If you have a couple of nights to spend in Morocco, should you stay in Casablanca or Rabat? Comparing vibes, sights, nightlife, shopping, and lodging in the two cities
If you travel to Morocco, chances are you’ll arrive and leave through either Casablanca or Rabat. You may then travel around Marrakech, Fes, or the desert provinces. In general, you’ll have one or two nights (or perhaps a full day) to spend visiting Casablanca or Rabat on arrival or before leaving Morocco. Which of these two cities would you best spend your time in?
Casablanca is a much bigger and more ebullient city with more nightlife and places to go out. Culture-wise, it has the renowned Hassan II mosque and the colonial “art-deco” city center. Rabat is smaller, cleaner, quieter, and more traditional. It has more monuments, such as the Mohamed V Mausoleum, the Tour Hassan, the Chellah, and a traditional old town by the ocean.
Casablanca and Rabat each have their own personality and some tourist value, albeit unconventional one. Casablanca is an “aggressive” big city with lots of energy but also lots of noise and pollution. Rabat is more easily visited by foot, whereas Casablanca can be a bit overwhelming for a short stay. Hint: if you have a day or two to spend, you can easily manage to get a feel of both cities in a relatively short time.
|ACCESS||International flights||1.5h drive/1h train from Casa|
|VIBE||Hectic, aggressive||Mellow, quiet|
|SIGHTS||Mosque, Art deco district||Many UNESCO monuments|
|OUTDOORS||Large beaches||Small beaches, forest, lake|
|WEATHER||Pleasant but humid||Pleasant but humid|
|DAY TRIPS||El Jadida, Azemmour||Bouznika, Salé, Kenitra|
Casablanca or Rabat: access & transportation
Casablanca has the largest and busiest airport in Morocco, with most international flights arriving there. Rabat also has its own international airport but fewer long-distance flights go through it. Casablanca’s Mohamed V airport is about 30km away and a 45-minute drive from the city (traffic can get heavy). The Rabat-Salé airport is closer to Rabat center.
Casablanca to Rabat is a 90-minute drive (city center to city center on a busy day) via the highway. Note: if you haven’t driven in Morocco before, be prepared for quite a ride as people really drive like maniacs!
A more mellow way to travel between Casablanca and Rabat is by train – the high-speed train now goes all the way from Casa to Tangiers, though the train doesn’t go full speed between Casa and Rabat. The good thing about taking the train from Casablanca to Rabat or vice-versa is that you land right to the center of the city. Both cities now have brand new, European-class trains and stations with all the services you need. The fares are cheap by European standards, though.
Casablanca or Rabat: vibe & people
This is one of the areas where Casablanca and Rabat radically differ, even though they’re only about 60 miles away from each other.
Casablanca (almost 3.5M inhabitants) is a large, bustling, chaotic commercial city. The most striking aspects of Casablanca are probably the dense and chaotic traffic, air pollution, and sheer wealth living side-by-side with a large concentration of impoverished population. Casablanca is an astonishing mix of traditional and modern, westernized people.
In Casablanca, you’ll see big business and luxury standing right next to all those scraping a few dirhams to survive every day. People in Casablanca are constantly hustling for a living, and everyone is rushing around in a rough and aggressive style. On weekends though, everyone goes for a stroll in the La Corniche and Ain Diab seafront districts.
Rabat has a more mellow vibe. It’s a much smaller city (under 1M inhabitants) and is the center of Morocco’s political and diplomatic life. As a result, the city is highly monitored by the police. In general, people in Rabat are quieter and more respectful than in Casablanca. The pace is a bit slower, although it’s picking up lately. The city extends on a much smaller surface compared to Casablanca, is generally cleaner and safer (less hustle).
Casablanca or Rabat: sights & culture
Travelers often feel neither Casablanca nor Rabat can compare with Fes or Meknes from a cultural standpoint. However, both Casablanca and Rabat do have something to offer for a 1-2 day visit.
Casablanca’s cultural sights
Casablanca’s famed Hassan II mosque is often described as breathtaking, the largest mosque in Africa with its hand-crafted marble walls and its 60-story-high minaret overlooking the ocean. It’s a Moorish architecture gem that’s really worth a visit.
