Rabat is often skipped over on the tourist agenda when traveling to Morocco. And it’s a shame, because Morocco’s capital city has a lot to offer visitors (and even more to offer those of us lucky enough to live here). It’s bright and clean, has just the right amount of shopping at much lower prices than other Moroccan cities, it’s home to a large and bustling medina, and it has some pretty Atlantic coastline. Ten months living here wasn’t enough time to see all the parts of Morocco. We didn’t make it to the desert, for instance. However, our next post, Algeria, boasts some serious Sahara Desert square footage, so I think we’ll get our fix. Ten months was, however, enough time to explore the city of Rabat, which isn’t all that big. I leave you with my top tried-and-true recommendations. Perfect for a several-day visit. Or just do these things over and over if you’re moving to Rabat.
I don’t know if Rabat has the best shopping or if it’s just because I know it more than the other cities of Morocco, but I’m telling you, if you’re a home-decor lover and you like getting a good deal, don’t skip Rabat. First and foremost, it’s home to the design paradise of my life that is Oulja Artisan Village. (Well, it’s technically in the town across the river, Salé, but you can get there easily from Rabat.). Oulja Artisan Village has more beautiful baskets, mirrors, lamps, rattan furniture, wooden furniture, custom tile (zellige) tables, and pottery than words or pictures could even convey. Oulja is a good place to rug shop too. A shop called Dar al Assala has an enormous rug selection (above its enormous lamp selection). Next, Rue de Consels in the Rabat medina has many great shops owned by delightful people and it’s the spot for some of the least stressful strolling and shopping you’ll find in Morocco. J’adore the shop of Mohammed, who is my official “rug guy” mostly because he is so darn nice and enthusiastic, but also because great prices. Look for him in the last rug/textile shop on the left before you hit the big tiled fountain, where Rue de Counsels forks. Or just ask anyone “Ou est Mohammed, le homme des tapis?” This is a tight-knit little street and everyone knows each other. Mohammed has lots of great rugs, pillow covers, and hand-loomed cotton blankets with big tassels for amazing prices.My other favorite Rue de Consels shop is Boutique Japon (93/95 Rue De Consuls). You can usually find brothers Rachid and Ayoub helming the family shops, which are across the street from each other. Come here for the great selection of leather poufs, which are all handmade in Rabat and stamped with the family’s logo (the poufs are on the second floor of one of the shops). Boutique Japon has so many beautiful things from artwork, wooden frames, hand-carved and hand-painted wooden shelfs, interesting lamps, wallets, bags, stools. Every shop on La Rue de Consuls is worth poking in to. You can find Argan oil products, chic and vintage jewelry with precious stones and metals, fossils, furniture made with fossils, lamps and lanterns, rugs, blankets, musical instruments, wooden boxes, macrame hanging baskets and lampshades, small furniture, and much, much more. Continue on to the very pretty, wooden-ceilinged Rue de Chausseurs for a huge selection of shoes, both the handmade and brandname knock-off varieties. If you’re really hunting for the bargain rugs, and you want to buy a lot, I’d recommend rending a car or hiring a driver and making it to the town of Khemmiset (less than 1.5 hours from Rabat) which has an every-Tuesday early morning rug market. This is where rug vendors from around the country go to stock their shops. Berber women sell the rugs they made and it’s a great place for deals and it’s a wonderful cultural experience. (I hope to post a blog on Khemmiset real soon!). For boutique shopping in Rabat, Bee on 6th has cute and trendy souvenirs like camel graphic print teas and spiced candles and modern pottery and the super stylish selection of clothing on the top floor is like nothing else in Rabat. For higher-end Argan oil products and Moroccan food speciality food items like Amlou (Moroccan almond butter made with honey and Argan oil) and infused olive oils, APIA is worth a stop.
