Protruding into the Atlantic at Cap de Mazagan, El Jadida is a port city with an unexpected European Renaissance accent.
On the water are the ramparts of a Portuguese fortified city, built in the early 16th century and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You can walk these walls and go underground to see a dreamlike cistern in the Portuguese Manueline style.
After experiencing the feverish quayside activity at the port and gazing at the Portuguese City from the mole, you can set a course for one of the many sweeping Atlantic beaches minutes from the city.
Let’s explore the best things to do in El Jadida:
1. Portuguese City (Cité Portugaise)
What was known as Mazagan was a Portuguese fortified city, founded in the beginning of the 16th century and eventually taken over by Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah in 1769. The Portuguese City was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2004, for its preserved Renaissance layout, bastions, ramparts and an atmospheric cistern, all ready for exploration.
This place is also fascinating for the way it has been settled as a Moroccan town, with a minaret adapted from its former watchtower.
We’ll talk about some of the standout features below, but one sight to hunt down is the Church of the Assumption, which has held onto some of its Manueline Gothic ornamentation.
2. Portuguese Cistern
If there’s one thing to see in all of El-Jadida it’s the astounding underground water reservoir at the Portuguese City.
This space, measuring 34 by 34 metres, actually started out as a warehouse or armoury before being converted.
The cistern has five rows of five pillars supporting elegant Manueline vaults.
There’s a shallow layer of water, illuminated by a shaft of light from a circular opening above and reflected in diamond patterns on the ceiling.
By the 18th century the reservoir had been forgotten, and was rediscovered in 1717 when a Jewish shopkeeper pulled down a wall from his shop.
In 1951 Orson Welles chose the Portuguese Cistern as a shooting location for his movie adaptation of Othello.
3. Mosquée De La Cité Portugaise
One of the most beguiling sights in the city is the mosque, which stands by the entrance and dates back to El Jadida’s resettlement in the early 19th century.
On the orders of Sultan Hassan I in 1879, the city’s former pentagonal watchtower was converted into an unusual minaret.
This peculiar construction, with rounded edges, is a sought after photo opportunity, and looks most impressive against the sky and through the arches of the citadel.
Unfortunately, as this is a functioning mosque non-Muslims cannot enter.
As a sign of the cosmopolitan atmosphere in the Cité Portugaise in the 19th century there are three churches, a Masonic hall and a temple all with a short distance of the mosque.
4. Plage El Haouzia
Still in the El Jadida Province, this dune-edged beach is 15 kilometres away, outside the town of Azemmour.
In 2019 Plage El Haouzia was the only Blue Flag beach in the area.
But beyond the lifeguard supervision, facilities and top level of hygiene, the reason to make the trip is for the sheer cinematic beauty of this piece of sandy Atlantic coastline.
The ocean is lively at El Haouzia, and the beach is one of the best in the province for surfing, windsurfing, kit-surfing and bodyboarding.
Not far out and battered by the waves is the disintegrating bow of a Korean container ship that ran aground in the 1980s.
The ocean at Plage El Haouzia is boisterous, and not for casual bathing unless you stay in the shallows.
Outside the tourist season there’s horseback riding on the sand.
5. Sidi Bouafi Lighthouse
Erected in 1916, the Sidi Bouafi Lighthouse is set some way from the water at the highest point of the city, 65 metres above sea level.
This is still a vital navigational aid for vessels sailing between Madeira, the Azores and mainland Africa or Europe.
The beacon emits a rotating white beam, flashing three times every five seconds, making three revolutions a minute and visible for 30 nautical miles.
At the foot of the lighthouse is the rank for taxis to the town of Moulay Abdellah Amghar, which we’ll cover later.
The lighthouse has no published opening times, but if the doors are open you’ll be free to scale the 248 steps to the top for a complete panorama of the city and coastline.
6. Marché Central d’El Jadida
Wedged between Avenue Hassan ll and Avenue Mohammed Errafi, El Jadida’s central market is in a two-storey building from the French Protectorate that has perhaps seen better days.
You shouldn’t let peeling paint and missing tiles put you off, because the market is a memorable experience for the uninitiated, with stalls for fish, meat, fruit and vegetable and selling some produce that can’t be found elsewhere.
The animated haggling continues well into the evening, and this is one of the only places where you can purchase alcohol in El Jadida.
There are little restaurants linked to stalls, allowing you to choose the fish you’d like for your meal.
7. Deauville Plage
El Jadida’s municipal beach extends from the port in the west to the hippodrome in the east, and is named for the chic resort in Normandy.
The name is apt, as just like in Deauville, this beach is absolutely vast when the tide goes out and is washed by low rolling waves.
Whether you want to bathe so close to the port is another question, but this immense tract of gently shelving sand is worth a walk.
Camel and horseback rides are available and you’ll find a small play park for kids just in from the shore.
There’s also a promenade curling around the bay, and most of the cafes are situated towards the western end.
8. Port d’El Jadida
The fishing port beside the City is a place of business, and what you’ll get here is a gritty, unfiltered taste of working life in a Moroccan city.
And as with any port, things get going long before dawn, when shoppers, armed with basins, plastic bags and baskets, come to haggle for fish fresh off the trawlers.
