Trip Notes: 5 Nights in Algeria

May 13th, 2019, 09:15 AM
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Trip Notes: 5 Nights in Algeria

We spent 5 nights in Algeria, staying in Algiers and Constantine. Algeria is a total hidden gem and a great place to visit. Algiers offered us beautiful cities (the white-painted Mediterranean colonial city of Algiers and the luscious, green bridges city of Constantine), amazing Roman ruins (Djemila, Timgad and Tipaza), and warm and friendly people – with almost no foreign tourists in sight. What follows are some trip notes with practical information for those planning a trip to Algeria, rather than a diary-style trip report.

OUR BASIC ITINERARY

Day 1: Arrival in ALG at 12:10pm from MAD; visit to Tipaza ruins; overnight in Algiers

Day 2: Full day sightseeing in Algiers; overnight in Algiers

Day 3: Algiers to Constantine w/ driver, stopping at Djemila ruins; overnight in Constantine

Day 4: Full day sightseeing in Constantine; overnight in Constantine

Day 5: Visit to Timgad ruins; overnight in Constantine

Day 6: Leisurely morning; depart CZL (Constantine) to TUN at 2pm

GETTING THE VISA

The visa process was completely straightforward, and we successfully received two-year multi-entry visas from the NY consulate. Contrary to what tour agencies might tell you, there is absolutely no need to book any sort of package tour or to even get a LOI from a local tour company.

We very carefully followed the instructions on the NY consulate’s website, and sent in the following by USPS to the NY consulate at 15 East 47th St, New York, NY, 10017:

- 2 Copies of each App (original signature)

- Passports

- 2 Photos /pp (1 stapled to each app)

- $160 /pp USPS Money Order payable to “Consulate General of Algeria”

- Packet with cover page providing our "itinerary" and attaching flight confirmations and all hotel confirmations [we booked refundable flights and made cancellable hotel reservations for an arbitrary trip, and cancelled everything after receiving our visas]

- Bank statement

- USPS SASE

The consulate dropped our passports in the mail 16 calendar days (12 business days) after they received them.

I tried several times to get a status update or at least make sure they safely received our documents. I sent 2 emails and left a voicemail. Nobody returned them. Called several times, too, and the phone usually rang and nobody picked up. I finally called and got through to someone, and was told my visa had already issued that day and was preparing to be dropped in the mail.

CHOOSING WHAT TO SEE IN ALGERIA

Algeria is huge (biggest country in Africa), and we didn’t have time to cover the entire country properly. We decided to focus on the North because Algiers and Constantine looked like pretty cities that also provided convenient access to top-notch Roman ruins.

We seriously considered going to Ghardaia, which seemed really exotic due to the architecture and traditional clothing. But Ghardaia seemed a little annoying in that tourists are required to be accompanied by a local guide and are not allowed to take photos of the local people.

Oran looked rather boring. Visiting the Sahara didn’t seem essential because we’ve done similar desert tourism stuff (sand dunes, rock formations, camping with Bedouins, riding camels, etc.) elsewhere.

If we were to have visited the Sahara, Djanet and Tassili n'Ajjer looked most appealing due to the prehistoric cave art. But the logistics of such a trip are very difficult – irregular flights at odd times, needing at least a week, having to camp (no hotels), etc.

We would have enjoyed staying longer in Algeria because is such a pleasant and untouristed country. But we didn’t feel like anything else was a “must see,” and we feel like we got a good introduction to the country in our short time there.

ALGIERS SITES

One full day was perfect to see the highlights of Algiers and get a feel for the city. We took a morning walking tour of the Casbah with Omar of Fancy Yellow (see below). We spent the rest of the day exploring the city on our own, using a mix of walking, taxis, the metro, and a cable car. Below are the main places we visited.

