Despite being Morocco’s capital in all but name, Casablanca attracts less tourists than a city of its status should. Even some of its most famous proponents, the makers of the 1942 movie of the same name, did not visit Casablanca - preferring to shoot the entire film in Hollywood.
However, as time goes by, more and more people are coming around to the charms of this iconic city. Casa, as it is affectionately known, teems with life and is the most liberal and progressive of Morocco’s cities. A French Protectorate until independence in 1956, its cosmopolitan nightlife rivals that of Marrakech. During the evening the city’s numerous restaurants attract designer-clad Moroccans interested only in speaking la langue Française, while during the day its upmarket beaches are packed with bikini-clad tourists.
Modern-day Casablanca – which, with its three million residents is the largest of Morocco’s cities – is also a great springboard for further travel to much-loved Moroccan destinations such as Marrakech, Rabat, Agadir, Oujda and Tangier.
A simple Berber village before the arrival of Casablanca’s original Portuguese colonisers, the ancient parts of the city are small and not as historically impressive as their Marrakech or Fez counterparts. However, the traditional walled town of the unassuming Old Medina is worth a short visit and its bastion and colonial-period clock tower have undergone recent restoration.
The French occupied Casablanca in 1907 and set about building a New Town, or ville nouveau. Designed by the French architect Henri Prost, the authorities fortunately ensured that the New Town did not damage the historic Old Medina. The main streets radiate out from the Place des Nations Unis and feature an impressive combination of Moorish and Art Deco buildings.
For more modern architecture, visit the King Hassan II Mosque, completed in 1993. The largest monument in Morocco is reputedly the third largest in the world and allows non-Muslim visitors. Its stunning interior – complete with elaborate tiling and water features – has a sliding roof which opens to the sky and a glass floor which overhangs the Atlantic.
Finally, take a rest after sightseeing at the stylish beach suburb of Aïn Diab. Here you can enjoy chic beach clubs, swimming pools and sports facilities alongside the city’s cosmopolitan Casablancais.
Casablanca’s colonial past and cosmopolitan present is evident in its dining scene. Relax during the day with a tiny glass cup of mint tea or a large polystyrene beaker of American coffee, and spend your evenings deliberating between the spicy tagine and fragrant couscous which sits side-by-side on restaurant menus with four-cheese pizzas and Spanish tapas.
Many of Casablanca’s restaurants specialise in seafood, and one of the liveliest areas to dine out is a restaurant-bar strip along a section of Rue Allal ben Abdallah, opposite the Marché Centrale. Just a short walk from the city centre hotels, it is favoured by tourists and locals alike.
Casablanca might be situated on the Atlantic but it operates in a distinctly Mediterranean way. This means that restaurants rarely open before 7pm and most people don’t eat till much, much later. This has a knock-on effect to the nightlife, which doesn’t get going until the early hours of the morning. In addition to the bar scene at Rue Allal ben Abdallah, Aïn Diab’s beachfront Boulevard de la Corniche and the suburb of Anfa are busy nightlife destinations, as are Maarif and Gironde. Female travellers beware: the male attention can be daunting.
The city of Marrakech is three hours by train from Casablanca. The third-largest city after Casablanca and Rabat, Marrakech lies near the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
On arrival, follow the hordes straight to the Medina. Here you’ll find the ancient square at the heart of the Medina, Djemaa El-Fna. It delivers a sensory overload of sights, smells and sounds: marvel at the spectacle of the snake charmers; absorb the pungent aromas of Moroccan spices; and listen to the cacophony of drums beating and people shouting in this vibrant and bustling environment.