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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

24 Hours in Casablanca, Morocco

Those who stop to spend some time in Casablanca are rewarded with surprising history and architecture, says Rosemary Behan

The lighthouse and coast at Ain Diab. Rosemary Behan
The lighthouse and coast at Ain Diab. Rosemary Behan

Often overlooked in favour of larger tourism draws such as Marrakech, Fes, Essaouira and Tangier, Morocco’s largest city is well worth a stopover or long weekend visit. Fans of modernist architecture and history may wish to dwell longer in order to follow a few more interesting threads, such as the only Jewish ­Museum in the ­Arab-speaking world, the Museum of ­Moroccan Judaism, or the Hotel Anfa, where the Casablanca Conference was held during the Second World War.

While the 1942 film ­Casablanca wasn’t actually filmed here, the city does have a tangible air of romance about it, which stems from its long history, location on the wild Atlantic coast and interesting mix of architecture, including a large but dwindling stock of faded art deco buildings. Unlike some Moroccan cities, it won’t overwhelm you with sites or traffic, making for a relaxing break. And it's cheap. While there is a fair choice of hotels all over the city, the beach areas on or near the Corniche are most attractive.

8am: arrive at airport

The direct Etihad service lands at 7.55am local time, ideal for a day’s sightseeing. Take a taxi to your hotel, drop your bags and head out.

9am: arrive at hotel

The pool restaurant at the Four Seasons Casablanca. Christian Horan / Four Seasons
The pool restaurant at the Four Seasons Casablanca. Christian Horan / Four Seasons

If you’re staying on the Corniche at one of the beach hotels such as the new Four Seasons or Pestana Casablanca, have a coffee before taking a stroll on the beach, which beats the tatty Corniche for beauty and atmosphere. The area of Anfa and Ain Diab are thought to be the oldest in the city (the whole of Casablanca used to be known by its Berber name, Anfa), dating back to the 10th century BC. This area was used as a port by the Phoenicians and Romans, and still today, sections of wild, rocky headland and an old lighthouse give a sense of what it was like. There’s no better jet lag cure than the thick smell of the sea and the sight of the morning fog mixing with the sea spray; if you’re feeling brave, go for a swim.

11am: Hassan II Mosque

Hour-long tours of this spectacular construction take place at 9am, 10am, 11am, 3pm and 4pm daily, with an additional midday tour from Saturday to Thursday. Arrive at least 10 minutes early to buy your ticket (Mad120 [Dh47] adults). Built between 1987 and 1993 by the French architect Michel Pinsea on reclaimed land beside the sea, the mosque can hold 25,000 worshippers and has a 210-metre-high minaret. It is one of the largest mosques in the world and very effectively combines drama and piety.

The Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, Morocco.
The Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, Morocco.

1pm: Lunch and the old medina

Not far from the mosque is the picturesque old medina. Have lunch at Sqala, an attractive restaurant set in an 18th century bastion behind the medina’s pretty whitewashed ramparts. Tagines cost from Mad75 (Dh30). From the restaurant’s courtyard you can exit into a tight warren of crumbling homes, shops and cafés.

The old medina of Casablanca, Morocco. Rosemary Behan
The old medina of Casablanca, Morocco. Rosemary Behan

3pm: Central Market

Open from 9am to 6pm, this slightly tatty colonial-style building is worth visiting to taste the fresh Dakhla oysters – and it can be an alternative lunch stop if you feel like seafood: there’s a row of cheap restaurants where a good meal will cost about Mad40 (Dh15).

The fish market at the Marche Central, Casablanca.
The fish market at the Marche Central, Casablanca.

4pm: art deco architecture

The art deco Rialto cinema in Casablanca, Morocco.
The art deco Rialto cinema in Casablanca, Morocco.

In about an hour, you can take a walking tour of central Casablanca’s art deco and art nouveau architecture, some of which is defined as Mauresque thanks to its Moorish elements. Start on Rue Mohammed El Quorri at the Rialto Cinema, a striking red-and-white corner building that dates from the 1930s and is still in use – ­although most films shown are in Arabic. Other worthwhile stops are the Hotel Amouday, Hotel Transatlantique and Place du 16 Novembre.

5pm: Habous quarter

The Habbous area of Casablanca, Morocco. The country is one of very few African nations to have significant data protection laws. Christian Horan/Four Seasons
The Habbous area of Casablanca, Morocco. The country is one of very few African nations to have significant data protection laws. Christian Horan/Four Seasons

This French colonial rendering of a Moroccan souk is referred to as the “new ­market”, although it dates from the 18th century. Its medina-like streets and cafés are relaxing and welcoming, though seem to be dominated by carpet and souvenir sellers. Many visitors enjoy stopping at the Patisserie Bennis Habous, which has been run by the same family for several generations and produces traditional Maghrebi pastries including cornes de gazelle and akda aux amandes. The nearby Café Imperial is a good place to eat your sweets with a coffee, and people-watch (the combined cost of pastry and coffee is approximately Mad15 (Dh5).

6.30pm: sunset Corniche walk

Catch the sunset and fit in some more people-watching by strolling along the Corniche. La Terrazza is a good café-­restaurant which iswith a view over the incongruously named ­Tahiti Beach.

8pm: dinner

While most locals eat Moroccan food at home, you can dine out in seriously French style here. Close to the northern end of the Corniche on Avenue Assa in Ain Diab is Relais de Paris (www.relaisdeparis.com), a traditional French restaurant with a terrace and fin de siècle decor at the Hotel Villa Blanca & Spa (http://villablancaspa.com-casablanca.com/en/). ­Chateaubriand, oysters, foie gras, magnet de canard and chocolate fondant? You’ve come to the right place. A ­fixed-price menu costs from Mad165 (Dh65).

8am: departure

Leave for the airport for the ­return flight (Etihad departs at 10.50am). The drive takes about 45 minutes.

Rest your head

Rooms at the Four Seasons Casablanca cost from Mad 2,429 (Dh944) per night, including taxes.

Getting there

Etihad flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Casablanca from Dh2,135 return including taxes. The flight takes nine hours.

More info

The Lonely Planet guide to ­Morocco costs Dh90 as a hard copy; the book and sections of it can also be downloaded for reading on your mobile or tablet (shop.lonelyplanet.com).

A mural in Casablanca city centre. Rosemary Behan
A mural in Casablanca city centre. Rosemary Behan

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Read more:

Hotel Insider: Four Seasons Casablanca, Morocco

On the move: a case of lost luggage

On the move: travel takeaways from the largest city in Morocco

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