A train journey through imperial Morocco

Morocco is a country that speaks to the imagination of many. The medieval medina of Fez, the market stalls and street performers of Marrakesh’s Djemaa El Fna square, the stunning riad boutique hotels across the country… Are you dreaming away already?

Only a short flight away from Europe, Morocco is probably northern Africa’s most accessible country. Not just in terms of getting there, but also in terms of getting around. It’s one of the few African countries with a well-functioning rail network that’s easy to use for foreigners. Moroccan trains might not be the newest or fastest, but they are comfortable and run regularly. Moreover, many train stations are modern, clean and safe. And with the launch of a new high-speed line in November 2018 (from Tangier to Casablanca), travelling across Morocco by train has become only more appealing. 

A Moroccan railway carriage
Trains in Morocco might not be the fastest, but they are comfortable and run regularly. And with a new high-speed line, taking the train in Morocco has only become more appealing

The train doesn’t take you everywhere in Morocco, but it does take you to some of its main highlights, including its four imperial cities. Fez, Marrakesh, Meknès and Rabat have all been capital cities of Morocco and are all connected by the country’s rail network, which is operated by ONCF. ONCF has a great English website with a journey planner and an online ticket sales platform (though it’s just as easy to buy tickets at the station). So, follow me for a very regal train tour of Morocco.

Fez

Morocco’s second biggest city (after Casablanca) is home to the largest medina in the world. Wandering through its endless maze of medieval alleys is a guarantee for getting hopelessly lost. Even Google Maps cannot come to the rescue here. But it’s all part of the fun. Not so fun are the countless hustlers – young guys and even little boys – who will try everything to get money from you. Mostly by convincing you that you’re lost and that they will show you the way (by going around in circles). If you do need directions, ask a local hotel or shop owner and often they will fetch someone to take you to your destination.

a dark alleyway with a minaret tower in the background
Getting lost in the biggest medina in the world is a guarantee

The hassling aside, Fez is a mesmerising city that takes you back in time. Full of hidden city palaces, markets and religious monuments you will never get bored of exploring this place. Do check out the Chouara Tannery, the oldest tannery in the world, where they have been producing leather since the 11thcentury. It’s quite a scene (just ignore the smell). 

Though often hidden, beauty is everywhere in Fez. The best way to discover it is simply by hitting the streets and spontaneously stumbling onto it. There are some gorgeous examples of medieval Moorish architecture, including a number of beautiful mosques and madrasas (theological schools). 

a lavishly decorated Moroccan door
Everywhere you go in Fez you stumble on gorgeous examples of Moroccan architecture

Tourism in Fez is not as well developed as in Marrakesh, but as more and more visitors are finding their way to this imperial city, new restaurants, cafes and hotels are popping up. Among them are a number of beautifully renovated spaces. Take The Ruined Garden for instance. This little cafe with a peaceful garden is a lovely oasis in the heart of the city. And if you’re looking for the full Moroccan experience, book a room at Dar Bensouda. Located inside the medina, this historic house has been sympathetically restored and turned into a boutique hotel. I loved its tranquil courtyards, brilliant low-key restaurant and hamam. And with its minimalist design that let’s the old Islamic architecture come to the fore, it must be one of the most beautiful places to stay in Fez.

Meknès

30-minute train ride away from Fez is the imperial city of Meknès. It’s not for nothing that this place received a mention in the Lonely Planet’s top 10 cities to visit in 2019. With a blend of Moorish and European architecture, Meknès is more than worth a stop en route from Fez to Rabat. Sultan Moulay Ismail – a direct ancestor of Morocco’s current King – made Meknès the capital of Morocco in 1672 and turned it into one of the country’s most regal and important cities. 

Moroccan woodwork with miniscule decoration

Today, you’ll find some of Morocco’s most impressive imperial buildings and structures in and near the old medina. Moulay Ismail’s royal palace, Dar El Makhzen, is one of them. It’s surrounded by a fortified wall with a number of breath-taking city gates, including the Bab Berdaine and Bab El Khemis gates. But the most lavish of them all is the Bab Mansour gate. It’s the grandest gateway in Morocco and arguably in all of Africa. 

I visited this part of Morocco early March, when it was pouring down with rain almost non-stop for 5 days. As a result, I sadly decided to skip Meknès (hence the lack of pictures), but I’m adamant to return!

