Casablanca (Arabic: الدارالبيضاء, Daru l-Bayda) may be the cosmopolitan, industrial and economic heart of Morocco (and its largest city), but it is one of the less endearing of the country's sights. With a small, unassuming medina and a traffic-congested ville nouvelle, travellers arriving via Casablanca may be tempted to find the first train out of to nearby Rabat. The awe-inspiring Hassan II Mosque and happening nightlife, however, are worth at least a day of your Moroccan itinerary.
The modern city of Casablanca was founded by Berber fishermen in the 10th Century BC and was subsequently used by the Phoenicians, Romans and the Merenids as a strategic port called Anfa. The Portuguese destroyed it and rebuilt it under the name Casa Branca, only to abandon it after an earthquake in 1755. The Moroccan sultan rebuilt the city as Daru l-Badya and it was given its current name of Casablanca by Spanish traders who established trading bases there. The French occupied the city in 1907, establishing it as a protectorate in 1912 and starting construction of the ville nouvelle, however it gained independence with the rest of the country in 1956.
Casablanca is now Morocco's largest city with a population of almost 4 million and also boasts the world's largest artificial port.
Casablanca is also the most liberal and progressive of Morocco's cities. Young men flirt brazenly with scantily-clad women, designer labels are the norm in the chic, beachfront neighbourhood of 'Ain Diab and many young Moroccans speak to each other exclusively in French.
But not everyone is living the Casablancan dream. Tens of thousands of rural Moroccans who fled the drought-ravaged interior to find work in the city are struggling under high unemployment rates and expensive housing. The poverty, prevalent in slums on the city's outskirts, has led to high rates of crime, drug use and prostitution.
Modern, hip and slightly seedy, Casablanca is a mixed bag of Moroccan extremes.
Mohammed V Int'l Airport (IATA: CMN) is the busiest gateway to the country and is well-connected to Europe. Royal Air Maroc flies to New York JFK, many cities in Europe, and has connecting flights to African countries such as Nigeria, Central African Republic, Senegal, and others. To get from the Airport into Casablanca or vice versa, take the train to/from Casa Voyageurs station which is on the outskirts of town and then a fairly long walk or petit taxi (circa 8DH at time of writing) into the centre.
Casablanca Voyagers station serves trains to Fes, Marrakech, Tangier with stops in between. The trains are comfortable, the stations easy to navigate, and boards display the time of departure/arrival. Be sure to check the schedule for express trains; for instance, the train that leaves Casablanca at 7:05AM daily takes 3 hours to reach Fes, as opposed to the normal 5 hour journey.
Trains are divided into first and second-class compartments; the first-class ones generally cost an extra 50%, but have more room and guarantee a seat. Boarding second-class compartments during peak hours may mean that you have to stand until a seat opens up.
There is a well maintained toll that runs from Tangier to El Jadida, passing through Casablanca and Rabat.
The minimum driving age in Casablanca is 21. Always carry your driver's license and passport while driving. Avoid driving if possible-- car rental prices are high as is the accident rate. If you are leaving Casablanca by car, make sure to fill up in the city. Gas/petrol stations becomes scarce outside Casablanca.
CTM coaches (intercity buses) and various private lines run services to most notable Moroccan towns as well as a number of European cities. These run from the Gare Routière on Rue Léon l'Africain in downtown Casablanca.
A government department puts out an exhaustive map of Casablanca in book form called Carte Guide de Casablanca that you can find in bookstores or online; in all likelihood, though, it isn't necessary. Taxi drivers know how to get to every single place in every single guide book, even if you tell them just "the restaurant on Blvd. Hassan II." Other than that, Casablanca is like any other European city: the streets (mostly) have signs, and passersby are extremely helpful in French or Arabic and, more rarely, Spanish or English. The Medina can be hard to navigate, but it's so small that no matter how blindly you wander into it, you're never more than ten minutes from an exit.
- The King Hassan II Mosque, Blvd Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah, Tours Sa-Th 9AM, 10AM, 11AM and 2PM. A relatively recent mosque. It's one of the largest in the world and the largest in Morocco, and has the tallest minaret in the world. It is one of the two main mosques in Morocco open to non-muslims. Beautiful interior complete with water features, a roof that opens to the sky, a huge hammam in the basement (not in use), and beautiful tile work. Worth a trip to the city.
- Old Medina, North of of the Place des Nations Unies There is a small traditional walled town in the north of Casablanca. If you are in town it's be worth a visit, but it's nothing compared to the glories of Fes or Marrakesh.
