Rabat, Morocco’s capital city, is flush with history and culture unbeknownst to the many Morocco-bound tourists who flock to Tangiers and Casablanca. For those who venture off the beaten path, however, Rabat will prove just as rewarding.
Ask an avid surfer for a list of top secret surfing spots and you may be surprised to find Rabat among his or her answers. From summer until March, Rabat’s beaches receive hearty southbound swells from the Atlantic ocean that attract in-the-know surfers looking for unpopulated waters.
However, surfers aren’t the only travelers being drawn to Rabat. The city’s coastal location allows for a generous climate nearly devoid of humidity throughout September and October that seduces sightseers, backpackers and history buffs looking to voyage against the grain.
The first stop for visitors should be Chellah, a pre-Christian settlement dating back to the 3rd Century BC, situated on the outskirts of the modern city. Chellah is one of the oldest known indications of man in Northern Africa and chronicles the city’s eclectic past poking out from under a 20th century facade. The site contains a forum, residences, an impressive subterranean drainage system and traces of its days as a royal necropolis for the Almohad Caliphate (a dynasty that ruled Northern Africa in the 12th and 13th Centuries). In 40 AD, Chellah was conquered by the Romans and became Sala Colonia, a port of commerce and economic significance. The bones of Roman architecture sit atop Chellah like a branding and a casual exploration of the ruins will provide a challenging workout for hikers and anthropologists alike.
The metropolitan city of Rabat, located at the mouth of the Bou Regreg River, has a strong European presence. Like Casablanca to the south, Rabat has French style quarters designed by Henri Prost, and in addition to the old Medina with its narrow streets, makes for a very pedestrian friendly city. Walking is encouraged over any other mode of transportation. A stroll down the tree-lined Avenue Mohammed V, from the French Embassy to the center of the city, proffers a nice taste of Nouvelle Ville, the administrative quarter. The University of Medina, next to the lovely Parc du Triangle, also serves as a nice tour of the medieval Arabic section of the city.
Hassan Tower, with its red-rust colored facade, looms above the city, and is literally Rabat’s biggest landmark. The structure is a lasting mark of the Almohad Caliphate and the Golden Age of Islam. In 1146, the Almohads conquered Chellah and re-named the city Rabatu-i-Faith, from which the name Rabat is derived. In 1195, the construction of the tower began as part of what was intended to be the largest mosque in the Islamic World. However, when the Sultan of the Caliphate died in 1199, the building was halted. Today, the tower remains unfinished at 140 ft. Small white pillars encircle the tower which also houses the mausoleum of Mohammed V. Both sites are open to the public and are two of the few sacred places in the Muslim world open to tourists.
From Hassan Tower, one can follow Boulevard Tariq el Marsa along the river to the Kasbah of the Udayas and the Medina. Both attractions provide crucial insight to the Muslim world that once stretched all the way from the Middle East to Southern Spain. Built in 1150, the Kasbah of the Udayas was the royal fortress of the Almohad Caliphate that protected the city for a period of time. The fortress stands watch over the entrance to the Atlantic Ocean just as it did almost one thousand years ago. In the late September sun, the high walls of the Kasbah, almost completely devoid of windows, turn a fierce sheet of golden yellow. Further along the river lies the Medina connected by a network of narrow streets and alleyways built long before modern transportation. As a result, there is no automobile traffic within this section of the city. Those that venture inside will find the area replete with traditional shops and cafes. Budget meals can be found in traditional stores that sell a range of items from food to jewelry.
The city’s massive markets, called souks, are also an ideal place to find food, vintage clothes and authentic Moroccan souvenirs at bargain prices. Traditional leather shoes are very popular in the Souks and hang from racks by the hundreds. These shoes alone take up whole stretches of markets and line walkways with a cacophony of colors. Bargain hunters would be remiss to leave Rabat without devoting a day to the Souks.
