Casablanca: Haters, Vacate

When we told people that our first stop in Morocco was to be Casablanca, we got a lot of advice but all of it was a variation on this theme: Casablanca is “boring”, “not charming”, there’s “not much to do”, and “you should just spend a day there, or skip it.” Nobody articulated a good reason why they didn’t like Casablanca; it mostly came down to “Marrakesh and Fez are way better.” Okay. Well, we went anyway and we spent 4 days there. Guess what? We had a blast!

As with most great experiences, this one started out with great people. We booked a spare bedroom in a family’s apartment in central Casablanca on AirBNB.com for the entirety of our stay there. The family is from India and moved to Morocco a few years ago, so we had some common experiences to share (they made chai for us!), and they had two small children, a 6 year-old and an 18 month-old who were a blast to play with. They helped us out with restaurant recommendations, information about whom to tip and whom not to tip, the amount a cab should cost to a given destination, and did I mention the chai? The whole family was wonderful hosts and really added to our experience, and it helps enormously when you get started out on the right foot like this – you’re immediately in a good mood and ready for the inevitable hiccups that come with long-term travel (like a hailstorm appearing out of nowhere while you’re walking around the city. This happened.)

We explored the city mostly on foot, walking over 12 miles in our 4 days. The number one destination in Casablanca is the King Hassan II Mosque, one of the few large mosques in the world that non-Muslims can enter, which is the third largest in the world and is home to the world’s tallest minaret, towering 650 feet over the Moroccan coast. It’s hard to describe the enormity of the mosque complex: the outdoor square in the front can hold 85k people. The inside of the mosque can house 25k worshipers. There’s a retractable roof, a glass floor that extends out over the ocean, and two hammams (Turkish Baths) in the basement – one for men and one for women. It also happens to be gorgeous, but I’ll let the pictures do the talking on that front.

Beyond the Mosque, there aren’t many “highly rated” attractions in Casablanca but that didn’t stop us from checking things out. We went to the Morocco Mall which is Africa’s second largest shopping center, featuring 2.15 million square feet of shopping space. Inside the mall is a 265,000 gallon aquarium that has, among other things, sharks in it. There’s also an outdoor fountain that does a show in time with music a la the Bellagio, and only a little bit smaller. Between the Mosque and the mall is a lighthouse set on a rocky outcropping that looks over the Atlantic Ocean. The lighthouse isn’t the attraction here though, the cliffs overlooking the ocean are. We sat here for a couple hours just watching the ocean and enjoying the breeze – it reminded us of San Diego: virtually no clouds, a cool breeze, waves crashing against rock, and temps in the low 70s. Paradise.

The rocky cliffs on the Atlantic coast in downtown Casablanca.

The rocky cliffs on the Atlantic coast in downtown Casablanca.

Me in my signature pose on the cliffs at the lighthouse.

We also had a good time wandering the medina (old city center), where we had some delicious sandwiches and saw some great graffiti (that’s a whole other story), trying out Moroccan cuisine like Tajines or Moroccan mint tea, and talking to strangers while Danielle shook the rust off her French and I tried my hand at the bits and pieces of Moroccan Arabic I’d learned over the past few weeks.

The streets of Casablanca are not unlike those of Paris, wide and tree-lined, paralleled by wide sidewalks housing endless numbers of cafes. Each café serves various French pastries, most serve ice cream or gelato, and all serve Moroccan mint tea, which is loose-leaf green tea and a huge fistful of fresh mint (stems and all) steeped in hot water with sugar and served ridiculously hot. It’s delicious. Despite its size, the city doesn’t feel crowded in the way many Indian cities did, nor even like NYC or DC. The wide sidewalks and lots of open green space keeps things feeling open and breezy even in the few moments when the sidewalks get crowded.

Without hyperbole I can say that every person we talked to in Casablanca was nice to us, helpful, and more than patient as we sorted out our affairs using a combination of English, French, Spanish, and a touch of Moroccan Arabic. We got unsolicited help with directions from strangers (and nobody asked us for money in return!), we had friendly conversation with an older guy about the US, and even had someone give us his name and number in case we needed translation assistance while we were in Morocco.

All in all, we had a marvelous time. I don’t really understand the bad rap Casablanca seems to get – sure, it’s a big city, sure it’s cosmopolitan, and maybe it doesn’t have the ‘charm’ of Marrakesh or Fez, but as long as you don’t expect it to be something it’s not, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find something bad to say about the city. Other than San Diego, it’s my current favorite “big city” in the world and it’s only getting better: there’s a huge marina complex being built on the coast that will include kazillions of retail, residential, and commercial square footage and if the finished product is anything like the computer-generated images we saw, it’s going to be spectacular.

We’re not saying everyone should go to Casablanca, but we’re saying don’t believe the hate-hype. If you want to go, go. As is true with any place you visit, you can have a fantastic time and after all, isn’t the point of travel to challenge your preconceived notions and find out for yourself what you like and what you don’t?

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