Another Casablanca famous attraction is the old art deco district in the city center, with its early 20th-century French colonial architecture. The old Medina “Bab Marrakech”, Casablanca’s traditional old town and market, is also worth a visit – although travelers tend to prefer the Medinas and souks of Tangier or Marrakech.
The “new Medina” or “Habbous” quarter of Casablanca is another more recent and more disciplined traditional town where you can also shop for traditional Moroccan handicraft.
Rabat’s cultural sights
Rabat has more to offer than Casablanca in terms of monuments. The city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its rich history. The Chellah, for example, is a fantastic fortified medieval Muslim necropolis as well as an ancient Roman colony citadel, and previously, a Phoenician trading emporium. It’s often described as a gem with its impressive ruins and lush gardens.
The Kasbah des Oudayas is a 10th-century fortress in Rabat’s old town (Medina). It offers panoramic views of the ocean and the river, as well as the adjacent Andalusian gardens and the authentic city of Salé.
The Mohamed V Mausoleum contains the tombs of the Moroccan king and his two sons. It’s a masterpiece of modern Muslim architecture. The Hassan Tower nearby is a huge 12th-century minaret, another very popular tourist attraction. Rabat also has some excellent museums.
Most of the cultural sights in Rabat are located in the same area around the Medina so they are easy to reach and visit by foot. The souks in Rabat’s Medina, unlike those of Casablanca (much more aggressive), are mostly hassle-free and generally offer a pleasant experience.
Casablanca or Rabat: nature & outdoors
Casablanca has wide sandy beaches both within and outside the city. The beaches stretch for a few miles along the Corniche – the city’s ocean promenade. In spite of the city’s efforts, however, beaches in Casablanca are generally not very clean, except for a few areas which are cleaned up regularly. Even in these parts, it’s hard to fight against the trash constantly brought by the tide.
The Casablanca Corniche has just been redone and has a brand new and super smooth bike paths, a fully paved boardwalk right on the beach, and urban fitness and family recreation equipment. It’s now a very nice place to hang out. Another brand new large boardwalk and park has just been completed from the Hassan II mosque all the way to the luxury restaurants by the Casablanca Lighthouse.
The beaches in Rabat are traditionally cleaner than those in Casablanca (though Casa’s main urban beach is improving) though generally smaller and rockier, often large coves between jetties. The Oudaya beach is quite nice and pleasant for relaxing and sunbathing.
Rabat has a couple of large green parks and botanical gardens. Casablanca has long lacked significant green areas but the newly revamped Parc de la Ligue Arab and the “Central” park of the brand new Casa Anfa business district (work in progress) will change things.
Both Casa and Rabat have surrounding forests and lakes but Rabat’s are much better conserved and cleaner, whereas Casablanca’s natural environment is constantly being eaten up by new building projects.
Casablanca or Rabat: food & nightlife
Casablanca has more nightlife to offer than Rabat and has a very good dining scene. The trendy spots in Casablanca mostly revolve around the restaurants and clubs of La Corniche (oceanfront area) and the posh Gauthier, Racine, and Boulevard d’Anfa areas.
There are all kinds of restaurants and pubs, from cheap traditional to music pubs to luxury gourmet. Many fashionable European restaurant and pub chains are present in Casablanca. There are also lots of trendy pubs and bars, mostly located in the up and coming areas of the city.
Most of the restaurants and pubs in Rabat are concentrated around the city center (Hassan district) near the riverfront, with a few more in the Agdal area. There are some nice restaurants including a few upscale ones e.g. El Palatino tapas bar. However, there’s much less choice in Rabat compared to Casablanca.
In the spring, both Casablanca and Rabat organize several music festivals which attract a lot of people. There are some free concerts in public places, but also more and more expensive paid concerts with international artists which only the wealthy can afford to see. On the large concert scene, Rabat wins over Casa with its glamorous Mawazine festival taking place in beautiful settings near the city’s gorgeous monuments.
