One of my brother’s first encounters in Morocco was with a Maroc man who had moved from Casablanca to Marrakech, and he gushed endlessly about what a good decision he’d made. A fellow traveler I chatted with in Marrakech said he had just come from Casablanca and didn’t like it at all. Even the front desk clerk at my hotel in Casablanca, mistakenly thinking I was just beginning my Moroccan adventure, said “You’ll love Marrakech!” It didn’t inspire confidence. But Casablanca surprised me in the very best way, and it ended up being the perfect place to end my Moroccan adventure. Casablanca is the point of entry for most North American flights, and its large port also makes it a popular cruise destination. If you have a layover in Casablanca, here’s how to make the most of it–even if you only have a few hours to spare.
What to see in Casablanca
Hassan II Mosque
If you only have time for one stop during your layover, then make it the Hassan II Mosque. Casablanca is Morocco’s largest and most populous city, thanks to its port access. In the 1980s, King Hassan II lamented that the city had grown as an economic powerhouse, but it lacked cultural or religious landmarks of significance. So he tasked his best friend, French architect Michel Pinseau, with building the Hassan II Mosque.
The stunning mosque is a work of art that marries classic Moroccan design with modern features. The minaret, which is rectangular-shaped in keeping with authentic Moroccan tradition, stands at almost 700 feet tall and shines a laser beam towards Mecca at night. The stunning tiled floor surrounding the mosque doesn’t simply provide a beautiful approach, it also accommodates an additional 80,000 worshippers. What struck me most was its understated opulence: there was simply no need for gilded domes or bright colors. The sedate marble, delicate carvings, and muted shade of turquoise green was sufficient to inspire awe.
The Hassan II Mosque allows rare access to non-Muslims through 45-minute tours. The tours are available in multiple languages, and are conducted by official guides several times a day. Schedules change by the season, and are reduced on Fridays and during the month of Ramadan to accommodate worshippers, so be sure to check availability prior to scheduling your visit. Visitors should be modestly dressed, with shoulders, torso and knees covered. Shoes must be removed prior to entry, and bags are provided as a convenience. Tour attendees get to enjoy the stunning prayer hall, which features a heated floor for winter, a retractable roof for the summer, and a section of glass flooring with a view of the Atlantic Ocean washing against the rocks below. The tour continues to the ablution hall, where impressive marble fountains representing lotus flowers fill the space.
Photography is allowed in the mosque, but filming video is strictly prohibited.
Pro Tip: Tickets for the mosque are not available at the mosque itself, but must be purchased across the plaza in the building that houses the museum. If you have the time for a museum visit, a combined ticket offers some cost savings. The museum delves into how the mosque was built, including where the materials were sourced and why.
What to Do in Casablanca
Stroll along Boulevard La Corniche
If you have more than a couple of hours to spare, follow up your Hassan II Mosque visit with a stroll along Boulevard La Corniche. While the Corniche is known for its trendy bars and restaurants, I highly recommend a simple walk along the promenade. Certain portions are reminiscent of beach towns in Europe or the United States, but the presence of locals playing ball or drying off from their swim in the Atlantic will quickly remind you where you are. You’ll also come across street vendors selling anything from roasted corn to freshly made ghriba (Moroccan macaroons), though beware of tourist markups. We paid 20 dirhams for 2 heads of roasted corn, which I’m sure would’ve cost much less for a local. We could probably have haggled for a better price, but we were feeling generous (and perhaps a little worn down) at the end of our trip.
Gawk at the Art Deco architecture
You won’t have to work very hard to find Art Deco architecture in Casablanca. A stroll around the Mohammed V Square in the heart of the city will yield such beauties as the Palais de Justice (1925) and the Grande Poste building (1918), which still features its original fittings. But wander a little further around Casablanca and you’ll find gems like the Cinema Rialto and La Princiere. Many Art Deco lovers mourn the fact that the buildings have not been well-preserved, but it’s not difficult to imagine them at the height of their splendor.
Go on a street art hunt
After spending time in the medinas of Marrakech and Fes, there was a palpable change when I arrived in Casablanca. The noise, traffic and infectious energy felt foreign, yet familiar. I’d been catapulted into the center of a true Moroccan city, and one of the biggest telltale signs was the abundance of urban art adorning its buildings.
Though I didn’t have the time to go on a truly satisfying street art hunt, I spied many massive murals in passing (mostly while whizzing by in a Petit Taxi). And when I say massive, I truly mean MASSIVE. Thanks to the Sbagha Bagha Street Art Festival, Casablanca has been a haven for graffiti artists and muralists for several years. The murals are truly awe-inspiring, so if you have the time to spare during your layover, be sure to add this to your list of things to do. Sbagha Bagha provides a mural map that makes it easy to locate the best street art the city has to offer.
