5 Best Imperial Cities Of Morocco To Explore

Morocco is such a feast for the traveler’s senses. It’s a country of variety, with mountains, deserts, coastlines, Kasbah valleys, and intriguing nature. From place to place, you’ll constantly witness new cultures, languages, foods, and variations of the minty Moroccan tea.

But Morocco also has a range of exciting, vibrant, and historic cities. Atlantic cities like Casablanca, blue-painted hillside towns like Chefchaouen, or the Spanish-influenced Tangier. Each of Morocco’s cities is intriguing, and each has its personality.

Four of the country’s most famous cities are commonly referred to as the Imperial Cities. All have, at one point in time, been the capital of the country, each one has ancient medinas and royal palaces.

Yet each has its unique vibe, from Rabat’s laid-back coastal feel to the small yet chaotic Meknes, the huge and cultural Fes, to the red painted walls and the wild square of Marrakech.

Blending a rich and fascinating history with colorful and exotic culture, these cities dazzle with their extraordinary wealth of impressive visitor attractions. Would you like to find out more? 

The Best Imperial Cities Of Morocco

What Is A Moroccan Imperial City?

Morocco’s imperial cities are its four historical capitals: Fes, Marrakesh, Meknes, and Rabat. Built for the king and his courtiers, these metropolises included impressive palaces and sophisticated irrigation systems and reflected the rulers’ grand ambitions.

It contains the palaces that housed the imperial family and shrines, gardens, and villas for mandarins.

One of the important is that visitors can enjoy getting lost amid their maze-like medinas, which have been made UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Also, enticing Arabic culture with its palaces, madrasas, and mosques waits for you around every corner.

Are Morocco Imperial Cities Safe?

Morocco is generally considered safe for Western tourists, but there are a few safety concerns. Much of Morocco’s economy depends on tourism, and many locals have decided to prey on visitors with scams and ‘tourist traps’ that can catch even a seasoned traveler by surprise. 

Petty crime and pickpocketing are common problems in some of the Imperial cities in Morocco, especially around Rabat. Keep your valuables safe by carrying small amounts of cash, not wearing expensive jewelry, and keeping money or valuables out of sight and in easy-to-reach pockets.

When purchasing goods at markets, be prepared for aggressive begging and selling tactics from vendors, especially if they know you have a lot of cash on you. An aggressive approach to begging is also quite common around ATMs in tourist hotspots. Above all, leave your passport, and spare cash locked securely in your hotel safe.

When sightseeing around tourist hotspots in Morocco’s Imperial cities, you may come across people who say they are official ‘tour guides’ or a ‘helpful locals’. Be wary of these services – there are many unlicensed tour guides, especially in Fes and Marrakech, who will offer to take you – at an inflated price – to establishments where they make a commission on any purchases made. 

Do your research on city tours, and if you get approached on the streets, be firm and direct in declining their offer. Sometimes, they may still demand payment even if they just followed behind you for a section of your sightseeing. They may say ‘no money, but they’ll want to be paid.

Like many countries around the world, taxis in Morocco are often a tourist trap. When traveling by taxi in Morocco, always negotiate a price upfront, as many drivers will inflate the price substantially when you arrive at your destination.

In some imperial cities, particularly at night, women may feel uncomfortable with the approaches or attention from locals. Unfortunately, verbal harassment on the streets is relatively common in Morocco, and women can be targeted explicitly if walking alone at any time of the day. 

Female travelers, especially by themselves, can attract unwanted attention from men on the streets and have an increased chance of being followed, accosted, and sometimes assaulted. If possible, travel in groups of three or more and keep to well-lit streets when moving.

What To Pack For A Good Experience In The Imperial Cities Of Morocco?

It can be a bit overwhelming to know what to pack when going to a country that is very different from your own, especially an amazing country like Morocco.

Traveling to visit Morocco’s Imperial cities is a joy, you get to meet people from different walks of life, experience different weather conditions, and get a taste of the life people live outside your hometown or country.

A vacation or visit will generally last more than just a few days, of course, which is why you need to make sure everything is neatly organized, well-kept, and within reach when you need it the most.

