Casablanca Isn’t for Tourists — and That’s Exactly Why You Should Visit
9 a.m. in Casablanca: It’s hot, it’s loud, it’s congested. Palm trees line the boulevards; smog and dust from construction sites cloud the air. The Atlantic Ocean gleams blue beyond.
Looking out over the urban sprawl, one could easily mistake it for Los Angeles. But at street level, Casablanca is distinctly post-colonial. European-style sidewalk cafes and French-inspired bakeries sit in the shadow of half-built high-rises, with packs of feral street cats lounging nearby. The sound and smell of motorbikes cutting through the subtropical city center might suggest a Southeast Asian city like Hanoi, but smaller. With the sun in your eyes, there’s little to distinguish Casablanca’s half-finished neighborhoods and bustling boulevards from those of other cities in the developing world.
Casablanca is, by all accounts, gritty. It’s intimidating. It lacks the layer of Instagrammable gloss that’s been laid over Marrakesh, Essaouira, and Fez. Perhaps for this reason, there’s a preconceived notion among many tourists that the only thing to do in Casablanca is to get out of Casablanca. Most guides to Morocco skip over Casablanca completely, treating it only as a transit hub for those on their way to more tourist-friendly destinations.
But Casablanca’s refusal to cater to Western tourists' tastes is exactly what makes it interesting. Here, in the nation’s largest city, the current and next generations of Moroccans can have career paths outside of the service industry and lives that do not revolve around serving wealthy visitors. Contemporary art spaces celebrate young, local talent. DJs channel the sounds of AfrikaBurn (Africa’s regional Burning Man event). And the markets are meant for locals buying groceries, rather than tourists buying prized Berber rugs. This is Morocco in real life — providing cultural context that is essential for understanding and appreciating the rest of the country.
How to get there and how to around Casablanca
Although Africa might seem far away, a direct flight from New York to Casablanca is only 6 hours and 45 minutes — about the same as flying to London. Royal Air Maroc offers affordable direct flights between the two cities.
Once on the ground, the best way to get around is in Casablanca’s taxis. “Grande taxis” go to and from the airport and “petit taxis” are for commutes inside the city. Be aware that taxi drivers in Casablanca often try to hustle Western tourists for high fares. You can’t always avoid this, especially if you’re in a part of town without a lot of taxi traffic. The best you can do is to ask the driver to use the meter (“le comptoir” in French) as soon as you get in the car. A taxi from one end of Casablanca to the other shouldn’t cost more than $5. Also bear in mind that petit taxis work like Uber Pools, especially during rush hour — so don’t be surprised if yours stops to pick up someone else.
Where to eat
Breakfast: Dine al-fresco in the sheltering garden of La Sqala. Their complete Moroccan breakfast consists of eggs, sweet pastries, dates, and bread with ricotta, olives, and jammy condiments.
Lunch: The best lunch in Casablanca is not found in a restaurant, but rather among the fresh seafood stalls in the city’s Central Marketplace. There, you can buy seafood from any of the vendors in the indoor market and have the outdoor shops cook it for you. Monstrously-sized lobsters will furnish a luxe meal for 2 to 4 people. Don’t miss the sea urchin vendor who will crack open fresh ones for you to eat right out of the shell, priced five for about one US dollar.
Dinner, drinks, and music: Le Cabestan is the city’s most notable nightclub and fine dining establishment. Situated right on the water’s edge, this contemporary complex feels like something you’d find in Malibu or Cannes, but with a far more international crowd. Moneyed locals smoke over bottle service, while young local DJs spin house records all night long.
What to see and do
Hassan II Mosque
Morocco is known for its crafts, and this stunning mosque is a display of that craftsmanship at its finest — on a staggering scale. Hassan II is one of the largest mosques in Africa, and one of the only mosques in Morocco open to non-Muslims. (Note that you must be appropriately dressed for entry.) Built on a platform jutting into the water, the stone structure and its 210-foot minaret make it the city’s most iconic landmark.
Berber markets are the main tourist attractions in Fez and Marrakesh, where visitors can load up on rugs, silks, spices, argan oil, and leather goods. In Casablanca, the ancient Berber market instead overflows with live chickens, fish, vegetables, bootleg soccer jerseys, and local garb. Here, haggling with shopkeepers over the price of babouches is a friendlier, lower-pressure experience than in other cities where vendors live and die by tourist dollars.