- The Corniche, is a neighborhood on the ocean, west of the Hassan II Mosque. Decades ago, it was a thriving resort area - hotels line the ocean side of the Boulevard de la Corniche, and nightclubs line the other side. Most look like they've seen better days, but it's almost disorienting in how much it resembles the New Jersey Shore. Along the Boulevard de l'Ocean Atlantique are many newer, fancier hotels. The Corniche is also home to many western fast food chains. A new western-style movie theater can also be found here, but the best option is to walk up and down the street, resting at one of the many ocean-view cafes.
- The Shrine of Sidi Abderrahman is built on a rock off shore, well past The Corniche, and is only accessible at low tide. The shrine itself is off-limits to non-muslims, but visitors are permitted to explore the tiny, medina-like neighborhood that has sprung up around it. A better bet is to walk to it along the beach and catch a view of the beautiful white walls before catching a cab to less remote areas.
Hammam (Turkish Baths)
- Solidarite Feminine, 4, rue Ahmed Chowki, Palmier, ☎ 022-99-23-94. This is not only an excellent activity for travellers but also an initiative that is helping single mothers and creating social change in Morocco. An organization called Solidarité Féminine runs a traditional Hammam and health center which is not only one of the cleanest and most attractive in Casablanca but also provides valuable job training for single mothers who would otherwise be illiterate, jobless and who face all kinds of discrimination in the Muslim and Berber cultures that exist here. This Hammam offers excellent prices and all the funds raised go to support the programs of the organization which is truly helping to change Moroccan society. This is a local initiative, founded and run by Moroccans and is an excellent opportunity for tourists to support local development and have an excellent experience at the Hammam.
Casablanca is one of the least interesting places to shop in all of Morocco. Around the old Medina it's easy to find places selling traditional Moroccan goods, such as tagines, pottery, leather goods, hookahs, and a whole spectrum of geegaws, but it's all for the tourists. Much better to wait until you're in Fes and can bargain with someone who sells things to Moroccans and tourists alike. That said, the Maarif neighborhood (near the twin center) has many name-brand European and American fashion chains, such as Zara. Designer glasses, leather shoes, and "genuine" belts, bags, and shirts can be had at bargain prices.
The Derb Ghraleef neighborhood has a large souq that is not for the faint of heart. A cluster of small shanties, each one is loaded with "genuine" mobile phones, "genuine" watches, and "genuine" "brand name" clothing. The shops are separated by alleys no more than three feet wide, some of which double as drainage ditches. There are numerous fruit smoothie stands in the center, which make a good spot for regrouping and planning your excursion. The stall owners are, of course, kings of negotiating, and without a good handle on Arabic and a strong backbone, you're unlikely to pay the going rate for anything.
Restaurants in Morocco are like restaurants in Spain - they don't open until around 7pm at the earliest, and most people don't eat until much later. Be sure to call first and make sure your restaurant of choice is actually open.
- La Cigale, Blvd Brahim Roudani just south of the Rampwan de L'unite Africaine. This bar is an unassuming spot close to the Park of the Arab League, with a restaurant in front that serves only the most basic food (sausage or kefta sandwiches, salads, and the like.) The bar in the back is more crowded and has live music most nights. Beer is served with a plate of olives or popcorn, and it's one of the few Moroccan-style bars where women can drink in peace. Wine and liquor are available, but only when eating in the restaurant. A few phrases in Arabic to Aisha, the barkeeper, will win her heart and ensure a constant supply of olives.
- Benis Patisserie, Quartier Habous. This place is famed for having some of the best pastries in Morocco. Try one of their famous hornes des gazelles.
- La Corrida, 59 Rue el Araar, ☎ +212 (0) 22 27 81 55. From the outside, it's easy to miss this restaurant, but look for the little sign ringed in blinking lights. It has a nice outdoor courtyard, but the inside is the main attraction. It's decorated like with memorabilia from Spanish bull fighting tournaments and has a dark, candle-lit vibe that's perfect for dates. The sangria is tasty, as is the Tapas menu (which changes daily). Seafood is the specialty, and the steamed mussels should not be missed.
- Taverne du Dauphin, 115 Blvd Felix Houphouet, ☎ +212 (0) 22 22 12 00. A little seafood place within walking distance of the old medina, the port, and the Park of the Arabic League, this place can get crowded at meal times. An excellent selection of seafood and one of the widest beer selections in all of Morocco (though that's only 5 or 6 different brews) makes this a very popular lunch spot. The fish is fresh from the fishermen at the port, and the shellfish (oysters, mussels and so on) are delicious. When paying, however, keep an eye on the waiters: they'll "help you count the money," which can turn into an elaborate shell game where they'll slip some of the cash into their own pocket.
