We kicked off our series on Algiers with an introduction and long galleries of street photography. In a place as unknown as Algiers, that feels very necessary. But now that you've had a chance to get acquainted with Algiers, let's talk about some of the "tourist attractions" that this city has to offer. I use quotations because the tourist economy in Algeria is basically non-existent. During our entire stay in Algeria, we did not see a *single* other tourist. In fact, our presence actually garnered a lot of surprise from locals.
In the previous article, I spent significant time gushing about how much I loved this city but I also talked a lot about the geopolitical isolation of this place. Most people even can't place Algeria on a map, and I want to change that.
But what if you decide you want to come here? What the hell are you going to do while you're here? What does "sightseeing" look like in Algiers? Well it's a big city, with a TON of history, so there's a lot to do and see, but—as far as I can tell—the one thing that does not exist in Algiers is an agreed upon list of things that all visitors must see. It seems that they don't get enough visitors for the public to have come to any sort of consensus on this.
In this article, I'll try to point you in the direction of a few cool places in Algiers. This is definitely not the end-all be-all of Algiers, but it's a good sampler. Here's a map of the Algiers area that you can interact with...
Disclaimer: There are 2 obvious things that are not covered in this article. The first is the legendary Casbah of Algiers. We'll be going in depth and giving it an article all its own very soon, but for now, just add it to your mental list. The other obvious omission of this article is the Martyrs' Memorial. I just never got around to that one, but that doesn't mean that it's not worth seeing. It's a huge landmark in Algiers. Add that to your mental list as well.
Now let's get started...
1. Cathedrale Notre Dame D'Afrique
Translation: Our Lady of Africa Cathedral
If you were to ask 20 people in Algiers where they would recommend that tourists visit, this is probably the only place that all of them would mention. This is the poster child for "attractions" in Algiers.
Officially inaugurated in 1872, Notre Dame d'Afrique is a gorgeous church situated just east of Algiers, on top of a cliff, overlooking the Mediterranean. Algeria was the site of the first Christian missions to Africa, and—perhaps as a result—remains relatively tolerant of Christianity to this day. At least compared to its neighbors. This coexistence is evident in the inscription inside the church that reads (translated) "Our Lady of Africa, pray for us and for the Muslims." Inside the church, we walked amongst Algerian sightseers, many of whom were dressed in traditional Muslim garb. I do not know that if this church still holds service, but I do know of other historic churches around Algiers that do, so it wouldn't surprise me.
Inside this church, there are walls full of "thank you" notes to God and various saints for blessings that attendees of this church have received over the years. These sentiments are engraved in marble inside the church. However, these engravings have historically been on a BYO-Marble basis, so poorer people who could not afford marble had to get creative to show their gratitude. It became tradition for poor people to have small metal-working shops around the city create tiny metallic replicas of the body part they were thankful had not been amputated. (Apparently a lot of these 'thank you' notes had to do with amputations). They would then bring these tiny metal body parts into the church and glue them to the walls. I attempted to take a picture of these walls, but an Algerian priest caught me and reprimanded me in French. (There's no photography allowed in that part of the church). However, if you zoom into the photos below, you should be able to see some of them.
This church is open from 11:00am to 11:30am, and then again from 3:00pm to 5:30pm. Plan accordingly.
Remember like 2 minutes ago when I said that Notre Dame d'Afrique is on a cliff? Let's talk a little bit more about that. The Algiers area is extremely mountainous. So much so that the main streets of the city have to double back on one another, and the cross streets are literally staircases. Driving east from the main area of the city towards this church, the terrain only gets more extreme. The view from the patio surrounding Notre Dame d'Afrique is pretty incredible, but not nearly as incredible as what we did next.
We have our new friend Boualem to thank for the following trip up the mountain. He served as a tour guide for us in various parts of our Algeria trip. You'll hear more about him in the articles that are to come. I'll include his contact information at the end of this article.
Anyway, for as high up as Notre Dame d'Afrique is, it's actually only about half way up the mountain. There is a road that winds much further up, eventually leading to a small lookout point. As we arrived, Boualem told us that this spot is locally known as "Village Celeste." (That's French). Are you ready for an insane view?
