Sometimes leaving capital cities off your tourist itinerary is a good idea (Ankara, Turkey, I’m thinking of you!). They don’t always have a lot to interest the foreign visitor.
But Morocco’s capital, Rabat, isn’t one of those cities. Not only does Rabat have a lot to offer in and of itself, but it makes a great homebase for exploring the rest of Morocco.
The two sides of Rabat
Rabat is Morocco’s fourth largest city, with over 1.2 million inhabitants. It is divided into two by the Bou Regreg river.
The bigger side, Rabat proper, has a modern downtown and neighbourhoods as well as more charming, older sections. The smaller, northern side of Rabat is called Salé, and it is closer to the airport.
When travelling, I always like exploring the older more historic parts of cities, and in Morocco this often means the medinas.
The Salé side of Rabat has a real medina, a medina used every day by local residents, not one that is overrun with touts and tourist shops like the medinas in Marrakech and Fès. Staying at The Repose Luxury Riad, I loved exploring Salé’s medina and catching a glimpse of what real Moroccan life is like. Instead of shopkeepers asking for my money, local kids asked me to take their photo. Also on the Salé side are beautiful views of the cemetery by the sea, a marina with a wide range of restaurant choices, and lovely walks both within and outside the medina walls.
From Salé, you can’t help but look enticingly over to the towering cliffs on the Rabat side and want to explore the tiny old neighbourhood perched upon them. This is the Kasbah des Oudaïas, with its large fort overlooking the Atlantic and the estuary and the river toward Salé.
An oarsman will row you across the river to the base of the cliffs (or you can take the tram across, ideal if you’re going further). Once you enter this tiny neighbourhood, you’ll discover that most of the Kasbah buildings are tinted blue and white — a mini-version of Chefchaouen, a three hour drive north of here. The Kasbah makes for a lovely stroll amongst friendly neighbors slightly bemused at how many photos you want to take of their pretty front doors.
The Kasbah has a mosque dated to 1050, rebuilt in the 18th century by an English pirate. This pirate, Ahmed el Inglisi, also built several of the forts from which you can gaze toward Salé and the huge sandbanks which pirates used to trap merchant ships and then rob them. Similar to Granada’s Allhambra, the Kasbah also features an Andalusian garden in the old palace grounds, and a national museum of jewellery in the palace. The gate into this tiny corner of Rabat, Bab Oudaïa, is said to be the most beautiful in all the Moorish world.
While much of Rabat is modern, there’s an even older section than the Kasbah which you shouldn’t miss — the ruins of Chellah, now home to many storks (how many can you count in the top photo?) and cats. Chellah was a thriving city for almost 1000 years, established by Carthaginians from what is now Tunisia. It was abandoned in 1154 and all its inhabitants moved to Salé. In ruin now, Chellah provides a couple hours of imagination and exploration. What goods were sold at the trading post when it began in 200 BC? What did people talk about while bathing at the hammams? What happened at the funerals of the royalty whose tombs are scattered here? What was the reaction when Chellah, then known as Sala Colonia, cut links with the Roman Empire, one of the last cities in the world to do so?
Save time to explore the modern side of Rabat too. The art galleries and museums in Rabat are great, and in May there is an excellent festival of world music. Should you want to sleep in modernity too, Villa Diyafa is the the top hotel in town, located in Rabat’s ambassadorial district.
Explore further — Moulay Idriss Zerhoune and Chefchaouen
While Rabat has much to keep you busy, it also makes a good base from which to explore the rest of the country. Trains are safe, comfortable and inexpensive and will take you almost everywhere you’d want to go — Marrakech, Casablanca, Fès, and Meknès. There are plenty of Mercedes taxis and private drivers to take you away from the train stations.
No matter how short on time you are, you’ll regret not spending a couple days in Moulay Idriss Zerhoune, a tiny town near Meknès. Take the train from Rabat to Meknès, and then drive to Moulay Idriss (you can negotiate for a taxi, but it is simpler to have made arrangements in advance with your hotel).
Moulay Idriss is one of the most charming towns I’ve ever visited (and I’ve been to 48 countries!). You may have heard of nearby Volubilis, the UNESCO Roman ruin, but you’ve probably not heard of Moulay Idriss. The town is extremely picturesque, perched over two round hills and was where Islam was founded in Morocco, by Moualy Idriss I in the year 789. Few non-Muslims have visited and even fewer have stayed here — unless you were Muslim, you weren’t even allowed to spend the night in this holy city until 2005!
But now non-Muslims are more than welcomed, especially when staying at Dar Zerhoune, a guesthouse owned by very popular New Zealander Rose Button. I took a baking class at Dar Zerhoune to learn how to make Moroccan breads and pastries (who knew coconut macaroon-type cookies were so easy?!) and brought our trays of baking to the communal oven, just like the locals do. You’ll want to explore Moulay Idriss’ ancient Roman aqueducts and hot springs (you can still swim in the two pools), the forests, the souk with its delicious array of fruits and spices, not to mention Volubilis. But it is very very difficult to not spend hours relaxing atop Dar Zerhoune’s terrace and enjoying the views, company and Hajiba’s cooking. If you can tear yourself away, wander the market in the evening and be enchanted by the village life on display around you, plus eat a meal at Scorpion House (owned by Mike Richardson — if you’ve already been to Marrakech and Fès, you will have eaten at his Café Clock).
Another picturesque town worthy of your time is Chefchaouen, known as the blue city. The easiest way to get here is to drive, and Chrif Trans is an ideal company to take care of the driving for you. The drive from Fès and Rabat is a long one (you might want to stay overnight), but you’ll be fascinated by the conversation with your driver, especially if you’re lucky enough to have Mustapha Moutaj drive you.
Walking through the blue streets of the old part of Chefchaouen, you might think you’ve been transported to the Arctic as the walls and sidewalks almost look like they’re made of ice. Wander through the twisting streets and steep staircases connecting them, sample the local goat cheese (you may prefer to avoid the touts offering the other local product — cannabis), shop for handicrafts not available elsewhere in Morocco, and take photos your friends won’t believe are real.
After visiting Fès, take the train back “home” to Rabat and make sure you take a massage at Villa Diyafa’s fabulous spa before you fly back to your permanent home.