Five Hours in Tangier: From the Medina to the Markets
Updated: Mar 28, 2021
When the ships come in, Tangier comes alive. With only a few hours in port, you’ll need to hustle to take it all in.
Tangier, Morocco, is a sensory explosion. The sights, sounds, and aromas surround you, sweeping you into the culture and flavors of this enigmatic North African port city. I’ve wanted to spend time in Morocco since I was a teenager, taken by the rhythmic sway of a belly dancer’s hips and the mosaic of zaffer tiles lining the walls of Disney’s Epcot pavilion.
For a variety of reasons, every time I’ve made an attempt to see the real deal, it was thwarted, until last March. Finally, I stepped foot on Moroccan soil. And though it was only for a few hours, it was enough to know I’ll venture back again soon. Here’s a look at how to spend five hours in Morocco.
On this trip, I was traveling with my mother. We contemplated taking a shore excursion to one of the many historic sites surrounding the city. Ultimately, we decided they were too high priced and would leave us little time to explore the city afterward.
Depending on how much time you want to spend sipping mint tea–a local favorite–in a corner café or shopping in the souk, you can see the main sights in just a few hours. So you can choose to take it easy in the morning and get off the ship later in the day if you need a few extra hours of sleep.
We’re early risers, and we like to get ahead of the crowds, not to mention the mid-day heat. We had our feet firmly on land within an hour of arriving at the port. Once you’re off the ship, it’s just a short walk to the old town–10 minutes or so. Since the port is also home to a ferry service, you will need to pass through a terminal on your way to the medina.
As you’re passing through the terminal, men will begin to approach you, offering you tours around town. They are very pleasant and will back off the moment you refuse their offer, but there are hundreds of others who will all ask the same question, especially once you step outside the terminal. Here, you’ll find dozens of taxis just waiting to take you on a tour. If you’re unprepared or haven’t traveled to other places where people heckle you, this could be overwhelming.
I prefer to make my own tour. I like to walk the streets at my own pace, stopping and starting wherever and whenever I want. So, I politely refused every offer. As a savvy traveler with a bold personality, I have no problem expressing myself. But even I found it a bit of a challenge, but mostly, I simply found it annoying. I just wanted to be left alone. I was truly relieved when we made it to the main street, Avenue Mohamed VI, and could see the medina just up ahead.
Just when we thought we were in the clear, a pedestrian approached us, asking if we wanted to be accompanied on our walk. Again, we refused. A few hundred feet later, two more pedestrians approached us. Once again, we refused. By now we were at the base of the Hotel Continental, a landmark 3-star hotel marking the entry to the medina from the port. We began our ascent to the top of the stairs, where we could see a gate leading into the old town.
Lost in Translation
In the distance to our left, we could see a few men gesturing to us. Tired of fending off local “guides,” we opted to turn right at the top of the stairs to avoid them. Unfortunately, this path led only to the Hotel Continental lobby. We had no choice but to turn back around, only to find one of the men standing a few feet away. As per the others, he offered his services, and we once again refused, making our way past him and toward the gate into town.
It wasn’t long before we realized he was walking only a few feet behind us. After a few steps, he began hollering something at us. We assumed he was simply trying to change our mind about taking his local tour. When we reached a locked gate a few minutes later, we realized he’d been trying to warn us we could not go that way. He pointed us in a new direction. We thanked him kindly and carried on.
We meandered through a few streets, completely uncertain where we were headed. Normally, I kind of like it that way. But for every five steps we took, a new man would pop out of the shadows and ask if he could accompany us. It was tiresome and frustrating. Not to mention I was having trouble focusing on my adventure. All I could think about was finding a way for us to explore in peace and quiet. I was starting to sweat, and it wasn’t even hot out. Not good. That’s when I realized our “friend” was still only a few steps away. He’d been following us the entire time. Suddenly, I had a revelation.
This guy seemed pretty nice. He was letting us do our thing and simply making sure we got around safely. What if we adopted him as our guide? It would keep the others away, and we could do walk around freely without any hassle. So, I half turned and asked him a quick question about which way to go. He took a hesitant step forward, pointed to the left, and smiled. And that was that. We had ourselves a guide.
Walk the Kasbah
At first, Eduardo, stayed a half block ahead of us, pointing here and there at various buildings and signs. He spoke very little English, but we managed to sort out the basics. He took us to the top of the Kasbah, telling us when to stop and look at the place where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. Then he walked us through the streets, pointing out buildings owned by the elite.
At some point, he must have realized I like colored tiles because we found ourselves a bit off the beaten path. He would take us down side streets just to point out a pretty door. It was sweet, and I didn’t see a lot of others from the cruise ship getting the same special treatment.
Before we knew it, we were walking side by side with Eduardo, conversing with hand gestures and head nods. By now, we realized every single tourist we passed had acquired a guide. And life was certainly easier with one. We had only a few hours to enjoy this lovely place, so there was no time to waste.
