Located approximately 50 kilometers south of the Strait of Gibraltar, the northern city of Tetouan is one of Morocco’s most under-appreciated tourist destinations. It sits at the foot of the spectacular Rif Mountains, in a valley of orange and almond orchards. Tetouan’s history began in the late 13th century, when it was founded by members of the Marinid dynasty. In the 15th century, it became a refuge for Andalusian refugees, who left their mark on the city’s architecture, art and cuisine; and in 1913 it was chosen as the capital of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco. Today it is Morocco’s most important Mediterranean port, offering a fascinating blend of Arabic and Spanish culture.
Wander the Ancient Medina
The medina is Tetouan’s historic heart, protected by five kilometers of crenellated rampart walls and seven magnificent doors. In around 1400, the city was destroyed by the Spanish and later re-built by the Islamic Moors who fled there after the 15th-century Reconquista. Their architectural influence can be seen in the white Andalusian houses, most of which have been left untouched since the 17th century. Artisans ply ancient trades in specially dedicated souks, while mosques, kasbahs and the Royal Palace on Hassan II square evoke the grandeur of a past era. It is for this sense of authenticity that the medina was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
Visit the Archaeological Museum
Located in the city center, the Archaeological Museum houses artifacts discovered at the site of ancient settlements across Northern Morocco. This includes the Roman city of Tamuda, situated just outside Tetouan. Divided into the pre-historic and pre-Islamic eras, the collection includes Punic coins, bronze tools, 1st-century figurines and Libyan-Berber stone inscriptions. A Roman mosaic of the Three Graces and a Sumerian statue discovered near the present-day city of Asilah are particular highlights. Make sure to spend some time in the museum garden, where mosaics from the Roman city of Lixus can be seen alongside Islamic ceramics and funerary stones.
Admire Local Arts & Crafts
Tetouan is renowned for its artistic heritage, and nowhere is this more evident than at Dar Sanaa, the city’s school of traditional arts and crafts. Located near the medina’s eastern gate, Bab el-Okla, the building itself offers a fine example of neo-Arabic architecture. Inside, a selection of studios offer visitors the chance to see local artists practicing skills that have been honed over several centuries. These include wood painting, embroidery, marquetry and the creation of zellij mosaics. If you find yourself inspired by the beauty of the masters’ work, you can purchase their creations here or in the souks of the medina. Dar Sanaa is open every day from 8:30am.
Discover the Museum of Modern Art
The city’s creativity is not restricted to the arts and crafts of the past, however. Tetouan is also home to one of only two modern art museums in Morocco, the other being located in the capital city of Rabat. Housed inside an old station that once provided rail links to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, the museum is an architectural point of interest in its own right. Once you step inside the castle-like walls, you’ll find five exhibition rooms showcasing a permanent collection of the finest contemporary art and sculpture from all over Morocco. The museum also hosts regular visiting exhibitions and is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Tuesdays to Saturdays.
Attend Mass at Iglesia de Bacturia
An anomaly in a country famous for its mosques, the Roman Catholic Iglesia de Bacturia is the only church left in Tetouan. In fact, the city is one of the only places in Morocco where it is possible to hear church bells calling the faithful to prayer alongside the muezzin’s call. Built in 1926, it is ornately decorated on the inside and still holds regular services. You can attend daily mass at 7:00 p.m., or at 11:00 a.m. on Sundays.
Tour the Ethnographic Museum
Situated close to Dar Sanaa, the Ethnographic Museum is housed in the 19th-century fortress of the Sultan Moulay Abderrahman. It is dedicated to the history and culture of Tetouan, and features a fascinating collection of costumes, jewelry, embroidery, instruments, weapons and furniture displayed in traditional Tetouani rooms. In the kitchen, you can sample authentic local cuisine; while a special highlight is the Trousseau Room. Here, the ornate Tetouani wedding ritual is depicted through a magnificent collection of marriage chests, bridal linens and ceremonial attire. Afterwards, unwind by the zellij wall fountain in the museum’s Andalusian garden.
Explore the Nearby Coast
The city is a 20-minute drive from the sea, where a host of fishing villages, ports and beach resorts await exploration. Tamuda Bay is a luxury development of five-star hotels, spa centers and golden beaches, while nearby Smir Laguna provides a resting place for thousands of migratory birds. M’diq beach resort is popular with day-trippers for its seafront boulevard and excellent seafood restaurants. At Cabo Negro, you’ll find the 18-hole Royal Golf Club. Alternatively, adventure-seekers can indulge in jet-skiing, windsurfing, deep sea fishing and scuba diving; while history buffs will love Martil, the port of Tetouan and a one-time pirate’s lair.
Stay in a Luxury Riad
Tetouan boasts several luxurious riads (traditional Moroccan houses with rooms built around an open central courtyard). Two of the top-rated include Riad el Reducto and Blanco Riad. The former is an old Arab palace renovated in 1948 to become the residence of the Grand Vizier of Tetouan; while the latter served as the Spanish Consulate in 1860 before later transforming into an elegant wedding venue. These riads, like most in Tetouan, combine the finest elements of Moroccan and Andalusian interior decor, ranging from exquisitely carved columns, pillars and archways to examples of artisan tiling and woodwork.
Savor Authentic Moroccan Cuisine
Both Riad el Reducto and Blanco Riad have excellent restaurants that specialize in authentic Moroccan cuisine. Dishes such as Tetouan fish tagine and goat tagine made with caramelized figs are created using the freshest local produce, and served in a setting that recalls the city’s unique architectural heritage. Other culinary favorites to look out for at restaurants and cafés all over the city include chicken bastilla, or Moroccan pie; and gazelle horns (thin pastry crescents filled with an almond paste flavored with cinnamon and orange flower water). Don’t forget to try true northern specialty Jben, a creamy white cheese wrapped in palm leaves.
Attend an Annual Festival
Tetouan is home to an astonishing number of art and music festivals, many of them inspired by the city’s Andalusian heritage. Annual events include the Women’s Voice Festival, which celebrates the contribution of Moroccan women to the Arabic music scene; and the International Lute Festival, a three-day showcase of the world’s best lute musicians. Since 2004, Tetouan has also hosted the International Festival of Comic Strips. Arguably, the most famous festival is the Mediterranean Film Festival of Tetouan. 2019 marks the 25th year of this event, which premiers feature films, short films and documentaries from many different Mediterranean and European countries.
Plan a Day Trip to Chefchaouen
Tetouan is also a great base for exploring other north Moroccan highlights, including the mountain town of Chefchaouen. Famous for its sky blue buildings, Chefchaouen is a laid-back artists’ enclave blessed with stunning mountain scenery and a charming cobbled medina. Like Tetouan, it provided an escape for Muslim and Jewish refugees of the Spanish Reconquista during the 15th century and many of its most recognizable landmarks date back to this time. Stop to admire the kasbah, the Grande Mosquée and the medina ramparts; before indulging in local cuisine or shopping for handmade crafts in the town souks.
Embrace the Outdoors in the Rif Mountains
The nearby Rif Mountains offer opportunities for all kinds of adventurous outdoor pursuits, including hiking, mountain biking, caving and canyoning. Talassemtane National Park begins just outside Chefchaouen and comprises a wonderland of soaring peaks and plunging gorges. The park’s unique Moroccan fir and black pine ecosystem supports 35 mammal species, including the endangered Barbary macaque. Birders should keep an eye out for the majestic golden eagle, often seen riding the thermals above the park. Talassemtane is a 2.5-hour drive from Tetouan, making it the ideal destination for an overnight camping trip.