Imperial Cities of Morocco
Though not confined to a singular geographic region of Morocco, we have pooled together the four Imperial Cities of Morocco for travellers who wish to see the most important historical palaces and medinas that have served as the seat of power for different dynasties. At some point in history each city has served as the capital and in most cases more than once. Today it is Rabat where the current King, Mohammed VI is in residence.
There are four Imperial Cities – Fes, Rabat, Meknes and Marrakech. Any of our Imperial Cities tours will combine these key destinations with guided visits of their main monuments and sights. As Casablanca and Marrakech are both very easily accessible through their international airports, tours can be adapted to start or end in either of these cities. Along the route that links all the Imperial Cities we also include the Roman ruins of Volubilis as well as the holy town of Moulay Idriss – the site of the first Arab dynasty in Morocco founded by Idriss I in 789AD. These additional destinations are important links in the chain of dynastic chronological history that have shaped modern Morocco. To visit all the Imperial Cities of Morocco and to include a guided day tour of each with a licenced city tourism guide, requires a minimum of one week. The territory covered by our Imperial Cities ‘region’ of Morocco opens with Rabat on the northern Atlantic Coast of Morocco, then Meknes and Fes which are both inland in the fertile plains north of the Middle Atlas Mountains while Marrakech is a good deal further to the south, close to the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains.
NOTE: If a specific tour on our website indicates that it includes the Imperial Cities as a region visited, then it includes at least ONE of the four, but not necessarily all of them. Tours that are named Imperial Cities Tours will feature all four. Click here to view all our Imperial Cities tour suggestions.
FES - The first ever capital of Morocco was Fes, established under Sultan Idriss II in the 9th century. It has served as the capital city several times over the centuries, the last being that of the Alaouite dynasty through until 1912, when the capital was transferred to Rabat under the French Protectorate. Fes is located in the northern half of Morocco, close to the Middle Atlas mountains. It is regarded as the intellectual and spiritual capital of Morocco and houses the world’s oldest university – the Kairouine University. The old city of Fes is made up of two medinas – the old Fes el Bali which dates to medieval times and the newer Fes el Jdid, which dates to the late 13th century. 9000 twisting alleys and streets make up the medina and they are teaming with skilled artisans, food markets, mosques, museums, historic buildings, religious schools, riads, traditional houses, fountains, squares and of course, the Royal Palace. Donkeys and mule carts, bicycles and pedestrians zig-zag their way through the labyrinth eventually to emerge at one of the city’s main gates or bab that exit through the city walls, Fes is a city in which to lose yourself and surrender fully to Morocco’s traditions and mysteries – we recommend at least 2-3 days here. The city of Fes features in all our Imperial Cities tours, as well as our Northern Morocco tours and any Atlas Mountains tour that crosses the Middle Atlas Mountain range. We include a guided walking tour of the city in all our trips and can also arrange for a culinary tour (Fes cuisine is often regarded as the best in the country) and a cookery class. We can also arrange for other day excursions during your tour to explore the fertile countryside that surrounds the old city or villages and cedar forests in the Middle Atlas Mountains. Watch out also for the annual Fes Festival of Sacred Music in June.
Read more about Fes and the city’s main highlights in our Destinations page.
MARRAKECH – first became capital of Morocco in 1071 during the Almoravid dynasty and was founded by Abdallah Ibn Yasin after the fall of Sultan Idriss II in Fes. It remained the capital city for two centuries after this, for both the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties. In the 16th century it was once again the capital for the Saadian dynasty until their defeat by Sultan Moulay al Rachid of the Alaouite dynasty in 1669. It remained capital for a short time until his death in 1672, and then his half-brother, Moulay Ismail re-established a new capital in Meknes. It has served as capital under the current Alaouite dynasty several times in the years since.
Marrakech is situated in the southwest of Morocco on the northern side of the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. It is has an international airport with direct flights to the UK, Ireland and many European and Scandinavian destinations. It also has good road connections to all compass points. It is an ideal starting point for our adventure tours into the heart of Morocco, to the Atlas Mountains and to the Sahara Desert. It is also just 3 hours from our Atlantic Coast of Morocco destinations of Agadir, Essaouira and Oualidia. In Marrakech we have a wide range of accommodation options including traditional riads, boutique guesthouses and classic hotels to suit individual tastes. In the Marrakech area there are heaps of activities to enjoy – cookery classes, golf, camel-rides in the Palmeraie, hot-air balloon rides, hiking in the High Atlas, horse-riding and much more…
The walled city of Marrakech is sometimes called the ‘red’ or ‘ochre’ city after the shade of the rammed earth from which the ramparts and old medina buildings were originally constructed. Many historic buildings and palaces within the medina date back as far as the 12th century – the Koutoubia mosque originally built by the Almoravids was rebuilt again by the Almohads when they realized that its prayer niche did not align correctly with Mecca. The 14th century Ben Youssef Medersa in the north of the souks, was once the largest in North Africa. Other key highlights which you can visit on one of our Imperial Cities tours or while you are staying in Marrakech on any of our other tours include the 19th century Bahia Palace, the el Badi Palace, the Koutoubia Mosque, the Saadian tombs, the artisans of the souks, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Place Jemaa el Fna, the Menara Gardens, the museums, galleries and bazaars that enthrall and entice year round.
