Visiting Morocco's imperial cities
Grandeur and portent are woven into the very title bestowed upon Morocco's biggest towns. 'Imperial city' is a categorization extended to Fés?, Marrakech, Meknes and Rabat, an elite four that have all in their own time served as the nation's capital. Today, they serve as some of Morocco's and, indeed, Africa's top cultural destinations.
The rotating capitals of Morocco are the direct result of the many rulers to have held the country over the past dozen or so centuries. According to The Independent, Fés or Fez is the oldest capital, established in the ninth century by a great-great grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. However, Marrakesh took over as the seat of the nation when the Almoravides rose to power. Rabat became the next new capital with the ascension of the Almohads in the 12th century, followed by Meknes under the sultan Moulay Ismael. In that time, Fez was renamed the capital twice, with Rabat eventually reclaiming the title in 1912 as a French protectorate. Though Rabat remains the capital after attaining independence, the rest of these cities are equally if not more impressive.
Age and beauty
Age before beauty, or beauty before age, you're still likely to end up in Fez, an ancient city brimming with life. There are nearly 10,000 streets and alleys veining throughout this town, many lined with markets and vendors selling food, spice, clothes and craft. Enter its central market and you may notice the conspicuous absence of traffic and exhaust. Fez is also home to one of the world's largest urban car-free zones, according to National Geographic, making it a refreshing destination for an active vacation.
There is much to see in the fabled and ornate city, with the walled, pedestrian-friendly medina being the best place to start. Visit Morocco further suggests the tanner's quarter, as well as the many medersas - schools where classical subjects such as math, grammar, history and medicine are taught along with the Koran. Such is fitting for a capital considered to be a cradle of knowledge.
Gardens and souks
Next on the list is Marrakesh, a city defined by its scent and sight. Common attractions include the Koutoubia tower and the souks, dizzying open-air markets that enchant the senses and draw visitors down their labyrinthine corridors. However, the city's gardens are just as seductive, and provide a relaxing oasis from city life. Perhaps the most famous are the Marjorelle Gardens, an international collection of exotic plants. Yves Saint Laurent owned the gardens, and his ashes are now scattered there.
Another part of town worth seeing is Guéliz, Marrakesh's modern district featuring tearooms, cafés and luxury shopping. It's a highlight of the red city and a good place to people-watch.
Town of spires
Meknes is a graceful and awe-inspiring town, often going by the nickname "city of a hundred minarets," according to Visit Morocco. The municipality earned that title due to the many mosques within its walls. Much of its elegant architecture is owing to the rise of the sultan Moulay Ismael, who named Meknes his capital and built it up as a seat of power.
Unmissable sites include Ismael's palace and the intricate, massive Bab Mansour gate, which serves as an entrance to the Imperial city proper. Given Ismael's investment and predilection toward royal displays, the city is sometimes compared to Versailles, Visit Morocco reports.
Last to see is Rabat, the nation's current capital. According to Frommer's the conservative town often falls to the bottom of travelers' itineraries because it does not seem to carry the same cultural weight as its sister cities. However, it's relatively low-key style can be part of its appeal, offering its own maze-like medina without as much of a crowd. Rabat's cliff-top kasbah is defined by a small village feel, punctuated by brightly colored doors and hidden gardens.