No visit is complete without a an investigation of the beaches of Essaouira, just past the Andalusian Gardens, formal French gardens on the grounds of the Palace Museum. This peaceful strip of coastline is perfect for a trek away from the bustle of the city or for watching surfers and kite-boarders satiate their cravings for untapped riptides. Even the king of Morocco has acknowledged the area’s potential by financing his own surfing club, The Udayas Surf Club, which luckily is open to the public. More information on surfing and outdoor sports in Rabat can be found at www.magicseaweed.com.
Getting There: Rabat has a small private airport, Rabat-Sale Airport, which can be reached by Royal Air Moroc and Air France. Most visitors reach the city by train from Casablanca, where the country’s bigger international airport is located or other large cities such as Marrakech and Fes. Morocco is known for its efficient and comfortable trains and it takes about an hour to travel by train from Casablanca to Rabat. A bus system is also available connecting Rabat to every major city in the country.
Getting Around: For those whose time budget requires a faster pace, Rabat’s taxis are is recommended. Travelers should keep an eye out for the reliable blue Fiat Unos. This taxi service, called “Petit Taxi.” is very affordable, however a maximum of three passengers including babies is strictly enforced. Larger parties must use the more expensive “Grand Taxi” service, white Mercedes station wagons with no seating restrictions. Rabat’s bus system, though cheaper than a taxis service, is disorganized and poorly marked. However, those looking for a more intimate view of the city may find utilizing the buses to be a rewarding challenge.
Water: Only drink bottled water as local water is mineral heavy and hard for non-natives to get used to.
Currency: Moroccan Dirham (MAD). ATMs can be found throughout the city.
Eat & Drink
Eating out in Rabat is easy and often affordable. Traditional food is mostly meat and pasta based, and while many restaurants serve alcohol because of the European influence in the city, Morocco is still a Muslim country and alcohol can be hard to come by. Green tea, the national beverage, can be found everywhere and is a cheap alternative.
The hidden Restaurant Saadi (81 Ave Allal Ben Abdallah) is cheap but hard to find. As a result, the establishment seems to attract fewer tourists. For those with a good sense of direction, the restaurant is well worth the hunt. Saadi serves excellent traditional kebab with hot sauce, tarir (soup), tagine (a spicy mix of meat and vegetables simmered for hours in a conical pot) as well as alcoholic beverages.
Restaurant de la Jeunesse (305 Avenue Mohammed V) serves heaping portions of couscous and tagine onto each plate, leaving more than enough food for a second dinner after that long walk through the city.
Le Clef, located near the train station on a private road between Rue Hatin and Avenue Moulay Youssef, is an affordable restaurant offering a balance of Moroccan and French dishes. The upstairs area is reserved for dining, while alcohol is served at the bar downstairs.
Restaurant Caravelle, located in the Kasbah, has a nice view of the beach. Here one can find reasonably priced range of traditional moroccan dishes.
Restaurant Des Amis, located at the intersection of Avenue Mohammed V and Rue Souika, is an inexpensive establishment that serves an assortment of grilled fish, in addition to French and Moroccan dishes. Alcohol is not permitted.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Mercure Scheherezade (21 Rue de Tunis, website) is situated in a small residential area away from touristy areas, though still near the Hassan Tower. The Hotel has a restaurant, bar, free parking and wi-fi. Doubles from about $115 including breakfast.
Luxury hotels in Rabat cost around $120/ night. However, there are many options for staying in Rabat that are generally more affordable.
Riads, traditional Muslim houses, are a popular alternative to hotels and offer a more intimate view of the city. Most of Rabat’s riads are located in the Medina, and have been converted to bed-and-breakfast style inns. Rooms are often smaller, yet still clean and well kept.
Riad Marhaba (website) is a very affordable riad, with four luxurious suites ranging from $70 – $80 per night.
Similar to a riad, Dar Baraka (26 rue Jamaa, Kasbah des Oudaïas, website), is a villa with two rooms located in the Kasbah on the river, inside the Kashbah of the Udayas. Charming, hidden and exclusive, Dar Baraka has a view of Sale, Rabat’s twin city on the other side of the river. Rooms are €90 and €130, breakfast included.