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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrMorocco’s largest city and economic hub is situated on the country’s western, Atlantic coastline. With a population of more than 4 million and serving as North Africa’s largest port, it is one of the continent’s most influential cities.
HistoryCasablanca was founded in around the 7th Century BC by Morocco’s traditional Berber people who referred to the city as ‘Anfa’. It served as the capital of the Berber principality following Arab invasions in the 7th and 8th Centuries and flourished as an important port under successive rulers. In the late 15th Century the Portuguese, in conjunction with the Spanish Crown, destroyed the town as a response to increasing piracy in the region and built a military fortress. When the Portuguese broke from Spain in the 17th Century they maintained full control of the city, albeit with ongoing attacks from surrounding Muslim tribes, before abandoning it in 1755 following a devastating earthquake.
It was Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah who rebuilt the town with a mosque, hamaam and medrassa, as well as a fort, Dar Al Beiba, referred to as ‘Casa Blanca’ or the ‘White House’ by the Spanish. The city slowly prospered and grew under Moroccan rule until the French conquest at the start of the 20th Century. This period was marred by clashes between locals and French troops which caused extensive damage to the city.
In 1956, Morocco gained its independence from France and Casablanca has since blossomed as the country’s business and economic hub. While on first glance Casablanca appears to lack the aesthetic allure and architecture of other Moroccan cities, it does house some interesting sites which make it worth a visit.
Hassan II MosqueHassan II Mosque, Morocco’s largest mosque (and the third largest in the world) is one of only two major mosques within the country open to non-muslims. Located just beyond the medina’s northern edge, its minaret dominates the city and, despite being relatively new (completed as recently as 1993), its beautiful interior, water features and tile work make it well worth the visit. With a prayer hall that can house 25,000 people, and an additional 80,000 in the adjacent courtyard, it is a deservedly sacred place for the locals. Tours are conducted at 9am, 10am, 11am and 2pm daily except Fridays and it costs 120 dirhams.
While the small medina of Casablanca does not compared to the labyrinthine old walled cities of Fez and Marrakesh, it is still worth visiting if you are in the city. The narrow lane ways house a huge array of vendors selling everything from spices to sunglasses, and it pulsates with local life coming and going. In stark contrast to the newly developed residential areas of Casablanca, this slightly-rundown area oozes charm.
Located to the west of King Hassan II Mosque , the Corniche is Casablanca’s seaside resort area, complete with western-style hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. This is the place to come if you want to laze by a hotel swimming pool or mix with Casablanca’s wealthy, and there are plenty of western fast food restaurants if you are having withdrawals. There is also a public beach at one end if you prefer to swim free of charge!
Shrine of Sidi Abderrahman
Further along the coast past the Corniche is the Shrine of Sidi Abderrahman, built on a rocky offshore outcrop which can only be accessed when the tide is low. Unfortunately only muslims are permitted to visit the shrine itself, set within whitewashed walls, but you are free to wander the small village which has mushroomed around it.
Cathedral du Sacre Coeur and Cathedral de Notre Dame de Lourdes
Built in the 1930s, the beautiful old cathedral of Sacre Coeur in the heart of Casablanca is beautiful, despite being in a slightly weather-worn state. Noted for its blending of European and Moroccan architectural styles it stands in stark contrast to the sparkling new Hassan II Mosque. The nearby Cathedral of Notre Dame de Lourdes also stands in faded glory with a stunning stained glass window.
The Central Market in Casablanca is a bustling bazaar in the middle of the city centre. With everything from handbags to henna to honey there is almost anything you could possibly imagine for sale. It is a great place to practice your bartering skills and be a part of the lively atmosphere that goes with grocery shopping in Morocco.
Place Mohammed V
This large central plaza is flanked by beautiful neo-Moorish style buildings, designed in the early 20th Century by the French colonial administration. The main post office, Palace of Justice and French Consulate are just some of the important buildings which flank the square, but is an equally good place to people watch of an evening.
WeatherCasablanca doesn’t experience the extreme Summer heat and Winter chills seen in much of interior Morocco with the Atlantic currents creating a mild, Mediterranean climate. It sees most of its rain between November and January, while the average Winter low sits around 46 °F. In Summer, it is rare for heat waves to occur with the highest temperate ever recorded 105 °F.
