One of Morocco's oldest cities, Tangier was settled as far back as the early 5th century BCE, and became one of the most stylish resorts on the Mediterranean coast in the first half of the last century. Thanks to its multicultural population and special status as an international zone from 1923 to 1956, the city attracted eminent writers, poets, playwrights and painters who added to its mystique, including Paul Bowles, William Burroughs,Tennessee Williams and Henri Matisse. Tangier owes much of its popularity to its location: the city sits just 12 kilometres from Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar and is less than an hour by boat from the Spanish port of Tarifa. For centuries Tangier has been a port of call par excellence for travellers seeking to experience an Arab North African city.
A comfortable bed
Tangier has a host of luxury hotels, but the most famous is probably El Minzah, on Rue de la Liberté, Central Ville (www.elminzah.com; 00 212 539 935 885). Built in 1931, the hotel is known for its Art Deco interiors, with a wonderful garden, a pool overlooking the Mediterranean, and a new spa with a traditional hammam. Double rooms start from 2,534 Moroccan dirhams (Dh1,148), including breakfast and taxes. Famous guests include Cecil Beaton, Jean Genet and Mick Jagger. Less expensive accommodation can be found at Hôtel de Paris on Boulevard Pasteur (00 212 539 931 877). Spacious double rooms cost 320 Moroccan dirhams (Dh146), including taxes and breakfast.
Find your feet
The best place to start exploring the old Medina is the newly renovated Grand Socco, which divides the Ville Nouvelle and the Medina. It’s just the place to sit out at a cafe table and absorb the atmosphere. From the northwest corner of the square, head into the Medina itself via the busy Rue d’Italie and then on through its souqs with stalls displaying pottery, jewellery, antiques and paintings. Leaving the Medina by Bab Kasbah, a 10- to 15-minute stroll along Rue Assad Ibn Farrat and then Rue Mohammed Tazi, will take you to La Marshane, a smart residential quarter with fancy villas and royal residences, and the home of the late American publishing tycoon Malcom Forbes, who held his 70th birthday party here in 1989, his last great extravaganza in Tangier. Forbes’s home is now a museum (open daily 10am to 4pm; entrance gratis) that exhibits his collection of 120,000 military miniatures depicting various famous battles of the past. A must-visit in the same area is the rustic Café Hafa, established in 1925 on a clifftop that looks over the Strait. Locals, mostly men, like to sit on its shaded terraces to smoke and sip mint tea.
Meet the locals
Tangawis are easy to approach. The most simple transaction in a shop may end up with your being invited to chat over a cup of tea. The language barrier won't be an issue, as most people can communicate in at least one foreign language.
Café Centrale, offering a broad view over the "petit souq" in the Medina, is a popular spot to enjoy a mint tea or café crème, watch La Liga football matches and chat. Bear in mind that most people are fans of either Barcelona or Real Madrid, and they are as vehement in their support as the Catalans and the "royalists". Negresco, located between Rue du Prince Héritier and Rue de Fés, draws a mixed local and foreign crowd and has a decent, varied menu.
Book a table
Chez Hammadi on Rue de la Kasbah in the Medina (00212 5 3993 4514) serves traditional Moroccan dishes with local bands playing Andalusian music. Try pastilla – an elaborate meat pie, traditionally made of chicken or seafood as a filling with a combination of crispy layers of dough, toasted and ground almonds, cinnamon and sugar – a treat for 60 Moroccan dirhams (Dh27).
For seafood with sea views, try the saffron-flavoured seafood soup and curried langoustine brochette at Club Le Mirage, near the Caves of Hercules, south of the Cap Spartel. For the best breakfast in town, head to the Matisse cafe at the junction of Rue Allal ben Abdallah, and Rue Prince Héritier, where both the finest Moroccan and French patisseries are served.
Street food is a good alternative to restaurants. Look out for stalls selling bocadillo, a sandwich made with French bread filled with vegetables, tuna, mayonnaise, and solid eggs, which cost 10 to 20 Moroccan dirhams (Dh5 to 10), while in the evenings you can enjoy portions of caliente, a chickpea pie sprinkled with salt and paprika, for as little as one dirham.
Many bazaar owners have collections of antiques once owned by former residents of Tangier from the time of the international mandate. Try Bazaar Tindouf on Rue de la Liberté, opposite the Hotel el Minzah for Moroccan decorative art.
What to avoid
Tangier is generally safe – there are policemen everywhere – but you may be hustled by the unlicensed tourist guides; avoid them with a firm but polite “no, thank you”.
Hidden by dense vegetation, La Montagne, on the route to Cap Spartel, 12 km west of Tangier at the entrance of the Strait of Gibraltar, served as a rebel base against the British and Portuguese occupations, but is now home to royalty and wealthy private residences. Because of its altitude, La Montagne offers a breathtaking view out over the whole of Tangier Bay. From La Montagne, you can also drive the short distance to the Caves of Hercules where, according to the legend, he slept before attempting one of his 12 labours.