Admittedly, Rabat falls on the low end of the culture scale when compared to cities like Casablanca, Marrakech, or Essaouria (which I just visited and was wowed by). It can be a struggle to find something to do at night that isn’t same old same old. I do know there’s a club or two that are popular with the yutes, but I’m not going to pretend I know anything about that other than what a young Marine has told me. There is a newly opened movie theater called Atlas Cine that shows first-run English language films. A few European-feeling bar/restaurants have live music, such as Le Georges, Le Pietri, and Villa Mandarine. To my knowledge, there are no “bars” in the American sense of the word. The Mohammad VI theater in Centre Ville offers a decent lineup, and we’ve enjoyed some jazz performances there. There’s a grand new theater set to open very soon in Salé, and perhaps that will add an infusion of lively to the nightlife here, we shall see. Also, there’s an annual music festival in June called the Mawazine that pulls a few big names. For daytime entertainment/activities Rabat’s Modern Art museum – the Musée Mohammed VI d’Art Moderne est Contemporain is not only a stunner of a bright white North African/Mediterranean building, but it has excellent Moroccan art inside and usually has a very impressive temporary exhibition. There’s some really cool street art in Rabat and seemingly more added all the time. We’ve spent a fun afternoon trying to see as much of it as possible using this Lonely Planet Guide. Also, do not miss Rabat’s Chella, which is a historic site filled with ruins and storks and pretty much my favorite thing in Rabat. It’s the permanent home to more than a hundred storks! The Chella is a very special, spiritual place where you can stroll amongst Roman and some newer ruins, through poppies and countless other flora, walk past snoozing and sunning stray kitties, and marvel at the crazy clicking noise all the storks make. Also, Hassan Tower, a minaret overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, is a worth a look-see. It’s located on an esplanade with the Mausoleum of Mohammed V (who was the current king’s grandfather), which is a beautiful tiled structure guarded by Moroccans in traditional garb. Lastly, if you enjoy spa services you really cannot miss getting a traditional Moroccan hammam, which I describe as someone else giving you the best bath of your life. You’ll be steamed, scrubbed and slathered and emerge feeling shiny and new. Most every Moroccan neighborhood has a local hammam but I was never bold enough for that. Instead, I went to M Spa, located in a popular gym in a wealthy part of Rabat. M Spa is certainly still authentic and local, but relatively high-end. Still, it’s only about $20 for a one-hour hammam treatment. You can get a massage after, too.
Food & Drink
Sipping Moroccan mint tea and nibbling cookies while overlooking the crux of the Atlantic Ocean and the Bouregreg River, now that’s a relaxing and scenic afternoon. I adore the mint tea at a heavily tiled, heavily stray-catted cafe in Rabat’s Kasbah de Oudeyas. Easiest way to access this incredible photogenic spot is to enter the Andalusian Gardens and go through the arched doorway on your left. This is the cafe, and grab any spot you’d like. Soon a guy will be by with a tray of fresh cookies. You should probably try one of each but you can’t miss the chewy coconut or lemon and powdered sugar. Then, someone will take your tea order and you’ll get a little glass of heaven, if your idea of heaven is Wrigley’s Spearmint gum in liquid form. For a less sweet version, order it sans sucre. Ask for your check at the end. Cash only. Also nearby is Le Dhow, a pirate ship docked in the river whose very presence is a cheeky nod at the rich pirate history of the area. But alas, the ship is actually fairly new and it was made in India. No matter, I still very much enjoy a glass of cold Moroccan white wine and the Moroccan salad spread aboard the ship. This place is the (only?) answer to “Where can I get an ice cold beer or glass of wine close to the medina?” I’m sure a few hotels also can offer an answer to this, but they’re not located on a pirate ship. As for restaurants recommendations: Lemme preface by saying I’m not a big fan of Moroccan food. It’s not varied enough for my tastes and the vegetarian versions of classic Moroccan dishes are bland. But if you have limited time in Morocco and you’d like to experience the food the place is known for, Le Petite Beur is has a traditional Moroccan menu, with some daily specials that always include fresh fish. Plus, the place is adorable and there’s wine and an oud player quietly strumming away. If you want the full-out Moroccan dinner