Imperial history permeates all facets of Moroccan capital Rabat. The official residence of the royal family is found here, and it hosts international diplomats assigned to the kingdom. The city has also been the setting for plenty of power plays over the past 10 centuries.
Its strategic location on the Atlantic Ocean and the Bou Regreg river was enough for 12th-century Berber ruler Abd al-Mu'min, from the Almohad empire, to transform Rabat into a walled fortress and subsequently launch attacks on Iberia. The 20th century saw its former French colonisers designate Rabat as the capital in 1912. Meanwhile, its deserts and ports formed important bases for allied forces during the Second World War. It was after Morocco achieved its independence in 1955 that the then king, Mohammed V, chose it to remain as the official capital.
From its plethora of cultural events, including one of the world’s biggest music festivals, Mawazine, Rabat is increasingly holding its own as a key Moroccan tourist destination.
Where other major cities such as Casablanca and Marrakesh lure in the tourists through their frenetic markets and nightlife, Rabat is suited for those looking to explore the country at a more genteel place. And with Etihad Airways flying to the city twice a week, Rabat is the best and least stressful way to begin your Moroccan journey.
10am Start at Mausoleum of Mohammed V
Located on the leafy Yacoub al-Mansour Esplanade, the monument is home to the tombs of Mohammed V and his sons, King Hassan II and Prince Abdullah (the present king's grandfather and father, respectively). The structure is viewed as the best example of the architecture of Morocco's present royal Alaouite dynasty.
The white onyx carved tombs, which are guarded by flamboyantly dressed sentries in Fez caps, is located on the ground floor and can be viewed from a balcony above.
The exterior is minimal with a stern white facade crowned by a green tiled room. Step inside, however, and you will find an intricately detailed marble floor and ceiling made from hand-carved cedar wood. Linking them together are the geometric patterns of Zellige mosaics that cover the walls.
While acknowledged as a tourist feature of Rabat by the authorities, the structure remains a religious site, so dress modestly and take your pictures quietly.
11am Snap Hassan Tower
Opposite the mausoleum is Hassan Tower. You'll feel like you've wandered into a half-finished film set here. There's a solitary minaret standing 44 metres tall over a white marbled space containing 200 columns. This building is a story of ambitions cut short. Sultan Yacoub al Mansour, who ruled in the 12th century, planned for a large mosque, with capacity for 20,000 worshippers, in celebration of his military victory over Spanish Christian troops at the Battle of Alarcos (in modern-day Spain) in 1195. Alas, the sultan's death in 1199 halted the project indefinitely. Give yourself a good half-hour to bask in the spaciousness. Hassan Tower closes from midday to 2pm for noon prayers.
12pm Stop for lunch
While Moroccan cuisine is often characterised by its most famous dish, couscous, it is not readily available in Rabat. That's because of the traditional notion that the dish is to be served as lunch on a Friday, after the prayer service. That said, if you are in the city on another day, visit Le Maison Arabe at the hotel La Tour Hassan, which serves couscous daily.
An easy 15-minute walk from Hassan Tower, via the markets and cafes of Avenue Tour Hassan, the restaurant is located within the palatial interior of the hotel. It may drip with opulence, thanks to its couch-style seating, water features and gentle oud playing, but dishes are affordable. For 200 Moroccan dirhams (Dh77), you can get a huge plate of couscous, served with meat stew, which can easily feed three people.
2pm Visit Chellah
With the December weather in Rabat hovering in the pleasant mid-20 degrees Celsius, it's best to recover from your lunch feast with a light hike. Take a 10-minute ride in the city's famous blue cabs, for about 20 dirhams (Dh7) and head out to the former medieval fortress of Chellah. Converted into a park, it's quite hilly and requires decent shoes to get around. But the relics and ruins – from columns to statues and old graves – some of which date back to the Roman Empire, are worth the price of a small sweat.
3.30pm Hit the beach
Rabat Beach is a primal affair. The sand is a relatively clean brown while the waves of the Atlantic Ocean range between the muscular to the downright dangerous. With coastal guards a rare sight, it is recommended that only strong swimmers venture in for a dip. Or, get some ice cream from any of the roadside vendors and indulge in a good spot of people- and surf-watching.
6pm Go to the Medina
Let's be clear, Rabat's Medina (old city and market) is nowhere as frenetic and exhaustive as Marrakesh's mammoth Jemaa el-Fnaa (which translates to assembly of the dead), but that is part of the charm. The Medina is an apt starting point for those inexperienced in the cut and thrust of a Moroccan marketplace. Come with an open mind and forget any sense of direction, as the Medina is a labyrinth of main roads and alleyways that are home to hundreds of stalls selling everything from spices and argan oil to clothing and vinyl records. Don't be afraid to bargain and, as always, be weary of pickpockets.
9pm Have dinner on a boat
Make a prior reservation at Le Dhow (www.ledhow.com), a wooden boat restaurant located at the coastal promenade Quai de Bouregreg. With the sounds of the waves nearby, it has great views of the promenade with its stalls, cafes and children racing their remote-controlled cars. The expansive international menu suits all tastes, with the medium-sized pizza fruits de mer, valued at 85 dirhams (Dh32) being a standout for its fresh seafood toppings.
11pm Rest your head
For an affordable hotel at a central location, the Belere Hotel Rabat (www.belere-hotels.com) is good choice. Located near the Royal Palace garden and Medina, the four-star option is apt for a good night's rest after a day of sightseeing. Doubles cost from Dh322.
For a more traditional experience, consider Riad Dar Karima (+212 537 260 202). Located within the medina, the traditional guesthouse boasts modern trappings such as Wi-Fi and air-conditioned rooms. The Riad has a lovely terrace where you can take your breakfast and observe the city's merchants setting up their stalls for the day. Doubles cost from Dh305.
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct to Rabat from from Abu Dhabi on Wednesdays and Fridays from Dh2,413 return.