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The inside guide to Tangier, Morocco's buzzy port city

For an introduction to Morocco’s charms, there are few better cities than Tangier, home to a colourful medina, lavish palaces and a seductive cafe culture that has long drawn free-spirited movers and shakers.

The city of Tangier has been a gateway between Europe and Africa for centuries.

Photograph by Getty Images
Published 1 Apr 2022, 15:00 BST

For centuries, the cosmopolitan, creative city of Tangier — poised at Morocco’s northern tip — has been a gateway between Europe and Africa. Whether you arrive here on a ferry from France or Spain, or catch a sub-three-hour flight from the UK, getting here is straightforward and, as the northern terminus of Morocco’s expanding road and Al Boraq high-speed rail network, it’s also a great base from which to explore the country. Don’t whizz through too hastily, though. Tangier is one of North Africa’s most exciting cities and there are plenty of reasons to linger.

In the 20th century, the likes of Matisse, Kerouac, Jagger and Hendrix did exactly that, drifting south from Europe to bask in Tangier’s dazzling sunlight and laid-back cafe culture. More recently, the city has been riding a wave of expansion and development, and has regained its creative confidence, with heritage-conscious Moroccans from Casablanca and Fez settling here to join forces with local talent. For designers, performers and multimedia artists, Tangier has become something of a magnet, blending an under-the-radar buzz with a breezy je ne sais quoi.

The city is stronger on sensory experiences than on monuments or museums, so take your cue from favourite meeting place La Terrasse des Paresseux (Idlers’ Terrace) on Boulevard Pasteur, and idle along. With telescopes, historic cannons and commanding views across the Strait of Gibraltar, this rampart-like pavement is a prime people-watching spot, as is Tangier’s palm-shaded main square, Grand Socco, a five-minute walk away. Its official name, Place du 9 Avril 1947, commemorates the day Sultan Muhammad V gave a stirring speech here, calling for independence.

The art deco facade of Cinéma Rif, North Africa’s first arthouse cinema.

Photograph by AWL Images

Cinémathèque de Tanger, on Grand Socco’s southern flank, is one of Tangier’s artist-run creative hubs. Tucked behind the original facade of the art deco Cinéma Rif, it comprises North Africa’s first arthouse cinema and film archive, plus a cool cafe and workspace where hipsters tap at laptops under a wall of vintage posters. 

The tree-dotted lawns of the Mendoubia Garden lend a freshness to the north side of Grand Socco, while to the east, knotted alleyways beckon. This is the medina, Tangier’s old town, founded seven centuries ago and recently spruced up. There’s a Spanish feel to its fringes, where shops and cafes with striped awnings are topped by apartments with art deco lines or filigree balconies. To the south is the American Legation, with its noteworthy collection of US-Moroccan art. 

In the medina’s souks, clusters of merchants sell glistening buckets of olives, rainbows of babouche slippers, fragrant spices, freshly baked khobz bread and neat stacks of tangerines, Tangier’s signature fruit. Pause in Place Petit Socco for mint tea, either at Café Tingis — another people-watching spot — or on the rooftop at Palais Zahia, a boutique riad decorated in jewel-bright colours.

Cinémathèque de Tanger, on Grand Socco’s southern flank, is one of Tangier’s artist-run creative hubs. Tucked behind the original facade of the art deco Cinéma Rif, it comprises North Africa’s first arthouse cinema and film archive, plus a cool cafe and workspace where hipsters tap at laptops under a wall of vintage posters. 

The tree-dotted lawns of the Mendoubia Garden lend a freshness to the north side of Grand Socco, while to the east, knotted alleyways beckon. This is the medina, Tangier’s old town, founded seven centuries ago and recently spruced up. There’s a Spanish feel to its fringes, where shops and cafes with striped awnings are topped by apartments with art deco lines or filigree balconies. To the south is the American Legation, with its noteworthy collection of US-Moroccan art.

A merchant sells carpets in the medina.

Photograph by Emma Gregg

In the medina’s souks, clusters of merchants sell glistening buckets of olives, rainbows of babouche slippers, fragrant spices, freshly baked khobz bread and neat stacks of tangerines, Tangier’s signature fruit. Pause in Place Petit Socco for mint tea, either at Café Tingis — another people-watching spot — or on the rooftop at Palais Zahia, a boutique riad decorated in jewel-bright colours.

The Kasbah, the lofty citadel in the medina’s northwestern corner, offers a different perspective. Enter via Bab el Assa, depicted by Matisse in the 1910s, and you’ll pass the beautiful Assa fountain, richly decorated with zellige mosaic tilework. There are more wonders in Dar el Makhzen, the palace that dominates the citadel, including the ceramics, silks and illuminated manuscripts of the Museum of Moroccan Arts and the Museum of Antiquities. The surrounding jumble of whitewashed houses hides a smattering of art galleries, murals and places to eat, including El Morocco Club, one of the best restaurants in town. The rooftops beyond gaze over Tangier’s new fishing port, part of an ambitious plan that has also created Morocco’s first urban marina, Tanja Marina Bay, southeast of the medina.

For a sunset stroll, descend to the corniche and beach or, better still, head west to Cap Spartel, a leafy nature reserve where a lighthouse watches over the mingling waters of the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Back in town, catch a concert or reading at LABO Studios, the Institut Français or Instituto Cervantes. Cutting-edge events often take place, too: if homegrown hip-hop performance collective Groupe Acrobatique de Tanger happen to be in town, drop everything and go.

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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