old Kasbah (fortress) on the edge of the medina. Each room has its own character and is decorated beautifully. We stayed in the Salam mini-suite. Prices are very reasonable (60-140 euro) and include a delicious breakfast. The rooftop views cannot be beat overlooking the Mediterranean.
Where to eat
> Le Salon Bleu - a great spot for lunch or an afternoon tea break from the medina located at the top of the kasbah. The restaurant is under the same ownership as Dar Nour. Not necessarily a traditional tagine, but the dish was delicious with chicken, couscous, and vegetables. I also suggest ordering a plate of hummus to share. And don't forget the sweet Moroccan mint tea! Go up to the top and sit on the roof.
> Le Saveur du Poisson - if you're a seafood lover, you must go here for dinner. They do not take reservations, so go early or late. There's no menu, but a set 4 courses for 200 dirhams per person (about $20 USD) which is on the more expensive side for Morocco, but totally worth it. Make sure to COME HUNGRY! You start with a fish stew, then fish skewers, grilled fish, and end with beautiful fruit and nut desert bowls. There's no alcohol, but they serve a yummy juice of fruit nectar. Don't miss this experience!
> Le Nebab - we tried to go for lunch, but it was closed. Looked like a great option for more traditional Moroccan food if that's what you're in the mood for. Located in the medina.
TBP Insider Tips
> If you're staying at a riad or guesthouse, it's best to pre-arrange a taxi from the port (50 dhs) or airport (150 dhs). You'll most likely be staying in a pedestrianized zone, so you'll want someone trustworthy to take you straight to your accommodation.
> Cash is king in Morocco! Most establishments, including your accommodation, do not take credit cards because the fees are so high. You can stop at the ATM at the airport before meeting your driver.
> It's hit or miss if people speak English, In Tangier, you'll be grand if you speak French or Arabic.
> If you're arriving by car from a different city, I highly recommend using Dunes Line Tours for transportation.
> Wear comfortable shoes as the streets of the medina and kasbah are uneven. Bring a scarf and warmer sweater/coat because it can be windy sitting on the rooftops.
> Young men hang outside the guesthouses waiting to guide you for a small fee, maybe 20 dirhams. Most are friendly and will help guide you to your destination. We respectfully declined the offers. In some cases, they were quite persistent, which made me a little comfortable. You can just keep saying "no shukran," meaning no thank you.
> You do not need a guide in Tangier. The city is small enough to navigate on your own.
> Be careful walking at night. The city isn't dangerous per se, but you can get lost easily in the dark and can feel very uneasy.
> You do not need more than a day in Tangier. In fact, we really only had an afternoon and evening. As I said above, it's a great place to start your journey, but don't worry there's SO much more.