Rabat: Capitalise on Morocco's 'other' city

With Roman ruins and easy-going medina, the capital is too easily overlooked. By Holly Williams

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The Independent Travel

Like Canberra, Brasilia, Ankara and Bern, Rabat is a capital city in the shadows, touristically speaking. It doesn't have the same allure as Marrakech or Fes, but it does have a pleasing combination of sights – a historic medina and kasbah, plus the remains of a 12th-century mosque and necropolis – enveloped within an early 20th-century French colonial city.

Last summer, Rabat's "shared heritage" as modern capital and historic city was recognised when it was given a place on Unesco's world heritage list. But it's still largely free of coach parties, and has a distinctly laid-back vibe. Rather than the frantic haggling of many Moroccan markets, here a stroll through the souk is as peaceable as wandering around Roman ruins or along the wide, European-style avenues.

Begin at La Tour Hassan. Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour of the Almohad dynasty began to build a mosque here in 1184. It was going to be one of the largest in the world, but on his death in 1199, this ambitious project faltered and the tower only ever scaled the height of 44m (instead of the 60m minaret of his dreams). It's still standing, but the mosque itself was destroyed in an earthquake in 1755. A yard full of pillars remains (climbing them for photos is a popular, if dubious activity). The modern Mausoleum of the Moroccan King Mohammed V at the same site, however, is resplendent. Inside, there are detailed Islamic-patterned tiled walls and a domed ceiling of ornate metalwork.

From here, stroll down Rue de Tunis, turn right on to Rue Idriss al Akbar, then left on to Avenue al Alaouyine. Call in at Café Aya Rosa (00 212 6 44 15 83 10; ayarosa.com) for a coffee or pot of mint tea served on a little silver tray.

Next, head all the way down Rue Moulay Ismail, then cross the road and go through a gate in the pale red walls of Rabat's medina. You enter here into the local shopping area – full of great bowls of spices and olives, but also knock-off DVDs and cheap clothing. Veer right and up through the winding narrow streets to get to the more traditional and tourist-friendly stalls. A shaded area specialising in shoes is the place to buy leather slippers.

Further on, there are reasonably priced leather bags, jewellery of varying quality, brightly painted wooden furniture and traditional metalwork lampshades. Throughout, not only is the sales pressure blissfully minimal but the sleazy patter of other Moroccan medinas is happily absent.

Exit top right from the carpet souk, emerging by Kasbah des Oudaias, with its picture-book battlements that date to around 1150. Walk up and right around the edge of the kasbah to get to a viewing point, Plateforme du Sémaphore, for a look out over the Atlantic Ocean.

It's a popular canoodling spot at night, but don't stick around that long. Instead, head into the kasbah, the oldest part of the city and once a fortress, now largely residential inside. Snake along Rue Jamaa, past charmingly painted white and azure-blue buildings, exiting through the main, highly decorated arch, Bab Oudaia. Near the bottom of the hill, turn left through a heavy, open door into the Andalucian Gardens.

Continue through these and you come to the lovely Café Maure. Perched on a hill looking over the mouth of the Bou Regreg River, it continues the blue-and-white colour scheme with its tiled walls and painted furniture. Have a sweet mint tea and choose a biscuit or two – almond, macaroonish pastry delights – from a large silver plate (although be prepared for your teeth to scream at the sugar-hit, costing 28 dirhams/£2.10).

Afterwards, spend a little time relaxing in the gardens, another legacy of the French colonial era. It's a lush oasis of fruit trees, hibiscus bushes and palms, the air laced with the scent of orange blossom. Walk along the attractive riverfront, then hail a small blue taxi to take you to Chellah (the taxi costs about 10 dirhams/80p, as does admission). Slightly out of the main buzz of the city, this peaceful spot has crumbled Roman ruins – it was first established by the Phoenicians in 4AD – slowly being embraced by the landscape, as well as more intact red-stone remnants of a Merenid necropolis built by Sultan Abu al-Hassan in the 14th century.

These still hold their own evocative atmosphere – not least because they're now home to a colony of storks, whose large nests – perched on top of minarets – lend the look of a Dr Seuss illustration. With pleasing views, ruins to wander among and plenty of grassy spots shaded by fruit trees, it's easy to lose track of time at Chellah.

When hunger strikes, stroll back into town along Avenue Yacoub el Mansour. Continue on to Avenue Mohammed V, turn right on to Avenue Moulay Abdallah. Finally, turn left on to Rue Damas, to visit Le Petit Beur (00 212 53 731322), for lunch or dinner. Take a seat to enjoy tagines or couscous while listening to live traditional music.

Fresh cuts

The Bouregreg Marina (bouregregmarina.com), just over the river in Sale (a quick hop by tram, or nicer by rowing-boat), is being developed and has several new, slickly modern restaurants, including Al Marsa (00 212 5 37 84 58 18), which specialises in seafood. John Dory costs 190 dirhams (£14.50).

Travel essentials

Getting there

There are no direct flights between the UK and Rabat. Instead, fly to Casablanca from Heathrow with Royal Air Maroc (020-7307 5800; royalairmaroc.com) or from Gatwick with Air Arabia (0844 482 8850; airarabia.com). From the airport, a train from Aeroport Med V to Gare Rabat Ville takes 1hr 45 mins and costs 70 dirhams (£5.50). If arriving on a later flight, a taxi takes about an hour for 600 dirhams (£46).

Staying there

Riad l’Alcazar (00 212 5 37 73 69 06; lalcazar.com) offers a chic take on traditional riad accommodation. Doubles from €100, room only.

Further information