A Guide to Morocco’s Imperial Cities (4 minute read)

(Last Updated On: May 4, 2023)

Whilst you have no doubt heard of Marrakech, you may be less familiar with Fes, Meknes and Rabat. However, collectively known as the imperial cities, all four have at one time been the capital of Morocco. Each has played a pivotal role in the country’s history and continue to offer much to travellers today. So to give you a little more insight, here we’ve put together a guide to Morocco’s imperial cities.

Tannery in Fez, Morocco
Colourful Tanneries in the UNESCO-listed medina of Fes

Fes: culture and crafts

Morocco’s oldest imperial city, Fes is a fascinating place to explore. Still considered the cultural and spiritual centre of the country, it’s home to the Al Quaraouiyine Mosque – believed to be the oldest university in the world.

At the city’s heart, you’ll find the world’s largest medieval medina. Surrounded by an eight-kilometre long wall, this car-free area features a maze of narrow streets and alleys packed with colourful souks, pungent tanneries, mosques and tireless artisans.

Whilst this UNESCO-listed medina can at first feel overwhelming, there’s a certain charm to the chaos. And when you need a little break from exploring, you can always sample some of the city’s delicious street food. Or even learn to make it for yourself at one of the city’s cooking schools.

Gate Bab El-Mansour at the El Hedim square in Meknes
Bab Mansour, the beautiful entranceway to the medina of Meknes

Meknes: imperial treasures

Less than an hour’s drive from Fes, you’ll find its quiet and smaller neighbour Meknes. No less worthy of your attention, this imperial city also boasts a historic medina and beautiful Moorish architecture.

Highlights include Bab Mansour, one of the most beautiful gates in all of Morocco and entrance to the medina. As well as the Museum of Moroccan Art, otherwise known as Dar Jamai, with a building that is as much a masterpiece as the exhibits inside.

However, when evening falls, Place Hedim is the place to be. Often likened to the famous Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech, this square is surrounded by historic buildings, cafes, restaurants and narrow alleys leading to bustling markets – offering hours of entertainment and people-watching.

Hassan Tower in Rabat, Moroccco
The Hassan tower, one of the most significant landmarks in Rabat

Rabat: off the beaten track

The lesser-known capital of Morocco, Rabat is found at the mouth of the River Bou Regreg on the Atlantic coast. Being off the tourist radar, this imperial city has maintained a strong cultural identity and is filled with impressive landmarks.

Besides the royal palace and the King’s mausoleum, one of the city’s main attractions is the Hassan Tower. Dating back to the 12th century, the tower was designed to be the minaret of what was to become the world’s second-largest mosque.

Other must-sees include the Andalusian Gardens, built by the French in the 20th century, the old medina and the historic citadel known as the Kasbah of the Udayas. And once you’ve finished sightseeing, the city also boasts several beautiful beaches close by.

Djemma el Fna at dusk in Marrakech, Morocco.
The famous Djemaa el Fna market square of Marrakech

Marrakech: Morocco’s top destination

A popular tourist destination since the 1960’s, Marrakech is the most famous of all the imperial cities. Encapsulating all that travellers find so alluring about Morocco, the city truly is a feast for the senses.

The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque dominates the city’s skyline, standing at over 70 metres in height. Then below you’ll find the famous Djemaa el Fna. Though less of a sight in the day, after dark this square comes alive and overflows with food stalls, storytellers, musicians, fortune tellers and more.

Spend your days shopping in Marrakech’s bustling souks or enjoying a relaxing treatment at one of the many Hammams (local bathhouses). Then top off your visit with a stay in a traditional riad.

We visit Morocco’s imperial cities on our group tours, as well as Casablanca, Essaouira, Ait Benhaddou and the Sahara Desert.