experience in a lavishly-appointed space, complete with some live music, and again, wine, there is Dinarjat in the medina. It’s a tourist magnet for sure, but Rabat doesn’t get all that many tourists, so it’s never too packed. Moving on from Moroccan food, my number one favorite restaurant in Rabat is the Spanish restaurant Sa Caleta, which makes a perfect tortilla, patatas bravas, fried eggplant drizzled in honey, and more. Even I’m surprised that a Spanish restaurant in my favorite, because when we lived in Madrid I grew pretty tired of the cuisine. (Necessary warning on Sa Caleta: It gets filled with cigarette smoke, especially as you get into the Moroccan dinnertime, around 9pm and later. If this is a problem, go earlier). For dinner, I’m also a big fan of the Indian restaurant Clay Oven, which recently opened in our neighborhood, Hay Riad. For lunch, I like El Tropic, a cafe that serves American hipster classics such as quinoa salads and avocado toast. (It’s located below Bee on 6th, so lunch a little shopping is a good combo). For a similar feel, but more French and avec alcohol, Ty Potes is great. Sit at an outdoor table in the leafy veranda and wash down a savory galette (a buckwheat crepe) with some crisp rosé. My number one lunch favorite is Yamal Acham, a local Syrian-Lebanese diner that is always packed with Moroccans tucking in to shwarama, falafel, hummus, salads, and insanely refreshing blended minty lemonade that is just what you need after walking around all day. You can eat a huge delicious lunch for under $10.
I’ll include some nice strolls, because strolling is one of my favorite activities. I’d highly recommend starting in the Kasbah (old fort) and having that mint tea (see above) and strolling through the white and blue walled beauty of the Kasbah neighborhood (there’s even a little shopping in this area) to the open dirt floor promenade that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. From here you can take stairs down to walk through old gravestones, past a surf shop, and along the water. Rabat’s oceanside promenade is a little uneven, but getting better all the time. You can walk for miles along the ocean, but don’t expect it to always be the most scenic on the shore side. There is absolutely no place to stop for a cold beer during this walk, but there are many places to get a tea, an ice cream, or a French taco, which is, disappointingly, a grilled wrap sandwich. Or, you could start on the the beautiful Rue de Counsels in the medina and get yourself lost. Just walk and walk, past the food stands, through piles of shoes and underwear, past the bins of greasy savon noir (local soap made from black olives), past the baby turtles. The medina has a ton to see and it’s a great local experience. This is truly where Rabat residents shop for electronics, underwear, fabric, sunglasses, flip-flops, spices, veggies, and everything else you can imagine. Cabs are abundant and cheap, so pop out wherever and hail a cab when you hit your step goal or when you need a little breather after being around so many people! Finally, my favorite walk, the one I’ve done countless times whilst listening to a podcast is Ibn Sina Forest, more commonly known known as Hilton Park, because the Sofitel that abuts one side of the park used to be a Hilton. So yeah, it’s not next to a Hilton, and it’s not really a forest. But it’s a large city park that does have a ton of trees. One lap around the exterior dirt path is a little more than a mile. Strolling in this park gives you an authentic view of how certain Moroccans spend their leisure time – lots of families, lots of little kids, a few big soccer fields and smaller makeshift dirt ones near those which seem to be where the African immigrants play, some exercise equipment etc. I’m not going to tell anyone how to dress, but I will say I never walk in here without covering up my butt with a shirt tied around my waist. If you’re a woman, you may not be comfortable wearing shorts or anything too revealing in the boob area.
I’ve never stayed anywhere in Rabat other than our apartment, but I’d strongly recommend Villa Mandarine, a stunning and very Moroccan-feeling boutique hotel tucked on a quiet orange-tree lined street. Villa Mandarine is beautifully decorated with zellige tiles, fab rugs, and comfy furniture. There’s an on-site hammam and spa, a good restaurant, and there’s live jazz in the cozy salon on Thursday nights. To be closer to the action of the medina, Dar el Kebira Salam is a riad in the medina and very close to the ocean. It’s all-white walls make for a bright and sunny setting, but you still get that individually-decorated feel of the rooms that makes Morocco’s many riads and guesthouses so charming.