Below is a comprehensive list of items to pack before setting out to the Morocco Imperial Cities:


  • Visas – if needed for the trip
  • Passport
  • International driving license – in case you plan on hiring a car
  • Driving license
  • Photocopies of vital documents – keep these separately (one at home and a copy emailed to yourself)


On most trips, you carry your luggage, though you probably won’t be walking long distances carrying it – likely less than 30 minutes. A lot of travelers conveniently carry their luggage in a backpack. Things to take include:

  • Padlocks and keys
  • Daypack / small backpack
  • Soft luggage, bag with wheels and straps, or backpack


When going on a trip to any of the Imperial cities in Morocco, pack clothes that are easy to wash and dry up fast. Women should pack skirts that cover the knees completely while packing scarves for visiting places of worship such as churches or mosques. 

Here are some of the essential clothing items to pack for your imperial city trip:

  • Jeans, shorts or trousers
  • Practical walking shoes
  • T-shirts and cotton shirts
  • Socks and underwear
  • Long trousers
  • Toiletries
  • Sweater, warm anorak or microfleece
  • Dress Clothes – for nice restaurants


  • Camera
  • Extra Batteries
  • Phone
  • Phone Charger

For Wet / Rainy Weather Conditions:

  • Small umbrella
  • Waterproof bags; rain protection while walking
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Raincoat
  • Windproof and waterproof jacket

5 Best Morocco Imperial Cities To Explore

When visiting Morocco, one of the great cities to visit and experience is the historical and world heritage sites. Here are some of the best Moroccan imperial cities that you should visit:

1. Fes (Athens of Africa)

Fes Imperial City

The oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities, Fes, was founded in 789 by Idriss I, who was fleeing the Abbasids of Baghdad. He led local Berbers in the region’s conquest and established the Kingdom of Morocco before being poisoned by the Abbasids.

In the 9th century, waves of immigrants from Spain (mainly Muslim families fleeing the Catholic Reconquista) and Tunisia brought expertise and wealth to the burgeoning city.

Fes reached its zenith as a center of learning and commerce in 1269 when the Merenids made it their new capital, and its reputation as an intellectual hub began to grow.

The city known as the ‘Athens of Africa’ was filled with many great buildings and monuments, including madrassas bearing a distinctive blend of Arab and Andalusian styles. It naturally became an important trading center. 

By the 16th century, the city had lost its capital status after the Wattasid Dynasty took over Fes with the support of the Turks. The Ottomans finally conquered the city in 1579. They moved the capital to Marrakech.

But during the 18th-century reign of Moulay Abdallah, Fes became the capital. In 1912, most of Morocco became a French protectorate, with Rabat as the capital. The Ville Nouvelle (new town) was built, characterized by wide, straight boulevards. 

Despite the ensuing neglect of the medina, the oldest and walled part of the city known as Fès el-Bali was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1981 – the first time an Islamic and Arab city had been accorded with the title. 

Interesting Facts About Fes City

  • Over 6,000 Jews were killed in Fes in 1033 in an incident known as the Fes massacre. 
  • There are more than 13,000 historic buildings in Fes. Among them are 11 madrassas, 320 mosques, 270 funduqs (traditional hotels), and more than 200 hammams, houses, and public ovens that are being protected and restored by the government via a new generation of skilled artisans. 
  • Until today, most Moroccans still regard Fes as the country’s historical, cultural and spiritual capital.

What to see in Fes?

Here are a few interesting things to see when visiting Fes city:

  • The Old Medina: the medina is the ancient, medieval city of Fez. High stone walls and large entry gates surround it. Inside is a narrow, winding labyrinth of alleyways lined with stall after stalls of local artisans purveying their colorful pottery, carpets, leather goods (for which the city is famous!), and more. You could easily spend 1-2 hours exploring the medina — or even more if you want to shop!
  • The Famous Leather Tanneries: Fez, Morocco, is famous for its leather tannery, and it’s one of the main tourist attractions in Fez. To get this view overlooking the tannery, you must enter one of the many leather shops surrounding the tannery. The shops have large balconies and viewing platforms over the tannery. However, there are a few things you should know first. On your way to the leather shops, you may encounter several persistent locals who will offer to guide you to the tannery or give you a tour. But they will want a very hefty tip for their services. You don’t need a guide or a tour to visit the shops, so just tell them “no thank you” and keep walking.
  • The Blue Gate: the medina of Fez, Morocco, is surrounded by large stone fortification walls, which once protected the city. One of the main entrances to the medina is an ornate mosaic-tiled blue gate. When you pass through the blue gate and enter the medina, the other side of the gate is green, which represents the color of Islam.
  • The Jnan Sbil Gardens: just outside the medina, about a 10-minute walk from the Blue Gate, is the beautiful, lush Jnan Sbil Gardens with a river, pond, and fountains. You could spend 30 minutes to an hour just wandering around the garden, or longer if you want to relax on one of the benches or have a picnic!

