Rabat Tourism: Sights and Attractions
Despite the cosmopolitan feel of Rabat, there is a great deal of historic and architectural interest around. Whether in the Medina or the Ville Nouvelle, monuments punctuate the span of Moroccan history – from Roman settlements in the nearby Chellah sanctuary to the Almohad gates and walls of the Medina.
Bab Oudaia is the principal gateway to the Kasbah – one of the most striking sights in Rabat and certainly one of the most beautiful external Moorish monuments.
The gate was built by the Almohad Sultan, Yacoub al Mansour, in 1195. Its purpose was more ceremonial than defensive, designed for a grand entrance into the Kasbah and its souks and the nearby Sultan palace.
The gate, massive as though it may appear at first inception, is not unusual in its size for an Almohad monument. It is striking for its harmony and the sheer simplicity and beauty of its decoration. The basic feature is the arch, composed of three different designs: the basic horseshoe, a check-and-shoulder design and finally a band of geometric ornamentation.
After passing through Bab Oudaia, you will immediately reach an evocative and striking quarter, the Kasbah des Oudaias.
The Kasbah is the original citadel of the Almohad, Merinid and subsequent Andalusian towns in Rabat. It’s rather a small, airy place that is easy to wander about – not the kind you need a guide for.
Here, you can see the Kasbah Mosque – the oldest mosque in the city, built around 1050 and subsequently rebuilt in the 18th century.
Further below is a seventeenth-century semaphore station called the platforme. Several forts are built below and around the platforme to protect the town from corsair fleets
The Palace Museum & Andalusian Gardens
South of Bab Ouadaia, a third gate will lead you into the Palace Museum and Andalusian Gardens.
The Palace was built in the seventeenth-century by Moulay Ismail, the first Almohad sultan to unify the country. Today, it showcases interesting exhibits of Moroccan art and culture. A vast central patio gives access to private quarters and reception rooms containing the exhibits. There is a hall containing oriental rugs made in Rabat, an exhibition hall for musical instruments and a salon reserved for customs and rituals.
The old palace grounds are occupied by the beautiful Andalusian Gardens. Although true to Andalusian traditions, with its flowering annuals and beds of shrubs, the gardens were actually constructed by the French in the twentieth-century. The gardens are a delightful shady retreat, with a profusion of daturas, oleanders, orange, lemon and banana trees.
The Hassan Mosque
The Hassan Mosque is the most famous landmark in Rabat and one of the most ambitious of all Almohad buildings.
Sultan Yacoub al Mansour begun construction of this enormous minaret in 1195, with the intention of reaching 60m thus marking the highest in the Muslim World. This ambitious project was abandoned when al Mansour died with the minaret, still standing today, at 40m. The adjacent mosque was destroyed by a subsequent earthquake and only a few re-erected pillars stand today.
The minaret is a majestic sight that dominates every view of the capital – from the Kasbah, across the estuary at Sale or when reaching town across the River Bou Regreg by train.
Mohammed V Mausoleum
Facing the Hassan Tower is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, where both the grandfather and father of the present Moroccan king are buried.
Built after Moroccan independence, this is one of the most prestigious modern monuments in Morocco. Built in traditional Moroccan style, the mausoleum is richly decorated with elaborate zellij mosaics and spiralling designs. Non-Muslim visitors are allowed to visit the mausoleum and see the tomb of Mohammed V, carved in white onyx, from a gallery above.
A series of Almohad walls, largely the vision of Yacoub al Mansour, run all the way down from the Kasbah to the Royal Palace and further down.
The biggest and most interesting of these surviving gates is Babe er Rouah, recalling in many ways Bab Oudaia. It is both monumental in size and harmonious in its design and ornament. Inside, the gate has three domed chambers used as a defensive structure. Exhibitions are usually held there and are open to the public.
Chellah is one of the most beautiful and peaceful Moroccan ruins, the site of an ancient Roman city and a Merenid necropolis. A large walled and towered enclosure, the site seems like a Medina.
The site served first as a thriving Roman port and city, known as Sala Colonia. From the main gate, making you way through a path diagonally is a viewing platform which overlooks the main Roman ruins. The ruins are from 200BC onwards and include a forum, a temple and a craftsmen’s quarter. They are small in scale but well signposted.
Under the rule of the Merenids, Sultan Abou el Hassan (1331-1351) built a necropolis on top of the Roman site including gates and enclosing walls. The most picturesque of the Islamic ruins include a stone-and-tile minaret overtaken by storks building their nests.
Inside the sanctuary is the Abou Youssef Mosque, now mostly in ruins although you can still discern the colonnades and the inner prayer hall. Behind the mosque are the royal tombs – that of Abou al Hassan and his wife are well identified and retain their decoration.
The zaouia – or medersa – is in a better state of preservation than the mosque. The structure is basic: a vast courtyard surrounded by student cells and a prayer hall at the end. Fragments of zellij artwork are still intact on the minaret and colonnades and the inner prayer hall’s stucco decoration is still discernable to an extent.
The Archaeological Museum in Rabat is the most important archaeological museum in Morocco.
The museum gives a fascinating account of the rich Moroccan history dating back 35,000 years to the Stone Age. The highlight of the collections is a Roman-era bronzers called the Salle des Bronzes. It displays ceramics and artefacts mainly from Volubilis (near Meknes) and a few pieces from Chellah and Lixus. Do not miss the portrait heads of Cato the Younger and Juba II – Berber king of Numidia.