Discover Tradition And Modernity In Casablanca

Photo: Interior arches and tile work in Hassan II Mosque © Devy | Dreamstime.com

- March 8, 2016

Casablanca may have lost some of its luster surrounding the popularity of the film of the same name, but the Moroccan coastal city capitalizes on its fading glimmer as the economic capital of Morocco and home to one of the world’s largest mosques. Whether you’re stopping through with friends between tourist-heavy Marrakech and the capital city of Rabat or longing to rest with a loved one in a town where Western luxury meets Middle Eastern culture, the crossroads of Casablanca warrants quality time.

Unearth millennia of history in the dusty layers that attempt to cover the modern buildings rising from the sands. Sky-scraping hotels tower over the Old Medina, or Ancienne Medina, where meanderers can lose themselves in the maze of a traditional outdoor Moroccan shopping center. Although fairly young compared to Morocco’s other medinas in its larger cities, this 19th-century marvel equally impresses. The space houses a few traditional souks while the rest of the area comprises residences. Bargain hunters find carpets, pottery and other Moroccan treasures throughout the narrow stalls of the Old Medina.

Perched on the northern edge of Morocco above the roaring waves of the Atlantic, the peaceful environs of the Hassan II Mosque are intermittently disrupted by water crashing upon the shore. With a minaret reaching 690 feet into the heavens, it stands as the largest mosque in Africa and boasts the tallest minaret on Earth.

Hassan II Mosque

Hassan II Mosque © Karol Kozlowski | Dreamstime.com

Worshippers and visitors blend in the multicultural mix that bustles in the mosque’s front plaza. Inside the titanium doors, light reflects from the marble floors onto the intricately designed walls, hand-laid with Moroccan wood and plaster. Round arches and stone columns accent passageways to neighboring rooms which can welcome more than 25,000 worshippers. Combined with the exterior prayer areas, the mosque accommodates up to 105,000 prayer rugs.

South of the towering minaret, the city unfolds with architectural and natural spectacles. In Place Mohamed V, people-watching and pigeon-feeding are practically official sports. As tempting as it may be to snap photos in this bustling square, be advised locals may ask you to pay a small fee.

One of the arms extending from Place Mohamed V leads to La Parque de la Ligue Arabe, where palm trees and manicured gardens line serene walkways. Stop for a mint tea or ice cream at one of the park’s cafés before ducking into a tunnel of trees offering respite from the hot Saharan sun. Within the grounds of the park lies Yasmina Amusement Park, a small quadrant of fairground-like rides for children.

A little more than a mile southeast of the park lies Quartier Habous, considered the “new” area of town. Here touches of French influence grace the more modern décor of the façades. The Nouvelle Medina seems remarkably small compared with the Ancienne Medina, but the selection overflows with souvenirs. Put your bargaining skills to the test at colorful stalls selling authentic rugs, ceramics and classic Moroccan toys. For a sweet reward after nabbing a great deal, sample the renowned almond cookies sold by neighboring bakeries.

With the sun out and the temperatures high, it’s time to head to the desert, or at least the desert adjacent to the refreshing ocean. Casablanca’s beaches cater to families and groups of friends thanks to their practical amenities and myriad activities.

Ain Diab Anfa rests at the end of a quick tram ride from Casablanca’s center. Sand, playgrounds and sports courts keep kids busy for hours in this oceanfront suburb of hotels, restaurants and a smattering of Western comforts. Private beaches charge a small entrance fee, providing access to swimming pools, poolside bars and changing facilities.

On (rare) cloudy days, Morocco Mall beckons with hours of window-shopping and people-watching. Among recognizable stores of international brands find pockets of traditional Moroccan marketplaces where artisan crafts sell to the best negotiator.

The mall’s shops aren’t its only draw: At AquaDream, a two-story aquarium, children can rub noses with more than 40 species of fish in a 360-degree room of undersea wonderment. Also under the roof of Africa’s largest mall, the fantastical theme park Adventureland Maroc offers whimsical rides, simulation and video games, and an ice-skating rink. Continue your adventure with a visit to the mall’s IMAX movie theater. Shows begin nearly every hour on the hour and captivate viewers with surround sound and 3D technology.

