Things to see in Rabat, Morocco
Morocco’s capital, Rabat, is often overlooked by tourists. They may stop – but they don’t stay. It doesn’t necessarily have the allure of the more famous Marrakech or Fez. True, it has some sights, but not in the density or grandeur that visitors can find in other cities and so, for those on shorter trips, it slides down the list of places to see.
In truth, though, Rabat offers an interesting snapshot of the development of Morocco. It is really three cities in one.
It is an ancient city, with the first development starting in the 12th century. The walls around the old town went up and a fortress was constructed for protection and as a base of attack against Spain (then Iberia). But the expansion of the city was suddenly halted when its leader died and Rabat fell into decline for several centuries.
It is also a colonial city, with the French turning it into a protectorate in the 20th century. New expansive and beautiful sectors were built in Rabat with palaces and government buildings. They brought life back to the area – and also an influx of wealth and European sophistication.
It is also a modern capital city, with the Moroccan king choosing to base the government here when the country became independent in 1956. This status increased the development and influx of money to Rabat and the amount of new buildings is noticeable from the moment you get off at the train station.
Because of this fascinating mix of history, parts of Rabat have been listed as a World Heritage Site and the title given to the listing is telling in itself – “Rabat, Modern Capital and Historic City: a Shared Heritage”. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s worth spending too much time here as a tourist. I didn’t find it to be as interesting as some of the other large cities or small relaxed towns.
My recommendation would be to spend only a day or two in Rabat to see it for yourself and visit some of the main sights. If you’re wondering what is worth visiting, here are some suggestions of places that are part of the World Heritage Site listing.
The old fortress of Chellah, on the edge of the main part of the city, is actually a remnant of the settlements on this land before Rabat was first developed in the 12th century. It probably had its origin in Roman times and was a thriving commercial centre connecting Europe and North Africa. It was abandoned in 1154 but has been surprisingly well preserved.
You can walk there from the Ville Nouvelle and the fortress is easy to spot as you approach it. Inside, there are ruins of the main sections of the city that are all easily accessible. Make sure you look for the birds that have taken over one section and built their nests on the top of the ruined buildings.
Hassan Tower is probably the best-known sight in Rabat – mainly because of the odd feel to it. This was going to be the site of an enormous mosque and construction started in 1195. Although the plan was to build the largest minaret and mosque in the world, work stopped suddenly on the site when the sultan died four years later. Although there were never any attempts to continue the work, what had already been built was left there as it was.
You can walk through the columns that would have supported the roof of the mosque and get a great view of the tower itself. At the back of the site is a more modern (and completed) mosque.
Kasbah of the Udayas
This kasbah was built around the same time as Hassan Tower and has survived the test of time – incluing centuries of virtual abandonment – well. The walled fortress sits on the coastline just outside the medina and is easy to spot. The beautiful walls catch the sun in the afternoon and it’s a popular spot for local Moroccans to take a walk and relax.
There are two main sections of the Kasbah. The lower level is a quiet and cool garden, filled with trees and seats in the shade. The upper section has a small maze of alleys with painted blue houses. If you can navigate your way through the streets, you’ll come out on a large terrace with views across the water.
Like almost all of Morocco’s historic cities, Rabat has a medina full of market shops and little riads to stay in. It is smaller than the more famous medinas and not as bustling. The disadvantage of the Rabat medina is that there is not as much to see and you won’t find as many sights and smells around each corner. The advantage is that the industry here is not reliant on tourism so you won’t be hassled every minute and you can get a decent snapshot of local life.
The final sight I want to mention is the botanical gardens, known as Jardins d’Essais. Honestly, they are not particularly spectacular and I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to visit them. They seem to be used more by local residents as a spot for a lunch break or a nap in the shade.
They are an excellent representation of the French influence during the 20th century, though. They have a uniquely European layout but feel slightly odd because they are filled with a collection of North African plants. The new city that the French built during this period was one of the most ambitious in this part of the continent and these gardens are a nice reminder of that.