How to get there?

The best way to get from Marrakesh to Fes is to fly, which takes 2h 40m and costs MAD 550 – MAD 2,800. Alternatively, you can train, which costs MAD 300 – MAD 460 and takes 6h 53m, you could also bus, which costs MAD 310 – MAD 460 and takes 8h 39m.

2. Marrakech (The Red Imperial City)

Marrakech Imperial City

Most prestigious city among all imperial cities as it gives name to the whole country, therefore, it is known for being the tourist capital and the number one destination for trips to Morocco.

Its urban core is located in the Djemaa el Fna square, where you will be conquered by the Moroccan magic of jugglers, acrobats, and snake charmers. Its souks are among the best in the country, offering an infinite variety of food and drink.

The ideal time to visit Marrakech is from May to June. Nothing better than strolling through the lanes and narrow alleys of the old town, avoiding hot weather, sweat, and discomfort.

What to see in Marrakech?

Here are a few things you must see when visiting Marrakech imperial city:

  • The Koutoubia Mosque: it is the most important and one of the tallest buildings in Marrakech, It reaches 70 meters above sea level and is a spectacular viewpoint.
  • The Menara Gardens: they were built in the 12th century by the Almohads dynasty. The Menara gardens invite people to take advantage of the feeling of disconnection and inner calm, and if an unusual landscape accompanies that moment, much better!
  • El Badi Palace: meaning the incomparable palace, is a ruined palace located only a few meters from the square. It is in ruins, and only the esplanade can be visited. The palace today is a well-known tourist attraction, and Marrakesh Folklore Festival has taken place within the palace for many years.
  • The Saadian Tombs: they are located on the south part of the Kasbah Mosque and are an invaluable heritage from the time of the Great Sultan Ahmed Al Mansour.
  • Jemaa el Fna Square: here, you can enjoy various shows during the day. At dusk, popular restaurants begin to offer their specialties, so it is advisable to visit the square without haste and sit down to enjoy a typical dish in one of its many terraces that offers something to satisfy all tastes.

Interesting facts About Marrakech

  • Marrakech is Hollywood’s Second Home: throughout the years, Marrakech has served as a setting for big-budget Hollywood productions. The masterminds behind many golden era films would travel to Marrakech due to its scenery. One such film was The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), filmed at the Mamounia Hotel. More recent movies were also shot in Marrakech. The creators and cast of Sex and the City 2 (2010) sojourned to the city and filmed the movie at the Taj Palace. Also, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) was filmed in Marrakech at the Marrakech Stadium.
  • Spectacular Weather: the weather in Marrakech, like in the rest of Morocco, tends to be balmy and sun-soaked all year long—with a boiling period from June to September when temperatures peak above 30-degrees-celsius.
  • Multilingual Population: although most residents are either Arabic or Berber, Marrakesh is very multi-lingual – from business people to shopkeepers – most will be able to pinpoint your nationality before you utter a single word. For over 700 years, the most notable landmark in Marrakech has been the Koutoubia Mosque. At over 220 feet in height, this remarkable piece of Spanish and Moorish architecture is the source for the “adhan”, or Muslim call to prayer five times daily. Originally the mosque wasn’t properly aligned with Mecca, so additional construction was required to remedy the situation.

How to get there?

If traveling on a budget, bus routes 11, 12, 18, 20, and 33 get to downtown Marrakesh from the airport. Buses depart 500 meters from the terminals (at Avenue Guemassa). Bus 11 covers the route from the M’Hamid district to the long-distance bus station located in Bab Doukkala by Jeema El Fna.

3. Rabat (Morocco’s Capital)

Rabat Imperial City

Rabat is the capital of Morocco and is located on the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the river Bou Regreg. The city was made the administrative capital after the French invaded and occupied Morocco in 1912.

Rabat is also one of the four imperial cities of Morocco, along with Fes, Marrakesh, and Meknes, and with two million people is the nation’s second-largest city.

The city’s history went back to the Phoenician (present-day Lebanon and Syria) expansion about 3,000 years ago. Rabat was built in the tenth century near the ruin of an ancient Roman settlement near Salé.

During the mid-eleventh century, an Almohad sultan established a rabat, or citadel, for his army near Salé. In the 20th century, Rabat was invaded by the French, who established a protectorate there and opened it to extensive development to the south and west.

What to see in Rabat?

