Tangier, in Morocco, is quite incredible to visit, if only for the culture shock. Whether flying, ferrying or driving into this city, odds are you are leaving a relaxed, drinking European society and are greeted by a bustling, overtly conscious culture. The city stretches out and grasps the coastline and mid-range mountains equally, giving a visitor, both coming and going, the appearance of Morocco reaching out to either hug or pull you in, whichever it is inclined to do.
I would suggest staying for at least one night as—with all travel—you can rarely gain a true sense of a society without watching how a city wakes up and falls silent. If you’re looking for a slight break from the cured ham and wine in Spain, then board a ferry, barter as you shop and appreciate a taste of northern Africa. These recommendations are for the travelers who choose to go it alone. Tourism is huge in Tangier and tour guides are plentiful. Everyone wants to be a guide, because everyone wants a kickback. Just press on and politely decline their services, then discover the intricate beauty of Tangier. Note that all time is relative in Morocco due to the assurance that you will get lost.
Hours 1 and 2: Take note before buying a ticket to Morocco that although you can see the city lights at night from Spain, it is an hour behind on the linear clock. The Tarifa Jet is one of many ferries you can take; it claims to take only 35 minutes and typically lives up to its name. Pack your own breakfast (food on the ferry is atrociously expensive) and down some dramamine, and you will have a fortuitous ride across the strait.
Hours 2 to 4: Explore and eat. Besides the typical tagine, couscous and lamb skewers, here are a few items you must have. Mint tea, or “Moroccan whisky,” undoubtedly is the cause of many expensive purchases over budget. The drink is brewed per order and poured from a high height to produce froth before being served. Desserts in Morocco are made with natural ingredients. Peaches, almonds, honey and thin pastry replace the creams and fluffy cakes of Europe. The most common dessert is kaab el ghazal, or gazelle's horns, which is a pastry filled with almond paste and topped with sugar. Of course, how could you visit somewhere and NOT get their fried food. Makouda are little deep-fried potato balls, delicious when dipped in spicy harissa sauce.
Hours 4 to 6: See the historical sights. You may see these while you continue shopping, but the sights are worth seeking out on their own. Don’t trust the maps to get you exactly where you need to go, especially in the old city (Medina). The Medina is a myriad of beautiful doorways and backwards alleyways. I went in the same circle twice at one point. The Kasbah is located at the highest point of the old city. The sultan used to reside there, and during each reign it was expanded and made even more beautiful. The art museum inside it is highly trafficked by tourists, as is Cafe Detroit, the expat hangout of the 1960s. Speaking of expats, the city is littered with the once-fashionable jaunts of writers and artists like Orson Welles and William Burroughs, and you’re still able to follow in their footsteps. Cap Spartel is located 7 miles to the west of the city, but is the marker that separates the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s beautiful at sunset if you can make it there and then back to the ferry on time.
Hours 7 to 10: Shop. Remember, if you are on a tour or if you are guided somewhere, your guide probably gets a kickback. We ran into our friends on a tour after being told there was a “market for local handiwork.” It turned out to be an expensive store. Popular items to buy are lanterns, wool, cooking pots (but make sure they are completely earthen with no embellishments). It can be hard to find genuine products, especially the kind that everyday Moroccans use versus what is aesthetically pleasing. For example, Chinese-made tea sets are used daily versus the “antique” sets you may find in a store. Typically, you can find light covers like the one pictured for 15 euros or 150 DH a piece. The best piece of advice I can give you is to always barter and never shop in stores with neat displays or price stickers on their items.
Hours 10 and 11: Grab treats for the ride back. This is the perfect time to load up on sweets and street food to take back to Spain with you. If you are worried about getting into Spain with produce or other products, see below.
Hours 11 and 12: Making your way back to the ferry could take some time, especially if you are already lost. Pad your time venturing back to the port by savoring the sights, smells and action of Tangier. Once you arrive at the ferry station, there is very little in terms of “security” except for passport control. We rushed to get on the ferry and passed our things through an x-ray machine, but no one was actually watching it or the metal detectors. I passed through both Spanish and Moroccan security with a pocket knife.
Twelve hours in Tangier is plenty of time to accomplish all of these activities, but not to scratch even the first layer of dirt from the city. Beautiful and mystical, it will leave you feeling warped. The sunsets are more beautiful in Tangier than in Paris. Always remember that Tangier is a city based on a rich history of war, travelers, merchants and eccentric millionaires blowing off steam. It’s hard to penetrate a tightly woven fabric like Tangier’s, but even if you have only one day to spend there, it will be enough exposure to fill your adventure coffers.