Casablanca is often the first stop for international passengers flying in from afar, and the city is basically used as a transit point. But before you dismiss it entirely and quickly move on to Fes, Rabat or Marrakech, you must stop to visit the Hassan II Mosque, honestly one of the most beautiful buildings ever built.
Casablanca has both the advantages and disadvantages of a typical large north African city and commercial capital. There are more than 3 million residents in the city, and it's the largest port in North Africa. There's lots of money here and plenty of places to spend it, but there's also lots of poverty. Casablanca has high end boutiques, an upcoming contemporary arts scene, beautifully restored French colonial buildings, good markets and an authentic old part of town. But it's an urban sprawl and much of it is not so good to look at. Nevertheless, read on to see why it's worth spending a little time here.
What to See and Do in Casablanca
- Hassan II Mosque - It took 6,000 traditional Moroccan artisans, five years to build this magnificent mosque, with its intricate mosaics, stone and marble floors and columns, sculpted plaster moldings, carved and painted wood ceilings. It's the largest mosque in the world, with room for more than 100,000 worshipers. Non-muslims are not allowed inside, but there's plenty to marvel at on the outside, and official tours do allow you access to certain parts.
- Shopping - Casablanca's medina (old-walled part of town) is quite small and a great place to just get lost in as you explore the shops in little nooks and crannies. It offers a nice contrast to the wide streets and modern/dilapidated architecture that marks the rest of Casablanca. You can pick up some good bargains here on authentic wares and crafts. Also check out the Marche Central in the center of town for wonderful displays of food, spices and fish. It takes place daily along the Boulevard Muhammad V, which is Casablanca's busiest shopping street.
- Visit a Hammam - You have to try a steam bath and scrub in a traditional hammam when you visit Morocco, so why not in Casablanca given that the outdoor sights are not that spectacular (except the Mosque of course). Recommended places for a good scrub down include: Solidarite Feminine (an amazing organization that runs Hammams and also provides services to unmarried women and their children); Les Bains Ziani.
- The Corniche - Sometimes referred to as the "South Beach of Morocco", or the "Blackpool of Morocco", the Corniche is basically a boardwalk lined with restaurants and nightclubs. It's where local folks go to relax and have fun. Take a stroll down the Corniche if you've spent time inland and want to enjoy the sea breeze. It's a little out of the center of town, so you'll need a cab. If it's hot, nip into one of the swimming pools owned by beach clubs and hotels along here.
- Place Mohammed V - The main square in town, the Place Mohammed V has a large fountain (with colorful lights at night) and is surrounded by lovely examples of French colonial architecture. It's not a destination as such, but if you stumble upon it, you'll enjoy a rest to watch the working world go buy and you can certainly feed a pigeon. The main post office is here, as well as the French consulate and several large banks.
Best time to Visit Casablanca
Casablanca is blessed with a mild climate, the winters are not too cold, but can be rainy. Summers are hot, but the cooling breeze from the Atlantic makes it more bearable than say Marrakech or Fes.
More about Morocco's Climate and Average Temperatures...
Getting to Casablanca
By Air -- most people arrive in Casablanca at the Mohammed V international airport. It's a 45 minute taxi ride into the center of town, or you can catch a commuter train if you are on a budget (terminal 1). There are direct flights from the US (Royal Air Moroc), South Africa, Australia and the Middle East . Flights are plentiful from every major European capital. Regional flights from Dakar are also frequent and you'll discover that Casablanca is quite a hub for West African passengers going to and from the Americas.
By Train - Casablanca Voyageurs is the main train station in town, where you can catch a train to Fes, Marrakech, Rabat, Meknes, Asilah and Tangier. See my guide to Morocco Train Travel for details.
By Boat - Cruise ships dock at the port in Casablanca and often allow for a two night sojourn into Morocco. Most people will hop on a train to Marrakech or Fes, so just grab a taxi to the train station in the center of town, Casa Voyageurs (see above).
By Bus CTM long distance buses stop in several parts of the city, so make sure you know where your hotel is to get off at the right stop. Casablanca is the transport hub of Morocco, you can take a bus to anywhere in the country from here, most long-distance routes will depart early in the morning.
Getting Around Casablanca
The best way to get around this big city is by petit taxi (and they really very are petit). Step into a grande taxi and your fare doubles. If you are headed out to the airport however, this is your only option since it is out of city limits.
Where to Stay in Casablanca
Unlike Marrakech, Fes or Essaouira, there are not a lot nice boutique hotels, or a tastefully decorated Riads in Casablanca. The upscale Hotel Le Doge does offer a great experience and a wonderful spa. For a less expensive more intimate experience, check out Dar Itrit.
If you're only spending a night in Casablanca, my personal choice is Hotel Maamoura. It's a very friendly, 3 star, Moroccan run hotel where a double room will set you back around USD 60. The hotel offers a simple breakfast, they organize early taxis to the airport and it's close to the main train station which is convenient if you're traveling to and from Marrakech or Fez. The Hotel les Saisons also offers a similar experience at a reasonable price.
Where to Eat/Drink in Casablanca
Casablanca is a cosmopolitan city with many great restaurants. You can get excellent Spanish cuisine, sushi, French and Chinese cuisine. There are some real hidden gems, like Petit Poucet in old Casa, a great little bar/cafe where Saint-Exupéry, the French author and aviator, used to spend time between mail flights across the Sahara. Lots of ambience here and a cozy atmosphere. If you're in the mood to splurge check out Villa Zévaco. Rick's cafe is modeled after the iconic Rick's cafe in the movie Casablanca. It's not a bad place to eat, but expensive. If you've been traveling a while and are tired of Tagines and kebabs, eat your heart out at one of the many of the fast food restaurants in town. Sometimes McDonalds does taste delicious. For nightlife, head to the corniche for the hip places.