Civilisations and dynasties from the Phoenicians to the Merenids have all claimed this place on the estuary of the river Bou Regreg as their home.
That complicated heritage is laid at your feet at the Chellah, at the ruins of the Roman city and an Almohad necropolis.
The Kasbah of the Udayas is a citadel posted over the river, with a warren of streets and a tranquil garden in the Andalusian style.
Rabat is the main residence of King Mohammed VI, and the burial place of his grandfather Mohammed V (1909-1961), who negotiated Morocco’s independence and whose resplendent mausoleum is open to all.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Rabat:
1. Kasbah of the Udayas
Guarding the mouth of the Bou Regreg River from the cliff-top on the left bank is a 12th-century citadel, reconstructed by the Almohads from 1146 as a base from which to launch attacks on Iberia.
The Kasbah of the Udayas is a compact maze of scurrying alleys with whitewashed housed trimmed with blue.
The walls command awesome views of Rabat’s beach, the Atlantic, the Bou Regreg estuary and Salé over on the right bank.
Predating the kasbah is a tenth century mosque that was reconstructed by an 18th-century English renegade known as Ahmed El Inglizi.
At the powerful main gate, Bab Oudaïa, check out the profuse mouldings tracing the arch and on the frieze.
The Oudaias Craft Museum is in a 17th-century palace in the Kasbah, displaying pottery, Korans, musical instruments, jewellery, traditional Moroccan clothing, jewellery and spectacular Berber carpets.
Great fun to explore, this walled garden on the left bank of the Bou Regreg estuary holds many layers of history going back to the Phoenicians who set up a trading post on this spot some 2,500 years ago.
This grew into the Roman city of Sala Colonia, which had a Roman military unit until well into the 5th century, long after Rome had withdrawn from the rest of the region.
Muslim Arabs took over in the 7th century, and it was under the Marinids in the 13th century that the former city was turned into a royal necropolis.
Amongst the ancient fruit trees are Roman holdovers like a triumphal arch, steles, walls and a fountain.
In the Muslim section sits the tomb of Marinid ruler Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman (1297-1351), known as the Black Sultan, who once held sway over the entire Maghreb region.
This is near the foot of a mostly intact stone minaret for a ruined mosque, still partially adorned with zellige tilework, and capped with a stork’s nest.
3. Hassan Tower
The grand historical complex that also features the Mausoleum of Mohammed V is in the shadow of an incomplete 44-metre red sandstone minaret.
This was erected in the late-12th century for a humungous mosque that would have held 20,000 worshippers.
The Hassan Tower was commissioned by the Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (1160-1199), the third Caliph of the Almohad Caliphate, and would have been one of the tallest in the world at 60 metres.
Construction was abandoned after al-Mansur died, and what’s left of the mosque, further damaged by the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, can be seen in the 348 regimented cylindrical stone columns in front.
The Hassan Tower has discreet multi-lobed latticework on its upper levels, and, like La Giralda in Seville, has ramps instead of stairs, allowing the muezzin to get to the top on horseback.
4. Mausoleum of Mohammed V
Facing off from the Hassan Tower is one of Morocco’s most venerated shrines, as the tomb of the ruler who guided the nation into independence.
Unusually, the Mausoleum of Mohammed V is open to non-Muslims, and was built in the 1960s to a design by Vietnamese architect Éric Vo Toan.
As well as Mohammed V (grandfather of the reigning Mohammed VI), the mausoleum is the resting place of his two sons, King Hassan (1929-1999) and Prince Abdallah (1935-1983). Outside the mausoleum is imposing but restrained, with multi-loved horseshoe arches and jagged merlons, but the interior brims with fine Moroccan decor.
There’s a marble floor, vibrant zellige walls and an incredibly detailed ceiling of carved cedar painted with golf leaf and crowned with a dome with stained glass windows.
You can view Mohammed V’s tomb from a gallery above.
