Most travelers will experience, every now and again, stumbling into unintended travel planning and end up exploring a destination unexpectedly. This was the case with our travel to Casablanca in January 2020. We were searching for flights to Cameroon for a long-awaited visit to grand and great grand parents with the entire family when we found rather affordable tickets from Washington, D.C. to Douala via Casablanca. Thinking such a deal could not last long, we quickly made the purchase and upon review discovered we would spend two days in Casablanca, one day on the way to Cameroon and the other on our return. We were “in transit” in Morocco for at least 10 hours each way! With four kids and another on the way, Mark and I ventured to explore Casablanca as safely as we possibly could within the allotted time. We figured a private guided tour was our best bet and so www.viator.com was my first stop and in no time, we were confirmed for Casablanca Layover Sightseeing Tour with Round Trip Airport Transfers. I related to our tour guide instantly via Whatsapp. We were able to review itinerary and confirm it was a private tour which would give us all the flexibility we needed with fatigued parents and kids’ schedules.
We arrived Casablanca the morning of New Years Eve and our tour guide was specific about the meeting point where he was expecting us at noon. We were picked up in an air-conditioned van with refreshments and two children’s car seats were already in place for our younger two kids. Our driver was accompanied by our tour guide who was multi-lingual and our first stop was to have lunch at a local restaurant along the “corniche” or the coastline.
We drove past Old Medina which is the oldest part of the city surrounded by a wall and our tour guide gave us a history lesson on the city and was ready to answer any questions we had. He shared with us the unique history of Casablanca which was first inhabited by Berbers and related the influences of the French, Portuguese and Spanish over centuries. The Portuguese who first established military fortresses at the port called the surrounding area “Casa Braca”, the white house which later became Casablanca due to unions between the Portuguese and Spanish.
Hassan II Mosque
Our next stop was to visit the Hassan II Mosque located at Boulevard Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah along the coast. This mosque is the largest functioning mosque on the continent and the 7th largest in the world. It has the 2nd tallest minaret in the world at 210meters high and the structure can host over 100,000 people with over 25,000 on the inside. Tours of the facility are given daily and our admission tickets were included in the cost of the tour.
From the mosque we were shuttled on to “Rick’s Café” a popular tourist stop as this café was designed to recreate the bar and scene from the famous 1942 Hollywood movie “Casablanca” starring Humphrey Bogart. Interesting to note the actual scene was designed and filmed in Hollywood at the time. Even so, we hopped out the vehicle for the photo op 😊.
We continued riding along the corniche and took in sights of the coastline and public beach, Ain Diab. Because this was January, it was quite cool, and the waters were cold enough to keep most visitors out of the Atlantic. But the scene was pretty enough one could easily imagine most of the 6.5million population of Casablanca enjoying the beaches in a much warmer season.
Back in central Casablanca, we visited the Mohammad V Square also known Pidgeon Square for the given the great presence of pigeons throughout the square. It was established in 1916 at the beginning of the period of French colonialism and was named in honor of the former King of Morocco Mohammad V. At the heart of the expanding city and surrounded by buildings of administrative function such as a court house and post office, the square has been known under several other names and has been the place of several public gatherings and broadcasts over the years.
Notre Dame de Lourdes Church
This modernist catholic church was built in 1954 and is famous for its intricate stained-glass artwork throughout. This church was open to the public for self-guided tours and its grounds include a small but beautiful grotto with a statue of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
Quartier Habous and Central Marketplace
Also known as Habous Square, we drove through this beautiful and relatively quiet marketplace. It is considered the new medina of the city with a lot of local Moroccan product vendors. The area was exceptionally clean and had outdoor shops, bakeries and eateries. Some parts of it seemed crowded and busy enough that any buyer with bargaining skills would get a good deal here. Our last stop on the tour was the Central Market. Loaded with so many different items from meats and olives to carpets, clothes and purses, this was a much louder and active scene. May I say I have never seen so many varieties of olives?
Flying through time zones with such a tour schedule has never been more exhausting and at the end of our tour we were excited to hop back on the plane and head onward to Douala!
Choosing the path of less travel 😊
On our return leg to Casablanca we opted to layover at one of the airport hotels, Atlas Sky Hotel which was perfect for some well needed rest and recreation. The hotel has a free airport shuttle which runs every 30minutes and is about 3miles from the Hassan V Mohammed Airport. With 10hours between flights we checked in to our rooms that morning and settled in for the continental breakfast at the hotel’s L’Helice Restaurant which was extensive and included a fruit bar, pastry station, dairy bar and a customized omelet station. We toured the hotel grounds which had several conference rooms and two additional restaurants, a spa and outdoor pool and lounge area. After a good nap, lunch was at the Relax 3 restaurant which showcased traditional Moroccan cuisine in a buffet style setting. Before long, it was time to hop on the shuttle and head back to the airport back to home to Florida via Washington, D.C.
Family Friendly Mentionable or Two
The National Zoo in Rabat was a consideration but we chose not to go there due to the very short nature of our visit. Rabat is approximately a 2hour drive from Casablanca. However, it is highly recommended especially for families with children. It is home to some of the descendants of the Barbary lions originally from the Atlas Mountains and were kept by the royal family until 1973 when the zoo was built.
Lastly, about 30minutes outside Casablanca is the Bouskoura forest. This forest has trails for walking, hiking and is large and quiet. It is recommended for picnics and outdoor activities for children.
Hindsight in 2020: Reflecting on this short trip through Casablanca, I am often reminded how important our attitudes shape our experience. Initially I was thinking it was an inconvenient stop for this pregnant woman (me, lol!) on our way to Douala. However, with Mark’s enthusiasm and the excitement of the kids to explore a new city, I was encouraged by the idea and although we were all so exhausted crossing time zones, we made the most of it with the half day tour. The decision on our way back to “rest in” also gave us a chance to check out a short layover accommodation for a few hours with satisfactory amenities and a well needed break in an otherwise long trip. As always I would love to hear back from you especially those who have explored Casablanca more fully. We would love to return to Morocco in the future and next time Marrakesh will be on the list!