Looking Out From Village Celeste
Looking out from this point, there was one main ridge that separated us from the main area of Algiers. Tucked away beneath us was a small quarry, but the hillside surrounding us was developed with the quintessential white buildings that are typical of Algiers. However, around the corner, we could see the French rooftops of downtown Algiers stretching out before us. We have my zoom lens to thank for the pictures of those rooftops below.
Far below us, Notre Dame d'Afrique looked like a toy sitting on the hill of a model train set. In the hills surrounding us, just spitting distance from the first large buildings of Algiers, there were shepherds guiding herds of sheep around. I took one vertical photo (below) that includes both the city of Algiers and one of these sheep herds. The juxtaposition between the old and the new cast an interesting light on this view, but capturing these 2 elements in the same photo was not easy. Boualem told us that as the families of many shepherds have moved to the big city, many of these stubborn old men have had to follow them, but have brought their herds of sheep with them. Apparently it's a relatively common phenomenon that these old men will share their apartment their herds of sheep.
I guess that, even in Algeria, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Once a shepherd, always a shepherd.
2. The Waterfront
Second, I want to take a moment to talk about the iconic waterfront of Algiers. This is probably the most recognizable stretch of the city, and that should not be surprising, because many western visitors over the course of history have arrived by sea and spent the majority of their time here on the outside looking in. This trend continues to this very day, now that cruise lines are starting to make (very infrequent) stop-offs here. Most people on board these cruise ships are warned against venturing into the city for safety reasons, and as a result, they spend the majority of their time looking at this view. I found Algiers to be very safe, but then again, I’m probably a bit less fragile than the average patron of these cruise ships.
These occasional visits from cruise ships are a relatively recent phenomenon, and as far as I can tell, have not translated into any kind of influx in visitors. Still, the waterfront of Algiers remains the “face” of the city, and it’s a very pretty walk to take. The main street that runs the length of the waterfront is called Boulevard Zighout Youcef. It stands at a slight elevation, passing over the industrial shipping yards below, and in front of a long series of famous Algerian buildings, like the old city Post Office. If you are in Algiers, you should definitely take some time to walk the length of this main thoroughfare. Here are some pictures from that walk…
3. Cathèdrale du Sacrè-Cœur d'Alger
Translation: Sacred Heart Cathedral of Algiers
Next, I want to touch on another, less well-known church in Algiers. Cathédrale du Sacré-Cœur d'Alger is in the center of Algiers, tucked between a few narrow side streets. Few people seemed to know what this place was or why we were interested in seeing it, but for all it's obscurity, it was certainly not difficult to spot.
Locals jokingly call this place "the nuclear plant" and that about sums up my thoughts when I first laid eyes on it. I mean really. This place looks like Algiers' version of Chernobyl. But in spite of its appearance, it's a church.
We had to do a lap around this place before finally finding its humble gates. Past a broken chainlink fence, through a messy patio space, we found a single, small, rusty, shabby door leading into this strange structure. It looked like it might have been the back door... but nope. This was the only door into the building.
It was locked, so we gave it a knock. After a few moments, an older Algerian man with a white mustache grumbled his way to the door and answered it. At first he seemed disoriented, like we had just knocked on the door of his home to wake him up from a long nap. He spoke only French, which made communication a challenge, but as soon as he understood that we were tourists, his entire demeanor changed. He gave us a wide grin, and heartily invited us in, leading us both into the darkness with his hands. It was dark enough inside this place that it made me think twice about actually going inside, but this guy wasn't about to take no for an answer. Speaking in French, he quickly led up the stairs into the main chapel.
So this guy's name was Gille (pronounced 'jeel') and he was/is the director of Cathédrale du Sacré-Cœur d'Alger. During the tour of the church he gave us, he sat us down in the pews of the church a couple of different times to try to explain things to us. Our French was terrible, bordering on non-existent, but he was determined to impart his information to us. Eventually, we understood that he was telling us about the shape of the church. It was made to mimc the structure of traditional tents that Algerian people living in the Sahara would use, with a single main support pole located in the center of the tent.
