Exploring Algeria: Sea to Sahara

Algeria is a really rewarding place to travel if you are happy to rummage around to discover the treasures. When you do there are some great gems to be found.

The country’s ancient cities have some stunning traditional and colonial architecture. Sadly many of the historic districts in the big coastal cities are very run down. The authorities seems more inclined to spend money on new parts of town rather than restore existing buildings and historic sites. Nevertheless, it has been wonderful to explore the Casbah, wander into abandoned palaces and stumble across Ottoman and Roman ruins. I have really enjoyed learning about the unique cultures and histories that differ across this huge country, particularly between the north and south.

In eleven days, I visited five cities across the coast and in the Sahara. If you’re interested to know more, I wrote here a few words on each place:

ALGIERS (Casbah, couscous and colonial history): My first impression of Algiers was not brilliant but the capital grew on me over a few days. The Casbah is a warren of streets and markets bursting with Algeria’s complex history. The city is full of stunning French colonial architecture and monuments to Algeria’s struggle for independence. The art and history museums are interesting, particularly the Modern Art Museum (MAMA). There is a metro which makes tourist life much easier. The views over the Bay of Algiers are glorious. However, as with the rest of Algeria, there does not seem to be much of a culture of going out in the evenings so the city can feels quite quiet at night with a limited choice of restaurants.

ORAN (Faded beauty, panoramas and forts): The train to Oran from Algiers is a treat all by itself (four hours along the coast). The city is very quiet, particularly on Friday, but there are a number of historic palaces and forts across the city that have been built by various conquerors over the ages. Many beautiful buildings feel abandoned. The city has a lot of untapped potential and it is quite sad to see so much heritage in such a bad state. It did give the visit an expeditionary feel though which I quite enjoyed. The views across the city and surrounding mountains from the Spanish Santa Cruz fort were incredible. We had a wonderful dinner in Le Cintra, which was Albert Camus’ favourite restaurant and a regular haunt of writers, ambassadors, politicians and philosophers.

GHARDAIA (Ancient, desert and carpets): Entering the M’Zab valley feels like stepping into another world. A melting pot of people. An ancient culture guarded for centuries. The architecture has not changed in a thousand years – perfectly designed to keep cool, stay safe from floods and ensure privacy for each family. My guide around the city explained their culture and how they organise themselves as a society, which is very different to the rest of the country. I did not see any other foreigners when I was there but tourists are asked to carefully respect local customs and not walk about the old city without a guide. The locals are known for their artisanal traditions. The markets winding through the city’s narrow streets are full of colour (and donkeys). The city is an absolute must-see on any visit to Algeria. You will never experience anything quite the same as the Mozabite towns and communities in M’Zab valley.

CONSTANTINE (Bridges, canyons and kindness): I have wanted to visit ever since I first saw pictures of Constantine’s bridges when I was studying North African politics at university. The city is positioned on a large rock surrounded by deep canyons. The views across the bridges are breathtaking. As you peer into the ravine you can see layers of the city’s 2,000 plus years of history as old bridges and paths give way to more recent designs. I spent hours walking the edge of the city and admiring the view. People in Constantine were wonderfully kind. The number of people who walked long distances with me to guide me to alternative hotels or carry my heavy bags (carpets from Ghardaia) was uplifting.

TIPASA (Romans, sea and tourists): On my last day, we managed to squeeze in a road trip along the coast to see the Roman ruins at Tipasa. This was my first time driving on the right-hand side of the road. Doing so with Algerian drivers was quite the baptism of fire. The ruins are scattered across the coast line. Whilst none of them were particularly outstanding on their own, collectively they were quite the sight. The Royal Mausoleum of Mauritania perched up the hillside about 20km away was extraordinary. Tipasa was the only place I’ve visited in Algeria that felt touristy but mainly catered to Algerians rather than foreigners. Excellent antique and artisan shops around the ruins!

Algeria offers a really unique and diverse experience. I would strongly recommend visiting if you are interested in North African and Saharan history and culture. As I said, the country is not very well set up for tourists but getting around was relatively easy and I never felt unsafe. French is spoken widely so if you have some basic language skills then you would be absolutely fine. English is less widely spoken but people were often quite keen to practise with me.

I have managed to see a lot in eleven days but, for a shorter stay, I would suggest a long weekend in Algiers followed by trips to Ghardaia and Constantine (domestic flights are not expensive but there is also a good train system). If you are heading into the Sahara, there are some beautiful villas if you want a bit of luxury (although I stayed in a budget hotel because I am a cheapskate).

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