Surprisingly enough, Rabat is an off the beaten track destination. Apart from its status as the capital of the Kingdom of Morocco, there are tones of things to do and see in Rabat. The unique old Medina is a must. You may think you are in a small Greek town with narrow streets and white houses, but no: the medina is 100% Moroccan. There is also a cool beach downtown, complete with a medieval fortress facing the sea, the Kasbah of the Udayas. Don’t forget to visit the 12th century Hassan Tower close to the Medina. It’s part of the old mosque next to the modern Mausoleum of Mohammed V. On the outskirts of the city lies the fortified necropolis of Chellah, with tombs, fortress ruins, and storks all over the place. Additionally, you have a royal palace and a very nice French quarter to visit. What else could you ask for? Great restaurants and shops dot the entire town. Rabat is an outstanding city, and a must on any itinerary around Morocco!
Things to Do in Rabat
Kasbah of the Udayas
The magnificent citadel Kasbah of the Udayas from the 12th century is Rabat’s oldest neighborhood. It lies on top of the original Ribat (fortress) that gave the city its name. The Almohad dynasty chose a strategic location for its citadel: where the Bou Regreg River enters the sea. Unfortunately, the Kasbah remained in oblivion for centuries. In the 17th century, the Alouite dynasty hired fleeing Muslim refugees from Spain to rebuild the citadel. Today, the Kasbah is the home to some 2000 people. They live in the characteristic whitewashed houses surrounded by curvy cobbled streets. The two most distinguished structures are the 12th century Bab Oudaia Gate and the 10th century El Atiqa Mosque, Rabat’s oldest.
Andalusian Gardens + Museum of Udayas
South of the Kasbah, we find the Andalusian Gardens and the Museum of Udayas. The palace dates back to the 17th century when the first Almohad sultan of Rabat united Morocco. This beautiful building showcases the best of Moroccan art, including oriental rugs and musical instruments. The Gardens occupy the old Palace grounds. Though a French landscape architect designed them in the 20th century, the gardens follow the tradition of Andalusia gardens with decorative flowers, bushes, and water elements. We are talking about a festival of plants, including bougainvillea, oleanders, daturas, lemon, orange, and bananas. Don’t forget to stop by the pretty tearoom next to the gardens.
As you probably know, Rabat lies on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. If you are wondering if there are nice beaches in the area, you’ll be surprised to find plenty along the coast. The nicest beaches close to the city are Temara and Skhirat, to the south. North of Rabat you’ll find the Mehdia Plage and the Plage des Nations, but both can be dangerous for swimming. Contrary to what we expected, we found Rabat’s city beach to be a nice place to spend a day. The beach is under the Kasbah of the Udayas, hence its name Udayas Beach. Don’t worry about food. There are several nice bars and restaurants, including the Rabat Yacht Club. Here you can swim, rent a kayak or learn how to windsurf. Walk all the way to the end of the beach to see the beautiful Rabat Lighthouse from 1920. On the other side of the Bou Regreg River, you’ll find Salé’s city beach.
When the French arrived in Rabat in 1912, they found just a tiny city within the city walls. Almost the entire city was what we call today the Medina. It dates back to the 17th century when Muslim refugees from Spain built it. Though you can find shops selling pretty much about everything, Rabat’s medina is different from others in Morocco. First of all, it is completely flat, and its streets mostly straight. Secondly, it’s much more hustle free than the ones in Fez or Marrakesh. It is a real neighborhood where locals live. Stroll along its narrow streets at night, and you’ll fall in love with the place. The main street is Rue Souika, but the most interesting part is along the Rue des Consuls, where several ancient fondouks (inns) are.
The Hassan Tower is the iconic minaret of a never-finished ancient mosque. In 1195 Sultan Yaqub al Mansur, the third Almohad caliph ordered it built as the world’s largest. In fact, he wanted the mosque itself to be the world’s biggest too. Only 44 of the originally 86 meters planed were built. The Caliph died in 1199 and construction stopped completely. Apart from the tower, several walls were partially built together with small portions of 348 pillars! The famous Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh inspired the red sandstone tower. Its designer was no other than mathematician and astronomer Jabir Ibn Jaflah. He is the guy that designed Sevile’s exquisite Girlanda tower.
