Things to Do in Atlantic Coast
Rising above the northeastern corner of Rabat, Hassan Tower stands as a visual promise of what the city’s historic residents hoped it to be: a grand city, even a capital city (which it now is). Also called Le Tour Hassan, its construction began in 1195 during the Almohad Dynasty, and it was built as part of a larger mosque, which was meant to be the largest in the world.
But alas, when the sultan passed away, work on the project came to an end, leaving the mosque unfinished, and its minaret – the tower – standing only 44 meters high (some say half as high as it would have been). Then, come an earthquake in 1755, the incomplete mosque was further destroyed. Today, though, you can still see the surviving, sandstone Hassan Tower, along with the mosque’s remains, such as the columns and walls. Other highlights while here include impressive city and sea views, as well as a visit to the nearby, free-to-enter Mausoleum of Mohammed V.
As one of the world’s largest mosques, the magnificent Hassan II Mosque not only boasts a capacity for over 100,000 worshippers, but is also one of Casablanca’s top tourist attractions. Built to commemorate the 60th birthday of former Moroccan King Hassan II, the elaborate mosque was the brainchild of French architect Michel Pinseau and opened its doors in 1993.
From its regal cliff-top perch overlooking the ocean to its soaring 210-meter high minaret (the world’s highest) that shines a beam towards Mecca in the evening hours, everything about the Hassan II Mosque is grandiose. No expense was spared for the landmark building, with hand-carved ceilings, 10-meter-high zellijs, gleaming marble floors and Venetian stained glass windows, complemented by high-tech conveniences like heated flooring and a retractable roof. Inspired by the Koranic verse that tells of God's throne being built upon water.
The star attraction of Morocco’s hippie haven has to be its eponymous beach, and the windswept coast and sandy shores certainly live up to the hype. Lined with bars, restaurants and surf shops, the beach is best known as a hotspot for surfers, windsurfers and kitesurfers, thanks to its steady, year-round winds. The shores near Diabat may be the quietest areas for a bit of relaxation.
With few wind-free days, Essaouira beach is better suited for water sports than swimming and sunbathing, but there are still sunbeds and umbrellas available for rental during the summer months. In addition to kitesurfing and windsurfing lessons, Berber horse and Arabian camel rides are possible and popular along the beach. You’ll likely also see travelers enjoying quad buggy rides along the coast and local children playing soccer in the sand.
Found in the north of the city between the port and the majestic seafront Hassan II Mosque, the Old Medina of Casablanca contains the last vestige of pre-20th century Casablanca. Up until the French took over in 1907, the coastal city was defined by this small area, encircled by defense walls and presided over by the Portuguese-built Borj Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah fort. Today, the modern city has grown out in all directions but the historic quarter remains, still surrounded by the remnants of its city walls and 18th century fort.
Today, the maze of narrow alleyways that trace the Old Medina are home to a sprawling souk, selling everything from linens, brass-work and leather goods to traditional handicrafts, jewelry, food and spices.
In the southeastern part of the city, Casablanca’s New Medina or Habous Quarter (Quartier Habous) was laid out in the 1920s by the French and remains one of the most atmospheric districts. Characterized by its small tree-lined squares, neat alleyways and elegant arcades, strolling around the Habous unveils a curious mix of French colonial buildings and traditional Maghrebi architecture, dotted with small souks selling Moroccan handicrafts and leather goods.
A key destination for those undertaking a walking tour of the city, the Habous Quarter is bordered by the Boulevard Victor Hugo and includes highlights like the elaborate Royal Palace of Casablanca and the Mahakma of the Pasha (the courthouse of the Pasha), which dates back to the 1950s and is renowned for its Hispano-Moorish design. Other noteworthy buildings include the Mohammed V Mosque and Moulay Youssef Mosque.
Along with the neighboring United Nations Square to the north, the Mohammed V Square forms the central hub of Casablanca’s new town and is home to some of the city’s most striking architecture. Laid out in the early 20th century and named in honor of the former Sultan, the large square centers around a monumental fountain, dramatically lit up in the evening hours, and is buzzing with activity day and night.
