It strikes me that Rabat is quite a good entry point for those new to Morocco, with its small, modern airport that’s clean and user-friendly, its lack of hassle and high-volume tourism, even its modern tram system. It doesn’t have lots of major sights, with a fairly ordinary medina and ville nouvelle – but at its northern extremity the Kasbah des Ouidaïas (see below) is lovely (the only place you’ll find unofficial guides wanting to show you around – easily turned away), with the platforme offering views of the sea and river, and the Andalusian gardens (actually built by the French colonists) a peaceful oasis.
At the city’s southern extremity, beyond the Royal Palace (it should be possible to walk through the grounds, although it didn’t work out for us), the town’s highlight is the Chellah, where a 14th-century medersa (koranic school) and tombs nestle against the Roman forum and baths (still in use in medieval times, it seems) – with a great number of nesting storks, clacking their bills as a courting gambit, or stabbing fiercely at their rivals.
The Archeological Museum, supposedly the most important in Morocco, didn’t really do it for us, I’m sorry to say: the Roman bronzes – supposedly its great treasure – were away for restoration and many other items were on temporary display elsewhere. It does have some lovely Neolithic reliefs and naïf Phoenician grave markers.
The striking new Musée Mohammed VI d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art – museemohammed6.ma; 10am-6pm, closed Tues) is well funded (by the king) and ambitious, putting on a big Giacometti show earlier in 2016. Definitely worth seeing what’s on.
Note that Rabat has blue petits taxis and Salé has yellow ones, and they’re not allowed to cross the bridge from one to the other – you need a white grand taxi, or take the tram (there must be a special arrangement for airport taxis). The tramway is exactly the same as you’d find in Metz or Nantes or any similar-sized French city – supposedly too pricey for average Moroccans but actually too full to board at times. The service on the core section (from Salé to the cathedral) is frequent enough but on the branches you can wait 8-10 minutes.
We stayed in Salé, across the river, which was once far more important than Rabat but is now a quiet and relaxing backwater – the only restaurants are at the modern Marina (near the Bab Lamrissa tram stop), a glimpse of Morocco’s middle-class future, where we ate pizza but couldn’t get a beer. However you should make a point of visiting the Medersa of Abou El Hassan, opposite the mosque, which was founded in 1341; you can explore the upper floors, and look down into the courtyard, unlike in the more famous medersas of Meknes and Fes. Like the other great Merenid medersas it’s intricately decorated with carved wood, stucco and zellij (enamelled terracotta tiles set into plaster), echoing a basic pattern in countless variations, as well as bands of calligraphy, mainly Koranic texts.