- The Casbah. Interesting to see in person, mainly for its historical importance. We didn’t find the Casbah too lively and thought it felt a little like an abandoned city. The buildings are falling apart and most former residents have moved out of the Casbah. Make sure to watch “The Battle of Algiers” before you visit, in order to understand the Casbah’s historical context. The Palais des Rais is a pretty palace at the bottom of the Casbah, and is a must-see for the architecture and ocean views.

- Notre Dame d’Afrique Church. We visited for the views of the Bay of Algiers. The church is high above the city, and the views are spectacular. The church is open for limited hours and was closed when we visited.

- Walking around the city center. We spent a good amount of time walking around the city center, seeing the beautiful white-colored colonial buildings, people watching, stopping in cafes, walking along the Mediterranean at sunset, etc. Noteworthy landmarks in the city center are the Ketchaoua Mosque (Ottoman era mosque), Place Emir Abdelkader (a major square), the Grande Post Office (beautiful building, only viewable from the outside), Rue Didouche Mourad (the main walking street), and the Sacred Heart Cathedral (oddly shaped like a nuclear reactor).

- The Bardo museum. Not to be confused with the renowned Bardo museum in Tunia, this is a lame archaeological museum situated in pretty Ottoman villa. It’s well worth the cheap entry fee just to see the villa. Walk right though the museum.

- Martyrs’ Memorial & Essai Gardens. There are a group of sites south of the city center, all relatively near each other. We visited the Martyrs’ Memorial (the huge tear drop monument) and Essai Gardens. Both were decent, and offered good views. We took the cable from the gardens to the memorial. Also nearby are an army museum and a fine arts museum, neither of which particularly piqued our interest given our little time.

CONSTANTINE SITES

One full day was also perfect to see Constantine and enjoy its beautiful bridges and scenery. Everything is easily walkable. Below are the highlights.

- The bridges. We spent several hours just walking along and across the different bridges, taking in the views of the city and the gorge. The major bridges to see are the Pont Sidi M’Cid suspension bridge (also walk up to the war memorial, which is on a hill near this bridge); Pont d'El-Kantara; the Pont Mellah Slimane (Passerelle de Perregaux) footbridge; the Pont Sidi Rached stone bridge; and the Pont Salah Bey modern bridge.

- Walking around the Casbah and old city. The small city center has several impressive sites, most notably the Ahmed Bey Palace (a beautiful Ottoman palace). We visited two impressive old mosques, the Grand Mosque and the Souq el-Ghizal Mosque. The souq / bazaar wasn’t particularly interesting; mostly locals buying Chinese-made garbage. The French Theatre is pretty and a hidden gem; we knocked on the door and were shown around, including a play rehearsal.

- Cirta Museum. Small collection of Roman mosaics and other artifacts. Worth a stop if you have time.

- Fruit and vegetable market. It’s near the Cirta museum and will show up on Google Maps. It’s a very interesting and colorful experience with good people watching. A good place to buy dates.

THE ROMAN RUINS: TIPAZA, DJEMILA & TIMGAD

We visited all three of Algeria’s major Roman sites. Djemila and Timgad are both among the best Roman sites you’ll find anywhere in the world. Djemila is special because of its beautiful green setting in the hills. Timgad is special for its extensive Roman city – which really feels like a “city,” unlike most Roman ruins – and the arch of Trajan. If you have time to visit only one of them, it would be a tough decision. The ruins at Tipaza aren’t so impressive, but the setting – right on the Mediterranean – makes it worth the visit. Below are some logistical details.

- Tipaza. Tipaza is a 1-1.5 hr drive from Algiers, and makes a good half-day trip. The ruins do not take more than 30 minutes to see, but a couple hours could be spent walk along the expanded area and taking in the views. The trip is easy to visit with a taxi, or even by public transportation. But since we wanted to visit Tipaza directly after we landed and did not want to trust a random taxi with our luggage, we had Omar arrange a driver to pick us up at the airport and take us directly to Tipaza. We visited on a weekend and it was swarming with school children; try to avoid the weekends if you can.