Many of Casablanca’s most important administrative buildings can be found on Mohammed V square, reflecting the Mauresque and Art Deco style architecture popularized during the French colonial period. Architect Henri Prost is the brains behind many of the most outstanding buildings, with highlights including the French Consulate, the Bank of Morocco, the Court of Justice, and the Post Office.
More Things to Do in Atlantic Coast
A short stroll or tram ride from United Nations Place, in the heart of Casablanca city center, the Marche Central de Casablanca is the city’s main market, located along the busy shopping street of Muhammad V Boulevard. Crammed with locals, the daily market is fascinating place for tourists to get a taste of local culture, as well as pick up bargains, with everything from food to fresh flowers and traditional clothing on sale.
The vibrant stalls serve up a myriad of fresh produce, with mounds of fruit and vegetables, a vast array of fish and shellfish, and a rainbow of spices filling the senses with exotic sights and smells. This is also a popular spot for lunch, with a number of renowned fish restaurants and hole-in-the-wall eateries lining the market place.
With its scenic promenade bordering the western seafront of Casablanca and a cluster of stylish hotels and beach resorts, the Ain Diab Corniche is one of the city’s most fashionable districts. The coastal suburb is traversed by the 3km-long Corniche Boulevard, which stretches from the magnificent Hassan II mosque in the east to the landmark El-Hank Lighthouse in the west, offering expansive views along the Atlantic. At the western tip of the Corniche, the mausoleum and shrine of Sidi Aberrahman is one of the area’s principal attractions, an important place of Muslim pilgrimage, perched on a cliff-top and only accessible at low tide.
On summer days, locals flock to the beaches of the Ain Diab Resort, which is lined with beach clubs and swimming pools, but the real draw comes after dark, when the nightclubs and restaurants open up along the boardwalk and the Corniche becomes a central hub of Casablanca’s nightlife.
A masterpiece of Islamic architecture, surrounded by picturesque orange groves and elaborate water features, the Royal Palace of Casablanca is a suitably grand royal abode. Located in the Habous district of the city’s New Medina, this is the King’s principal Casablancan residence and host to a number of important events and royal receptions.
The palace grounds, as with most Moroccan royal residences, are closed to the public, but that doesn’t stop it from being a popular attraction on city tours. If you’re lucky enough to peek through the ornate gates, you might catch a glimpse of the spectacular façade, flanked by a team of uniformed royal guards.
All too often overshadowed by the magnificence of the Hassan II Mosque, the Notre Dame de Lourdes Cathedral is an important center of worship for Morocco’s Roman Catholic population and serves as a striking example of Casablanca’s modern architecture.
Built in 1954 by architect Achille Dangleterre, the cathedral’s imposing white concrete façade looks more like a warehouse than a church and a simple white cross is the only hint to its purpose. Step inside however, and the cathedral’s popularity becomes obvious – a dazzling kaleidoscope of floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows. Painstakingly crafted by French glassmaker Gabriel Loire, the masterpiece includes an incredible 800 square meters of glass and many visitors to the church come solely to admire its artistry.
Marking the boundary between the historic Old Medina and the new town built during the 20th century French rule, United Nations Square is not only one of Casablanca’s busiest public squares, but one of its most important navigational landmarks, fed by many of the city’s principal boulevards. Laid out in 1920 by Joseph Marrast, the former marketplace was initially dubbed La Place de France and along with the nearby Mohamed V Square, forms the nucleus of the modern city center, now linked by the a new tramway.
Despite being encircled by a glut of bank headquarters and office blocks, the square is still an elegant example of urban town planning, with its neat gardens set around a striking central fountain. Additional landmarks of the square include the futuristic Zevaco-designed cupola that frames the underpass, the swish Hyatt Regency hotel and the Anglican Church of St John.
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