In the commotion at the waterfront fish market you can watch fishermen and buyers noisily debating the price of sardines, mackerel, whiting and deep sea fish.
If you’re a late riser there’s activity at the port throughout the day, as new trawlers and feluccas dock throughout the day, supplying the city’s restaurants, souks and supermarkets.
High season is a special time at the port, when sardines and other catches are grilled over charcoal right beside the water, and served with salad and bread.
Wrapping around the north side of the port is the Mole of El Jadida, for an all-encompassing panorama of the port, Portuguese city, beach the Sidi Bouafi Lighthouse.
In El Jadida’s hinterland, normally in the vicinity of douars, you’ll come across these peculiar dry-stone structures, composed of two cylinders, both widening at the base.
These are known as Tazotas, and there are at least 450 in the area.
Many of these limestone buildings are abandoned, and some are still used as shelters from the sun, for people and livestock.
They go back to the start of the 20th century when in the early days of the French Protectorate the nomadic population was forced to become sedentary.
You can look up maps online pointing out these structures, but if you’re pushed for time you’ll see a couple four kilometres out of El Jadida on the R318.
10. Château Rouge (Château Buisson)
This transplanted castle is a photo opportunity to look out for as you pass along Avenue Annassr, which tracks the rocky coastline north and west of the Portuguese City and port.
The Château Rouge looks like no other building in the city.
It was built in the style of a romantic castle, complete with towers, battlements and machicolations in late-1920s by a merchant, Monsieur Buisson.
He originally hailed from Auvergne and presumably wanted to build himself a residence that reminded him of home.
The castle wasn’t painted red until the 1960s when it was sold to a Moroccan family.
The Château Rouge remains private property but is worth a photo, not least because of the colourful garden bursting over the walls.
11. Plage Sidi Bouzid
About 15 minutes from the Portuguese City on the road to Moulay Abdellah Amghar is the small coastal resort of Sidi Bouzid, which has a fantastic golden sandy beach.
This is on a gently arcing bay, hemmed by a high ridge of dunes with dark green vegetation.
One of the best things about Plage Sidi Bouzid is its westerly orientation and the magical sunsets from the bay.
One thing to remember is that the beach is open to the full force of the Atlantic, so the surf is both strong and bracingly cold, even at the height of summer.
And if you need refreshment there’s slew of restaurants and coffee shops in the resort at the north end of the bay.
12. Kasbah Boulaouane
Further afield, Boulaoune is in the southeast of the El Jadida Province, a good hour from the city.
The reason to go so far is for the awesome kasbah here, built high over a bend in Oum Er-Rbia River and looking like a movie backdrop.
This Alaouite Dynasty fortification was constructed at this vital strategic location in the early-18th century.
On an irregular quadrilateral plan, the kasbah is a partial ruin, but with nearly all of its outer walls and defensive towers intact.
Over the main door there’s a frieze bearing the kasbah’s completion date and the name of its chief architect.
Visible inside are a mosque, a cistern, stables, warehouses and a residential tower with signs of opulent decoration.
A thrilling detail is a secret passage leading off from the eastern wall, zig-zagging to the river and troughs used to water livestock in times of siege.
13. Moulay Abdellah Amghar
Ten kilometres down the coast you can see what’s left of a 12th-century city, destroyed in the 14th century and containing two of the oldest minarets in Islam.
Remarkably, these two structures are still standing, although much altered, and are now minarets for the town’s zaouia (religious school). Every August this is the scene of one of the region’s great spectacles, at a Moussem (Maghreb festival) in honour of Moulay Adbellah Amghar, the religious leader for whom the town is named.
This event draws up to 500,000 people and involves a mass recital from the Koran, but also falconry and amazing exhibitions of horsemanship (fantasia).
14. Plage Sidi Abed
Carry on down the coast from Moulay Abdellah Amghar and before long you’ll be at a beach in near perfect isolation.
The appeal of Plage Sidi Abed is the peace you’ll find at a 40-minute remove from El Jadida proper.
Of course, You’ll have to bring everything you need for a day in the sun on these remote pale sands.
There’s no private area with sunshades, but the good news is you can rent a tent or a gazebo.
After that you can while away an afternoon bathing in the shallows, building sandcastles and strolling along the shore.
The next town east along the coast is Azemmour, which has a marvellous location above the left bank of the Oum Er-Rbia River, just before it enters the Atlantic.
For a small fee you can take a little cruise along the river in summer.
Azemmour had a brief Portuguese period of its own in the first half of the 16th century, when Magellan, who later conducted the first circumnavigation of the globe, was posted here.
There are traces of the old Portuguese ramparts at the medina, while the kasbah was built on the ruins of the Portuguese fort and defended by historic cannons.
The most striking remnant from Portuguese times is the old gunpowder magazine, known as the Dar El Baroud tower.
In the Mellah, the Jewish portion of the Medina, lies the shrine of the Jewish saint Rabbi Abraham Moul Niss, celebrated for healing the daughter of a French governor during the protectorate.
Although Azemmour’s Jewish community emigrated in the 20th century his shrine is still venerated, and is the site of a festival every August.