Rabat’s national power and historical position is there for all to see, from the 12th-century Casbah by the Sea of Odaías to the diplomats you’re likely to hear today eating lunch at the city’s French gourmet restaurants.
Attractions in the Medina
Rabat became the capital of Morocco in 1912 under French colonial protection, although the city’s history dates back centuries. Its medina, an ancient, walled neighbourhood of densely packed houses and winding passageways, is reminiscent of Rabat’s antiquity, though imperial cities like Fez, Meknes and Marrakech have historically overshadowed it. In contrast, Rabat and its neighbor Salé were both bastions of extrajudicial activity, notorious for harboring pirates in the 19th century.
Rabat today has many well-preserved ancient monuments and traditional buildings that bear witness to different chapters of Rabat’s long and complex history. In addition, Rabat’s economy is less dependent on tourism, which means that the atmosphere of the tourist sites is generally more relaxed than in Fez or Marrakech.
Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Breg River to the north, Rabat’s historic architecture reflects its geography. The blue-walled Oudayas Kasbah Castle faces the Atlantic Ocean, and the castle’s foundation dates back centuries to the Almohad Caliphate. Casbane has an Andalusian garden, a lush courtyard of flowering plants, fruit trees and palm trees created by the French in the 20th century. Exit from one side of the garden and enter a small tiled terrace cafe where visitors can sip mint tea and look out over the Salé at Bouregreg across the street.
Attractions in Ville Nouvelle
Rabat’s Ville Nouvelle (or new city) has its own sense of place and list of attractions. Its tree-lined boulevards, like many Art Deco buildings, are distinctly French. Mixed in with the remains of the French colonial period are the magnificent monuments of Moroccan history, the Hassan Tower, the entire remains of the 1195 mosque and the Almohad Caliphate. The former minaret is similar to other architectural remains from the Almohad period in Morocco, such as the Kutubia Mosque in Marrakech and the Timar Mosque in the Atlas Mountains.
Generally speaking, however, the further away from the medina, the newer the building is. The modern neighbourhood of Agdal is just a short taxi or tram ride from Rabat’s central city or town centre. Agdar is full of shops, restaurants and cafes, making it a bustling business district with a large expat population.
Chellah is a striking hillside site that dates back to Roman times. There are many layers of Moroccan history embedded in the history of Chela. Sala Colonia, as it was then called, was a thriving port connecting the Roman Empire with its inland outpost of Volubilis, located in the agriculturally fertile Fitz-Meckernes region. The Chela was later used as the tomb of the monarch of Almohad.
Museums and art galleries
As the capital of Morocco, Rabat is home to the country’s main museum. The Museum of History and Civilization is small but impressive and is an archaeological museum not far from the city center. The museum bears witness to various chapters of Morocco’s pre-Islamic and early Islamic history. Many of the museum’s highlights, such as the Roman-era bronze collection, were harvested at the Roman outpost of Volubilis, about 175 km inland.
Rabat also has a vibrant contemporary art scene. The Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, established in 2014, is an imposing neo-Moorish building that can be seen from the Rabat city train station. In addition to its permanent collection of works by Moroccan and pan-African artists, the museum has recently hosted temporary exhibitions on subjects ranging from Picasso to French Impressionism.
Rabat also has a number of art galleries, most of which are within a five-minute radius of the museum. Kulte Gallery is just around the corner with an impressive bookstore and café and exhibition space.Le Cube and L’Appartement 22 are both independent galleries featuring African and North African artists.L’Espace Expressions CDG and Villa Des Arts both have rotating exhibitions of photography, painting and design.
Arabic, French and Amazigh
Morocco is a multilingual country. There are three officially recognized languages, which can be found in written form in government buildings, public schools and on public transport. The first is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a predominantly written language, distinct from the local Moroccan-Arabic dialect Darija, and recent debates have raised questions about Darija’s status as a “dialect” and whether it qualifies as a language in itself. French, as an administrative language, still retains a long remnant of the colonial period. The indigenous Amazigh people of Morocco, the Berbers, have their own language, and their alphabet, Tifinagh, was officially recognized and adopted in Morocco in 2003.
