Morocco is such a feast for the traveller’s senses. It’s a country of variety; with mountains, deserts, coastlines, Kasbah valleys and intriguing nature. From place to place, you’ll constantly witness new cultures, languages, foods and variations of the minty, Moroccan tea. But Morocco also has a range of exciting, vibrant and historic cities. Atlantic cities like Casablanca, blue painted hillside towns like Chefchaouen, or the Spanish influenced Tangier. Each of Morocco’s cities is intriguing and each has its own personality.
Four of the country’s most famous cities are commonly referred to as the Imperial Cities. All have, at one point in time, been the capital of the country, each one has ancient medinas and royal palaces. Yet each also has its own very unique vibe, from Rabat’s laid-back coastal feel to the small yet chaotic Meknes; the huge and cultural Fes, to the red painted walls and the wild square of Marrakech. On Intrepid’s Best of Morocco tour, we were lucky enough to get a taste for each of these four cities. If you’re wondering which one might be best for you, here’s a roundup of four of the countries most famous and royal destinations.
Our first stop on the Imperial city trail is Rabat. It’s the capital of Morocco, yet after spending a few days in Casablanca, Rabat instantly has the feel of a small seaside town. Located on the edge of the Atlantic, it’s where Morocco’s political activity happens. It’s the home of the king, and a clean, European style city. It’s not a big tourist hot spot and the medina is somewhat relaxed and more manageable than you might expect. The blue painted Kasbah on the hill is a highlight of the city. Wander the streets and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to an undiscovered Chefchaouen. Find your way out of the maze and you can treat yourself to views of the Atlantic Ocean.
We head up to the Mausoleum of Mohammed V and Hassan Tower. The mausoleum is beautiful, intricate and guarded by well-dressed young Moroccan men who are clearly all constantly pleased to have their photos taken by tourists. The 200 columns around the Hassan tower are the remains of an unfinished mosque. They have become a playground for children and a picnic spot for adults. The atmosphere here on a late afternoon, overlooking the Atlantic ocean is blissful.
While small in size, Rabat has a real local feel and a relaxed vibe which makes strolling the medinas all day more than bearable. It’s a place I’d love to spend more time in, and as much as I’d like to keep it my own little secret, it really should be on more tourist itineraries.
Onto Meknes! It’s a 2 and an hour train journey from Rabat to the most unknown of Morocco’s four Imperial cities. Meknes is like a small, and much more manageable Fes. The Medina is still bustling and lively, the streets are golden washed and the markets are vibrant, yet Meknes sees a fraction of the visitors of its nearby big brother. The Heri el Souani granary is our first stop, a place which our knowledgeable guide is passionate about. Meknes has always been a place for produce, due to the lush surrounding hills. Next, we head to the market where you can best see what’s grown in the hills around. Herbs, spices, sweets, dates and perfumes line the walls of the old medina market and indoor covered souks. Everything smells and tastes delicious, and the lack of tourism in the town means that things are sold at a reasonable price without much hassle.
Lunch is served in an authentic backstreet restaurant. Meat eaters get to try camel burgers (head around the corner to see the hanging head of a camel on a spike to look into the eyes of where that came from!). Or for vegetarians, it’s a delicious bowl of lentil soup and grilled aubergines. While Meknes has plenty of charm as a city, it’s outside the city that one of it’s greatest tourist attractions lies.
The Roman ruins of Volubilis are around 45 minutes out of Meknes. Surrounded by lush green hills and olive groves, the landscape looks more like Greece or Southern Spain than Morocco. Here the excavated Roman city of Volubilis is open to the public and it’s in surprisingly great condition. While the ruins are impressive, it’s the stories of our guide which make the visit. He tells us tales of how people lived in this town, showing us communal toilets and tiny bedrooms with mosaic flooring. The surroundings are stunning and the sun really beats down on us today. We drive on to Fes, but not before a roadside stop at a stunning view of the lakes and valleys around.
Fes is Morocco’s up and coming star. While tourist numbers might not yet rival Marrakech, direct cheap flights from cities around Europe and Instagram photos of the famous tanneries have meant that people keep coming, and the once authentic, ancient medina streets are now home to tonnes of tourist market stalls and restaurants. But the maze of Fes is so huge that it is still possible to get to the heart of this place, find local markets and discover local people. The entire Medina is car free and UNESCO World-Heritage Listed. It dates back to the 9th century and is home to the oldest university in the world. It’s also one of the best cities in Morocco for shopping and street food.
We start our day high above the Medina at the Borj Sud viewpoint, looking out on the Medina below. From here it looks like a silent, peaceful place. The maze of streets is shielded by rooftops and mosque towers. You’d never know there’s a maze of life and around 12,000 alleyways to discover. Our next stop is a mosaic workshop. Mosaic artwork is big business all around Morocco and is something the country is known for all around the world. Here we see how it’s made and sculpted into the many bowls, plates and fountains you see in the Medina below.
Now it’s time to get lost. We ramble past donkeys and tanneries, are entertained by a man in a famous Fes hat playing local music before we reach a viewpoint over the cities tanneries. Below us, the pools of gold, red and white dye create a perfect picture. Yet for the men who tightrope across the pool edges carrying bundles of animal skins, you can see this is a hard life. Leather shoes are available to purchase in the shop behind in every imaginable colour.
Heading around the rest of the Fes Medina, bowls of Harira soup are served with dates and thick fresh bread for only 10 dirhams. The food market near the Bab Boujeloud gate is a must explore for every visitor, and head down the Talaa Kbira, the medina’s main street for fresh orange juice, intricate mosques and souvenirs galore. At sunset, join local families and young people at the Tombeaux Des Mérinides as the city fades into night and the sun sinks over the lush green hills surrounding the city.
If you’re warmed up from Fes, you may just about be ready for the madness of Marrakech. This city is like no other on earth. Red lined streets, covered souks and a giant manic square are all on offer. Marrakech is the great show on earth, a constant display of life, music, colour, food and unfortunately a few scams here and there. But keep on your toes and you’ll fall head over heels for this city.
It’s our last stop of the Intrepid Best of Morocco tour. And after a week in the Moroccan countryside and a few days in the sleepy hippie city of Essaouira, Marrakech comes as a shock. It can take a while to settle into it, but you’ll soon realise that Marrakech encompasses all of the brilliance of Morocco in one. While there are great sites to be seen, the real beauty is exploring the souks, eating the street food and meeting the locals.
I’d recommend starting your day at the Majorelle Garden, a peaceful place outside of the medina and full of interesting plants, cacti, an art gallery and a fascinating Berber History Museum. Then head out to the wild red-walled Medina, spend your morning shopping and find a rooftop restaurant for lunch. To escape the bustling streets, head to the excellent Maison de Photographie de Marrakech. Here you’ll find photographs from the early days of photography and filmmaking in Morocco. It’s a great place to understand the development of Berber and Arabic culture in the country through stunning images. The museum also has a beautiful view of the city from its rooftop cafe.
As the sunsets head back to the Jemaa el-Fnaa, just as the street performers come out to play and the firing grills start smoking. The best way to see the true scale of the square is from above, and the Le Grand Balcon du Café Glacier offers the most expansive view of all. From here you can watch the sunset as the square comes to life. All with the pleasant accompaniment of a mint tea by your side.
Ready to discover the imperial cities for yourself? Check out our range of small group adventures in Morocco!