Here are a few interesting things to see when visiting Rabat city:

  • The Medina of Rabat: the medina and kasbah of Rabat are two different areas but connected. While much of Rabat is extremely modern, home to embassies and important government business, the medina still has reminders of a different kind of life. The medina here isn’t like the medinas of Marrakech or Fez, it’s much smaller, and you’ll likely see very few tourists. One special item to consider seeking out is a Rabati rug. The most typical style is a red rug with a rectangular pattern. The red is inlaid in the middle with a geometric design. There is also a border of another color (s). These rugs look much more like Turkish or Persian rugs than the more abstract rugs of the mountain tribes. 
  • Tower of Hassan: It is one of the three minarets built by the Almohads dynasty, and the others are the Koutoubia and the Giralda of Seville. It is intended to be the tallest mosque in the world, but the construction work stopped due to the death of its builder (Yacoub Al-Mansur).
  • The Kasbah of the Udayas: It is one of the city’s most beautiful areas and is not to be missed. It is made up of a series of walls, and once inside, you will discover it has its particular neighborhood with alleys full of houses painted with a peculiar blue color.
  • Rabat Zoo: a relatively new zoo opened in 2012, Rabat Zoo invites visitors to explore all the continents of the world in simulated mountains, deserts, savannahs, and rainforest habitats. Visitors can admire more than 130 species of animals. There is everything from giraffes to reptiles in this spacious zoo with a friendly and relaxing atmosphere. It’s an impressive find in the middle of a capital city and an activity sure to fill up at least half a day.

Interesting facts About Rabat

  • It used to be run by pirates: in the 17th century, Rabat was run by pirates under the Republic of Bou Regreg. These Barbary pirates used the city (along with its neighbor Salé) as a base for their attacks on ships in the area. The attacks were scaled back over the years, but the Republic didn’t fall apart until 1818. Austria was so mad after one attack that they bombarded the city with artillery in 1829 after a ship was lost in a pirate attack.
  • The city gets its name from a monastery: Rabat received its name from a ribat (similar to a monastery or citadel) guarded by Islamic holy warriors known as murabits. Sultan Yaqub al-Mansur built the city and named it Ribat al-Fath (Monastery of Conquest) after a victory over the Spanish in 1195.
  • It’s only been the capital for about 100 years: Rabat has been the capital of Morocco for over 100 years. When the French occupied Morocco, they relocated the capital to Rabat from Fes in 1912. They subsequently started building the modern city into what it is today around the old Medina. The population was less than 150,000 in 1950 and is now more than 1.5 million.

How to get there?

Morocco’s major airport is in Casablanca; however, there is a Rabat airport. Flights to Rabat are either domestic or limited flights from Europe. Chances are you’ll arrive in Rabat by land entry, train, bus, or car.

4. Meknes Imperial City

Meknes Imperial City

With the title of Imperial City and a UNESCO-stamped ancient medina, Meknes can rival the likes of Marrakesh, Rabat, and Fez. Yet, it needs help attracting the same loyal following of travelers.

But this scenic hilltop city has plenty to offer the curious visitor, from intricate gates to marvelous museums and mausoleums.

Despite being quieter, it is a vibrant city composed of the old (medina) and the new (ville nouvelle). The medina and the ville nouvelle offer a traveller a striking contrast just three miles apart, with the medina hosting historical wonders and the ville nouvelle boasting modern splendor. 

In the 17th century, the Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismaël decided to make Meknes one of Morocco’s most beautiful and powerful Imperial cities. And still, today, protected by around 40km of walls, it has preserved imposing monuments, including numerous mosques, which earn it its nickname of the “city of a hundred minarets”.

The city gets its name from the tribe ‘Meknessa’, which predominantly inhabited Eastern Morocco in the 8th century and was founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids and was treated as a military settlement; and later went on to become a capital under Sultan Moulay Ismail, who founded the great Alawite Dynasty. 

The entire city was built influenced by the Spanish-Moorish style of architecture and had a fascinating blend of Islamic and European styles, evidenced through the high walls with grand doors. Its grandeur inspires the wonder of all who visit the hilltop city today and reflects the architectural prowess of its creators. 

Meknes was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and its beauty has been carefully and delicately preserved. Even the building of the urban parts of the city sees a blend of Islamic and European architectural styles. 

What to see in Meknes?

Sightseeing in Meknes has a delightful charm that can only be explained if you’ve seen it yourself. So what should you see in Meknes?