The next time he sat us down, he pointed out the shape of the support beams surrounding the chapel. These beams all rose up from and then returned to the floor in a series of arches. "Sacré Cœur" means Sacred Heart, and he pointed out how 2 of these arches side by side looked like the top of a heart. It seems that this place was built very thoughtfully. However, it was definitely NOT built to be easy to photograph. Even so, I did my best...
At the end of our tour, Gille took us into his office, rooted through a series of drawers, and pulled out 2 trays full of small metal pendants, each showing a tiny rendering of a biblical figure. He directed each of us to take one as a souvenir. I'm not even gonna lie—this was an AWESOME souvenir. You can see a picture of that pendant below, in my dirty weathered palm...
Once our tour was over, Gille walked us out of the church and down the street to his favorite restaurant. He clearly knew everybody that worked here, but I did not get the vibe that they had any sort of "scheme" going where Gille would send tourists to them. Am I jaded for even thinking about that? Algiers doesn't really get any tourists, so it's hard to imagine that happening here. But, also, he was very invested what we were going to order. It really felt like he just wanted us to have a good experience.
"Soupe de poisson!" he kept telling us.
We thanked him, ordered the fish soup, and then bid him au revoir.
Oh, and this church was built in 1956, if you're wondering. Put it on your list for Algiers, and say hi to Gille for me!
4. Musée de la Calligraphie
Translation: Calligraphy Museum
The Calligraphy Museum sits in the lower part of the Casbah. I'll circle back and do a whole article on the Casbah later, but right now, I want to tell one important fact about this neighborhood. All of the houses in the Casbah are connected to one another. From the outside, this area might look like a slum (and in some areas it is), but the Casbah is interesting because there are also mansions tucked away behind closed doors. And from the street level, it's impossible for anybody, much less a non-local, to tell which doors lead to mansions, and which doors lead to dumps. The Calligraphy Museum occupies one of those Casbah mansions.
I think that half the appeal of this landmark is where it is. It's a great stop-off from a walk through the Casbah. However, it's also a stunning example of Islamic architecture, and the museum itself is pretty cool too. And, I really expected it not to be. A "calligraphy" museum sounded pretty needless at first. Whenever somebody talks about calligraphy in a serious context, I always remember this obscure scene from Scrubs (which I went out and found, in case anybody out there was curious).
Looking through the many pieces of work featuring decorative, stylized Arabic calligraphy, I had a realization. English is not much to look at. These pieces of art were a lot prettier than I thought they would be. There's a lot of ugly, back-of-the-throat sounds in Arabic that don't sound great to hear, but on paper... beautiful. 👌 This museum is 100% worth a trip if you ever find yourself in the neighborhood.
Oh, and it costs 200 DZD ( 1.76 USD) per person to get in.
5. Musée des Antiquités et de l'Art Islamique
Translation: Museum of Antiquities & Islamic Art
The Museum of Antiquities is actually separate from the Museum of Islamic Art. I'll start with the Museum of Antiquities since I thought it was much more interesting. As you may or may not be aware, Algeria was once a vital part of the Roman Empire. In fact, there were Roman Emperors who were, themselves, Algerian, at various points in history. Today, Algeria has more Roman ruins than Rome itself, which is pretty ironic. We'll be making the trek out of Algiers to see one of this country's larger ruin sites in our next article, but for now I'll just show you a few Roman artifacts this museum.
The pictures below are mostly of these Roman artifacts. The tile murals were particularly incredible, but it was all pretty striking. This was actually my first time seeing actual Roman ruins (outside of my brief visit to Rome a few days earlier), but I would be seeing a LOT more of Rome's remains in the coming weeks. And I'll be showing all of it to you in the coming articles.
The Museum of Islamic Art was much less photogenic, but still very interesting. The photos in the gallery below that correspond to this second museum are the ones featuring the weathered-looking books. Much of what was in this museum was book-focused, although there were also ancient pieces of clothing and jewelry. Both of these museums are definitely worth a stop through! The price is 200 DZD (1.76 USD) for a ticket into both museums.
