Rabat may be Morocco’s capital city, but it’s little-known to tourists, writes Lara Brunt.

Mention Morocco and most people instantly think of Marrakesh, with its spice-scented souks and rose-hued city walls.

Whereas the fabled Red City teems with tourists, not many make the journey north to Rabat, the country's capital. More fool them, as the coastal city is one of Morocco's best-kept secrets.

Situated on the mouth of the Bou Regreg River and bordered by the Atlantic, Rabat has a rich history dating as far back as the 8th century BC, with the Phoenicians, Romans, Berbers and Arabs all leaving their marks.

The city encompasses the Ville Nouvelle (New Town), with its handsome colonial buildings and palm-fringed boulevards built by the French in the early 20th century, and the historic old town encircled by 12th-century walls and ramparts.

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A modern tram connects the capital to its whitewashed sister city of Sale across the river. Since independence in 1956, the twin cities have been the seat of the Moroccan government and the monarchy.

"Rabat is changing a lot, but in a good way," says Ali Younes, owner of Riad Zyo. "Traditions have changed, but we are inventing new traditions, too."

Younes' riad is a case in point. Located in the medina (old town), it is a fresh take on the traditional Moroccan house built around a courtyard. Originally from Fez, Younes has transformed the former post office into a sleek, light-filled boutique B&B. There are traditional touches, such as intricately carved wooden doors and polished tadelakt (lime plaster), but the styling is restrained and contemporary.

"I told my architect I wanted a Moroccan look for the 21st century," he says.
Breakfast is served in the ground-floor dining room overlooking the courtyard pool. Make sure you try r'zatte el quadi (judge's turban), spaghetti-thin dough, pan-fried and drizzled with honey, and the crumpet-like beghrir.

The city is still getting used to tourists, so finding an English-speaking guide is quite a challenge. Younes arranges for Mustafa, a friendly 50-something local, to show us the sights. We start in the oldest part of the city, the clifftop Kasbah des Oudaias overlooking the Atlantic. The fortress is easily the city's most atmospheric quarter, with brilliant white and blue houses built by Muslim refugees from Spain giving it a distinctly Andalusian feel.

Whereas we had sweated in Marrakesh, the sea breeze keeps us cool.

We stop for a glass of gunpowder tea with mint and lots of sugar at Cafe Maure overlooking the river, then stroll down the hill and into the carpet souk, where we're blissfully ignored, unlike Marrakesh's markets. We continue on past hole-in-the-wall tailors and Berbers wearing djellabas, the traditional loose-fitting robe with hood.

Next stop is Le Tour Hassan, Rabat's most famous landmark. When Sultan Yacoub El-Mansour made Rabat his capital in the late 12th century, he embarked on an ambitious project to build what would have been the second-largest mosque of its time. The sultan died before the mosque was finished and much of it was flattened by an earthquake in 1755. Its half-completed minaret and pillars are all that remain.

Near the tower is the stunning Mausoleum of Mohammed V, which holds the tombs of the current king's grandfather, father and uncle. It is richly decorated with zellij (colourful mosaic tiles), gold leaf and hand-carved cedar wood.

Mustafa waves us back to the car and we make the short drive to Chellah, the remains of the old Roman city of Sala Colonia. Overgrown and crumbling, the scattered ruins include a main road that passes through a triumphal arch and past the Jupiter Temple, and ending at the forum.

The city was abandoned in 1154 in favour of Sale.

The real treat, however, is returning to Riad Zyo and relaxing on the lavender-lined roof terrace, listening to the call to prayer. Rabat's subtle charm has won us over.

CHECKLIST
Getting there
Emirates flies to from Auckland to Casablanca (via Dubai) with daily A380 services. Return Economy Class fares start from $2339.

Rail operator ONCF operates regular trains from Casablanca to Rabat - the trip takes about one hour.

Accommodation
Riad Zyo has rooms from $150 a night, including breakfast. They can arrange a driver for about four hours for approx $30.