Place Jamaa el Fna à Marrakech

Discover Morocco's imperial cities


Discovering Morocco means exploring its history. Its cities have made its history: any time a new dynasty came to power, it founded a city or established its seat there. And, this is how Fez, Marrakech, Meknes and Rabat, Morocco's imperial cities, were created.

La Méridionale whisks you off to enter the world of this millennial cultural heritage through its three weekly Marseille-Tanger-Med crossings. Board with your car, your motorbike, your campervan or your motor home on one of our friendly-sized ships to Morocco. As soon as you arrive in Tangier, you can visit Morocco as you please and plan your own trip through Morocco's imperial cities.

Fez, "the Queen of the Maghreb" and imperial city

Fez is the first of Morocco's four imperial cities. It was created in 789 by Sultan Idriss 1st, also known as Moulay Idriss. He is also credited with founding the kingdom. When he died, his son continued developing Fez but chose to build on the other bank of the wadi. Fez, imperial city, reigned over the country until 1069. It was in this year that its two parts were united.

Fez boasts the oldest medina in Morocco, and it's also the country's largest.
Its 1,100 alleyways are listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. A trip to the heart of Morocco's imperial cities obviously rhymes with palaces. And there's a host of them in Fez: Glaoui Palace, Mnebhi Palace, the Royal Palace to name but three… Some are not open to the public, yet you can still admire their decorated façades.

Morocco's oldest imperial city grew, offering its hospitality to Muslims fleeing Córdoba, Tunisians expelled from Kairouan and Jews in exile. Their know-how and their culture continue to characterize this metropolis of a million inhabitants. You just need to wander through the Carpenters' souk, in the Nejjarine complex to notice this.
Here, craftspeople sculpt wood and a museum is devoted to their trade.

If you're resistant to things that could make you queasy, then venture through the tanners' district.
Here, skins, hides and leather are worked in the middle of the river and the lime vats. But beware, the smell can be overwhelming! To recover your breath, take time out in Jnan Sbil Park and smell the fragrances of 3,000 different species organized in themed gardens.

Tanneries Chouara au cœur de la médina de Fès
Tanneries Chouara au cœur de la médina de Fès

Marrakech, "the Ochre City" and imperial city

Marrakech replaced Fez as the capital under the sovereignty of the  Almoravid sultan, Youssef Ibn Tachfin, in 1062. The city of seven saints was the seat of the Almoravid, Almohad and Saadian dynasties.

You can delight in its glorious past by visiting El Badi Palace, also known as Bahia Palace, where history takes on its full meaning in front of the Saadian Tombs. The princes who reigned over the ochre city for more than a century are buried here.

Whenever you wonder what you should visit in Morocco, Marrakech, the ultimate in imperial cities, is often the first answer that pops into your head. This jewel of the kingdom, renowned for its heritage and its nightlife, is a must. Your immersion begins at Place Jemaa El-Fna. Onlookers, storytellers and snake charmers mix with the stalls and the cafés at the very heart of the medina. At the same time, traders and customers bargain for good deals in the souk under the minaret of the imposing Koutoubia mosque.

But, Marrakech is also an up-to-the-minute metropolis, as portrayed in the western-style Gueliz district. Here, you can explore Jardin Majorelle with its highly-photogenic blue as well as the museums dedicated to fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent and to contemporary African art.

Les Jardins de la Menara à Marrakech, aux portes de l'Atlas
Les Jardins de la Menara à Marrakech, aux portes de l'Atlas

Meknes, "the City of Olives" and imperial city

Meknes was founded during the Middle Ages and saw its destiny overturned when the Alaouite sultan, Moulay Ismaïl, decided to make it the country's capital in 1672. The sovereign, an admirer of Louis XIV and who some consider as a megalomaniac, undertook to transform the city into a Moroccan Versailles.

Unfortunately, invasions and the 1755 earthquake meant that only a few traces of this splendour survived. The Royal Palace is a ruin today. Only the huge stables can still be visited. Legend has it that, at the time, the sovereign housed 12,000 horses here.

The monarch's last place of dwelling also welcomes the public, even visitors who are not Muslim. Although they cannot access the burial chamber where Moulay Ismaïl, his wife and their son lie, they can however admire the mausoleum antechamber that has retained all its splendour.
Meknes, nicknamed "the City of a Hundred Minarets", could also be the city of a hundred gates. Bab Masour el-Aleuj, deemed by many as the most exquisite in the kingdom, Bab Berdaine, its two towers and its twin Bab El Khemis reveal the power of a bygone era.

Meknes, neglected when the sultan dies in 1727, got a new lease of life at the beginning of the 20th century. The Ismaili capital became one of the most important garrisons under the French protectorate. Meknes stud farms and the racetrack, which now host 270 animals, bear witness to this period. Those who are interested can come to admire the stallions and ride horses here.

Médersa Bou Inania - École coranique située au centre de la Médina de Meknès
Médersa Bou Inania - École coranique située au centre de la Médina de Meknès

Rabat, "the Victory Camp" and imperial city

The final stage of your tour of Morocco's imperial cities takes you to Rabat. This city, inhabited since prehistoric times, had to wait until the 20th century to become the capital.
Your journey through time begins in Sala, two kilometres from the city centre. Here, you can get a glimpse of the ruins of the Roman baths, mausoleums and minarets, set amidst flowers and storks, behind the walls of the Chellah necropolis.

Now, it's time to head to the kasbah. Once you step through the Udayas' gateway, built in the 12th century, bougainvillea and white and blue façades will guide you to the Semaphore platform. Enjoy the vista over the Atlantic Ocean then stroll through the Andalusian garden to reach the National Jewellery Museum.

Perhaps the treasures displayed here make you want to wear gold? If so, then head for Rue des Consuls. Here you will find jewellers, antique dealers and even furniture and fabric shops set up in European-style dwellings. The architecture of the rest of the medina is much more typical of Morocco and imperial cities.
Rabat is Morocco's current imperial city. This is where Mohammed VI lives. Although you cannot visit his palace, you can, however, admire its façade. And, while you're in the new town, take time to visit the Museum of History and Civilizations as well as the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The first museum showcases archaeological treasures dating from the Neolithic period to today. The second centre stages the country's painters, graffiti artists, photographers and sculptors.

La tour Hassan à Rabat constitue le minaret d'une mosquée inachevée du XIIe siècle
La tour Hassan à Rabat constitue le minaret d'une mosquée inachevée du XIIe siècle

Head off and visit Morocco's imperial cities with La Méridionale. You will find everything you need on-board our ferry to Morocco during your Marseille-Tanger-Med crossing. Our cabins are equipped with private bathrooms and we invite you to indulge in our delicious cuisine, imagined with fresh produce, which includes halal-certified dishes.