- Le Kobe D'Or, 9 Rue Abou Salt El Andaloussi (just off of Brahim Roudani), ☎ +212 (0) 22 98 07 25. An asian restaurant that is hard to miss, as it has an enormous red neon sign. The inside is nicely decorated in dark red, with lots of mirrors and asian details. The food is ho-hum; the soups are great but the chicken tends to be overcooked. Still, a nice place for a quick snack close to the Maarif, a good shopping area.
- La Sqala, Blvd. Des Almohades, ☎ +212 (0) 22 26 09 60. Built in the remains of an old fortress, this place is worth as much as a cultural attraction as it is a restaurant. On the outskirts of the old medina, it has cannons, walls, defensive positions, and portcullises as well as a nice, clean eating environment. The atmosphere tends to be a little on the touristy side, but the food is a good modern look at traditional Moroccan foods. Some dishes are vegetarian and vegan. They also have the obligatory Moroccan pastries and teas if you're just in the mood for a snack. Great photo opportunity.
- Al Mounia, 95 Rue Prince Moulay Abdullah, ☎ +212 (0) 22 22 26 69. This restaurant has an excellent courtyard with a hundred year-old tree. The main drawback is that since this restaurant is listed in most guidebooks, it fills up with tourists at an early hour. The cooking is mostly traditional Moroccan foods, with some of the best couscous in the country. There is also an extensive wine list.
- Rick's Cafe, 248 Rue Sour Jdid, ☎ +212 (0) 22 27 42 07. This restaurant claims to have recreated the eponymous cafe from the movie Casablanca. Excellent location, within a 20 minute walk of the Hassan II Mosque and in the walls of the Old Medina bordering the ocean. The food is excellent, though expensive. Eat at one of the tables on the second floor for an excellent view of the seats below and the niveau-Moroccan decorations or eat on the ground floor to be nearer the piano player who plays, of course, As Time Goes By every night. Excellent selection of wine and liquor and, for Morocco, a thorough beer selection (5 different brands). The waitstaff, in tuxedos and Fezes, are superb. The only drawback to this place is the cost with dinner for 2 costing up to 800 DH.
- YoSushi, 12 Rue Mohammed Abdou, ☎ +212 (0) 22 98 11 90. Sushi is catching on in a big way in Morocco. This little place, on a side street near the prefectural police headquarters, is one of the best. New, clean, and trendy, you're unlikely to find anyone in it before 10pm. They serve all the sushi classics- Nigiri, Sashimi, Hosomaki, Maki, Futomakis, and assorted other fish items. Though tasty, it can get expensive if your aim is to fill yourself up. Not very many options for vegan diners.
- Thai Gardens, Ave. de la Cote d'Emeraude, ☎ +212 (0) 22 79 75 79. This swanky restaurant is a little out of the way, in the upscale Anfa neighborhood near the Corniche. Petite taxis run about 20 DH from the city center, but there is no better asian restaurant in all of Casablanca. The spring rolls are delicious, with fresh mint inside, and the Pad Thai is as good as you'd get in New York. The beef filet with hot sauce alone is worth the trip. Excellent selection of Moroccan wine but only 3 beers. Main dishes run around 140 DH.
Nightlife in Casablanca has mixed reviews. Women might feel a bit uncomfortable with the mostly male crowds in many bars and nightclubs. But if you dig a bit, you'll find some excellent spots to drink, dance and people watch.
If you want a drink in your hotel room, supermarkets like Acima and Marjane carry a wide variety of liquor and wine, though the beer selection is fairly stunted. The best places to drink are either European-style restaurants, which usually have a decent selection, or hotel bars, which are inevitably safer and more relaxed. Many western-style nightclubs exist in the Maarif and Gironde neighborhoods. Pubs will cost around 100 dirhams per head, it will be half if visited in the happy hours from 7PMto 11PM. Pubs to visit Tiger House, La Notte.
- Kasbar, 7 Rue Najib Mahfoud, Gauthier (On a street between Blvd Anfa and Blvd Souktani.), ☎ +212 022 20 47 47. A dark and atmospheric place to grab a drink or dinner. Any kind of attire will fly, but if you want to dress up, a night at Kasbar is your chance.
- La Bodgea, Rue Mohammed 5 (Near the old downtown and Medina). This popular place is a great place to dance and drink. There can be a wait to get into the basement bar, but once you get inside you're rewarded with bartenders who eat fire.