Mausoleum of Mohammed V
At the end of the Yaqub al Mansur esplanade, right across the Hassan Tower, we find another interesting structure. The Mausoleum of Mohammed V houses the tombs of the Moroccan king and his two sons, King Hassan II, and Prince Abdallah. Although pretty new, it is a masterpiece of Moroccan architecture. The walls are made of delicate marble, bronze, and colorful ceramic tiles. The huge mahogany dome has colorful stained glass windows. Green tiles, the symbol of the Aloauite dynasty, line the pyramidal roof on top of the dome. The tombs are white onyx and the floor blue granite. Every single detail is perfectly designed and executed. Take note that you can enter the mausoleum, but not the tombs.
Every big city in Morocco has a royal palace where the king stays during his visits. However, the king and the royal family live in the Royal Palace in Rabat. The current palace dates back to 1864 and is on top of the ruins of an 18th-century palace. The extensive gardens, designed as a fusion of French and Arab style gardens, stand out. Other than the royal residence, several governmental offices are here. Since the palace is not accessible, visitors can only see it from outside. The official name of the palace is the El Mechouar Essaid, meaning the palace of happiness. The palace is at the end of a large parade square (mechouar), where the small Ahl Fas Mosque is.
Though we loved everything about Rabat, our favorite place is the Chellah Necropolis on the outskirts of the city. We took a taxi to get there and were greatly impressed. Ancient city walls surround some interesting half abandoned structures. You can see storks resting on their nests. Chellah is a medieval citadel on top of the ruins of the Phoenician town of Salá. Romans took charge of the town, which was eventually abandoned in 1154. The roman ruins include remains of a forum, baths, and a temple. The Marinids rebuilt Chellah in the 13th century. They made it a holy necropolis (Chellah), complete with a mosque, a minaret, and royal tombs inside.
Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
You might not expect it, but visiting the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Mohammed VI is one of the top things to do in Rabat. It took 10 years to finish the impressive building, inaugurated in 2014. Though the modern building follows simple shapes, traditional Moroccan arabesque dominates its facade. This is the first museum in Morocco dedicated exclusively to modern and contemporary art. Apparently, it’s the first one that complies with international standards too. The building may not be as big as the Prado or the Louvre, but it holds an impressive collection of works by the country’s biggest artists, including Hassan Hajjaj and Ahmed Yacoubi.
The Rabat metropolitan area has four walled cities: Rabat Medina, Kasbah of the Udayas, Chellah, and Salé Medina. The walled city of Salé is adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean and right across Rabat’s Medina. All you have to do is cross the Bou Regreg River, and you’ll find yourself in this authentic, yet off the beaten track neighborhood. In fact, mostly locals visit Sale Medina’s souk. The Medina’s highlight is the 11th-century Great Mosque, Morocco’s third-largest. Reconstructed several times, its architecture mixes Almoravid and Almohad styles. Next to it, you’ll find one of the countriy’s nicest madrasas, the Abul Hassan Madrasa. It is a typical madrasa with a courtyard surrounded by a gallery and walls covered in zellige tiles and carved stucco.
As you can see, there are plenty of interesting things to see and do in Rabat. Nevertheless, stay an extra day or two and discover the cool sites close to the city. If you are into nice parks and gardens, go to the Jardins Exotiques. These are gardens with plants from Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and South America. Another interesting place close to Rabat is Kenitra. There is a cool Kasbah and once again, a nice sandy beach. If you are into big cities, go to Casablanca where you’ll find the only mosque in the country you can actually enter. On the other hand, if you didn’t have enough of the Imperial cities of Morocco, go to Meknes. Apart from the interesting medina, you’ll find an impressive city gate and a mausoleum.
Where to Stay in Rabat
It seems there aren’t many cheap hotels and guesthouses in Rabat, which would explain the lack of hordes of tourists that plague other parts of Morocco. Fortunately, the city has wonderful hotels, from riads to modern ones. If you are into authentic historical experiences, stay in one of the riads in the Medina. You can’t go wrong with Riad Marhaba or Riad Meftaha. If you are looking for some luxury, stay at the elegant Dar Zen or Euphoriad. For killer views, stay at the Hotel des Oudaias. Finally, if you want to explore the less known side of Rabat, stay in Salé Medina in the 17th century Riad Thamayna.