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What to See in Algiers
The Rich History of Algiers
A visit to Algiers is a walk through the twists and turns of the city’s complex history. While Algeria gained independence from France in 1962, traces of this time and earlier eras still mix with modern life. The ruins of an expansive Roman outpost –Tipaza– lie a short distance from the capital, while inside Algiers, a modern seaside promenade with a towering Ferris wheel attracts as much attention as Ottoman architecture or statues and gardens from the French period.
In recent years, Algeria has focused more on its tourist infrastructure, and visitors to the capital can tour sites that document these different eras and celebrate the country’s rich heritage. When traveling to Algeria, here’s what to see in Algiers.
What to See in Algiers
1. The “Old” and “New” Mosques
Two Ottoman mosques stand at the base of the city along the bay. The first, called the “old mosque” or the Great Mosque (al-Jamaa al-Kabir), dates from the eleventh century and spreads across several blocks. Outer walls with intricately carved archways give way to an expansive space for prayer inside, dotted with a forest of round columns and small nooks. In the center, a tree-lined courtyard hosts fountains and faucets for ritual absolutions, and provides a glimpse of the blue sky above. If you enter from the main street, look for the pulpit or mihrab in the back right, where an Arabic inscription lists a construction date of 1097.
A short walk away is al-Jamaa al-Jadid, “the new mosque,” although the term is quite a misnomer, as the site is new only in comparison to the Great Mosque described above. Builders built this “new” mosque down into the ground in the seventeenth century. At street level, a square minaret, white decorated dome and tall double-doors conceal a wide staircase that descends a full story to the carpeted floor below.
2. The Casbah
The Casbah or old city of Algiers goes upward from the bay, starting from the two Ottoman mosques and extending up to the infamous Serkadji or Barberousse prison, built by the French. The neighborhood’s narrow stairs and alleyways snake between bright white homes, overlooked by wooden balconies and intricately carved mashrabbiyya windows.
This area is packed with discoveries for local visitors. Small stores dot the Casbah, where artisans sell hand-painted ceramics, portraits in hammered tin, and brass trays and jewelry. The old palace of the Ottoman dey is now a calligraphy museum, with tall arched windows and open courtyards. Farther in, the Museum of Popular Traditions documents the culture and customs of Algeria, including clothing, jewelry, pottery, metalwork, and furniture. The mausoleum of the popular saint Sidi Abdelrahman is worth a stop as well, as locals visit the site for blessings and prayer, and the outer area includes a cemetery with Muslim and Jewish graves.
3. The Martyrs’ Monument
Across town, this concrete sculpture reaches up into the sky from its perch above the bay. On a flat hilltop, three curved lines of stone curve upwards, sheltering the light of an eternal flame burning at their base. This monument, built in 1982, mourns the lives lost during the country’s battle for independence.
On a clear day, this is the spot to take panoramic pictures of Algiers as it stretches along the shore. From this high vantage point, the city’s white façades stand in sharp contrast to the blues and greens of the Mediterranean. It’s no surprise that early travelers labeled Algiers “The White City.”
4. The Jardin d’Essai
This large park and botanical garden sits immediately downhill from the Martyrs’ Monument. Originally founded by the French in the 1830s, the Jardin d’Essai is also where Hollywood shot parts of the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man.
Today, the garden is split into two sections: an English side with a maze of trails that weave amongst tall trees and brushes, and a French side with fountains, manicured lawns, and a symmetrical set of paths. Enjoy your time wandering past the collection of exotic trees and plants, feeding the fish and ducks, or sipping a coffee at one of the cafes on site. There is a parking lot across the street and a small entry fee to get into the garden.
5. The Corniche (Les Sablettes)
This seaside promenade known as Les Sablettes is only a few years old and has been the site of much development. Walkers, joggers, and bikers frequent the paved boardwalk, almost two miles in length, while others enjoy the lawns and covered picnic tables. Popular features include tea and snacks for sale, a couple of playgrounds, an enormous Ferris wheel, and a number of smaller carnival rides for the little ones. Kids particularly love the carousel, the small train, and the bouncy castle.
To enter the large Sablettes parking lot, drive back from the Ardis supermarket on the coastal highway, and then turn right at the tall sculptured archway.
Getting To Algeria
Americans should submit visa applications, based on their state of residence, to either the Algerian Embassy in Washington D.C. or the Algerian Consulate General in New York. Detailed information on the visa process is available on their websites.
Other nationalities can consult their local Algerian Embassy to find details on obtaining visas.
Travel agencies and hotels can also provide an invitation letter confirming your travel to Algeria, which is often required to support your visa application. In my experience, the more details you provide about your visit (including the cities you will visit, your travel dates and hotels, etc.), the better your chance of getting a visa.
Header Image credit: Casbah (Old City) – Algiers by Dan Sloan