On the surface, Casablanca has a lot going for it. It has a great name embued with a certain amount of romance, year-round warm weather, long strips of sandy beaches, some of the best cuisine in the country, and lots of modern conveniences. The question remains: with so much going for it, why Casablanca so disappointing for travelers?
For starters, let’s get the giant white house of an elephant out of the way. There is Casablanca, the movie, and Casablanca, the busy, traffic-laden economic capital of Morocco. Please do not confuse the two. The former is full of Bergmann and Bogart magic, filled to the brim with quotable one-liners like:
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
“Round up the usual suspects.”
“I think this will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.¨
“We’ll always have Paris.”
“Play it again, Sam” (though of course this was never actually said in the movie!)
Unfortunately, unless you have the time to really dig deep, the city of Casablanca has none of the Bergmann and Bogart magic, to say nothing of the one-liners. They only one-liners you’re apt to hear in Casablanca are the curses of one taxi driver to another in the 24/7 traffic.
Perhaps much of the disappointment surrounding the city of Casablanca, as a destination, has to do with this diametrically opposite pairing. The movie, whether you’ve seen it or not, has had an effect on the collective conscience over the last 75 years, bestowing some of that movie magic on the very name Casablanca. To be confronted with a city that is anything but magical is, well, frankly disappointing.
Beyond the conflation of the magic of the movie with the very real city right here in Morocco, there are other ways in which Casablanca disappoints.
Casablanca’s Disappointing Architecture
When people think of the great cities of Morocco, they often think of traditional markets that have been around for a thousand years or more, to say nothing of old fortified kasbahs, ancient palaces and a venerable, palpable sense of a long, storied history that feels lived in. The stories travelers bring back from Morocco are full of the incredible souks and getting turned around in the wonderful old medinas that date back over a thousand years.
Unfortunately for Casablanca, there is no old historic medina or kasbah. In fact, the city was largely built by the French during the Protectorate Era during the 1920s and then again, in a big boom of construction in the 1950s.
For those interested in Art Deco architecture, Casablanca does have a few blocks of fantastic examples built by the French during this time, though unfortunately not much has been done over the years in terms of upkeep. Walking through this neighborhood, you can’t help but think that the entire place needs a good deep cleaning, to say nothing of a fresh coat of paint.
As the economic capital of Morocco, many local and international companies have their regional headquarters in Casablanca. Boeing, Microsoft, Dell Technologies, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever, just to name a few. Because of this, in certain neighborhoods, there is a real international vibe to the city. You’ll likely hear a quite a few different languages spoken. French and Arabic are the most common, though English, German, Mandarin, Spanish and many other languages will also likely be in earshot. For some cosmopolitan travelers, Casablanca does have something to offer… though even then, keep expectations low.
Casablanca’s Disappointing Food Scene
With a large international presence, this also means that there is the largest selection of international restaurants on offer, from French bistros and American steak houses, to Indian tandoori joints and Japanese sushi bars. For the internationally-minded and business travelers looking to diversify from Moroccan cuisine, this is wonderful news… with one huge caveat: Smoking is tolerated just about everywhere. In some places, it even seems encouraged.
Though some of the best international restaurants in Morocco are found in Casablanca, the fact they largely all allow smoking indoors in their dining rooms basically makes dining out in Casablanca an unpleasant experience, to say the least.
In fact, in many ways, this is perhaps one where life does imitate art in the smokiest of ways. If you recall in the movie Casablanca, Bogart always had a fresh cigarette lit, alongside a number of his patrons at Rick’s Cafe, no matter where they were, indoors or out. These days, every single restaurant seems to allow smoking pretty much everywhere… even in the so-called non-smoking sections! Heck, even the Rick’s Cafe found in Casablanca and modeled after the movie allows smoking indoors – which is one big reason we recommend sneaking in for an early dinner or, better yet, a pre-dinner G&T in this particular gin joint.
Casablanca’s Disappointing Vibe
In many ways, I love Casablanca for the chaotic city it is. I love that it is teeming with people from every walk of life and from seemingly every corner of the globe. I love it for its movie theaters and ostentacious shopping centers. Perhaps most of all, I love it for the ability to get perhaps the finest coffee in Morocco (at %Arabica Coffee if you’re curious… definitely check it out!).
But Casablanca is something like if you were to transplant Brooklyn about a three hour drive from New York City and put it somewhere in the middle South Carolina. There is a grungy charm about it, sure, but what little there is to do for most travelers with only a week or two to spend in Morocco can be seen in half a day or less!
So… just what is there to do in Casablanca?
First of all, if you have the chance, you should take a tour of the Hassan II Mosque. It is one of the largest mosques in the Islamic world and the only functioning mosque easily accessible for non-muslims. It is a contemporary marvel of modern architecture and well worth an hour or so of your time.
Second, the Museum of Moroccan Judaism is the only museum dedicated to the Jewish People in the whole of the Islamic world. Morocco has an incredibly rich Jewish history that dates back thousands of years. Many Moroccans are quite proud of this.
However, beyond those two “must visit” destinations, there truthfully isn’t a whole lot for most travelers. There is the aforementioned Art-Deco neighborhood as well as a French-built version of a Moroccan medina, dubbed the “Habous Quarter,” that can be an interesting shopping diversion should you find yourself with some extra time on your hands.
In sum, there is every reason why Casablanca perpetually ends up on year-end travel lists of “the most disappointing destinations in the world.” That said, just a few hours south, you can find Marrakesh… a destination touted by just about every traveler in-the-know for being a true bucket-list destination and one of the best cities for travel in the world! Meanwhile, the high-speed train can whisk you away in 60 minutes north to the incredibly underrated Imperial City of Rabat and, in two hours, you can be alongside the Mediterranean in one of the country’s most up-and-coming cities, Tangier.
About the Author
Text and photos by award-winning writer, photographer, and Morocco expert, Lucas Peters. After spending years traveling to the distant corners of Morocco and writing about his adventures, he penned the 1st and 2nd editions of the best-selling guidebook Moon Guidebooks: Morocco as well as Marrakesh and Beyond. In addition, he edited and also contributed to the Our Morocco anthology. He lives in Tangier with his family.