Since 2010, change has swept across this rakish city on the Strait of Gibraltar at a dizzying rate.
Heavy investment has moved the container port out of the city, the impenetrable Medina feels safer, the beaches are cleaner and the bay-front Corniche was regenerated in 2018. There has never been a better time to delve into Tangier and reconnect with the city of Delacroix, Matisse and Paul Bowles, and where William S. Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch.
You can try to make sense of the Medina, sip mint tea at a louche cafe, stroll along the Corniche and battle up to the 17th-century Kasbah and its magnificent archaeology museum.
Out of the city you can bask on Blue Flag beaches and journey to Cap Spartel and Cap Malabata to spot Gibraltar and Tarifa across the strait.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Tangier:
The maze-like Medina of the White City spills down the slope from the Kasbah in the north, granting brief glimpses of the Bay of Tangier through its gorge-like alleys.
Market stalls in the Medina laden with leather goods, carpets, spices, fruit, vegetables, fish and handmade copper and brass jewellery.
It is in this old city, previously a no-go for tourists, that you’ll also sense the changing mood in Tangier.
Vendors and young restaurant touts tend to be enthusiastic without becoming pushy, and you’ll always have plenty of tourists for company on the alleys leading up to the Kasbah.
The days of the International Zone are recalled at Petit Socco, with its cosmopolitan architecture at cafe terraces.
Recommended tour: Tangier Highlights Private 6-Hour Tour
2. Dar el Makhzen (Kasbah)
Presiding over the northern alleys of the Medina is the palace ordered by Ismail Ibn Sharif (1672-1727), after he re-conquered Tangier following two centuries of English occupation.
Dar el Makhzen, put up on the ruins of the English “Upper Castle”, was the seat of the Sultans of Morocco when they stayed in Tangier.
Sultan Abd al-Hafid (1875-1937), together with an entourage of 168 people, became a permanent resident here after being forced to abdicate in 1912 when the Treaty of Fez made Yusef of Morocco Sultan under the French Protectorate.
The palace is praised as one of Morocco’s finest man-made landmarks, and centres on two exquisite arcaded courtyards, graced with intricate arabesques, carved cedar, marble fountains and columns, some carved by the Romans.
Dar el-Makhzen holds the Museum of Moroccan Arts and Antiquities, also known as the Kasbah Museum.
Included in: City Highlights Discovery Tour
3. Kasbah Museum
The palace is an apt place to browse hundreds of years of workmanship in Morocco up to the end of Tangier’s English period in 1684. You’ll discover bronzes and mosaics from the Roman cities of Volubilis, Cotta and Lixus.
There are also ancient pieces from closer to home, including finds like urns, lead sarcophagi and a reconstructed tomb, all from a Phoenician necropolis on the ocean side of the Kasbah Hill.
Elsewhere there are ceramics and coins from the Almohad and Merinid-dynasty, silks from Fez, manuscripts, carpets and guns with inlay decoration, while you can enter the former throne room with a sublime artesonado coffered ceiling.
From the Portuguese period there’s a stunning Manueline window from the nearby coastal town of Ksar es Seghir.
4. Caves of Hercules
This cave, part natural and part man-made is steeped in legend and set on a headland between two epic Atlantic beaches.
The story goes that Hercules stayed here while preparing for his 11th labour.
This was to steal the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides.
Some ancient Greek writers placed the garden a little way down the Atlantic coast at the ancient city of Lixus.
On his way to the cave, Hercules had to contend with the Atlas mountain, and instead of crossing it he smashed through it, and so creating the Strait of Gibraltar.
There’s less far-fetched human history in the cave system, going back to the Neolithic period: The cave’s spectacular ocean-side opening is thought to have been cut by the Phoenicians, and bears a remarkable resemblance to the African continent.
It’s also not hard to discern the many grooves in the walls left by the Berbers who quarried millstones from the walls over many centuries.
Included in: Full-Day Tangier, Asilah, & Cape Spartel Tour
5. American Legation
In the very south of the Medina is the first property acquired abroad by the United States.
The American Legation was established in this Moorish-style stuccoed building in 1821 and is on the US National Register of Historic Places.