People and cultureThe majority of Casablanca’s residents are either of Arab or Berber descent (or a mixture of both). You will also see a number of darker skinned residents from sub-saharan African, some of whom are Moroccans descended from slaves and others who are coming through on their way to Europe. There are also many expats living in Casablanca, particularly Spanish and French, mostly drawn by business interests and reflected in the cosmopolitan restaurants available.
An overwhelming majority of the population is Muslim, and most of these identify themselves as Sunni. The country’s laws are based on Islamic principles, most visible to outsiders in the conservative dress of women and lack of affection shown between men and women in the street. While Islamic principles are observed by most of the population, they are not enforced on foreigners and you will be granted more liberty by police and officials.
While Casablanca is home to many of the country’s wealthiest people, it is also home to visible poverty as many migrate from rural areas looking for jobs in this city of hope. Particularly radiating from the outskirts you will encounter shanty towns where people live in dramatic contrast to the inner-city apartments.
The most widely spoken language is Moroccan Arabic, or Darija, while Berber is spoken between those of Berber descent. French and English are also taught in schools and most administration or officials will converse fluently in French.
CuisineAs Morocco’s biggest and most developed city, you really can get almost anything your heart desires to eat in Casablanca. There is everything from up-market restaurants serving gourmet international fare, to street-side vendors ladling out chickpeas in broth for 1 dirham.
If this is your first stop in Morocco then be sure to feast on the local specialty, tagine, which differs at every establishment in terms of meat and spices used. Grilled fish is also a cheap meal in this coastal city, often accompanied by a Moroccan salad consisting of diced tomato and red onion.
Moroccans are big bread-eaters so expect all meals to be accompanied by large quantities of bread which is used to scoop up sauces in the absence of cutlery. On Fridays, couscous is made by the women of most households following midday prayers and offered between neighbours and to those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time!
EconomyCasablanca still serves as an important port with fishing one of the city’s major industries, together with fish canning, electronics, furniture making and phosphate exports. Most of the country’s banks are centred in Casablanca, as well as its major international airport and most industrial labour. As a result, the city is the driving force behind the country’s economy as a whole.
TransportationThe best way to get around Casablanca is either on the comfortable tramway which has around 50 stops throughout the city, or by taxi. Grand taxis are white, usually Mercedes-benz, which act as a share taxi with fixed fares to different locations which are squeezed full of people. Petit taxis are red hatchbacks which are metered but often pick up more than one fare at a time if people are heading in the same direction. Alternatively, many areas of the city are easy to explore on foot, allowing you to take in unexpected sites along the way.
If you are travelling from Casablanca to other Moroccan cities then there are plenty of bus companies which operate from the Gare Routière on the city’s outskirts to destinations across the country. It is normally easy to just turn up and get a seat on the next available bus, but book ahead during Moroccan holiday periods. There is also a relatively efficient train system which services some areas of the country and this is a comfortable way to travel if you can get a seat. Casa Voyageurs is the main station in Casablanca and if you want to be guaranteed a seat then you need to buy a first class ticket as second class is ‘first in, best dressed’.
FestivalsAs the country’s major city, Casablanca hosts plenty of festivals throughout the year drawing on both local and international artists, musicians and entertainers. In mid-July the four day ‘Festival de Casablanca’ features music, dance, theatrical and artistic performances across the city, many of which are free to attend. This is the city’s biggest festival, attracting international artists and a massive street dancing competition. The ‘Jazzablanca Festival’ happens in late March/early April and features internationally renowned jazz musicians, while ‘L’Boulevard’ is an urban music festival for the young at heart. The Amazigh Theatre Festival takes place in May, celebrating the artistic work of Morocco’s Berber community, with most theatre and music performances in the Berber language.
Travel tips and safetyCasablanca is a relatively safe city and if you use your common sense you shouldn’t encounter any problems. People tend to go about their own business, unlike in the tourist centre of Marrakesh, and you shouldn’t be hassled by opportunistic people looking to make a few dirhams. Women should dress conservatively in respect of the Islamic culture and displays of affection between couples kept to a minimum. Like in all big cities, avoid walking alone at night, particularly through unlit alleyways, and keep your valuables within sight or on your body at all times.
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Author: Pip Strickland. Last updated: Apr 23, 2015