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The inside guide to Rabat, Morocco's underrated capital

Strung along the Atlantic coast, tranquil Rabat often flies under the radar, but travellers who make it to the Moroccan capital will discover a feast of architectural treasures, first-class museums and a striking, spacious medina.

Published 7 Apr 2022, 06:08 BST, Updated 8 Apr 2022, 09:14 BST
Water fountain with zelige intricate pattern of tiles in classic islamic style on the outside of ...

Water fountain with zelige intricate pattern of tiles in classic islamic style on the outside of Mosque Hassan in Rabat, Morocco.

Photograph by Getty

Rabat is a surprisingly tranquil capital that feels worlds apart from business-minded Casablanca and hectic Marrakech. Along with excellent museums detailing modern art and Moroccan history, one of its star attractions is its decent range of international restaurants — an appealing prospect for those who are ready for a break from tagines. Despite all this, and the fact that Rabat is only 80 minutes from Tangier via the new Al Boraq high-speed railway, relatively few tourists find their way here. But there’s every indication that’s about to change — the opening of the monumental Grand Théâtre de Rabat coupled with the planned expansion of the rail network could well be the tipping point the city has been waiting for.

Part sculptural wave-form, part stormtrooper’s helmet, the newly completed Grand Théâtre — the largest performing arts complex in Africa — is an icon of Rabat’s cultural renewal. One of the last buildings designed by the late ‘queen of the curve’, Zaha Hadid, its fluid shape and waterfront setting invite comparisons with the Sydney Opera House and Guggenheim Bilbao, while its high-tech, futuristic interior has a deliberately Moroccan feel, with geometry inspired by muqarnas, the traditional, honeycomb vaulting typical of Islamic design. The complex is a gleaming addition to a city that’s already UNESCO World Heritage-listed for its unique blend of historic and modern architecture. Containing an experimental performance space and vast outdoor amphitheatre as well as an auditorium, it stands in landscaped grounds beside Oued Bou Regreg, the river that separates Rabat from its twin city, Salé.

To enjoy panoramic views, nip across to Salé for a bite to eat at the swish, riverbank Dawliz Art & Spa hotel, or floating restaurant La Péniche. The most leisurely route is on foot, pausing on the Hassan II bridge to take in the view of Rabat’s original signature landmarks, Tour Hassan, the medina and the Kasbah des Oudaïas. 

You can’t miss Tour Hassan, the chunky sandstone minaret of a vast 12th-century mosque that was never completed. It’s finely decorated with carved panels of darj wa ktaf (‘step and shoulder’) and sebka (‘net’) patterning, and while not much more than half its intended height, it’s still tall enough to loom into view all over the city. This part of central Rabat, the Ville Nouvelle, was laid out by the French while Morocco was its protectorate, and is recognised by UNESCO as one of the largest, most ambitious and most complete of Africa’s 20th-century urban projects.

A stroll along the Ville Nouvelle’s broad boulevards or a tram ride to the railway station brings you to Rabat’s modern and contemporary art museum, Musée Mohammed VI. Opened in 2014, it specialises in work by Moroccan artists from the early 20th century onwards, including street-style portraitist Hassan Hajjaj and late Fez-born abstract artist Ahmed Yacoubi. From MMVI, it’s a hop and a skip to the Musée de l’Histoire et des Civilisations de Rabat, which displays exquisite marble statues retrieved from the Berber-Roman city of Volubilis, as well as prehistoric human remains, among other treasures. Fuel up at Ty Potes, a French deli and bistro specialising in salads and galettes (Breton pancakes), just a short walk from both museums.   

Rabat’s medina feels spacious when compared with the warren-like old towns of Marrakech and Fez. There’s an Andalucian flavour to its whitewashed houses with blue-painted doors and windows, where merchants are grouped together by trade — hand-woven carpets or herbal remedies here, fresh produce there. At its northeastern corner is the Kasbah des Oudaïas, Rabat’s citadel, which has fine views over the mouth of the Bou Regreg; admire the scene over a glass of mint tea from Café Maure. If you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Dar Zaki, an atmospheric bistro hidden away on Rue Moulay Brahim; or Le Dhow, a timber boat moored on the Bou Regreg below the Old Market, serving classics such as lemon chicken tagine and méchoui (slow-roasted) lamb.  

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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