- Hotel Terminus, Ave Bahmad, Place de la Gare, Casa-Voyageurs. Located directly across from the Casa Voyageurs train station, this hostel is a cheap option for travelers watching their cash. 100 DH for a 1, 2, or 3 bed room with a sink. There are communal toilets on each floor and a shower behind the reception desk.
- Hotel Central, 20 Place Ahmad el Bidaoui (Located in the Medina). Located in the Old Medina, this simple hotel is a good budget option. The owners are friendly and have been known to give complimentary cups of mint tea to weary travelers. Keep your wits about you as the Medina isn't the safest area at night. 150-350 MAD.
- Ajiad Casablanca, Angle Rue Kamal Mohamed et Rue Fakir Med. This central hotel has 24 hour reception, free parking and air-conditioned rooms. 415 MAD.
- Ibis moussafir Casablanca, Avenue Bahmad, Place de la Gare, Casa-Voyageurs (Next to Casa-Voyageurs train station.), ☎ + 212 22 40 19 84, . checkin: 12:00pm; checkout: 11:00am. Excellent location right next to Casa-Voyageurs train station.
- Hyatt Regency Casablanca, Place des Nations Unies (In the commercial district.), ☎ + 212 22 43 1234 (email@example.com), . checkin: 12:00pm; checkout: 15:00pm. You can choose rooms with views of Hassan II Mosque. Has a pool and several good restaurants. Live entertainment in the evenings.
- Novotel Casablanca City Center, Angle Zaid Ouhmad, Rue Sidi Belyout, ☎ +212 522466500, . A four star hotel with over 200 rooms, this is a great spot for conferences and people looking for a bit of luxury. Located near the Old Medina and Hussan II Mosque. 950 MAD.
- Sheraton Casablanca Hotel & Towers, 100 Avenue Des F A R, ☎ 212 522 43 9494. This modern hotel houses 6 bars and restaurants and the popular nightclub, Caesar's. There's also an outdoor pool and a fitness center. 1,800 MAD.
Casablanca is served by all of the mobile companies that can be found elsewhere in Morocco. Wana, Meditel, and Maroc Telecom are the most common. Mobile phones can be bought in any of these store's stands, and most do not run on calling plans. Rather, recharge cards can be bought in corner stores that contain a number to call. When that number is called, the company adds the price of the card to your account's balance. Alternatively, more than one SIM card can be bought and changed in and out of the phone, if users need more than one phone number.
These companies also offer mobile internet services that plug into the USB port of a computer (currently, there are no mac-compatible devices.) These services can be had without signing a contract, and are recharged in the same manner as a telephone.
Almost all of the things to see in Casablanca are in the north of the city; very few maps even show the southern end of this sprawling metropolis. Common sense will alleviate 99% of problems; try to look as little like a tourist as possible, do not flash large quantities of cash, and so on. Faux Guides are much less of a problem here than in the rest of Morocco and are limited mainly to the area around the Old Medina. Strangely, the area around the Hassan II mosque is the most common place for foreigners to be hassled; it is inadvisable to walk in the neighborhood around it at night. Train stations are an especially poor place to get a cab: the cab drivers will often pretend that your desired destination is a special stop that costs extra (this is not true, and all petite taxis should have a running meter.) Unless you have lots of cash to spend for the convenience or are an exceptionally good bargainer, a better tactic is to walk a few blocks away and wave down a passing taxi, no matter how much the taxi drivers at the station insist they're the only game in town. Women, as in all Moroccan cities, should dress modestly to avoid harassment (which almost always consists of lewd comments, but nothing physical.)
Casablanca is unlikely to provide North American or European travellers with any headaches. Despite being a major population center and seat of commerce, the majority of the town is less than 50 years old and could easily be mistaken for Los Angeles or Madrid. Food is as European as it gets in Morocco, with pizzas and hamburgers as frequent as tajines and couscous. In some areas, such as the Maarif and Gironde neighborhoods, seeing a man in a djellaba or a donkey pulling a cart of vegetables are rarities. If even the trappings of Moroccan culture such as these are too much for you, any hotel bar or restaurant is going to be just like home for a few hours.
The majority of travellers leaving Morocco from Casablanca will leave from the Mohammed V airport (accessible by train.) Leaving Casablanca for other Moroccan cities is likely to be by rail: the main train station is Casa Voyageur (as opposed to Casa Port, which is a special side stop not served by many trains.) Grand taxis are the best way to exit the city for smaller outlying villages. There are no boat or ferry services available in Casablanca.