Accessed via Rue Souika, Rabat’s old town was all there was of the city until Centre Ville and the Ville Nouvelle cropped up in the early 20th century.
Rabat’s Medina may come as a relief to those who have braved the persistent vendors and touts in Marrakesh and Fez.
This neighbourhood, though very picturesque for its whitewashed houses with blue trim, is mainly residential.
Most of the activity happens at the cafes and small shops along Rue Souika, and the partially covered Rue des Consuls, with its stalls for leather goods, embroidered fabrics, stencilled lamps, babouche slippers and Berber carpets, weaving up to the Kasbah of the Udayas.
Related tour: Rabat: Walking Food Tour
6. Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMVI)
The first independent museum in Morocco for modern and contemporary art, the MMVI opened in 2014 and was a decade in the making.
This sophisticated building by Karim Chakor, draws from Rabat’s Andalusian heritage with its horseshoe arches and latticework.
The permanent collection, encompassing more than 200 Moroccan artists, is eclectic, running the gamut from Impressionism to Postmodernism.
There are pieces by the likes of Ahmed Yacoubi (1928-1985), a contemporary of Paul Bowles in Tangier, and Hassan Hajjaj, billed as the Andy Warhol of Marrakesh.
After a couple of hours perusing the well-curated galleries you can call in at the cafe and gift shop on the ground floor.
7. National Zoo
Something that elevates Rabat’s National Zoo, home to more than 150 species, is that it was originally built for the lions that lived at the Royal Palace.
What’s fascinating is that these animals descend from the wild Barbary lions, now extinct in the wild, captured by the royal family in the Atlas Mountains.
There are more than 1,500 animals at the National Zoo, from hippopotamuses to African elephants, mouflons, Nile crocodiles, hyenas, addaxes and African wild dogs, living in healthy enclosures that mimic the animals’ natural environment.
This is more than a place to stare at captive animals, as you’ll discover at the museum, which deals with Morocco’s changing fauna since the end of the Tertiary Period some 2.6 million years ago.
A new vivarium, opened in 2019 holds terrariums for turtles, lizards, amphibians and snakes.
Youngsters will have a fun time, feeding the giraffes and taking a ride on a Shetland pony.
8. Villa des Arts
At a stately mansion in lush, peaceful grounds, this art museum is run by the Fondation ONA, a non-profit partly dedicated to raising the profile of Moroccan art, at two cultural centres, in Rabat and Casablanca.
The Villa des Arts in Rabat has two permanent exhibitions, for self-taught naive artist Radia Bent Lhoucine (1912-1994), and Jilali Gharbaoui (1930-1971), considered the first Moroccan non-figurative painter.
When we wrote this list in October 2019 Rabat’s first art biennale was taking place, with works by Katrín Sigurdardóttir (Iceland), Katharina Cibulk (Austria), Amal Kenawy (Egypt) and Majida Khtari (Morocco). There’s also a stage for performing arts at the centre, for a regular programme of live music, seminars and discussions.
9. Andalusian Gardens
Tucked inside the entrance of the Kasbah of the Udayas by the Oudaias Craft Museum is an elegant formal garden contained by the citadel’s embattled walls.
Growing in rectangular beds trimmed with low boxwood hedges are orange trees, date palms, roses and red hibiscus.
Take a while to amble along the alleys, under pergolas entwined with grape vines, and by cats yawning on the terrace walls.
The garden is newer than it seems, having been landscaped by Maurice Tranchant de Lunel (1869-1944) under the French Protectorate.
Right beside the garden is the Café Maure where you can sip mint tea with a sparkling view of the Bou Regreg estuary.
The city of Salé was founded on the right bank of the Bou Regreg estuary in the 11th century.
Now it’s a commuter town, with a Medina catering to local residents and not tourists, so prices are much lower if you bargain.
The best way to make the trip is on the modern Rabat–Salé Tramway, which opened in 2011 and crosses the Pont Hassan II on the Bou Regreg, built especially for the line.