Moroccan mosaic
Moroccan mosaics

Rabat

In less than 2 hours by train from Meknès you will reach Morocco’s current capital: Rabat. In many ways, Rabat is a breath of fresh air. Its medina may not be that impressive, but the newer part of the city is incredibly well-kept and clean. Situated on the Atlantic Coast, it’s also a city with a lovely seaside breeze and panoramic views. And great seafood tagines of course! What’s more, there’s none of the hassling you experience in Morocco’s more touristy places. What a relieve! It makes Rabat a nice place for a short break from the hustle and bustle of the other Moroccan cities. 

Rays of sunlght shining through a market roof
One of the souqs in Rabat’s medina

There’s plenty to do and see here, too. The medina has some pretty corners, but Rabat’s most iconic sights can be found in the kasbah, or citadel. From the outside, the kasbah is an imposing seaside fortress with a lush Andalusian garden. Inside, it’s a charming, though somewhat quiet white- and blue-washed village. Instagram success guaranteed!

White- and blue-washed houses
White- and blue-washed houses in the kasbah of Rabat

I’d recommend staying the night in Rabat so that you have some time to explore the city before continuing your train journey the following day. I stayed in the beautiful Riad El Maati, a boutique riad in the medina with a small patio garden surrounded by spacious, comfortable rooms. A real treat!

A riad courtyard with wooden doors and a garden
The beautiful courtyard of Riad El Maati in Rabat

Marrakesh

From Rabat Ville station it takes around 4 hours and 15 minutes to get to Marrakesh. Or at least, that’s what the official timetable says. My train needed a bit more than that (an hour or so), but since I wasn’t in a rush, I wasn’t too bothered about the delay. 

Arriving in Marrakesh feels like entering a different, more exotic world. It’s a place where all of Morocco’s clichés come together. It’s sunnier, dryer, and the architecture here is characterised by more intense terracotta colours. Dominating the city’s skyline is the 12thcentury Koutoubia Mosque. Next to it is the legendary Djemaa El Fna square, which has been a melting pot of activity for over a thousand years. As the sun sets, food vendors and street performers take over and the space turns into one big open-air restaurant and circus. Scattered across the square, storytellers, musicians, henna tattoo artists and performers with snakes or monkeys (sadly) are all keen to share their stunts. 

Story tellers performing open-air at night in Marrakesh
At night, the legendary Djemaa El Fna square turns into a giant open-air circus with performances from storytellers, henna tattoo artists and musicians

During the day, Marrakesh is just as captivating. The medina is filled with souqs, small shops and cafes. Although it’s easier to navigate around here then in the medina of Fez, chances are you will get lost. Take a break and enjoy panoramic views at one of the several roof terraces in the medina, such as the famous Café des Epices or nearby Nomad. Great Moroccan food can be found everywhere, but I loved the dishes, vibes and decor at Le Salama.

Perhaps the biggest architectural highlights of the medina are the Ben Youssef Madrasa and the Bahia Palace. The Ben Youssef Madrasa was once the largest Islamic college in North Africa and is supposed to be one of the most splendid examples of Moroccan architecture. Unfortunately it was closed due to renovations when I was there and will remain so until end-2019. Luckily, you can get more than your fair share of Moorish architecture at the nearby Bahia Palace. This 19thcentury palace complex is comprised of countless rooms opening up to mosaic-tiled courtyards. A must when in Marrakesh!

sunlight shining onto a lavishly decorated Moorish gate
The Bahia Palace in Marrakesh is a must-see

But Marrakesh is not just the medina. There are some incredibly beautiful sights outside the old town, too. These include the Saadian tombs, a royal mausoleum, and the remains of the El Badi Palace, both dating back to the 16thcentury Saadian dynasty. Also don’t miss the bright and serene Jardin Majorelle and the next-door Yves Saint Laurent Museum

a fluorescent blue plastered wall with Moroccan motives
Fluorescent blue is one of the major themes in the Jardin Marjorelle

With so much to experience, reserve at least a few days for visiting Marrakesh. The big question is, of course, where to stay? Marrakesh is spoiled with the most stunning riads, both inside and outside the medina. Check out blogs like these for ideas and inspiration. Picking the perfect riad is almost impossible, given the amount of choice. But that only provides you with just another reason to come back to this inspiring part of Africa.

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