Tangier, Morocco is a city that can be a bit overwhelming to the average tourist. Built on the tip of North Africa closest to Spain- and as a result, ideal for shipping, tourism and shady transactions- it has a rich history of a swirl of people and goods. Once you’ve made the steep climb into the walled medina (old city) from the port, you’ll find yourself in a chaos of commerce: shop owners trying their best to sell you rugs, leather slippers and touristy knick knacks; candy vendors with glass cases of sticky almond nougat; Moroccan housemoms weighed down with plastic bags of tomatoes and cucumber; and of course, the lone entrepreneur offering you a cell phone at a discount price (read: it’s stolen).
When I lived in Tangier, I would sometimes see tourists wandering through the marketplaces, eyes glazed over and hands tightly clutching wallets, looking lost, confused and in need of a serious break. The chaos is all part of the fun, but the beauty of Morocco are the contrasts, and even within the beautiful crazy of this seaside port city there are quiet refuges. For all those tourists visiting Tangier and in need of an escape, I put together a short list of secret spots- some well-known to inhabitants, some not-so-well-known. But for a visitor from Spain or France or even the U.S., they are all necessary destinations on your trek through the city; outdoor patios, indoor cafes or scenic viewpoints where you can stop to drink a mint tea, sort through your purchases and breathe.
Cafe Hafa is actually very famous, but it can be tricky to find. You’ll have to climb the kasbah hill and then keep walking parallel to the ocean along the whitewashed walls, finally turning into a narrow street leading to this Tangier fixture,founded in 1920. Don’t expect to find a place indoors (it’s basically a multi-level patio) and don’t expect to order anything but hot, sweet mint tea and besar (split-pea soup drizzled with olive oil; trust me, it’s delicious). Cafe Hafa is where young, edgy Moroccans hang out to chat, watch youtube on their phones and smoke pot. So what’s the appeal? It’s has probably the most gorgeous view in the city. Built into the side of a steep hill and overlooking the ocean, sitting at Hafa feels like you’re going to tip into the Pacific ocean at any moment. Sit for hours, sip your tea and enjoy the view all for less than 2 dollars.
2. The Phoenician Tombs
Once you’ve finished your tea, olives and bread at Hafa, walk along the cliffside back to the old medina to take a moment at the Phoenician tombs, an outlook with deep, stone-crafted graves etched into the ground. If you didn’t know already, Tangier is an ancient city that has changed roles (and colonizers) many times, and the Phoenician tombs are the remains of its stint as a Phoenician trading city over 2,000 years ago. Like Hafa, this is a spectacular setting to watch the ocean and ponder the ever-expanding port. Locals come here occasionally to take a moment to rest and a few photos to post. It’s worth the stop.
3. Salon Bleu
If you’re looking for something a bit more upscale than Cafe Hafa with a more expansive menu that tea and hot soup, Salon Bleu is about a seven minute walk away. Four levels high (first-level kitchen and fourth-level terrace), this cafe has a beautiful interior (you guessed it- all in blue) and simple, cozy terrace with low, flat froshes on which to lounge and take in the panoramic view of the city rooftops and sea. The service isn’t great but the menu offers Moroccan-European fusion dishes that are exceptionally good, and unlike anything else you’ll find in the city. Order an avocado and tomato salad and fresh juice while you hide from the sun and take in the glaring white walls and wind-swept ocean from this awesome vantage point in the kasbah.
4. Villa Josephine
Villa Josephine is more of a trek than other destinations listed, but well worth the taxi ride (or uphill climb). Set in what feels like an oasis of calm in a neighborhood called “California” and built at the beginning of the 20th century, Villa Josephine changed hands three times between various wealthy expats and Moroccans between finally morphing into a destination restaurant and bed and breakfast for the wealthy. Truthfully, I’ve never been able to afford more than a mint tea here, but I’ve spent many hours relaxing on the patio, gazing at the city between a thick foliage of palm trees and pink bougainvillea. The interior is worth exploring, as much of it still seems to be in the original early 20th-century design, with red velvet couches, bookshelves and oil portraits. It’s Downton Abbey meets Morocco, and it’s definitely a change of scenery from what you’re going to find in the alleyways, if that’s what you’re craving.
5. St. Andrews Church
St. Andrews Church is probably my favorite hideaway in Tangier, because it is authentically the most secluded. Even though it is located at the entrance to the old medina, crammed between a busy taxi stand and various orange juice vendors, most people don’t wander through the rod-iron gate into the walled church and graveyard. Make the stop before your day begins or after your day ends to find a small but lushly beautiful site with the city’s only Anglican church and cemetery, mostly inhabited by people from the early to mid-20th century. When I wanted to be still and quiet in the chaos, I would come in to St. Andrews to meditate a little. When you need a moment- to think and reflect on everything you’ve seen, smelled, heard and tasted- look for St. Andrews.
Regardless of where you may find yourself in Tangier, my advice to any tourist is to bravely join the late afternoon hustle in the souks, shell out a few dirham to try the street food (grilled corn on the cob in the summer and roast chestnuts in the winter) and learn a couple phrases in arabic (chokran is “thank you”). And prepare to be wowed by a city that is both decaying and expanding, charmingly beautiful but just a little sketchy and never, ever boring.