Rabat is the capital of modern Morocco; its well designed boulevards are a perfect setting for the culture and grandeur of a state capital. The Royal Palace, the unfinished mosque with its striking Hassan Tower, the necropolis at Chellah and the grand Mausoleum of the Kings (Mohammed V and Hassan II) are a wonderful combination of sights for any visitor. However, Rabat has a human scale and even its medina and souk are laid back and arranged in a grid pattern. Rabat is a great day out if you are staying nearby as it has excellent train connections from Casablanca, Fez, Meknes and Marrakech. Gardens, promenades, great avenues and a broad array of festivals: Rabat takes the time to live life to the full. The frenetic activity down by the river and the peace of the Kasbah make up a hidden gem of Morocco - highly recommended on any tour of the country by rail or road.
Start your tour in the south of the city, the gardens on Mechouar Square, for a stroll by the Royal Palace then return towards the town centre and take the time to visit the archaeological museum: it has some excellent exhibits from the excavations at several of the country’s archaeological sites, notably Volubilis and Lixus. Also in the town centre, you will find Mohammed V Avenue which is lined with art deco buildings along its wide avenues which, including its lovely parks, blends harmoniously into the old medina.
Made of adobe in the 12th century, the Andalusian ramparts protect the south side of the medina. Inside, the rectilinear layout of the old city is impressive and very different from the traditional maze of streets in other cities of the Maghreb. You can enter through the Bab El Had, scene of the Sunday market, this is where Souika street begins, the biggest and probably most animated street in the medina. It leads to the Great Mosque and ends up at the Souk Es Sebat, the shoe market overflowing with hundreds of babouches, leather and handcraft goods and gold and silver jewellery. Then, walk along Rue des Consuls, which is partially covered by glass rooves, artisans are hard at work all around you before heading back north towards the gate of the Oudayas.
This fortress quarter conserved its old cannons, positioned on a bulwark and, at its entrance, beautiful and massive, its door is carved from top to bottom and one of the towers houses three art galleries. The white and blue facades create a very Mediterranean ambiance, its cobblestone streets lead to El Atiqa mosque, the city’s oldest. From the terrace of Café Maure nearby, the view of Rabat, its neighbour Salé, and the meeting of Bouregreg river and the ocean is simply splendid. From up high, the Oudayas Palace, which today houses the National Museum, has conserved its original ornamentation and the Andalusian garden, full of fruit trees and cascading bougainvillea is a haven of peacefulness.
Beyond the city’s ramparts, other walls conceal an enchanting secret - the Chellah necropolis, a peaceful place and the last residence of the Merinide sovereigns. Protected by imposing walls this small, fertile valley, with its prickly pear trees, palm trees and olive trees, was chosen by the Merinides dynasty in the 13th century to accommodate their final residency. Stroll through the sepulchres in the shade of the ruins of a sanctuary where the minaret acts as refuge to the storks; a little further along stand other ruins of a more distant past: those of Sala la Romaine where you can admire the ruins of a triumphal arch, the forum, thermal baths and several shops. From the other side of the mouth of Bouregreg river, Salé, the old city of pirates, faces the capita - founded before Rabat, at the start of the 12th century, its medina, lined with fountains, magnificent riads, and mosques, buzzes with activity. Don’t forget the Medersa, the Koranic school, a renowned piece of Merinides art.
The year is brimming with a wide variety of events and festivals, bearing witness to great cultural dynamism. In May, music holds the place of honour in the Mawazine world music festival. The International Alternative Film Festival takes place in June, and music returns to centre stage in November with the Plucked String Instrument Festival. An ancestral tradition persists on rue des Consuls in the medina in the area covered by glass ceilings - every Monday and Thursday morning, a rug auction takes place, a guaranteed spectacle. An art gallery in the wall - the magnificent Bab Rouah, the "Gate of the Winds", is monumental; it stands out for the richness of its adornments and has become a gallery for exhibitions. Under the elaborate arches of the four square rooms, the works of famous Moroccan artists have found their venue.
The Candles Festival - Every year in the month of May, the city of Salé celebrates Sidi Abdallah Ben Hassoune, the city's saint, during the Candles Festival. Accompanied by musiciens and flag bearers, a long parade of men in colourful attire and carrying huge wax lamps comprised of thousands of sculpted and dyed pieces, moves through the city's main streets to arrive at the holy man's marabout.
Military ceremonies - Every day at exactly 10:45am, you can enter the court of the barracks of the royal guard to attend the ceremony of the hoisting of the colours - the hoisting of the national flag. Also spectacular is the changing of the mounted guard, which takes place every day at 7:00am before the Hassan Tower. From the esplanade of this tower, cannon shots are fired the evening before the main religious festivals.
Hotels to visit
A wonderful, small, family-run guest house transformed from a mansion house; full of luxury and character.
A high quality riad property in the heart of the medina ramparts, only a few steps from the ocean. The Riad Kalaa, originally built in 1815, has undergone a thorough restoration.
A second Riad Kalaa, just 9 rooms and suites, with chic design, a swimming pool and wonderful views of the medina from the roof terrace.