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert © Aliaksei Putau | Dreamstime.com

Visitors find the area outside the city intriguing as well. Hop a magic carpet to Mazagan Beach Resort, located approximately one hour southwest of Casablanca, where Arabian fun awaits on more than 600 acres nestled along the Atlantic Ocean. Groups of families and friends can take their pick from the menu of all-ages activities like horseback riding along the beach at sunset, camel riding across patches of the Sahara Desert, jet skiing on the Atlantic or quad biking on the beaches.

When parents want a break from the youngsters, Mazagan offers three child-minding camps. The camps — separated by age group — delight children with themed parties, mini excursions and private swimming pools. The three age groups include The Baby Club for ages 3 months to 4 years, The Kidz Club for 4 years to 12 years and Club Rush for teenagers. Hours vary and reservations are recommended, but these kiddie camps enable parents to get away for a romantic dinner in one of the resort’s nine restaurants or take a relaxing visit to a traditional Moroccan hammam.

With or without kids in tow, the four miles of coastline and two all-access pools provide an aquatic escape from Casablanca’s crowded medinas. Jump into a daily match of beach soccer or volleyball, or catch a wave with qualified surfing instructors.

Thanks to the abundance of activities at Mazagan Beach Resort, your holiday most likely will not take a turn toward boring. But if you feel the need to escape the walls of the castle-like compound, the resort offers excursions to nearby cities and sights like Casablanca, El Jadida and bustling Marrakech. For an extra dose of adventure, gather a group and sign up for a resort-organized scavenger hunt in El Jadida or Mazagan. Hunt organizers (resort staff) distribute clues to teams who race in search of a secret treasure, learning about the region’s history along the way.

Morocco’s golden city may not top or even grace a list of desirable destinations among tiny travelers, but Casablanca and its outskirts cater to both adults and children with creative ways to entertain and enlighten in centuries-old surroundings.

Casablanca Info to Go

Casablanca sits on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and is a popular stop for small cruise ships. Visitors flying from major European cities land at Mohamed V International Airport, from which they can travel by taxi (about $30) to city center or by train (one train per hour; $6 first class, $4 second class) to the central Casa Voyageurs station. Regional trains arrive at Casa Voyageurs. The modern Casa Tramway makes it easy to cross town while admiring the sights. For about 75 cents, hop on and hop off at any of the city’s main attractions; trains run every 15 minutes.

Where to Stay in Casablanca

HÔTEL & SPA LE DOGE Realize your dream of visiting a traditional hammam at Le Doge, where Art Deco design meets Moroccan spa traditions. 9 Rue du Docteur Veyre $$$

MÖVENPICK HOTEL CASABLANCA Views abound from the 16th floor of this hotel with a rooftop pool and restaurant. Just a few steps away, take an afternoon walk through Parque de la Lique Arabe. Rond Point Place Hassan II $$

NOVOTEL CASABLANCA CITY CENTER Novotel´s family rooms allow guests to spend time with loved ones in designated play and entertainment areas, right down the street from the Old Medina and Hassan II Mosque. Corner of Blvd. Zaid Ouhmad and Rue Sidi Belyout $$

Restaurants in Casablanca

L’ÉTOILE DU PLAZZA High ceilings, colorful cushions and live music complement this Frenchinspired lounge where televisions air football and Arabian aromas waft from the kitchen. 74 Blvd. Abdellatif Ben Kaddour $$

RICK´S CAFÉ Travel through time to the Casablanca of the 1940s. Nosh on local delights from a Moroccan menu as you enjoy live light piano music. 248 Blvd. Sour Jdid $$

ZAYNA Plentiful portions of Moroccan favorites like couscous and tagines grace the tables of this cozy eatery nestled outside the Nouvelle Medina. 44 Rue Ibn Khaldoune $$

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