6. L'HÔTEL El-Djazair
Translation: St. George Hotel
L'Hôtel el-Djazair (a.k.a the St. George Hotel) sits atop the ridge that overlooks the bay of Algiers, in a wealthy area of the city called Hyrdra. (Well, it actually might be right on the Hydra boundary line, but it's a still a very nice area.) It's one of the few luxury hotels that exists in this city, and still hosts guests to this day. We came here in search of a working ATM, but we did not find one. They had a few different ATMs that were "temporarily" out of service, but none that would work for us. Like many upscale establishments in this part of the world, you have to go through security before you enter the building. It's a less intense version of airport security. Guarding the door are men in form-fitting black suits and cigarettes that helped us through security.
The hotel itself is gorgeous, reminiscent of a Wes Anderson movie yet to be shot. The building is white and palace-like, with long cobblestone roads leading around the grounds, shaded by overhanging palm leaves. The lobby of the hotel is padded with a thick carpet, defined by seemingly unending intricate designs, typical of the Islamic style. Hanging from the ceiling are decorative streamers, and the thick support beams are coated with beautifully painted tiles. The whole place has the faint smell of smoke, suggesting that a "no smoking" policy only went into effect a few short years ago. The faded plumage of this old relic made it feel like a real-life, North African Grand Hotel Budapest.
So it's not quite as easy on the nose as it is on the eyes, but the real draw of this place is the history. During WWII, then-General, later-President Eisenhower stayed here intermittently over a series of months spanning 1942 and 1943. In fact, there is a room in this hotel where Eisenhower and Churchill sat together over a series of days to plan the landing of Allied forces on the southern shores of Europe, in what would be a historic offensive. However, despite it's cameo appearance in European politics, this room retains a distinctly Arabian feel, with low, flat-cushioned seating, intricately designed ceiling beams, and distinct, colorful lamps.
There is also a hall where both walls are coated in black and white photographs of famous people who had stayed in this hotel during the colonial period—a who's who of 1920s/1940s Trans-Atlantic celebrities, like Jean Cocteau, Albert Camus, and many others. This should stand as proof that Algiers really was a city of some international stature in the not-so-distant past. It's similar to Havana in that way, but even further out of sight / out of mind in current times.
Sound like the kind of place you'd want to stay? Well you still can! You can look at rooms by clicking here. And maybe one day, after you're famous, YOUR picture will be hanging on the wall here as well.
7. L'Hôtel Aurassi
Translation: Hotel El Aurassi
The last place I want to highlight in Algiers is Hotel El Aurassi. This another one of Algeria's small group of luxury hotels. Here visitors are also required to go through security to enter to the hotel. However, unlike the St. George, this building feels very modern. It's a sparking cube of glass sitting on the mountainside, overlooking the bay of Algiers, with premium dining options and a fancy cocktail bar in the lobby. But none of that has anything to do with why I'm recommending this place.
I'm recommending El Aurassi for the view. I mean that VIEW! It was incredible. Algiers sits on the slopes of a small mountain, so I'm sure there is no shortage of amazing look-out points in this city, but this is the one that I managed to track down, and it did NOT disappoint. The restaurant of this hotel (on the 2nd floor) has a patio that runs the length of the building, looking out over the bay. It being January, it was pretty cold out here, but I huddled up against the corner of the railing with my camera for about an hour at sunset to take the following photos. Take a look at this...
But of all the pictures I took, my favorite was the following series of the sun setting over this hillside neighborhood. I love looking at the light changing and the hill lighting up. These are part of a much longer series, but you'll get the idea...
There ya go! There's a lot more to do and see in this incredible city, but if you ever feel like stopping through for a few days, this should be more than adequate to get you pointed in the right direction. And here's a map with all of these places so that you can go hunt all of this stuff down yourself...
Algiers "Attractions" On The Map
So to all you Algiers natives out there, how did I do? Did I miss anything here? Did I come and go from Algiers without seeing your favorite site? If so, let me know in the comments!
We'll be circling back to Algiers for a long article in the Casbah soon, but before we get to any of that, we're actually going to venture out of the city for a little while. You can expect giant mountains, teal blue water, the ruins of a giant Roman city, and a gnarly rainbow.