The property, holding a cultural centre, library and museum all oriented towards Arabic studies, symbolises the Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship of 1786, still upheld today.
The building lost its diplomatic role after the capital moved to Rabat with independence in 1956, and is rented from the United States Government by a non-profit set up in the 70s to safeguard this historic building.
In the museum’s elegant galleries are well-curated exhibits chronicling the relationship between the US and Morocco, sprinkled with interesting documents, photographs, maps, paintings and correspondence.
One letter, penned by a diplomat, describes receiving lions as a gift, and wondering what to do with them.
6. Cap Spartel
Up the coast from the Caves of Hercules is the scrub-topped promontory that marks the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar.
Protected by reserve, Cap Spartel rises to more than 300 metres above the ocean.
The water off the cape has been the scene of battles in the American War of Independence and during the Spanish Civil War, and is named for an archipelago thought to have been submerged around 9400 BCE.
Spartel remains as a sandbank with a highest point 56 metres below the surface.
The lighthouse crowning the promontory dates from 1864 and was the first to be built in Morocco in modern times.
Included in: Full-Day Tangier, Asilah, & Cape Spartel Tour
7. Achakar Beach
Between the Caves of Hercules and Cap Spartel is a glorious public beach awarded consecutive Blue Flags in recent years for hygiene, water quality, facilities and lifeguard provision.
But the headliner is the sheer natural wonder of this long and wide beach, facing west and backed by sloping, gravelly cliffs for breathtaking views of the sunset.
This is the open Atlantic so the surf will be too strong for kids, but the waves break a long way out, and there is a large shallow area where wee ones can paddle safely with supervision.
As with most Moroccan tourist beaches camel rides are on offer at Achakar Beach.
8. Corniche de Tanger
Another place where the investment of the last decade is unmistakeable is on the bay-front promenade.
This bends around the entire Bay of Tangier, from Merkala Beach in the west to Cap Malabata in the east.
The section that most people associate with the Corniche is between the new tourist port and Villa Harris, encompassing two beaches at the Plage Municipale and Plage Malabata to the east.
Traced by scores of restaurants and cafes, this promenade dates to the 19th century but has been transformed in the 2000s, with smooth paving, geometric lawns, clumps of palms and benches.
The views are staggering, over the sweeps of light sand out to Cap Malabata across the bay, and the outline of Tarifa on the other side of the Strait.
9. Parc Perdicaris (Parc Rmilat)
On the road to Cap Spartel you’ll pass along the southern edge of this blissful coastal forest, on the western edge of the city.
Parc Perdicaris adds up to almost 70 hectares and is named after the Greek-American consul and playboy Ion Perdicaris (1840-1925) whose estate was on this land.
When Perdicaris was kidnapped in 1904 it triggered an international crisis, and the response to the “Perdicaris Affair” by Theodore Roosevelt is thought to have helped him win the election that year.
Perdicaris planted the exotic eucalyptus trees in the park alongside the native palms, oaks, laurel trees, pines, acacias and walnut trees in the 1880s for the health of his wife who was suffering from tuberculosis.
There’s detailed info about the park’s abundant flora, and you can picnic on the steep slopes, casting your gaze on the ocean.
As of 2019, Perdicaris’ romantic hilltop villa is currently being restored after decades of in decline.
10. Grand Socco
Straddling the Medina and the Ville Nouvelle is Tangier’s former central marketplace, which has since been given a facelift and become a transport hub.
So where there were once storytellers, musicians and snake charmers there’s a landscaped space with palms and little lawns, all converging on a grand central fountain.
The name Grand Socco sums up Tangier’s story, being a Spanish corruption of “souk”. The borders are lined with cafes where you can witness life at the point where new and old Tangier meet.
And although large scale trading has gone, there are still plenty of stalls on Grand Socco, for fruit and arts and handmade crafts.
To the west are the Jardins de la Mendoubia, scene of a momentous event in Moroccan history, which we’ll talk about below.
11. Petit Socco
At one point the Petit Socco in the Medina was one of Morocco’s most important marketplaces, drawing people from across the region for its food and clothing stalls.
The buildings on the square’s frontages have a blend of North African and European styles, which hints at the character of this spot during its early-20th-century heyday.
