Algeria is an outstanding destination in North Africa that should be at the top of anyone’s travel list! While it’s the largest country in Africa and offers an incredibly diverse array of attractions, it isn’t overrun with tourists — and I recommend visiting before that changes. The northern coast has a Mediterranean climate — mountainous and green — and that gives way to the vast expanse of the Sahara Desert. I only made it to the northern coast (Algiers and Tipaza) when I visited, but I hope to return soon!
Algiers is a truly impressive city with its own specific feeling. Known as the ‘white city,’ it’s filled with massive white buildings and it hosts a wide variety of architectural styles. Due to over 100 years of French rule, the city offers plenty of grandiose French architecture alongside Moorish and other types of North African architecture. The Grand Post Office (below) is an interesting example of French architects building an Islamic-inspired building — a neo-Moorish design. Be sure to go inside — it has an impressive, intricately-decorated interior that feels more like a palace than a post office.
As the city of Algiers spans across several large hills, a drive around town winds around many steep curves and narrow streets. After running a quick search on Google Maps, I found a series of interconnecting staircases to walk from my hotel (Aurassi, on a hilltop) down to the city center. It would’ve taken much longer if I’d driven on the main roads.
In addition to the fascinating architecture and topography, Algiers also has relatively few major franchises and (again) it doesn’t ‘feel’ touristy. As such, I enjoyed stopping in the numerous stores, coffee shops and kebab stands around town! There is plenty of couscous to go around, but my favorite local dish is the “meshwe,” or roasted lamb. For traditional food, I recommend going to Djenina or Touareg restaurants. For French-inspired cuisine, I’ve heard very good things about Restaurant Le Normand, but haven’t been there myself.
There aren’t too many nightclubs or bars around town (I understand the city of Oran is more lively in that respect), but the Aurassi hotel has a piano bar with an outdoor terrace that offers gorgeous views of the Bay of Algiers. Even if you don’t stay here, it’s worth a quick trip there– preferably in the evening before sunset.
Make sure to prioritize a visit to the Martyr’s Monument. This massive structure hosts a very informative museum that focuses on Algeria’s fight for independence, and also pays respect to the lives lost in the civil war of the 1990s.
I also highly recommend visiting the Hotel El Djezair (AKA St. George Hotel), not only for its elaborate, Moorish-style interior, but also because it is where General Eisenhower stayed while he planned his North African campaign during WWII. It’s possible to stay in his room if you book in advance. One of the hotel employees was more than happy to give me a quick tour of some of the historic spots around the premises. The hotel’s intricately-tiled coffee shop is a great place for a mid-day caffeine fix.
Rock the Casbah — (Sorry I couldn’t hold back!) Perhaps the main attraction of Algiers, the Casbah is essential to any visit. I recommend watching The Battle of Algiers before touring, as it takes place in this historic district. Not only is the Casbah filled with history, but its traditional houses, narrow streets and picturesque alleyways make it great for photography. While parts of the Casbah are residential, you’ll find artisans making and selling crafts such as decorative copper plates.
After touring the Casbah, be sure to visit the palace of the former ruler, Palace of Ahmed Pacha, as well as the nearby Dar of Mustapha Pacha, which has an exceptional national calligraphy museum.
Walking south, amidst the busy streets and cafes, you’ll come to Place Emir Abdelkader, named after the famous national hero. (Note– the small U.S. town of Alkader, Iowa, was named after Emir Abdelkader). This plaza is also the site of the Milk Bar, made (in)famous in the west from the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers. Beyond that is the Grand Post Office and the nearby outdoor market– a great place to grab souvenirs such as a Kandora (traditional North African robe).
Further down the waterfront, past the harbor (it’s best to take a taxi) is the spectacular Jardin d’Essai botanical garden. It’s a massive outdoor park, famous for being the filming location of the Jungle Book. Dating back to 1832, it was used by the French to test and acclimatize a wide variety of plants. There’s also a small zoo on the premises.
On the far northern end of town sits the Notre Dame d’Afrique (Our Lady of Africa)– an impressive Neo-Byzantine style Roman Catholic basilica. The plaza in front of the cathedral has great views of Algiers. On the opposite side of town– further south along the coast, near the airport– is the massive Djamaa el Djazaïr mosque, which has Africa’s largest minaret.
About 70 kilometers west of Algiers is the city of Tipaza and its fantastic ruins. When visiting the ruins, I was impressed by three things: 1) how extensive and well-preserved they were; 2) how few other tourists were there (I basically had the ruins to myself), and 3) how many different styles of ruins were present — owing to the layers of history as ownership changed hands over the years. It started as a Phoenician trading city in the 6th century BC and was taken over by the Romans, sacked by the Vandals, rebuilt by the Byzantines, and sacked again by the Omayyads.
The ruins are dramatically set against a backdrop of turquoise water and surrounded by lush green trees, with great beaches nearby. For fans of French author Albert Camus, there’s a small stone monument which bears his words “I understand here what is called glory, the right to love without measure.”
The city of Tipaza itself is also a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. There is a small market outside the ruins selling various souvenirs (you won’t miss it). I also enjoyed walking along the harbor and eating the fresh-grilled sardines and some of the best shrimp I’ve ever had!
On the road between Algiers and Tipaza don’t miss the Kbor er Roumia, a round conical-shaped tomb with a Roman-styled pillar design — it is the funerary monument of Berber King Juba II and Queen Cleopatra Selene II.
Next time I get to Algiers, I aim to visit several additional cities on the coast: particularly Bejaia, Oran and Constantine (with its massive suspension bridges). I also hope to head further south — into the Sahara — including the towns of Taghit, Timimoun, and Tammanrasset.