With Europe, a short boat ride away, the desert to the south, and the Atlantic coast to the north, Casablanca is one of the world’s more unique places with many things to do. I have not been to Casablanca, but Kati has been and found it as exotic and exciting as one imagines. The city is one of those places that encapsulates a mixing of cultures with a mixture of history. It’s not quite Africa, it’s not Europe, and it’s not the middle east. But it’s easy to see how all these regions and cultures have left their mark on the iconic Moroccan city. Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco, it’s also one of the largest in the Arab world and a huge financial center and port. The city is sometimes referred to as “The Casa” and with a population of almost 4 million people, the city is modern and cosmopolitan. In Casablanca, you’re just as likely to see people adhering to the call to prayer as you are likely to see young men flirt with scantily-clad women by the beach. The Hassan II Mosque looms over the city as a reminder of the city’s history and current culture while the Gucci-wearing and Porsche driving locals remind you that Casablanca truly is a clash of cultures.
In the 10th century, the city of Casablanca was barely more than a few fishing villages. Despite its humble beginnings, the port of Casablanca has been historically important for every empire that’s passed through the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, all passed through here leaving their mark to some degree. By the 15th century, the city was independent and thus, appealed to many pirates and privateers. Finally, conquered by the Portuguese, they abandoned it in 1755 following a massive earthquake that destroyed much of the city. By 1907, the French took over the city and it’s said that Europeans at this time made up half of the city’s population. During WWII, the city became an important staging area for the Allies and the era has since been immortalized in the film Casablanca. Finally, by 1956 the country regained its independence. Casablanca is fabulously unique so if you’re visiting the city, check out these must-see attractions.
Take in the Sights at Hasan II Mosque
Sitting on the coast of the Atlantic with stunning views of the water, the Hasan II Mosque is the third-largest in the world. It took seven years and over 10,000 craftsmen to build the mosque and regardless of your religion, the mosque is a stunning feat of architecture and artistry. The mosque is a tribute to the former King of Morocco that combines both traditional Moorish design and modern architecture. The mosque can accommodate up to 25,000 worshippers and despite it being the third-largest in the world, the minaret is the largest in the world. Towering above the ocean and the city, the minaret is 700-feet tall and is capped with a light that shines east (toward Mecca). Along with its traditional design, the mosque also is modern with an earthquake-proof foundation, retractable roof, and even heated floors.
Tours are available to non-muslims in a variety of languages though since this is a religious site, dress accordingly. Make sure to bring your camera for those picturesque panoramic shots of the coast.
Get a taste of Local Art
In a city where things can get big and ostentatious, the Abderrahman Slaoui Museum is a welcome little hole in the wall. Located in a small building downtown, the museum is named after Abderrahman Slaoui who was a local businessman and art collector and the museum is a showcase of all the things he collected over the years all of which represent Morocco in some aspect. Vintage posters, figurative paintings by Moroccan artists, as well as handmade jewelry are all on display. Exhibits change on a regular basis mainly featuring contemporary Moroccan artists.
Spend A Moment in an Oasis
While it might not technically be an Oasis, the Parc de la Ligue Arabe is a centrally located park that is a welcome respite in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Casablanca. The park was built in 1918 and is the city’s biggest open-air green space. The palm tree-lined avenue provides plenty of shade and the park itself is filled with tons of African flora. Visitors will find little cafes where you can stop for a coffee or mint tea, and hang out and do a little people watching. For a little taste of the city’s colonial past, head out to the Cathédral de Sacré Coeur, a former French Roman Catholic church just outside the park. The church is now a cultural center but still retains its original Art Deco style.
Grab a drink at Rick’s Café
Despite the fact that the movie was filmed in the U.S and not in Casablanca, that hasn’t stopped the city from cashing in on the fame of the classic 1942 film. Any film aficionado or even someone just looking to get a drink in a vintage and cool atmosphere will have a good time at Rick’s Café. Based on the bar of the same name in the movie you can stroll in feeling like Humphrey Bogart, enjoy a cocktail, and like to the live lounge music being played on the piano. The bar opened in 2004 by a former American diplomat and has been decorated to feel as authentically 1940s as possible. Palm trees, brass chandeliers, and table lamps all add to the aesthetic while the baby grand piano tucked into the archway sets the mood.