Where to Eat in Casablanca
Le Gatsby Cafe and L’Artisan
If you have some additional time before or after your visit to the Hassan II Mosque, pop in to the uber-trendy Le Gatsby Cafe located just a stone’s throw away at the corner of Boulevard Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah and Boulevard Sour Jdid. Le Gatsby Cafe capitalizes on Casablanca’s Art Deco fame with a stunning space that merges Jazz Age style with contemporary design. Its tall ceilings, graphic floors and velvet seating provide the perfect backdrop for that #vacationmode snapshot. If it’s particularly busy or you’re short on time, L’Artisan next door offers a selection of their delicious breads and pastries to go. If you’re there at the tail-end of summer like I was, the gelato is a welcome relief.
I have to admit that even as a film buff, visiting a Rick’s Cafe replica in Casablanca felt a little cheesy. But I’m glad my inner fangirl won out, because Rick’s Cafe ended up being such a pleasant surprise. I walked in expecting a lot of movie kitsch, but Rick’s Cafe was a classy little gin joint that transported me to a different time and place. The white columns, curved arches, tiled fireplaces, beaded lamps and colorful rugs had me fantasizing about living spaces I didn’t know I yearned for. So come for the Bogart-Bergman romance, but stay for the Architectural Digest design inspiration.
Rick’s Cafe is the brainchild of Kathy Kriger, a former American diplomat in Morocco. The restaurant is housed in a restored traditional riad built in 1930. Grab a drink at the bar, where your refreshment of choice will be served with a selection of hors d’oeuvres. Just remember that smoking is still allowed in Moroccan establishments, so don’t be surprised to find a few smokers at the bar. Rick’s Cafe caters to the tourist and expatriate crowd in Casablanca, so the menu also features more westernized dishes. If you’ve spent a decent amount of time in other parts of Morocco and you’re experiencing Tagine Fatigue, Rick’s Cafe could be a welcome respite. Reservations are required for dinner, and note that a dress code is observed. If you wish to dine here, plan accordingly.
Port de Peche
Casablanca’s waterfront location also means there is ample access to fresh seafood. To take advantage of this, make your way to Port de Peche, a restaurant located not too far from the Casa Port railway station. The menu offers a variety of Spanish-style options, or you can simply pick your fish and specify how you want it cooked. We took the opportunity to enjoy the grilled sardines Morocco is known for, but we also enjoyed some perfectly-cooked octopus. The fresh seafood was affordable (but keep in mind I’m comparing it to exorbitant New York City prices), and the service was impeccable. We devoured the cocktail sauce that was provided, and when we asked to be topped up, the waiter brought three additional servings! The clientele appeared to be mostly locals enjoying a night out with their families.
Where to Stay in Casablanca
Hyatt Regency Casablanca
Disclosure: Booking through this link could result in commission paid to Mad Hatters NYC. There is no additional cost to you.
While I stayed in some beautiful riads during my time in Morocco, convenience was at the top of my list when choosing my accommodations in Casablanca. I was only spending one night there, and I decided on the Hyatt Regency Casablanca. The hotel is centrally located, with key attractions like the Hassan II Mosque and Mohammed V Square within easy walking distance. The service was flawless from the moment we arrived. We were greeted warmly, attendants served us mint tea and cookies while we waited to check in, and we were escorted to our room. The concierge offered several recommendations, but also arranged for our taxi to the airport (allow a minimum of 45 minutes for the journey). A stay at a comparable hotel in New York City would cost an arm and a leg, but in Casablanca old-world luxury is within reach. Ask for a room with a view of the Hassan II Mosque.
Quick tips for your time in Casablanca
The official currency is the Moroccan dirham (MAD), but on local menus you might see it shortened to dhs.
Of the Moroccan cities I visited, Casablanca is where I came across the most non-English speakers. French is the most widely used language here, so use that as your default when attempting to communicate with the locals.
Petit Taxis are the tiny red taxis buzzing around the city. The ones parked outside major attractions are likely to charge more than the ones you flag down in the street. Always negotiate the price before getting in, or make sure they agree to use the meter. Case in point, when we exited Rick’s Cafe, the taxi driver parked outside asked for 100 dirhams to take us to our destination. A driver we flagged down in the street said he would take us there for 50 dirhams. Yet another one agreed to use the meter, and the total cost was 6 dirhams (!) By all accounts, the fare should rarely exceed 15 dirhams around town.
Allow plenty of time at the airport if you’re flying out of Casablanca. The busy airport has dreadfully long security and check-in lines. A two-hour buffer usually leaves me plenty of time to wander the airport, but I had just enough time to grab coffee and rush to the gate. Luckily (or unluckily!), my flight took off almost an hour later than scheduled.
I’ve often said that you should always take travel advice with a grain of salt. While most people mean well, you really have no idea how much you’ll like (or dislike) a place until you get there. Casablanca still may not be many people’s cup of tea, but if you’re lucky enough to have a layover here, then see as much of it as you can. I think there’s plenty to enjoy in this unlikely Moroccan paradise.
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