From the shores of Tarifa the lights of Africa shine bright in the distance, growing brighter as night takes hold over the small, southern Spanish town.
If it feels as if Morocco is right at Tarifa’s doorstep that’s because it is; as the crow flies, Tangier, Morocco is less than 20 miles from the Spanish coast, separated by the narrow Strait of Gibraltar.
With direct ferries that complete the journey in as little as 35 minutes, the strategically located port city of Tangier makes a great day trip if you are visiting Tarifa, or other nearby cities in the Andalucia region of Spain.
When my parents visited Spain in March we took a road trip through the south of Spain and included a day trip to visit on our itinerary.
Day Trip to Tangier, Morocco
There are two ferry companies that have daily return journeys from Tarifa to Tangier. Prices run around 60 euros roundtrip. Depending on the season, there can be several hours in between ferry crossings, so its important to check on departure times at least the day before to avoid wasting hours waiting for the ferry.
My parents and I stood on the windy deck of the ferry during the crossing, and as we excitedly took in the sight of the fast approaching African coast, I told them stories of my time in Marrakech and how I fell in love with the people and scenery of Morocco’s red city.
As soon as we exited customs in Tangier, however, it became quickly apparent that this was not the same Morocco I fell in love with in Marrakech.
We immediately were greeted by a mob of less than legitimate looking private guides who mercilessly followed us down the street promising the best tours of Tangier. My polite parents kept responding “no thanks,” but their kindness only encouraged these men to continue to follow us at an uncomfortably close distance, shouting.
Amid this scene emerged Mr. Abdelmoghit El Jelili, a private guide who calmly approached us and told us to follow him at least a short distance so the crowd would leave us alone.
“I do not like to see visitors treated like this,” he said in a kind voice. “Come with me. You do not have to go on a tour. I will at least escort you away so they will leave you alone.”
Whether this was genuine kindness or simply a strategy to get us to trust him, trust him we did, and after a few minutes with Abdelmoghit we felt so comfortable around him we decided to go with him on a half day walking tour around the city’s medina. Abdelmoghit turned out to be a great guide who was full of historical knowledge and no hecklers bothered us the rest of the day.
This leads me to my number one tip for travelers doing a day trip to Tangier – hire a guide ahead of time who can meet you at the dock.
We visited the Kasbah, a medieval fortress that overlooks the medina and entirety of Tangier.
We paid a visit to “Dar el Makhzen,” an ancient palace that now houses the Museum of Antiquities. In addition to seeing interesting artifacts, we also learned about the architecture and traditional layouts of such palaces.
But the real pleasure of Tangier is not any particular monument or museum, but rather just walking the winding alleys and streets of the medieval city and being immersed in a different culture.
Toward the end of our tour, we stopped at a shop that housed a large number of goods including rugs, clothing, antiques and jewelry. If you have never been to a Moroccan market before, this can be an awkward experience. You will sit on a comfortable bench while the shopkeeper brings out item after item and explains its value and meaning.
This leads me to my number two tip for travelers doing a day trip to Tangier – Don’t be afraid to be blunt.
If you don’t want to go in a shop on your tour or are over the experience of seeing ten different Moroccan rugs you have no interest in buying, don’t be afraid to say so and leave. Don’t worry about being so polite. The same can be said if you encounter hecklers. Don’t be polite by responding – just keep walking.
The penultimate stop on our tour was a restaurant, where, disappointingly every other group doing day trips from our ferry was also eating. This definitely killed a bit of our sense of adventure in exploring Tangier, but the food was delicious nonetheless. You must try chicken tangine when in Morocco – since cooking it myself in Marrakech it has become one of my favorite dishes.
To ensure our safety, Abdelmoghit walked us back to the ferry in plenty of time before our departure. The ferries leave on Moroccan time, which means not on time and the ferry didn’t end up leaving until an hour after its scheduled departure time.
During the ride back to Tarifa there was a beautiful sunset that made the sight of the harbor even more scenic.
As I finish this post I will end with a third tip for travelers doing a day trip to Tangier – Don’t judge Morocco based solely on a visit to this port city.
In the same way Tijuana is not representative of the beauty of Mexico, Tangier is not representative of the beauty of Morocco. For a more moving experience, head to Marrakech, Casablanca or Chefchaouen, the blue city.