Marrakech may no longer be the political capital these days, but is undoubtedly the tourist capital and attracts millions of visitors each year. It is a gateway to the south of Morocco and has always been an important centre for trading for the desert caravans which passed through from sub-Saharan Africa. Outside the pink ramparts of the city is the French built nouvelle ville and here there are modern cafés, restaurants, shops, art galleries, bars and night-clubs. In the new town are also the tranquil Majorelle Gardens, once owned by Yves St. Laurent and gifted in trust to the city of Marrakech. Marrakech is exotic and exhilarating. It is a noisy, heady mix of traditional values and 21st century hedonism enjoyed by Westerners and Moroccans alike.
Read more about Marrakech and the city’s main highlights in our Destinations page.
RABAT – chosen by Moulay Yacoub el Mansour of the Almohad dynasty to be the capital of his empire at the end of the 12th century, during which he built the Kasbah des Oudaias and the northern walls of the fortress city. He also began the building of a mosque which was intended to be the largest in the world at that time, however following his death in 1199 the building project stopped (all that remains is the minaret now known as Tour Hassan) and Rabat’s aspirations to become capital never came to fruition. However, it became the chosen capital for the French protectorate from 1912 onwards, taking over from Fes, and has remained so ever since under the ruling Alaouite dynasty, even though Independence from France was gained in 1956. Today Rabat is the political capital of Morocco with the Parliament and permanent home of the Royal family being there. In the 18th century, Rabat was designated as an Imperial city by the Alaouite sultan Muhamma Ibn Abdallah who built the Royal palace, although he did not designate any city as his capital.
Rabat is situated on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco, north of Casablanca and at the mouth of the Bou Regreg river. With such a position it was established initially as a stronghold in the 12th century from which to launch attacks on the Iberian Peninsula. Its military importance gave it the name Ribatu l-fath, meaning “stronghold of victory.” This is the origin of the name Rabat. Although it was not to become capital of Morocco until 1912, it had a swash-buckling career during the 17th century as heart of the short-lived Republic of Bou Regreg. Together with neighbouring Salé, the fortified citadel of Rabat was the power base for Barbary pirates who ran the Republic and used the two cities as a base from which to launch their attacks on passing shipping.
Rabat is a modern and elegant city, with colonial architecture and palm-lined boulevards in the new town, while still exuding old world charm in the areas of the old medina, the Chellah necropolis, the Kasbah de Oudaias in the sea wall and the Andalucian Gardens. The main touristic and historic attractions are the Mausoleum Mohammed V which contains the tombs of King Mohammed V and his two sons, King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah. Also nearby is the above mentioned Tour Hassan. You can visit Rabat during any of our Imperial Cities tours and you may wish to make extra time to visit the new Museum of Contemporary Art, Archeological museum or even tie in your visit with the annual Mawazine Music Festival.
In Rabat we have chosen boutique guesthouses and riads in the old medina for the comfort of our clients.
Read more about Rabat and the city’s main highlights in our Destinations page.
MEKNES – following the death of his half-brother in Marrakech in 1672, the fearsome Alaouite sultan, Moulay Ismail, established Meknes as the capital of his empire. During this time he built the impressive city walls, several monumental gates, elaborate palaces, mosques and formal gardens. Plundering the Roman ruins at nearby Volubilis with impunity, he used the exquisite marble to wondrous effect in the new capital city and the extravagance of the architecture has led Meknes to be nicknamed, “the Versailles of Morocco.”
Meknes is the smallest of the Imperial Cities of Morocco and can be explored in a day or two quite easily – it’s laid-back and relatively hassle-free. There are a number of key attractions, souks and historic sights that you will see during your Morocco Imperial Cities tour with SheherazadVentures – the Bab Masour, the Place Hedim, the 14th century Meknes Mosque and the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismael. Make time also for the Medersa Bou Inania and the Dar Jamai Museum of Moroccan Arts.
Meknes is an easy day trip from Fes, and lies in a fertile plain at the foot of the Middle Atlas Mountains and rich agricultural land that is abundant with olives, cereals and it is the heartland of Morocco’s indigenous wine industry.
In Meknes we have selected a small handful of traditional riads inside the medina that offer charm, character and comfort for our guests on their Morocco adventure tour. The city features in all our Imperial Cities of Morocco tours.
Read more about Meknes and the citys main highlights in our Destinations page.