Salé has played a key role in Morocco’s modern history, not least as a hotbed for nationalist sentiment, and the first place where independence demonstrations took place against the French.
The Great Mosque of Salé is the third-largest in the country, first built in 1028-29. Non-Muslims can’t get in, but you can get a sense of its splendid interior through the gate.
Something you can visit is the Salé Medersa (Madrasa) next door, dating to 1333 and with sumptuous zellige tiles, stucco mouldings and a carved cedar canopy in its courtyard.
11. Dar al-Makhzen
If you want to see where King Mohammed VI lives you can make your way down to the Touarga commune, a couple of kilometres south of the medina.
Alaouite sultans and kings have had a residence in Rabat since the 18th-century reign of Mohammed ben Abdallah, and the current palace was constructed in 1864. The complex has taken on extra importance since the time of the French Protectorate, as the king’s main home, and witnessed the birth of Hassan II in 1929 and the marriage of Mohammed VI to Princess Lalla Salma in 2002. Unlike most Moroccan royal palaces, you can visit the vast grounds, as long as you bring your passport with you.
Opening times aren’t posted, so there’s a chance you’ll be denied access.
If that’s the case you can take a photo of ornate gateway and uniformed guards.
12. Mawazine Festival
This city-wide music festival, taking place in June, is the largest in the country, where dozens of artists perform on seven different stages across nine nights.
The event has been running since 2001 and features domestic, African, Arab and international artists, showcasing the 21st-century Morocco as an open and tolerant place.
Naturally, conservative voices continue to criticise Mawazine for “encouraging immoral behaviour”. Each stage has a different flavour: The Théatre Mohammed V hosts jazz, folk, choral and classic pop performances, while contemporary stars from across the Arab world play Nahda (Elissa, Najwa Karam, Mohammed Assaf in 2019). Major occidental stars take stage at OLM Souissi.
In 2019 David Guetta, Migos and The Black Eyed Peas were all on the bill.
Past performers have included Bruno Mars, Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Lopez, Lauryn Hill, Rod Stewart, Pharrell Williams and Sting.
13. St Peter’s Cathedral
A familiar silhouette on the Rabat cityscape, the functioning St Peter’s Cathedral was visited in March 2019 by Pope Francis.
The building is in the Art Deco style with Moorish accents, especially in the latticework of its windows, and Resident-General Hubert Lyautey presided over the inauguration ceremony in 1921. The two towers, seen from all over Rabat, came later, in 1931. In the whitewashed interior, take a look at the stations of the cross, in mosaic, as well the radiant strips of stained glass throughout.
14. Jardins Exotiques de Bouknadel
About 20 minutes up from the Kasbah of the Udayas, on the N1 road, from Salé to Kenitra is a garden held as one of the most important and most attractive in Morocco.
In four hectares, the Jardins Exotiques de Bouknadel were planted in the middle of the 20th century by the French horticulturalist Marcel François (1900-1999), who bought this plot in 1949. The space has been open to the public since 1961, and after a fallow period in the 80s and 90s, were rehabilitated in 2000s and reopened in 2005. A wide variety of species and garden styles are crammed into these four hectares.
You can view Japanese, Chinese and Andalusian garden styles, but also botanical display from around the globe, including the African savannah, the Caribbean and the Amazon and Congo rainforests.
There’s a Moorish-style cafe by the entrance, and the home of Marcel François holds a museum about the history of the site and its rebirth in the 2000s.
15. Half-Day City Tour
You may be in Rabat on a flying visit, in which case you could make the most of this tour offered through GetYourGuide.com.
The Half-Day City Tour condenses a holiday’s worth of sights into four short hours, whisking you to the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the Kasbah of the Udayas, the Chellah, the medina and more.
All entry fees are included in the price of the tour, and you’ll travel in comfort in air-conditioned vehicle in the company of a knowledgeable guide from the city.