One of the four Imperial Cities of Morocco
Following a nice visit to Casablanca the day before, we came to the next city on this short tour around few cities in the area, following the once known “Imperial Cities” of Morocco: Rabat, Marrakesh, Meknes and Fez, all of which, UNESCO World Heritage sites. Having visited Marrakesh some years back, the remaining three cities were part of this tour since all of them are located very near each other and extremely well connected with each other. With an incredible busy agenda and such a short time overall, we planned to came to Rabat the night before in order to have the most of today before leaving later in the evening towards Fez, the farthest destination on this tour.
Rabat was made the capital city of Morocco upon the French invasion in 1912, moving it from Fez, and still after the colonial rule ended, it was decided for Rabat to remain as such the capital because of its great location right by the Atlantic coast and because of it being a “new city”, with wide avenues created by the French, space, order and everything built and on place. But even though Rabat is considered a “new city”, it does have an amazing historic quarter with a greatly preserved ancient Medina; a complete fortress citadel, the enormous Royal Palace, the historic site of the Mausoleum of Mohammed V and the ancient city of Chellah; all of it listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Site under the name of: Rabat, Modern Capital and Historic City.
With so much to do and see, a day was too short for us, yet just enough to visit all the major and important places I list below in the guide. I would recommend in any case at least 2 days to visit in full without rush; perfectly done in a weekend, or in combination with Casablanca.
The “new” city, known as nouvelle ville is as fascinating as the old town. Those tree-lined avenues completely surrounded by impressive colonial buildings might lead you to think you are actually in Cannes! Everything is perfectly restored and immaculately clean and well take cared of. With new urban design of lamps, preserving the old style and charm. The trams are also a great addition to the city’s transportation and a great implementation with the stops nicely designed to fit with their environment, and even the Alstom trains used (same as those in Casablanca) have a great colour pattern to enhance the beauty.
Through the Avenue Mohammed V that cuts all the way the nouvelle ville towards the walls of the ancient Medina are the key landmark buildings and up-scale shopping area; a complete different story once you enter the Medina where tradition meets the real face everyone knows about Morocco, with ancient palaces, madrasas, mosques and bazaars. Yet another shocking contrast come when you enter the Kasbah from the Medina. Here you are at a different world, where every house is blue and white, with tiny alleys bending in zig-zag reaching to the top. An incredible city worth every moment.
For more information about Rabat check the Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Morocco’s currency is the Dirham. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Rabat
- Kasbah of the Udayas One of the major sights in Rabat. Located at the mouth of the Bou Regreg river opposite Salé, this medieval Almohad fortress citadel was built in 1150. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site listing of Rabat.
- Old Medina Near the Kasbah, to the south of this and along the Bou Regreg river, is the walled labyrinthine old part of the city so characteristic from the Arabic countries.
-Walls and gates Entirely enclosing the Medina are of special beauty and great preservation, specially the Bab El-Had, the southwestern gate of the Almohad wall built in the 12th century.
- Hassan Tower A landmark in Rabat. The incomplete minaret of the incomplete Great Mosque begun in 1195 with construction stooped when just 4 years after Sultan Yacub al-Mansour died, and never restarted. Some walls and 200 columns is all that was built, and nowadays a historical tourist complex together with the Mausoleum of Mohammed V next door, all of which UNESCO sites.
- Mausoleum of Mohammed V This beautiful building constructed in 1971 in modern Alaouite Dynasty architecture is the tomb of the Moroccan king and his two sons, late King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah. Hassan II was buried here following his death in 1999. Located at the opposite side of the Hassan Tower on the Yacoub al-Mansour esplanade.
- Place Al Joulane This is one of the main central squares along the “new city” created by the French after colonisation, neuralgic centre of Rabat.
-Saint Peter’s Cathedral Opened in 1921, with the towers added in 1930.
- Avenue Mohammed V This is the central artery of Rabat running north from the Medina to the south to Mosque Assouna, next to the Royal Palace.
-Bank al Maghrib Beautiful colonial style building, headquarters of the bank.
-Central Post Office At the other corner from the Bank al Maghrib, is another impressive historic building typical from this part of the city.
-Parliament The next landmark building along this avenue.
-Rabat Ville Station This is the main train station in downtown Rabat. Blend of art-nouveau and art-deco, like all of the train stations in Morocco.
-Mosque Assouna The largest in Rabat, of beautiful architecture.
-Lycée Moulay Youssef Right across the Mosque, this school complements in beauty the architecture of this area.
- Royal Palace Not possible to visit inside, but nice from the outside, specially the main entrance gates. Built in 1864. Located at the south of the city, just west of the Lycée Moulay Youssef at the end of Avenue Mohammed V.
- Chellah Necropolis Located outside the city of Rabat itself, on the south but still an easy walking distance from the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. Founded by the Carthaginians and conquered by the Romans as the settlement of Sala Colonia, was abandoned in 1154. In the 14th century, Sultan Abu l-Hasan built monuments and the main gate, and nowadays is a park and tourist destination with many archaeological remains. It is completely surrounded but perfectly restored medieval walls.
Rabat has a medium-size international airport, somewhat overshadowed by Marrakesh and Casablanca, both handling way lot more flights across Europe and the world. Casablanca airport is only 1 hour from Rabat, and complement each other in number of destinations and frequencies, so one or the other are great options to get into Rabat. From the airport there is a bus in coincidence with flight arrivals, heading towards the Rabat Ville Train Station (Mohammed V tram stop) for 20 Dirham, taking approximately 40 minutes.
Farther away is Marrakesh to the south, 2 hours, and Fez to the east, 2.5 hours. All of them are very well connected; so if you are planning a tour similar to what we did, it might be a good option to plan your inbound flight to a city and get your return flight from a different one, basically an open-jaw. Ours was a great deal with Iberia from London to Casablanca via Madrid, and on the return a direct flight from Rabat to London with Ryanair. In between all the cities we visited in this trip we moved by train.
From elsewhere in Morocco, overland transportation is extremely well developed, with frequent and new trains and buses across all the important cities. Any of the cities we visited in this trip are along the major railway lines in the country. The north-south and east-west corridors. Trains are fast and very comfortable, with even newer high-speed trains being delivered on the trunk routes. Travelling by train is also inexpensive and extremely reliable, better than buses. The national railways of Morocco follow the same standards as France and Spain with a very up to date infrastructure.
Within the city there is a tram network of 2 lines crossing through both Rabat and neighboring Sale to the east across the river passing by the main landmarks in the city. Plenty of urban buses connect the city and its metropolitan areas. However, when sightseeing, the best way is on foot since the tourist points are within walking distance each other and there is no transport at all when inside the old Medina and the Kasbah which are in any case, best explored on foot.
As the capital of the country, the choice of hotels is large and good enough to be able to find some deals around. Also as good point here is that Rabat is a bit off the path from the highly tourist destinations of Marrakesh, Meknes, Fez and the likes, meaning in a lower fare per night overall, and a much easier task to find available hotels.
We stayed at the Hotel Belere in Rabat, meters away from the main train station hence perfectly located at walking distance to all of the sights, and great for us since we came by train from Casablanca and departed to Fez also by train hence no public transport needed. It was a nice hotel, marketed as a 4*, although it looked more like a good 3*. Nice large and quiet rooms (very important) with an extremely very comfortable bed. The staff was friendly and professional at all times and received us with a warm welcome. The breakfast, however, was plain and simple, and the waiters did not care too much in replenishing what was being finished and running low. Very recommended for someone like us on a busy tour that will only need a place to sleep without requiring any other facility.