Surrounded by water on two sides and spreading south and east, Rabat’s traffic is an issue to consider for those who want to explore the different neighborhoods of the capital. As in any Moroccan city, the streets of Rabat are lined with ubiquitous small taxis. (Taxis in different cities are different colors, and the minicabs in Rabat are dark blue). Unlike many other cities, Rabat has multiple lines of trams to meet the needs of the many commuters in the city.
For inter-city travel, the Moroccan National Railways Agency (ONCF) provides inter-city rail services. Rabat has two railway stations, Rabat City and Rabat Agdar. The former is located in the city’s historic downtown, while the latter is in the newer Agdar district. Ticket prices vary: peak season tickets are more expensive, and booking in advance can often save you some money and last minute queuing time.
For destinations that cannot be reached via ONCF, you can take some Moroccan buses.CTM and SupraTour are both reliable bus services offered by agents in the industrial district of Qamra in Rabat.
A brief note on minicabs
Taxi drivers sit a maximum of three people, so if you are a party of four or more, split up. It should be noted that taxi drivers sometimes pick up multiple passengers traveling in the same direction. Taxi meters can track multiple rides, but taxi drivers are obligated by law to restart the meter for each passenger. When entering a taxi, be sure to politely ask for a meter so that you don’t arbitrarily determine your fare for the ride. A “thank you” or “shukran” can go a long way in this regard.
Hotels and accommodation
With a modern, minimalist design, the Smarts Hotel (35 rue Azegza) is located in the heart of Rabat’s bustling Agdal neighborhood. The hotel is not far from Rabat’s two train stations and can cater to both business and leisure travellers. Rooms range from single rooms to suites, and the Smarts Hotel is also within easy walking distance of Avenue de France, one of Agdal’s commercial boulevards, which is lined with ice cream shops, shops and restaurants.
As the name suggests, the Medina Surfing Association (3, rue Maoune Farran Znaki) is not far into the old town of Rabat (or Medina) and not far from the Atlantic Ocean. The hostel’s predecessor was built to promote cultural exchange between surfers, and the adjacent hostel is open to all, surfers and landowners alike. The hostel has a relaxed atmosphere, mixing traditional decor with a variety of surf-themed posters and supplies. The hostel offers both shared and chartered rooms and breakfast is included with any booking. The hostel also offers two-hour surf lessons, including surfboards and the necessary surfing gear, for all levels of surfers for an additional fee. Rue de Consules, which is accessible by car, is a 3-minute walk away.
Tour Hassan Palace (26 avenue Chellah) is named after the ancient Hassan Tower in Rabat, a minaret dating back to the 12th century. Although it does not have a long history, dating back to the early 20th century, it is one of Rabat’s most famous luxury hotels. You can expect professional and highly personalized service, and the Tour Hassan has a lush courtyard where visitors can sip poolside juices or cocktails. The hotel offers amenities including a spa and large meeting rooms.
Hotel Belere (33 avenue Moulay Youssef) is located in the heart of Rabat, within walking distance of Rabat’s Willeh Train Station. Hotel Belere’s chic 1960s look is complemented by the building’s mid-century modern furniture. The hotel offers amenities including free WiFi, meeting rooms and an airport and beach shuttle. The hotel is a 5-minute walk from Rabat’s flagship Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.
Red roasted vegetables are a staple of North African cooking. This dish refers to crushed, fluffy, fine rice grains and is usually served with stews and vegetables. Different regions have different ingredients and preparation methods. Tunisian couscous tends to use more fish stew, while Moroccans tend to use lamb or chicken.Moroccan couscous is also unique in that it is mostly prepared on Fridays and traditionally enjoyed as a family meal after the Friday afternoon service at the mosque. Many restaurants in Rabat prepare couscous on Fridays, even if it’s not on the menu.
Restaurants and bars
It can be difficult to decide where to eat tajine (referring to the traditional earthen pot used to cook meat and vegetables) because of the abundance of food and the cheap prices.Dar Naji (Jazirat Al Arab) is a traditional Moroccan cuisine famous in Rabat. Combinations such as lamb and plum or chicken and lemon are served in a steaming tajine with a wheel of bread, which is used to soak up the juices.Dar Naji is also known for rfissa, a traditional dish consisting of chicken, lentils and onions, served with shredded lentil bread. Moroccan peppermint tea is poured into a teacup with both arms fully extended, allowing the tea to blend perfectly into the cup, a technique that both vents the tea and allows the waiter to show off his or her handiwork.