- Djemila. In addition to the ruins, there is a small museum on site (with some excellent mosaics and other artifacts) that is well worth visiting. The ruins will probably take an average tourist 2 hours to see, but one could easily spend 3-4 hours (or all day). (Same with Timgad, below.) Djemila is a 1-1.5 hour drive from Constantine, making it an easy day trip from Constantine. But rather than fly from Algiers to Constantine, it makes good sense to visit Djemila on the way from Algiers to Constantine, as we did.

- Timgad. There is also a museum on site, and it features an extensive collection of mosaics – well larger than the Djemila museum. Plan on Timgad is a 2.5-3 hour drive from Constantine. We had planned to negotiate a taxi for the day trip, but Omar put us in touch with a driver who took us for a very fair price. On the way back, we stopped at Madghacen, which was a neat pyramid-shaped Numidian tomb.

GUIDE / LOCAL AGENT RECOMMENDATION: OMAR ZAHAVI (FANCY YELLOW)

We most highly recommend Omar Zahavi of Fancy Yellow. Omar is a private guide, and also runs his own local travel agency. We’re mostly “do it yourself” travelers, but like to use private drivers for day trips that are hard to do on our own. Omar was perfect for our purposes. Omar is the man for any sort of services in Algeria – a private guide, drivers for day trips, arranging trips to the desert, a fully-planned trip, etc.

Omar was our guide for our Casbah walking tour, and also was our driver from Algiers to Djemila to Constantine. Omar also arranged two different private drivers for us: one to pick us up at the airport and for a half-day trip to Tipaza, and another for a day trip from Constantine to Timgad. Omar himself is awesome; he is fun to spend time with and get to know. The drivers he arranged for us were professional, reliable, safe, and spoke decent English.

We’ve used private guides and drivers in many different countries, some great and some not so great. In countries with little tourism, sometimes the guides and drivers just “don’t get it.” We emailed a few other Algerian tour agencies to compare to Omar, and all the others took forever to respond, tried to upsell us on services we didn’t want or need, lied to us that we needed to book a tour and get a LOI to get the visa, didn’t answer our questions properly, and/or wrote in barely coherent English.

Refreshingly, Omar “gets it.” Omar is a true professional we would put our complete trust in. We are very happy to have found Omar’s amazingly well-run operation. His prices are very reasonable. He was very patient and helpful with our trip planning and gave us all sorts of advice over many emails and phone calls. Omar often responded to us within minutes, seemingly at all hours of the day. And Omar is an all-around nice and honest guy, to boot.

We used Omar because a number of other travelers had great things to say about Omar in their trip reports and blogs. It seems that Omar is building a nice word-of-mouth business by being good at what he does and making his clients happy. We’d highly encourage you to use Omar if you need any sort of services in Algeria.

Omar’s phone (also What’s App) is +213 542 840 682, and his email is [email protected] .

SAFETY

Algeria felt completely safe. We were very comfortable walking around the cities (even at night), as there are always plenty of people around. The US and UK travel advisories on Algiers are relatively mild, and the risk of terrorism seems relatively low. Ironically, the heavily touristed Morocco seems quite a bit more dangerous than Algeria, as it has had recent terrorist activities targeting tourists. With Algeria having very few tourists and tourism being a non-factor on the economy, we suppose tourists are relatively off the radar for terrorist attacks.

That being said, we were given a police escort for the drive back from Timgad to Constantine. Due to language barriers, we didn’t get a coherent answer we were given one. It didn’t seem like there was any particular threat, and it could have been a bored or overzealous local police chief at Timgad. But our driver said he has taken many tourists (including Americans) around and has never seen one before. We had a series of six police cars, one at a time, drive in front of us with blinking lights for the journey back. It was sort of fun and made us feel like VIPs. Apparently police or military escorts are common in the southern part of the country.