Pro Tip: If you’re only in Tangier for the day, relent, and hire a guide. It’s the best 10 Euros you’ll ever spend, even if all he does is keep the other guides from heckling you. Eduardo knew where to take us to see the hotspots, and he kept us from being harassed. Choose someone who is nice and polite, and he will treat you well for the day.
Socco it to ‘Em
After the Kasbah, Eduardo walked us through even more streets, making sure we didn’t miss a single mosaic. He even took us inside a local house to watch a man bake homemade bread in a traditional oven. Eventually, we wound our way down to the Grand Socco. Here, new meets old, as the narrow alleys of the old town converge with modern city streets. This plaza and green space is mostly a meeting place, but it also acts as the gateway to the medina.
Socco is another word for souk or suuq, which means “market.” Across the street from the plaza is still an open market, where vendors peddle fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish straight from the ocean, and baked goods. They spill into the crowded aisles, showcasing their wares to the locals.
After a quick walk through the market, Eduardo took us on a traditional walking tour of the local shops. Though he wasn’t an accredited guide, he still made sure we were treated like royalty. At the rug shop, they rolled out the red carpet…and blue, purple, ivory, and orange. Anyone who has been to a North African country has seen the spiel.
In a shop overflowing with hand-woven rugs of all shapes, colors, and sizes, two or three men roll out dozens of styles and tell you about their many features as you sip freshly brewed mint tea. It’s fun, and a little awkward. Though we declined to purchase anything, they still let us view the entire area from their rooftop patio. And what a beautiful view it was.
From here, Eduardo took us to a beautiful shop filled with silver accessories, adornments, and décor. It was lovely and utterly impractical. But the owner was a hoot and joked about how ridiculous it would be for us to purchase an overpriced item from him. In much the same fashion, we visited spice shops where we were surrounded by savory aromas and stores filled with Moroccan oils for every part of your body.
One of my favorite stops was the silk shop, where scarves, bags, dresses, and more are woven on site. Here, they demonstrate the process, and also take time to wrap women in the perfect hijab made from a scarf of their favorite color. So much fun.
While Eduardo was ready to wrap up the tour–we figure he was hoping to grab a new set of tourists to make a few extra bucks in the afternoon–we weren’t quite ready to leave. I was desperate for a pair of babouche, or Moroccan slippers. So, we asked Eduardo to make a few more stops.
Of course, we couldn’t find anything we liked at the first two shops, but we struck gold at the third. We practically emptied our purses here buying shoes, trinkets, souvenir tiles, hair oils, and more. Eduardo sat quietly in a chair and nodded appropriately when I asked him which shoes he liked best. He was adorable, like a man who’d been watching his wife shop for 50 years.
The shop owner was fluent in English and joked with us heartily. He even sent someone to find items at another shop if he didn’t have what we were looking for. Turns out he had just opened his doors and was competing with his father for sales. We felt like we got a good deal after bartering a bit, but I’m still pretty sure they took us for twice what it was worth. We had fun anyway
Lastly, Eduardo took us to the infamous Café Baba, where the Rolling Stones and other musicians would often hangout during their time in Tangier. It was empty while we were there so we got to take a good look around. It was a rare treat.
After about four hours with Eduardo, it was time to say goodbye. He walked us all the way back to Hotel Continental, where we hugged and took pictures together–leaps and bounds from the distance we’d kept at the start of our day. Though we didn’t have an agreement with Eduardo to pay him anything, we had heard others saying they expected about 5 Euros for a tour of the old town.
My mom and I had already decided we would each give him that much, but after forcing him to shop with us for an extra hour, we doubled down. Our lives in North America are blessed with luxuries Eduardo will never know. We spent thousands of dollars to be in Morocco, what was a few bucks more?
Back on the Boat
We contemplated heading back to the souk for a bit of time on our own in Tangier, but we knew we would end up acquiring yet another guide whether we wanted one or not. Instead, we headed back to the port, where the lovely NCL Epic was waiting for us to board. We met an elderly lady on our way who was just arriving at the main road. She was insistent on deflecting all offers from locals for assistance. We advised her to give in, but she just brushed us off. I wonder to this day if she made it on her own.
We left so early that morning there hadn’t been any vendors outside the port. By the time we returned, they were lining the street. If you aren’t interested in visiting the old town, you can pick up some dandy souvenirs here. I had meant to buy a traditional top, something I had dreamed of since I was that teenager back at EPCOT. I managed to find exactly what I was after just as I was about to get back on the ship. I was delighted.
Tangier was just the tip of the iceberg for me. I plan to head back to Morocco for more adventures on the mainland. But this was a wonderful way to sample the culture. Have you been to Morocco? Head to the Wanderlust Wayfarer Facebook group, and let me know where I should visit on my next trip to Northern Africa.