Get a taste of Authentic Moroccan Food
Casablanca is an international city. No matter what you’re looking to eat you’ll find it here. Fine French cuisine sits next to take-out sushi but when you’re traveling, you want a taste of the authentic, and nothing is more authentic than the food at La Sqala. Located right outside the old medina, La Sqala is tucked away between the walls of an 18th century fortified bastion. Duck out from the hustle and bustle of the city and dine in a peaceful courtyard surrounded by trees and an Andalusian-inspired garden. Live entertainment is a regular staple here but of course, you’re not only coming here for the atmosphere you’re also coming here to eat! La Sqala offers authentically Moroccan fare like spicy tagines and fluffy couscous dishes that will make your mouth water as soon as you sit down.
Grab a Drink with Bird’s Eye View
Located in the Kenzi tower hotel, Sky 28 is quite possibly the tallest bar in North Africa. The building is supposedly the tallest in the region and once you head up to the top, you’ll be inclined to believe it. Featuring elegant designs such as plush red velvet chairs, large windows offering 360-degree panoramic views, and the fanciest of cocktails, guests can get a little taste of luxury if even for a little while. In the afternoons the view offers sights of the coast with the Hasan II Mosque and at night the illuminated city grants a romantic backdrop for any date. Live music and light food are offered and rooms at the hotel start at 150$ a night, just in case you don’t feel like leaving too soon.
Learn about the History of Morocco’s Jewish People
The issue of Jewish people in the Arab world is one that has lasted for centuries and understanding the complexities of the problem is something that requires a lot of education and understanding. The Museum of Moroccan Judaism is quite literally the only museum in the Arab world dedicated to its Jewish population. Jews in Casablanca have a long history dating back to at least the tenth century when Casablanca was simply just known as Anfa. After the destruction of the city by the Portuguese in 1468 they were slow to return but by 1750 the population was on the rise again and the first synagogue was built in Casablanca. Though many of the city’s Jewish population left in the 1950s, there are still approximately 2000 to 4500 Jewish residents of Casablanca.
The Museum of Moroccan Judaism opened in 1997 on the site of a former Jewish orphanage and has a large exhibition hall featuring jewelry, art displays, and artifacts including menorahs and mezuzahs. The museum not only demonstrates the influence of Judaism on Morrocan culture but also aims to highlight the history and interfaith coexistence.
Stroll Through the Old Medina
The city of Casablanca is a place where on one corner you’ll find an old art deco style theatre, followed by a Moorish-inspired home that is next to a modern glass and steel skyscraper. These variations of styles and designs are what sets the city apart from others and like most old cities in the Arab world, there is a medina. While other medinas in the country are no doubt older, the old medina in Casablanca will make you feel like you’ve been transported into another era entirely. The original walled city was destroyed but then rebuilt in 1755 following the great earthquake that destroyed much of the city. Finally, in 1907, the walled city was destroyed again by the French before it was rebuilt again. This is important to know because the area that the old medina is currently in feels like a mismatched patchwork of buildings and winding streets that add a certain charm to the area. It might be a little hard to navigate but the fun of it is to blindly wander in and see what’s going on. Walk through the shops and stalls, buy some olives or spices or sit at a cafe and enjoy a hookah and mint tea. Make sure to brush up on your French and Arabic.
Grab a snack at Pâtisserie Bennis Habous
If you’re looking for a more low-key place to hang out instead of the Old Medina, the Quartier Habous is the spot. Built in the 1950s to accommodate an influx of immigrants, the neighborhood is full of intricately molded street arches, whitewashed buildings, and Moorish designs. All of it added to the charm and beauty of the city but one place in the area that has survived the test of time is Pâtisserie Bennis Habous. Built and opened in the 1930s the bakery is one of the most famous in the whole city. Inspired by French pastries with Maghrebi flavors, Pâtisserie Bennis Habous serves handmade goodies like cornes de gazelles which is a crescent-shaped cookie, filled with almond paste and a light coating of orange water. If more European dishes appeal to you, the almond macarons are always a hit. Head over to the nearby Café Imperial and wash it down with a Moroccan coffee.
Casablanca is a city of juxtapositions. It’s the old world of medinas and souks alongside modern businesses, designer goods, and street-side cafes. It’s a city where you can grab a French pastry in the morning, lounge with a hookah in the afternoon sun, and enjoy an expertly crafted cocktail in a high-end bar at night. It’s a clash of cultures that all somehow come together right there on the Atlantic African coast. I am already planning on going and Kati returning to Casablanca. Here’s looking at you, kid.