Exploring Morocco's cities: what you can expect?

Morocco is known for its bustling markets and historic architecture in its many beautiful cities. Here we look at what you can expect from Morocco's cities, including the four imperial cities Meknes, Fes, Marrakech and current capital Rabat.

By Andy Stevens

Published 6 May 2024

Meknes had been rather overshadowed through time by the big, boisterous and far more famous city of Fes down the road, the latter regarded as the hub of Morocco's religious and spiritual life. Meknes nonetheless has its own grand historical tales of past glories to tell.

Meknes was one of the four great imperial cities of Morocco and made its name under the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismail in the late 1600s. The fearsome sultan's towering power may be long gone, but much of the imperial material remains.

The ruler's legacy, as is so often the case, is now becalmed in architectural form. Visitors to Meknes can witness elements of the city's fortified design, which is a fascinating amalgam of the Spanish and Moorish influences of the time.

Meknes' grand city gates, Bab Berdaine, Bab El Khemis and the stunning Bab Mansour - the construction of the latter being the sultan's last hurrah - are testimony to the city's former imperial might.

In Meknes itself, Moulay Ismail's mausoleum is a must-visit destination. Here, you can savour the artistry which created its distinctive, geometric courtyards, fountains and tilework which is so singular to the design of grand houses and palaces in the North African Maghreb.

We also strongly recommend venturing a short distance out of Meknes on a guided excursion to the Roman remains at Volubilis. The ruins mark the one-time site of a significant, if remote, Roman city which boasts a shared history with Morocco's Berber culture.

Archaeological finds at Volubilis are still very much a work in progress, with only perhaps half of the city having so far been revealed.

Its importance has been rubber-stamped by UNESCO, however, who have named Volubilis a world heritage site, and impressively-preserved finds include a triumphal arch and a basilica.

Central - in every sense - to the daily commercial, cultural and social life of Marrakech is Djemaa El-Fna square.

Even if you haven't been here in person before, you'll recognise this famous teeming open space in an instant, which turns into the ultimate Moroccan food market - complete with exotic entertainment at every turn from dancers, musicians, snake charmers and storytellers - once the sun goes down.

Maybe it's just us, but it's the food at Djemaa El-Fna which really arrests the senses.

It essentially becomes an open air theatre to Morocco's culinary brilliance, where you can take a stroll among the stalls to graze and sample anything from the better-known Moroccan dishes, such as tagines and harira soup, to more leftfield local delights.

None of this moveable feast is going to set you back a great deal, either. So it's a terrific and adventurous way to sate your appetite as you lap up the Djemaa El-Fna experience.

From food to the city's history, and in Marrakech there's no mistaking the magnificence of the Almohad minaret, which looms above Koutoubia mosque; itself one of the city's most revered religious sites.

The minaret towers to almost 230 feet, and is a dominant feature of much of the city skyline.

Fancy taking in the pastoral delights of some well-tended gardens? Then Marrakech's Bahia Palace is just the job, with two acres of vibrant gardens, replete with fountains and orange trees for visitors to enjoy.

The palace was constructed in the late 19th century by former slave Si Moussa after his ascent from penury to power, and its rooms' ornate stucco and cedarwood design flourishes are a voguish nod from its time to an earlier classic Moroccan-Islamic style.

So on to a dash of more recent old world elegance, Marrakech-style, courtesy of that distinctive grandee of French fashion chic, Yves Saint Laurent.

YSL moved to Marrakech in 1964 to a villa including the sumptuous Majorelle botanical gardens, which he bought and then gave to his adopted city.

Nowadays they remain a much-loved and hugely popular legacy from the king of style to the city he adored and made his home.

Jardin Majorelle was the original 1920s brainchild of French painter, Jacques Majorelle. The artist's exquisite art deco studio is open to the public in its modern guise as the Musee Berbere, which houses a stimulating collection of artefacts highlighting the traditions of Morocco's Berber people.

YSL's electric-blue villa within the gardens dazzles in its own right; it's that vivid colour which runs as a visual thematic thread throughout the serene landscaped gardens.

And as this strikingly stylish spot was bestowed in the gift of the late YSL, there are, of course, high-end, branded gifts galore to buy in the gardens' up-market souvenir shop at the end of your visit.

And to add another splash of style to your trip, you can take your journey to the Jardin Majorelle and back via the city's old ramparts in a horse-drawn carriage, no less.

Strong traces of the North African Maghreb's centuries-old shared history with Andalusia permeate Morocco's post-independence capital, Rabat.

You can sense this for yourself when you meander through the narrow alleys of Rabat's charming inner kasbah.

This small blue and whitewashed warren, within the 11th century citadel, even veers towards the genteel compared with many of the bigger cities' teeming souks. This kasbah is also home to the city's oldest mosque, founded in 1150.

Further Andalusian stylings have proved to be a magnet for visitors to the serene gardens of Rabat's 17th century royal palace, with its museum, medieval tower and mausoleum.

But it's Morocco's former colonial rulers, the French, who are to thank for the original beauty of these much-loved palace gardens. It was they who introduced flowers and plants from Andalusia, which thrive blissfully among the orange and lemon trees.

Selection of traditional lamps on Moroccan market (souk) in Fes, Morocco Selection of traditional lamps on Moroccan market (souk) in Fes, Morocco Fes emerged as a city in the 8th century, and for that takes the prize of being the oldest of Morocco's great imperial seats of power.

And Fes has also had its time - and still does so - as a venerable place of learning, with its Karaouine Mosque renowned to this day as the world's oldest still-operational university, dating back to 859.

The city has developed through the centuries as three cities cobbled together as one. But Fes' historical legacies have been carefully preserved, and for that it is often cited as a superlative example of a relatively unchanged and unscathed medieval Arab city.

Fes' fascinating ancient medina, the Fes el Bali, allows visitors to immerse themselves as much as possible in the essence of this bygone, yet still existing, world.

Traditions of day-to-day life, commerce and artisanal trades within Fes el Bali have largely defied the passage of time. And fripperies of the modern world aside, elements of life in the medina would be recognisable to anyone stopping by from 1,000 years ago.

Linking Fes el Bali with the city's new - well, newer - town, is the delightful Fes el Jedid area, where you can explore Fes' Jewish quarter and visit its one-time royal palace turned museum.

You must remember this: with Casablanca, it's probably best that any lingering romantic notions of Bogart, Bergman, tinkling pianos, clinking cocktail glasses and Mata Hari-style wartime intrigue are put to bed here and now.

Casablanca is still an international city of a fashion, in terms of its role as a major port and the commercial engine of Morocco.

But pinstripes, fedoras and correspondence shoes are no longer de rigueur. If you insist, there is a loving re-creation of Rick's Bar (well, Rick's Cafe) in the city's old medina.

But film fame aside, Casablanca has a string of real-life historical sites also worthy of recommendation when you're on a tour of Morocco's great cities.

French architect Michel Pinseau designed Casablanca's magnificent mosque of Hassan II with grand statement in mind.

It is not only the second biggest mosque in the world, but also includes what is reputedly the planet's tallest minaret. Topping out at 689 feet, it is impressively illuminated at night.

Casablanca's neo-Gothic Sacre Coeur cathedral is an imposing building of 1930s colonial vintage, which although no longer a place of worship is still open as a visitor centre.

Moroccan culture and artworks, plus international exhibits, provide the attractions at Casablanca's popular Villa des Arts, itself a building of art deco splendour harking back to the design diligence that bygone era.

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