Rabat, capital of Morocco, home to 1.8 million people – how could such a place logically be described as a ‘hidden gem’ of this north African country? But the fact remains that it is a place often overlooked by tourists in favour of the more glamorous Casablanca, the more ‘authentic’ Marrakesh and the more chilled Chefchaouen. Morocco’s capital is served by only one airport, approximately the same size as my living room back home in Birmingham, boasting less than ten rows of seats and featuring the tiniest duty-free shop I have ever seen, where local fliers will happily get non-Arabic-speaking strangers to watch their bags while they disappear off around the corner to make a phone call. It was a charming little airport, but more than a little incongruous with the vibrant surrounding city. Why, then, has Rabat been so neglected for so long?
Though Rabat has its fair share of tourists, they don’t even begin to approach the volume of travellers who descend on cities such as Marrakech and Fez every day. And yes, Casablanca may house one of the country’s mere two mosques open to non-Muslim visitors, and yes, Chefchaouen may be renowned for its liberal supply of marijuana, if that’s what you’re into, but if you ask me it’s about time Rabat burst its way onto Morocco’s tourism agenda and here’s why:
1). The Authentic Moroccan Experience
Mass teapot sales: about as touristy as it gets in Rabat
So perhaps this is the one reason exactly why Rabat shouldn’t be on everyone’s radar, but out of all the big cities, it’s arguably the best place to sit and watch real Moroccan life go by. People drink mint tea, they go to school in slightly French-looking uniforms, they shake hands with one palm pressed to their heart, they haggle in souqs and sit on the beach in burqas or wander down the streets without as much as a headscarf – and all without a single scam or tourist tout. No-one cared that the hair underneath my headscarf was blonde (or, in fact, whether I wore a headscarf at all) or that the language which came out of my mouth was English. In Rabat, you are left to go about your business – and to watch everyone else go about theirs. The markets are filled with authentic local products, not tacky tourist-orientated approximations. It is calm (except the traffic, of course…) and chilled, but busy enough to be exciting, friendly but not invasive. Rabat offered, in my opinion, a much better insight into real Moroccan life than the far more famous Marrakech or Casablanca ever could. Of course, smalltown Morocco – the villages lining the deserts and scattered through the mountains – will show you a different world altogether, but if you’re looking for Moroccan city life then it doesn’t get much better than Rabat.
2). The Chellah
Ruins of an ancient Islamic school inside the Chellah
We also stumbled across some heart shaped stones – no idea if they were man made or natural though!
Ruins of the Chellah
By far the best attraction in Rabat and possibly my favourite in the whole of Morocco (other than the Sahara, of course) is the Chellah. A necropolis constructed over and around the Roman ruins of Sala Colonia and the even older ruins of the Phoenician Chellah which Rabat grew up around, we had the whole site entirely to ourselves – short of the little old man who lets you take photos of the hundreds of cats who live there for an optional contribution which goes to buying them food. The whole place affords endless picture opportunities, brand new angles and views on each building appearing everywhere you turn, something wonderful revealed at every corner: from banana trees to medieval tombs to a sudden and enormous clearing above a steep drop which reveals the view all the way out into the countryside where tiny mosques dot the hills in the distance. Having been abandoned for hundreds of years, the site has been completely taken over by nature: the pools are full of eels, the plants and grass have grown up around every monument and the crumbling minaret has been topped by a stork’s nest. In amongst the old rooms of the madrasa and the archways of the ancient mosque lie Roman roads, a forum and fragments of statues with Latin carvings. It is almost impossible to take in how much history must have happened here, but I definitely had fun trying.
3). The Hassan II Minaret
A royal guard stands outside the mausoleum
A couple sit in the courtyard surrounding the minaret with some of the unfinished wall behind them
Inside the mausoleum
The mosque this minaret is supposed to accompany was never completed. The courtyard surrounding the tower – intended to be part of the biggest mosque in the world when construction began in the 12th century – is instead scattered with more than two hundred columns and pillars of various heights alongside enormous fragments of incomplete, crumbling walls. Even the minaret itself only reached half of its intended height before the Sultan who ordered its construction died and building work halted forever. The 44 metre high tower is ascended by ramps, not stairs, so that the muezzin issuing the five-times-daily call to prayer could ride a horse to the top of the tower instead of having to walk all the way up and down each time. The Mohammed V Mausoleum sits across the courtyard, full of intricate arches and blood-red flags, elaborately dressed guards standing perfectly still and unsmiling outside. Make sure you leave through the left-hand door of the Mausoleum to catch a glimpse of the city sprawled below the raised courtyard.
4). The Beach
Two women walk down through the kasbah walls onto the beach below
The view across the sea to Sale
It may not be able to rival the shores of Hawaii or southern Thailand, but as far as Morocco is concerned, Rabat’s beach is one of the best. It’s certainly cleaner than Essaouira’s sand (which was, much as I loved Essaouira as a city, admittedly a little shabby and easily outshined by pretty much every beach on the UK’s west coast) and, even better, is situated at the end of a meandering walk through Rabat’s blue-and-white, Mediterranean-looking medina, past a few cliff-top cafés with views right across to neighbouring Sale and complete with the wonderfully imposing Kasbah walls. Laying with your feet in the Atlantic ocean as the sun goes down and the call to prayer echoes from the medina behind you can be a pretty spiritual experience.
5). The Volunteering
This is a more personal one, but for the duration of the month I spent volunteering in Morocco, Rabat became my home. We worked daily at the Lalla Meryem Orphanage in conjunction with Cross Cultural Solutions. Having volunteered in rather grim Russian orphanages the previous year, Lalla Meryem was a pleasant surprise. Nearly every healthy baby had been selected by adoptive parents, nearly always from Morocco itself or neighbouring Spain, and though the special needs children were heartbreakingly left behind (from what I understood, the orphanage was reluctant to allow special needs children to be adopted in case the new parents could not cope with the child’s disability and abandoned them again), they all received individual physiotherapy daily. Ultimately and most importantly, the nurses loved those children. They sang to them and danced with them and made the time to hug them. The older children got to go on special trips to the beach and the orphanage enjoyed a healthy partnership with volunteers from various organisations which ensured the children got the attention, time and love they deserved without creating a monetary dependency. Members of Morocco’s royal family even visited from time to time, twice in the month I was there. A mystery Moroccan woman helped us take all the older kids on a great day out to McDonalds and to see some traditional Moroccan dancing back at our volunteer homebase – you should have seen the male volunteers’ faces when we found out later that she was a princess.
Traditional Moroccan dancers help us give the kids a day to remember
There are tons of worthwhile organisations devoting their time and lives to projects in Rabat. Cross Cultural Solutions is just one of them, and though I cannot praise them highly enough, I thoroughly recommend finding a project that you personally are really passionate about.
On top of all this, there is also a great art gallery, a host of beautiful hotels with rooftop restaurants and the stunning Andalusian Gardens. Whatever you go to see, though, there’s no doubting that Rabat is a beautiful and highly underrated city.
Have you ever been to a place that you feel should be the top of the tourist agenda but has somehow remained relatively undiscovered?