The very word Casablanca conjures up romantic images of a wartime rendezvous on an exotic North African coast due to the film of the same name. But that image belongs to nostalgia only, for today's Casablanca is a bustling modern port offering a fascinating view of modern Morocco that most tour companies bypass at visitors' expense. In many ways, Casablanca is the antithesis of the famous destinations of Fez and Marrakech, where tourists flock to get an authentic taste of North Africa, with their centuries-old walled cities and bustling medinas. Morocco's biggest city, with more than three million inhabitants, is the real economic heartbeat of the country. It is a city of huge contrasts where streets lined with grand colonial buildings and art deco architecture give way to vast slums and the dress code switches from sharp suits to the pointed hoods of the traditional jalaba at the turn of a corner. Casablanca as a city might not provide enough noteworthy sites to make it a stand-alone tourist destination. But as a gateway to Morocco, Casa, as it is popularly known, offers visitors insight into what really makes the country tick.
Perched on a rocky promontory above the crashing Atlantic waves at the end of a sweeping bay, the Hassan II Mosque was inspired by a Quranic verse: "The throne of God was on the water." The world's third-largest mosque, which can house 25,000 worshippers inside and a further 80,000 outside, was built by the former king and opened in 1993. The building is Casablanca's finest site and any visitors to the city should pay it a visit.
Along with its stunning location and vast scale, the mosque's elaborate decoration is a showpiece for Moroccan artisans and craftsmen, with the materials coming from all corners of the country. Huge doors lead into the mosque's showpiece prayer hall. But beneath its 20,000-square-metre floor lie further architectural gems. Inside the ablution hall 41 fountains emerge seamlessly from the floor while two traditional hammams remind you that this modern tribute to Islam retains aspects that are uniquely Moroccan. The French architect Michel Pinseau also incorporated modern technology into the design with a hydraulic roof, centrally heated floors and glass panels that allow worshippers to look on to the waves below. Tours cost US$16 (Dh57).
Quartier Habous is an area of narrow streets filled with shops selling carpets, silverware and the other goods usually thrust at tourists during their trips to Morocco. Absent, however, is the authentic feel of the famous souks found in other cities. The market here is more relaxed and the traders are less pushy. Throw in a few French-style cafes and it is a pleasant place to wile away an afternoon. If you are lucky enough to get in, the nearby Mahakma du Pasha, home of the courts of justice and reception hall used for state occasions, is an enchanting building with beautifully decorated rooms and lush courtyards. Access appears to depend on whether it is being used in its official capacity.
Admiring Casablanca's grand and often dilapidated buildings an occupy you for quite some time. Walking along streets like Boulevard Mohammed V and the surrounding area will give you an idea of how bygone eras have shaped today's city as French colonial and art deco structures merge with Moroccan Maurish styles to create a unique cityscape. Some buildings, like the Hotel Transatlantique, have been beautifully restored, while others like the Hotel Lincoln are shells desperately awaiting attention.
A wander around the bustling Ancienne Medina is an assault on the senses and a fascinating place where Moroccans - not usually tourists - do business. A very different experience could be had in the affluent beachfront area of Ain Diab where people party until the early hours in bars and nightclubs. Deep pockets and snappy evening wear are de rigueur if you want to hang out with Casablanca's beautiful people.
Budget Casablanca's Youth Hostel is located in one of the more traditional parts of the city and a short taxi ride away from the main station and Hassan II Mosque. The basic rooms are located around a relaxed central lounge area. It is perfect if you are looking for a quick, cheap bed for the night. Double rooms cost from US$26 (Dh95), including breakfast. Youth Hostel, 6 Place Ahmed el-Bidaoui, (00 212 522 220 551).
Mid-range Hôtel Transatlantique is an architectural gem and a wonderfully nostalgic place to stay. The reception, lounge and rooms are full of unusual items of furniture and decorations that make you feel like you have been sent back in a time machine. You almost expect a guy called Sam to be tinkling the ivories in the bar downstairs. Double rooms cost from $90 (Dh330).
Hôtel Transatlantique, 79 Rue Chaouia (www.transatcasa.com; 00 212 522 294 551). Luxury If you are looking for a night in a luxury hotel before or after a long flight then the Golden Tulip Farah Casablanca ticks all the five-star boxes. Nicely furnished rooms, good service, a spa and a swimming pool make this a good option if you want to freshen up after some tough travelling. Double rooms cost from $180 (Dh660). Golden Tulip Farah Casablanca, 160 Avenue Des Forces Armees Royales (www.goldentulipfarahcasablanca.com; 00 212 522 311 212).
Breakfast Morocco's French influence makes breakfasts here a real treat. Visitors are usually presented with a range of pastries to go with good coffee. You also won't go wrong with Moroccan honey drizzled across crepes. The Patisserie de l'Opera at 50 Boulevard du 11 Janvier is one excellent option. among many others nearby.
Lunch Breaking at Cafe Maure is the perfect way to catch your breath after touring the nearby Hassan II Mosque. Situated inside the walls of an 18th-century fort, the cafe provides a lovely, brightly coloured sanctuary with a pleasant garden where you can enjoy some fine Moroccan dishes such as a tasty couscous for about $12 (Dh44). Dinner Casablanca's Ain Diab area is home to some of the city's best restaurants and scenery, where a dramatic seafront location and range of culinary treats combine for a sure-fire evening. La Fibule offers a relaxing ambience with delicious Moroccan offerings such as its exquisite lamb for $30 (Dh110). But with the Atlantic waves breaking just a few metres from your table, sampling Casablanca's seafood may seem more appropriate, and there are some excellent choices here.
Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Casablanca cost from $1,000 (Dh3,855), including taxes. Recommended reading The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca is an account by Tahir Shah of moving his young family to Casablanca. firstname.lastname@example.org