In recent weeks, anti-government protests have apparently been happening in Algiers every Friday. We weren’t in Algiers on a Friday, but from what we heard, the protests have been peaceful and shouldn’t affect tourists. But, of course do your homework and check the situation before you go.

MONEY

Algeria’s street exchange rate is ~60% more favorable than the official bank rate. So, absolutely bring cash (USD or EUR) for your entire trip and change it into DZD on the street. Don’t use ATMs, credit cards or banks; otherwise, you’ll be losing a ton of money on the conversion.

In Algiers, the money changers are near Port Said. In Constantine, they are near the post office near the Ibis / Novotel hotels.

FOOD

The food situation in Algeria is fairly bad. The options are mostly fast food types of places – pizza, shawarma, rotisserie chicken, French fries, etc. We love eating local food when traveling, but found it nearly impossible to get authentic Algerian dishes. We suspect that locals generally don’t go to restaurants to eat their local cuisine, and that it is mainly served in the home.

Algiers does have many great French-style bakeries and cafes with tasty cakes, cookies, breads, mint tea, etc. Some of these cafes are sit-down, and make for a nice break. There are some bakeries and cafes in Constantine, but not as many.

The dried dates are delicious and cheap.

In Constantine, we’d recommend two restaurants -- Restaurant Igherssan (overlooking the Mellah Slimane pedestrian bridge) and Oxygen café (near Ahmed Bay Palace) – either for a meal or tea / coffee / dessert. The first has amazing views of the gorge and bridges. Both restaurants had good-for-Algeria pizza, good desserts, and good service.

Overall, food is very cheap in Algeria. You could eat well on a few dollars a day. But it may be hard to get good, authentic local food.

HOTELS

- Algiers: We stayed at an Airbnb. The hotel situation in Algiers seemed dismal, and there didn’t appear to be any passable decent clean-but-basic 2-3* type of places. The few mid-range places seemed really grungy and overpriced. On Airbnb, we found a handful of well-reviewed 1 BR apartments in decent locations. We paid about $50/night for a decent 1BR Airbnb near the Sacred Heart Cathedral. The link is: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/11955632

- Constantine: We stayed at the Marriott Protea. The hotel was dirt cheap for a Marriott (under 20,000 DZD for 3 nights, i.e., under $35/night, with breakfast). We had a top floor room with an amazing view of the city and bridges. The room itself was decent, but by no means up to Marriott standards. The location is manageable but not ideal; it’s about a 12 minute walk to the start of the city center, whereas the Ibis / Novotel are right in the city center. The hotel’s main flaw was that breakfast service was completely incompetent and frustrating: dirty tables were never cleaned, food serving dishes went empty and were never refilled, staff mindlessly standing around not cleaning up and refilling dishes, having to ask 10 times to get anything, etc. Still, this hotel was well worth it at under $35/night.

GUIDEBOOKS

There are no recent Algeria guidebooks from any of the major publishers. It was very hard to get accurate and up-to-date information about Algeria. We found that the most helpful information was from other travelers’ online trip reports.

Lonely Planet’s website has some useful blurbs on some of the major attractions, probably from a very old edition. We found them useful for visiting the Roman sites, where the info can’t really be outdated.

We also used the e-book, “Algeria: A Guide for Adventurous Travellers” (Peter Lockyer). It’s just okay. It reads more like a really well written trip report than a comprehensive guidebook.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS OF ALGERIA & THE PEOPLE

The Algerians were completely warm and hospitable. People seemed shocked to see tourists, particularly non-French ones. We even identified ourselves as Americans (we usually lie and say we’re Canadian) because it seemed that the people liked America. They certainly hate the French and were relieved that we weren’t French.

Thankfully, being a novelty in Algeria was not overbearing. Our previous trip was to South Asia (including Bangladesh and Pakistan), and we continually got mobbed with dozens of people at once coming up to us and wanting to shake our hands and take selfies with us. This was flattering, but got a little exhausting. In Algeria, it was nothing like that – many people would simply pass us by and say, “welcome to Algeria.”