Here are a few things to see when visiting Meknes city:

  • Place Hedim: place Hedim is the main square in Meknes, surrounding which you can find several beautiful and historically-significant buildings. Several alleyways lead into bustling markets, which are trendy tourist spots because evenings at the marketplaces are replete with snack vendors, games, and music. 
  • Sahrij Souani: the impressive Heri es-Souani is a set of buildings that served as the Imperial stables and granaries. The roofless buildings still have arched doorways you can stand under and get creative photos!
  • Bou Inania Medersa: the Bou Inania Medersa, an Islamic school of learning (medersa), was founded in the 14th century, and its architecture stands out because of its beautiful tile decorations. Climbing to the rooftop allows a scenic view of the medina and the Ville nouvelle.
  • Bab Al-Mansour: the Bab Al-Mansour is an exquisitely designed gate between Meknes’ Medina and Imperial City districts and was built in 1732. It is one of North Africa’s finest gateways that has survived through the ages. The gateway was never intended for usage but only to be displayed to visitors – and it is not difficult to see why it may have been something to be proud of! The Bab Al-Mansour is a stunning structure with intricately carved designs and tile work, which was representative of architectural design in Morocco at the time.

How to get there?

There is no direct connection from Fes Airport (FEZ) to Meknès. However, you can take the line 16 bus to Fes, take a walk to Fès, and then take the train to Meknes. Alternatively, you can take a taxi to Meknès.

5. Volubilis (Morocco Roman Ruines)

Volubilis Imperial City

Volubilis is one of the largest and most important imperial cities in Morocco, with the remains of settlements dating from the pre-Roman to the early Islamic periods. It was the capital of the Mauretanian kingdom under the reigns of Juba II and Ptolemy (A.D. 25 to 40).

Annexed by the Romans in A.D. 40, it was given the status of municipium and later the capital of Mauretania Tingitana. 

The city derived substantial wealth from agricultural products, but in 285, the Romans abandoned the region, and a portion of Volubilis was abandoned. With the arrival in 781 of Idriss I, the founder of Fez and considered the first Islamic ruler of Morocco, the city gained momentum again.

It was still occupied at the beginning of the eleventh century before its total abandonment shortly after that. Only recently, the site was managed by archaeologists with little or no expertise in tourism management or conservation.

In 1997, Volubilis was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its importance as a finely preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire. 

Interesting Facts About Volubilis

  • The ruined Roman city of Volubilis is the best-preserved archaeological site in Morocco. 
  • At its peak in the late 2nd century, Volubilis had around 20,000 inhabitants – a substantial population for a Roman provincial town.

What to see in Volubilis?

Here are a few things to see when visiting Volubilis Moroccan imperial city:

  • Historical Monuments: next to the House of Orpheus are the remains of Galen’s Thermal Baths. Although largely broken, they clearly show this Roman hammam’s highly developed underfloor heating (look for the low arches). Opposite the steam room are the communal toilets – where citizens could go about their business and chat simultaneously.
  • Houses with Mosaics: the House of Orpheus is the finest and largest home, containing a mosaic of Orpheus’s charming animals playing the lute and a dolphin mosaic in the dining room. Note the private hammam has a caldarium (hot room) with visible steam pipes, a tepidarium (warm room), and a frigidarium (cold room), as well as a solarium.

How to get there?

You can get to Moulay Idriss and Volubilis from Meknes by public bus, shared taxi, or rental car. If you’re more adventurous, hitchhiking is also possible. You can also go to Moulay Idriss on a guided day trip from Fez and combine a Meknes city tour with a trip to Moulay Idriss and Volubilis.

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Final Thoughts

Being part of the Moroccan tour is one of the best decisions you will ever make. You can visit a few places in the world that are worthwhile. Morocco is one such place, and the country is close to Europe but entirely different in terms of culture. 

The Imperial Cities of Morocco are not just historically significant but magnificent in beauty and style and are home to some of the best places to visit in Morocco. Don’t forget to bring your camera because you will wish you did if you fail.

The tour is short, but it promises several tremendous experiences at some of the best places to visit in Morocco that you will relive all lifelong.

Morocco Imperial Cities FAQs

What are the 4 imperial cities of Morocco?

Morocco’s imperial cities are Rabat, Marrakesh, Fez, and Meknes.

What Is the most famous imperial city in Morocco?

Marrakesh is the most famous and largest Moroccan imperial city. Widely considered the ultimate symbol of Morocco, Marrakesh was the capital city from 1071 to 1244 for briefer periods after that. 

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The Editorial Team

Optimos Travel is a travel blog to help you travel the world, and explore different lifestyles, traditions, foods, and everything in between.