At that time bankers and diplomats had their offices at Petit Socco, and the affluence of the time was reflected in its casinos, hotels and cafes.
During the days of the International Zone there were German, English and French post offices on this one square.
The glamour of that time had ebbed away by the 1950s, but echoes remain in the louche cafes (Tinjis, Central, Tanger and Al Manara), and in the stucco facades and wrought iron balconies
12. Tangier Highlights Private Six-Hour Tour
Even the most travelled visitors may feel overwhelmed by Tangier, and will need to turn to a trusted professional guide.
This tour squeezes all the essentials into just half a day, combining it all with a resident’s perspective.
You’ll get your bearings at Cap Malabata and then journey across to the Caves of Hercules, before diving into the Kasbah and the exciting alleys of the Medina.
The tour can be given in English, Spanish, French or Italian, and includes pickup from the airport or hotels across Tangier.
Book online: Tangier Highlights Private Six-Hour Tour
13. Plage Municipale
Hugged by the Corniche, the most convenient place to feel the sand between your toes in Tangier is the municipal beach, a broad crescent bordered to the west by the port.
As with urban beaches around the world the water quality may rule out a swim, and it may be some time before the Plage Municipale earns a Blue Flag.
But with the recent development of the Corniche the sand is now well maintained, and a pleasant place to enjoy the sunshine and sea air.
Camel rides are also available here, and these animals appear healthy and well looked after.
14. Tangier Grand Mosque
For non-Muslims, this is a sight to check out as you make your way around the Grand Socco on a tour of the Medina, getting a pic of the striking entrance and minaret on the way.
The Grand Mosque is the largest in the city, raised in 1685 on the foundations of a demolished Portuguese church, which before that had been a Roman temple.
The mosque took on its current appearance in 1815 under Sultan Moulay Sliman, and Sultan Mohammed V worshipped here on a way to make a momentous speech in Tangier in 1947.
15. Fondation Lorin
At the south end of the Medina, a couple streets in from the Jardins de la Mendoubia there’s a museum in the deconsecrated Lorin synagogue from the colonial era.
The Fondation Lorin documents social, political, cultural and sporting life in Tangier since the 1930s, with neatly presented displays of photographs, posters, newspaper clippings and plans.
The main focus is on the time of the International Zone, between 1924 and 1956. The museum also puts on regular exhibitions of contemporary art, and there’s regular exhibitions.
16. Gran Teatro Cervantes
A decaying Spanish artefact, the 1,400-capacity Gran Teatro Cervantes was constructed in 1913, and in its day was one of the most important stages in North Africa.
Some of Europe’s leading performers like the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso trod these boards in the early 20th century.
Fair to say that the now empty theatre a short walk south of the American Legation has seen better days, as you’ll tell from its crumbling Art Nouveau facade.
But in 2019 the property was officially handed by Spain to the Moroccan government, which has committed to restoring and reopening the venue as a theatre and cultural centre.
17. Tomb of Ibn Battuta
One of Tangier’s most famous sons is the Arab world’s answer to Marco Polo, a 14th-century explorer who embarked on a 29-year adventure across almost all of the Islamic world, as well as China, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Central Asia.
Like any spot in the Medina, his tomb can be a challenge to find, and sits on the tiny Rue Ibn Batouta, a couple of minutes southwest of the Kasbah.
Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll come across a sign and an information board detailing Ibn Battuta’s life in French, English and Arabic.
The gate for Bab El Assa has a number that you can call.
Eventually, a muezzin will appear and lead you to the sarcophagus, wrapped in a green cloth with verses from the Koran.
18. Jardins de la Mendoubia
At the western edge of the Grand Socco you can break out into some open space in the grounds of the city’s commercial court (Tribunal de Commerce). This estate was set up for the Mendoub, a representative of the sultan, during Tangier’s time as an International Zone.
Pavilions from the Mendoub were also used as the headquarters of the German consulate during their occupation from 1941. At the main entrance you’ll be greeted by a large arch carved with Arabic script, behind which are palms, lawns and flowerbeds.
The park has 30 bronze cannons dating back to the 17th century, and some of the oldest trees in the city, including a majestic banyan thought to date back 850 years.