We did not have a single bad experience with any of the local people, which is rare when traveling. Nobody tried to rip us off, overcharge us, pull other shenanigans, etc. Every market charged us the very cheap 30 DZD price for a 1.5 L bottle of water that locals paid. Taxis used the meter without having to ask. At tourist sites, foreigners pay the same price as locals (a nice change from some of the countries that gouge foreigners). Because there is so little tourism, ripping off tourists is not on Algerians’ radar.

Finally, we found Algeria quite civilized and developed, by third-world / African standards. The streets were clean enough and didn’t seem particularly polluted and covered in trash. The streets had proper sidewalks. Restaurants and street food looked safe. The roads and highways were in good shape.

Last edited by LAX_Esq; May 13th, 2019 at 09:22 AM.
LAX_Esq is offline  
May 14th, 2019, 01:40 AM
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It's a really interesting trip report. I'd like to go but with comments about how much Algerians hate the French, I'm slightly reluctant to. Did locals tell you that? Obviously it is pretty well known that they dislike them but I wouldn't expect to have a conversation with locals about it with them expressing relief you're not French.
Odin is offline  
May 14th, 2019, 05:36 AM
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Originally Posted by Odin View Post
It's a really interesting trip report. I'd like to go but with comments about how much Algerians hate the French, I'm slightly reluctant to. Did locals tell you that? Obviously it is pretty well known that they dislike them but I wouldn't expect to have a conversation with locals about it with them expressing relief you're not French.
Thanks for the question. I'm sure French tourists have a great time in Algeria, and that the locals do not hate them on a personal level even if they generally "hate the French." But several locals did make comments to us about disliking the French. Maybe they wanted to make us feel good and flatter us. Also, with locals who speak limited English, their statements may appear more harsh and less nuanced.

While they "hate the French," it's interesting they have very much embraced -- rather than rejected -- French culture. The Algerians in the big cities generally speak French. And to each other, they often speak a mix of Arabic and French, throwing in random French words and sentences here and there. And Algiers is very French, with the cafes, bakeries, pastries, etc. So, I'm thinking it's very much a love-hate relationship...
LAX_Esq is offline  
May 14th, 2019, 06:44 AM
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Thank you, thats good to know.
Odin is offline  
May 14th, 2019, 12:31 PM
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Fascinating! You described the exact type of place I would enjoy visiting. Have you been to Morocco and / or Tunisia? If so, are they very similar? Did you travel during Ramadan? If so, how was it?
tripplanner001 is online now  
May 14th, 2019, 12:59 PM
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Originally Posted by tripplanner001 View Post
Fascinating! You described the exact type of place I would enjoy visiting. Have you been to Morocco and / or Tunisia? If so, are they very similar? Did you travel during Ramadan? If so, how was it?
Thank you. We went to Tunisia for three nights, immediately following Algeria. I'm finishing up the Tunisia trip report, and will post it shortly. In short, Algeria is far less touristed than Tunisia and accordingly feels more exotic. We skipped Morocco considering the limited time we have because it seemed way, way too touristy for us -- way more touristed than Tunisia.

Speaking broadly, all three countries probably offer tourists the same sorts of things -- medinas, palaces, Roman ruins, desert excursions, Mediterranean beaches, etc. Algeria would easily become as popular as Morocco if it were visa free and developed a tourist infrastructure.

We left North Africa the day before Ramadan started (technically, it started the night we left and the first fast day was the day after). That was very intentional.
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May 14th, 2019, 08:43 PM
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Thank you. Looking forward to your report on Tunisia too.
tripplanner001 is online now  
May 15th, 2019, 03:51 AM
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Many thanks for a fantastic trip report! A friend has recently returned from Algeria and Tunisia, and loved them both, and your experience seems very similar. I'd love to visit, and even if we don't, it does sound wonderful, with much to offer.
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