For centuries, the cosmopolitan, creative city of Tangier, at the northern tip of Morocco, has been a gateway between Europe and Africa. Whether you arrive by ferry from France or Spain, or fly from the UK in under three hours, it’s easy to get here, 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 rush through, though. Tangier is one of the most exciting cities in North Africa, and there are plenty of reasons to stay.
In the 20th century, the likes of Matisse, Kerouac, Jagger and Hendrix did just that, drifting south from Europe to bask in Tangier’s dazzling sunlight and laid-back café culture. More recently, on a wave of expansion and development, the city has regained its creative confidence, with heritage-conscious Moroccans from Casablanca and Fez settling here to work alongside local talent. For designers, performers and multimedia artists, Tangier has become something of a magnet, combining an under-the-radar buzz with a breezy je ne sais quoi.
The city is more about sensory experiences than monuments or museums, so take your cue from the popular La Terrasse des Paresseux (Idlers’ Terrace) on Boulevard Pasteur and linger. With telescopes, historic cannons and commanding views of 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 made a stirring speech here calling for independence.
The Cinémathèque de Tanger, on the southern flank of the Grand Socco, is one of Tangier’s artist-run creative hubs. Tucked behind the original facade of the art deco Cinéma Rif, it houses North Africa’s first arthouse cinema and film archive, as well as a cool cafe and workspace where hipsters tap away on laptops beneath a wall of vintage posters.
The tree-studded lawns of the Mendoubia Gardens add a freshness to the north side of the Grand Socco, while to the east, knotted alleyways beckon. This is the medina, Tangier’s old town, founded seven centuries ago and recently refurbished. There’s a Spanish feel to its edges, where shops and cafes with striped awnings are overlooked by apartments with Art Deco lines or filigree balconies. To the south is the American Legation, with its remarkable 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 piles of tangerines, Tangier’s signature fruit. Stop for mint tea in Place Petit Socco, either at Café Tingis – another people-watching spot – or on the rooftop of Palais Zahia, a boutique riad decorated in jewel-like colours.
he Kasbah, the soaring citadel in the northwest corner of the medina, offers a different perspective. Enter via the Bab el Assa, depicted by Matisse in the 1910s, and you’ll pass the beautiful Assa Fountain, richly decorated with zelliges. 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 Art and the Museum of Antiquities. The surrounding jumble of whitewashed houses hides a smattering of art galleries, murals and eateries, including El Morocco Club, one of the city’s best restaurants. The rooftops beyond look out over Tangier’s new fishing port, part of an ambitious plan that has also created Morocco’s first urban marina, Tanja Marina Bay, south-east of the medina.
For a sunset stroll, head down to the corniche and beach or, better still, head west to Cap Spartel, a leafy nature reserve where a lighthouse watches over the waters of the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Back in the city, catch a concert or a reading at the LABO Studios, the Institut Français or the Instituto Cervantes. There are also a lot of cutting-edge events going on: if the local hip-hop performance collective Groupe Acrobatique de Tanger happens to be in town, drop everything and go.