For a high-end meal, head to Le Georges (5 rue Oued Baht), a modern bistro in Agdal. The restaurant’s menu features fresh French dishes and offers a range of traditional Moroccan specialties. Live jazz and an extensive wine list make Le Georges a buzzing place on the weekends, popular with locals, foreigners and tourists alike.
You won’t find tajun or couscous dishes on the menu at Yamal Acham (5 avenue Al Maghrib Al Arabi). The Syrian-run restaurant has become a local institution, popular with Moroccans and tourists alike, and Yamal Acham first opened in Rabat’s Medina neighborhood and recently expanded to a second one with outdoor seating in the Agdal neighborhood. There are classic dishes such as homous, taboulé, falafel, and patties and slices of meat, or thinly sliced meat. In addition, Yamal Acham restaurant offers a range of vegetarian dishes such as mtabal with beet or eggplant puree, fatteh served warm with chickpeas and tahini sauce, and warak enab with Syrian grape leaf filling. the restaurant also offers a number of desserts soaked in honey as a finishing touch to the meal or as takeaway.
Le Petit Beur (8 rue Damas), around the corner from Rabat city train station, offers a variety of North African cuisine. (“Beur” is French slang for Arab.) The blue and white mosaic walls of the single-story house create an intimate space where people can enjoy a meal. Daily rotating specials include Moroccan Pastella (a sweet and savory pie wrapped in silk thread, usually with cinnamon, chicken, almonds and powdered sugar). Light vegetarian sides such as taktouka (tomato, pepper, onion) and zaalouk (Moroccan eggplant caviar) are a delicious start to the meal.
SottoSopra (10 rue Al Marj) is an Italian-run restaurant and bar that’s as popular for its thin-crust pizzas as it is for its Negroni.SottoSopra’s cocktail menu is one of the best in Rabat. Complimentary popcorn is also served with drinks, and the sound of music and the spacious, dimly lit interior of SottoSopra make it a nightlife destination in Rabat.
Morocco has an abundance of bookstores, scattered throughout the city. As interest in learning English has grown, many Arabic and French booksellers have begun to move into bookstores for English-speaking authors. Rabat’s English bookstore (4 Al Yamama Street) is the first in the capital to sell only English books, and its collection of used and new books is second to none. The owner, Mohammed Belhaj, opened the shop in 1985, hoping to help other Moroccans meet the demand for English reading. Since then, Belhaj has continued to run his store in the same way: nothing is digital, and all of the bookstore’s inventory, pricing and receipts are done by hand. In addition to a collection of classic English-language books from Shakespeare to Tony Morrison, the store also has a large selection of critical theory books, including works by post-colonial thinkers such as Edward Said and Franz Vernon. All books, regardless of genre and provenance, are carefully printed with the English bookstore logo on the title page.
Kalila wa Dimna Bookshop (344 avenue Mohammed V), located between the Moroccan Parliament and the walls of Rabat Medina, is a fixture in the local community, known for its selection of multilingual books. From grammar textbooks to contemporary literature to children’s books, there is a wide variety of books in bookstores. Although most of the books are in French, they also have enough English, Spanish and Arabic readers on their shelves to browse. Most of the English books are new, but they also sell some used books, as well as a range of postcards, stationery and maps.
While Rabat’s chic Kulte Gallery & Editions (7 rue Benzerte) is known primarily for its art exhibitions, the bookstore next door is equally prestigious, and Kulte publishes its own books in Arabic, English and French, with a particular focus on North Africa and the Middle East. There is also a café where you can sit and flick through specially printed exhibition catalogues and contemporary art books.
Librairie Populaire (4 rue Ghazzah) is an unassuming little shop in the centre of Rabat, offering a variety of classic English books. In addition to the French and Arabic books in the bookstore, there are several impressive books in the Penguin Little Black Classic series on the shelves. Most of the bookshelves are filled with new editions of works by English-language authors, though Librairie Populaire also has some English translations from a wider range of literary works, such as Kafka, Stendhal, and Tolstoy.