Casablanca or Rabat: shopping
Casablanca is the epicenter of shopping in Morocco. The most iconic places for shopping in Casa are without a doubt the Morocco Mall and the newer Marina Shopping Mall, the largest commercial malls in Africa. In general though, a lot of well-known brands for all sorts of goods are present in Casablanca. Among the most popular modern shopping zones are the Twin Center area and Maarif district, and the “Triangle d’Or” area with its fashion and luxury stores.
Casablanca also has two large informal markets where you can buy just about anything, from fashion to car accessories to electronics.
Rabat also has many commercial centers and stores, but being a smaller city it doesn’t have as many options and breadth of products as Casablanca does. Nevertheless, shopping for fashion or traditional goods is typically easier and more pleasant in Rabat – less hassle than in Casablanca. Most of the modern shopping in Rabat is concentrated in the Agdal-Ryad area which has the most trendy shops and small commercial centers.
Casablanca or Rabat: lodging
Where to stay is obviously a key aspect when deciding whether to spend a night in Casablanca or Rabat. Casablanca has a huge selection of hotels spread out across the city, from basic hostels to 5-star palaces. Which area to choose for a night depends on your personal tastes, but here are a few key suggestions:
- La Corniche / Ain Diab: oceanfront, lots of restaurants & clubs
- Boulevard d’Anfa: central for business and hip restaurants
- Maarif / Twin Center: great for shopping
- Gauthier: trendy with plenty of cool restaurants and bars
- Bourgogne: relaxed and calm with a hip side and two markets
- Mohamed V blvd: old Casa/art deco area, a bit shabby at night
- Avenue des Far/Casa Port: modern business area, taxi to get around
- Sidi Maarouf: closer to the airport, business district, quiet at night
Rabat travelers generally prefer to stay around the city center, i.e. near the Old Medina and the Bouregreg river, so they can easily walk to most sights. Some travelers choose traditional riads in that area, e.g.Riad Marhaba, for cultural immersion. Others prefer more modern hotels such as the Balima or the Tour Hassan which have very central locations.
Further from the Rabat center in a residential area (near Hay Riad) is Villa Mandarine which many travelers find beautiful. If you stay there, however, you’ll typically grab a taxi (cheap and easy) to get to the old town and tourist attractions.
Casablanca or Rabat: day trips
If you need to stay more than one or two night in either Casablanca or Rabat, there are a few nice day trips you can take. From Casablanca, you can drive South (1h+) to Azemmour, a traditional fortified town on the estuary of the Oum-er-Rbia river. You can also push further South to El Jadida, a small city on the ocean with a beautiful beachfront, good seafood, and a nice old town with an ancient Portuguese cistern you can visit.
From Rabat, you can drive South to Bouznika, a posh summer resort with a beautiful beach and luxury condos where wealthy families from Casablanca and Rabat establish their summer quarters. Alternatively, you can drive North to Moulay Bousselham for its lagoon, beach, and nature reserve (not so well maintained), and to Kenitra, another quiet beach town.
If you only have one day to spend, you can choose to visit Casablanca’s Hassan II mosque and the art deco area for half the day, then grab a cab to the nearby train station and head to Rabat. There you can walk around the Oudaya Medina and the Hassan district to visit the monuments. Of course, you can also do it the other way around if you have a flight to catch in Casa.
If you have a free night, you can pick a hotel on the Corniche in Casablanca to enjoy the beachfront and its clubs, or one in the Gauthier district to get a feel of the trendy scene. At night, you can easily grab a cab from one area to the other and get the best of both worlds.
Alternatively, you can choose to spend a quiet evening in Rabat walking around the Oudayas and the beach, and having dinner in a nice restaurant in the area.
(1) Featured: “100_5128” (CC BY 2.0) by Athena Lao
(2) “Tea man” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by nguy1
(3) “Mosquée Hassan II #4” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by kumar303
(4) “30484-Rabat” (CC BY 2.0) by xiquinhosilva
(5) “31084-Casablanca” (CC BY 2.0) by xiquinhosilva
(6) “Rabat 9” (CC BY 2.0) by grantsj
(7) “View From the Terrace” (CC BY 2.0) by ephidryn
(8) “Apartment Living” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by nguy1