Expect a heady blend of Middle Eastern magic, Berber tradition and European flair when you arrive in Tangier, located on Morocco's northwest tip. Overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar and less than 10 miles from southern Spain, this cosmopolitan city with soaring minarets and domes, has seen occupation by 12 nations since the fifth century. Tangier experienced a revival in the mid-19th century when European colonial governments fought for influence over Morocco. The city became a glamorous haunt of early 20th century writers and aristocrats. People like Matisse and Degas went there to paint, Tennessee Williams and William Burroughs to write, and others, including Errol Flynn, Gore Vidal, Winston Churchill and Aristotle Onassis, made it a place to see and be seen.
Known as the White City because of its dazzling buildings, the once-seedy Tangier consists of a walled medina, or old quarter, as well as the Ville Nouvelle, new town. At the center of the Ville Nouvelle is the Place de France, lined with banks, office buildings, cafes and restaurants and a favorite meeting place for expats. Opposite the French Consulate is the Cafe de Paris, one of Morocco's most famous cafes. During World War II, it was one of the meeting places for secret agents from Britain, Japan and America. Inside, it still has it original fittings and vinyl-covered banquettes. As with many Moroccan cafes and restaurants, alcohol is not sold (it gets top marks for mint tea and strong coffee, though).
Tangier's main square, Grand Socco, is hemmed with cafes, making it ideal for people watching and a good place to start a tour of the city. It is the entrance to the medina and comes alive at night with buskers, snake charmers and traders selling spices, rugs and vegetables. The sultan once lived in the Kasbah in the north of the medina, the highest point in the city. The gate opens onto a courtyard that leads to the Kasbah Museum. The Petit Socco -- little square -- in the medina is home to the Grand Mosque. Although entry is forbidden to the Mosque for non-Muslims, it is said to be built on the site of a Roman temple.
The cruise port is located not too far from the medina, about 500 feet from the Ville Nouvelle. It swarms with taxi drivers and tourist guides and is undergoing development work started years ago. There is a bus shuttle service into town.
Tangier is a relatively safe and peaceful city, but it is sensible not to walk around alone at night, especially in unlit areas and on the beach. Be careful of your possessions at all times, and don't flaunt any items that could be considered by some as a show of wealth. Solo female travelers might face unwanted attention from Moroccan men.
The only other annoyance you may encounter is from persistent touts whom you should ignore. Besides those who hang around the cruise port, you will see them in and around the medina and along the beachfront promenade. Some touts are obvious, while others may present themselves as friendly locals. The latter, referred to sometimes as "false guides," will try to give you a tour of the town and accompany you for as long as they can, then ask for money. Remember, a firm "No, thank you" -- La shukran -- usually does the trick.
The dirham is the Moroccan unit of currency. There are plenty of ATMs in town where official rates automatically apply, but daily withdrawal limits can seem low if you are, for example, paying cash for rugs in the souks. For updated currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. Credit cards are accepted at most higher-end hotels, restaurants and shops. Money and travelers checks can be changed at major banks, exchange bureaus and some hotels. ATMs can be found at Arab Bank on Avenue de la Resistance, a five-minute walk from where you're docked, and Credit du Maroc on Rue Lafayette, about a six-minute walk.
Moroccans sometimes switch languages mid-sentence, reflecting the different cultures -- Berber, Arab, French and Spanish -- that have saturated the country. Arabic is the official language, and the Moroccan dialect, Darija, is spoken on the street. French is still widely spoken in cities, though confusingly Spanish is often spoken in Tangier. If you only speak English, then it's no problem, you will get by in the main tourist areas. One Arabic phrase worth remembering, though, is "La shukran," which means "No, thank you."
Aside from trinkets, seek out leather goods, spices and rugs. You may be persuaded to buy a carpet; some are indeed beautiful and lovingly handmade, although they can be expensive. If you like cooking, consider buying earthenware tagine pots (the name of the stew cooked in it is also called a tagine, and dishes are usually flavored with cumin). One market, Casa Barata, which translates as "house of cheap things," offers bargains, but these sit alongside forgeries and even stolen goods, so be wary. Brush up on your haggling skills; some vendors expect you to bargain.