It was in this park in April 1947 that Sultan Mohammed V gave a historic speech calling for Morocco’s independence.
19. St Andrew’s Church
In 1880 Sultan Hassan I granted a strip of land to Tangier’s British community to build an Anglican church.
The current, Moorish-style church was consecrated in 1905 after the initial construction proved too small for the congregation.
Pay a visit for the peculiar sight of a church tower designed like a minaret, the horseshoe arches of the interior, and the Lord’s Prayer written in Arabic script behind the altar.
Most fascinating are the historical figures commemorated in the church, or buried in the graveyard beside it.
Inside is a plaque for Emily Keene (1849-1944), who married the Sharif of Ouzzane in 1873 and is credited with introducing the cholera vaccine to Morocco.
Among the travellers, writers and soldiers in the graveyard there’s a plot for an almost legendary local bar-owner known only as Dean and reading, “Died February 1963. Missed by all and sundry.”
20. Dalia Beach
If you don’t mind going the extra mile for a perfect beach you can venture east along the rocky coastline, towards Ceuta.
Around a headland known as Point Cires from the Tangier Med Container Port is the Blue Flag Dalia Beach, held as one of the best beaches in Morocco.
A complete contrast to Achakar Beach, Dalia is on the Mediterranean side of trait, withdrawn from the coast in front of a bowl of rocky hills covered with pines.
The water in this small bay is spellbinding shade of pale blue.
There’s a little white fishing village on the west side, and blue wooden boats have been dragged up onto the sand.
21. Cap Malabata
Closing off the Bay of Tangier at its eastern end of the Bay of Tangier is the promontory, Cap Malabata.
Atop the cliffs is a lighthouse and a small castle, built in the early 20th century in a Medieval style.
The reason to come is to visit the cafe, and contemplate the view as the sun goes down with a glass of mint tea or powerful coffee.
Near the point where the Atlantic and Mediterranean meet, you can make out Spain and Gibraltar across the strait, or look back over the Bay of Tangier to see the city and port in lights.
22. Terrasse des Paresseux
A little way south and up the slope from the Gran Teatro Cervantes there’s a neat paved esplanade with sweeping vistas of the city, the Strait of Gibraltar and over to Tarifa in Spain.
Terrasse des Paresseux is armed with a quartet of historic cannons, and you can peer across the strait through fixed binoculars.
For people trying to reach Europe, it’s a place to pause and gaze longingly at a continent just out of reach.
Avenue Pasteur beside the terrace is a popular spot for “paseos” in the evening, and at tea you could indulge in a pastry from one of the many nearby cafes and patisserie shops, like Cafe la Española and Gran Café de Paris, once a haunt for Tangier’s beat crowd.
23. Plaza de Toros
We don’t approve of bullfighting, but this sight, which hosted its last bullfight 50 years ago, is more of a monument to Tangier’s recent mixed heritage.
This is one of eight remaining bullrings in Africa.
You’ll find it in the south-east of the city, off Avenue Yacoub El Mansour.
This forlorn 13,000 capacity area, dating back to 1950, is more of a destination for intrepid urban explorers who sneak inside to photograph the decay.
At the time of writing in 2019 there were rumours that the bullring would be renovated and find a new role, but nothing had been made official.
It makes sense that a city linked with the beat generation should have a successful jazz festival.
Organised by Fondation Lorin, Tanjazz has been going since 2000, and takes place at multiple stages around Tangier’s streets and squares across eight days in mid-September.
The festival accommodates all of jazz’s many sub-genres, from big band to swing to bebop.
At the 2019 edition there was an international array of acts, from France, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and the United States, but you could also hear African-infused jazz by Lidiop (Senegal), Fouad Hani (Morocco) and Tangier’s own Gnawa Express.
25. Mnar Park
In from Cap Malabata, about ten kilometres from Tangier, is a small resort furnished with a water park open to daily visitors.
This attraction has been upgraded in the last couple of seasons, and has large, interconnected pools, a shallow pool for littler children and a small line-up of slides, one with two-seater inflatable rings.
For frazzled parents there are grass spaces where you can lie back on sun loungers under palm fronds.
Mnar Park is on high ground, so as you climb the steps for the slides you’ll see Tangier’s skyline off in the near distance to the west.