Arabic is the official language but it is not used for everyday dialogue. Moroccan Darija-Arabic and Berber-Tamazight are used by the inhabitants in their daily life. The use of Spanish and French is still widespread especially by the businesspeople and intellectual elites. Its main religion is Islam but there are minorities of Jews and Christians.
The city is situated about 60 km east of the city of Tangier and 40 km south of the Spanish exclave of Ceuta (Sebta) and the Strait of Gibraltar. It is in the far north of the Rif Mountains. To the south and west of the city there are mountains. Tetuan is situated in the middle of a belt of orchards that contain orange, almond, pomegranate and cypress trees. The Rif Mountains are nearby, as the city is located in the Martil Valley. It is picturesquely situated on the northern slope of a fertile valley down which flows the Martil valley, with the harbour of Tetouan, Martil, at its mouth. Behind rise rugged masses of rock, the southern wall of the Anjera country, once practically closed to Europeans, and across the valley are the hills which form the northern limit of the still more impenetrable Rif.
The streets are fairly wide and straight, and many of the houses belonging to aristocratic Arabs, descendants of those expelled from Al-Andalus by the European "Reconquista", possess marble fountains and have groves planted with orange trees. Within the houses the ceilings are often exquisitely carved and painted in hispano-moresque designs, such as are found in the Alhambra of Granada, and the tile-work for which Tetuan is known may be seen on floors, pillars and dados. The traditional industries are tilework, inlaying with silver wire, and the manufacture of thick-soled yellow slippers, much-esteemed flintlocks, and artistic towels used as cape and skirt by Arabic girls in rural areas. The Jews lived in a mellah, separated from the rest of the town by gates which were closed at night. The harbour of Tetuan was obstructed by a bar, over which only small vessels can pass, and the roadstead, sheltered to the North, N.W. and South, is exposed to the East, and is at times unsafe in consequence of the strong Levanter.
Around 1305 a city was built here by the Marinid king Abu Thabit. It served as a base for attacks on Ceuta. Around 1400 it was destroyed by the Castilians, because pirates used it for their attacks. By the end of the 15th century it was rebuilt by refugees from the Reconquista (reconquest of Spain, completed by the fall of Granada in 1492), when the Andalusian Moors first reared the walls and then filled the enclosure with houses. It had a reputation for piracy at various times in its history. It was taken on 4 February 1860 by the Spaniards under Leopoldo O'Donnell, (a descendant of an old Irish royal family, O'Donnell of Tyrconnell, who was made hereditary Duke of Tetuan, and later Prime Minister of Spain; the Dukedom is currently held by his descendant S.E. Don Hugo O'Donnell, Duke of Tetuan, Grandee of Spain and Count of Lucena) and almost transformed by them into a European city before its evacuation on 2 May 1862, but so hateful were the changes to the Moors that they completely destroyed all vestiges of alteration and reduced the city to its former state.
The city is situated in the area of Morocco which was formerly ruled by Spain. In 1913 it became the capital of the part of Morocco under Spanish protectorate which was governed by the Jalifa (Moroccan prince, serving as Viceroy for the Sultan, and the Spanish "Alto Comisario" accredited to him), and it remained its capital until 1956. Many people in the city still speak Spanish. On road signs often names are written both in Spanish and in Arabic, though many signs are in Arabic and French, the second language of modern Morocco. Tétouan became part of the independent state of Morocco when it was founded out of French Morocco and most of Spanish Morocco in 1956.
Tétouan has also been home of an important Sephardi Jewish community, which immigrated from Spain after the Reconquista and the Spanish Inquisition. This Jewish Sephardi community spoke a form of Ladino known as Haketia. Some of them emigrated later to Oran (in Algeria), to South America and much later to Israel, France and Canada. Some Jews in Tetouan converted to Islam and remain in the city. There are very few Jews left in Tétouan nowadays. Some of the bombers in the 2004 Madrid train bombings and Iraq terror campaign came from Tetouan.