Capital cities seem to fall into two categories. They’re either these big rockstar destinations, a main attraction of their country, or something much more shy. Rabat, the capital city of Morocco really seems to belong to the latter. Places like Marrakesh, Fez and the Sahara draw lots of attention from tourists, but Rabat less so.
It’s possible that this is because Rabat lacks the overwhelming energy you find in the other big cities. Compared to the bustle of nearby cities like Casablanca and Fez, Rabat is an oasis of calm. If you’re feeling yourself getting stressed with the frenetic nature of Moroccan city life, Rabat could be a chance to slow everything down. That’s not to say that Rabat is lacking in culture or history, just that it offers up sights in a gentler way. What follows is just some of the sights you can find in Rabat.
From Pirate Den to Capital City
That Rabat is the capital of Morocco is a relatively recent state of affairs. It wasn’t until the arrival of the French in 1912 that the capital was moved away from Fez. Before that, the city was also the capital of a Berber state in the 12th century, when the walls of the Kasbah were built up. The city went into a decline for centuries after the collapse of the state.
This situation in the port city made it ideal as a base for the Barbary Pirates in the 17th century. For almost 200 years, the pirates controlled the city, allowing them to commit acts of piracy and slave tradition up and down the coast. The actions of the pirates even led to the city being shelled by the Austrian Navy in reprisal for an attack on one of their ships.
It’s safe to say the city has since changed quite a bit now. After Moroccan independence in 1955, the city blossomed with explosions in both population and development. A simple walk down Avenue Mohammed V will show you how the city has slowly transformed, with buildings like Parliament and the beautiful Postal Building. I liked the blend of traditional and modern found in Rabat, a sight in itself in my opinion.
Go to any Moroccan city and you’re bound to find your way to its medina. These old quarters usually feature covered and narrow pedestrian streets that weave together to form an unnavigable web for all but locals. They’re also often the home to the local marketplace or souk. Along the streets you’ll find shops and market stalls, often grouped together by what they sell.
All of this goes to say that Rabat has a pretty typical medina and you’ll find the usual markets as you walk through. The souk is much smaller than the one in Marrakesh, but it’s still an interesting place to explore. You’ll find regular staples like nuts and dried fruit, especially dates, as well as shops selling clothes and shoes etc. The medina is only a couple of blocks from Rabat Ville train station, the main city station.
Kasbah of the Udayas
After exploring the medina, chances are you’ll find yourself down by the waterfront of the Bou Regreg river. From the water’s edge and looking towards the ocean, you’ll spy the mighty walls of the city’s Kasbah. High above the Bou Regreg river, the Kasbah of the Udayas is a sight not to miss. Behind its imposing medieval walls, you’ll find splendid gardens and many lovely little white and blue painted houses. The UNESCO listed site also offers some sterling view points, both out across the river to the Salé district and down onto the Rabat beach.
The Kasbah is a really peaceful place to explore, attempting to navigate the tiny cobblestone alleys among picture perfect houses. Around the viewpoint you’ll find many women offering henna tattoos and also a small cafe. Given its location up on a hill, you can expect a fair bit of walking up stairs but I think it’s worth it. I can’t recall visiting any Kasbah quite like it elsewhere in Morocco.
Mausoleum of Mohammed V
Across the other side of Rabat lies the Hassan Quarter, home to the beautiful Mausoleum of Mohammed V. Built in 1971 following the passing of King Mohammed V, the mausoleum hosts his tomb, as well as his sons’. Watched over by guards in traditional uniforms, the mausoleum is ornately designed both inside and out. There’s unquestionably an atmosphere of reverence here, judged not only on the design and architecture, but also the attitudes of visiting Moroccans.
Outside the mausoleum sits a large square with rows and rows of columns spread throughout. These columns, along with the proud Hassan Tower, are the remains of a medieval mosque never completed. Hassan Tower was intended to be the mosque’s minaret and had been planned to be twice as high as it ended up. The project, initiated by Sultan Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, stalled with his death in 1199, however the stonework in the tower is still quite impressive regardless.
- The city is conveniently connected by train with both Casablanca, Fez and Marrakesh. Casablanca is only an hour away by a modern, high-speed train, meaning Rabat is a suitable day trip from Casablanca if you want. Fez and Marrakesh however are a fair bit further, taking roughly 3.5 hours and 4.5 hours respectively. Information for trains can be found on the ONCF website.
- Although I only passed through Rabat for the day, the city is home to all sorts of places to stay, from riads and high-end hotels to guesthouses.
- One particularly great way to explore Morocco is with a small group tour, like those offered by G Adventures. Although certain tours don’t include Rabat, you can simply make the day trip from Casablanca yourself.
Have you stopped in Rabat during your travels through Morocco? What did you think of the Moroccan capital? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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