Rabat becoming Morocco’s expat hotspot

The lack of attention for tourists and expats in Rabat is one of the biggest ways in which it differs from Marrakech.
Saturday 05/10/2019
Elizabeth Gribbs, an English teacher from the United States, poses for a photo in Rabat. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Gribbs)
Lots to discover. Elizabeth Gribbs, an English teacher from the United States, poses for a photo in Rabat. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Gribbs)

RABAT - Morocco’s capital Rabat is often described as “boring” by locals. It’s a city with government offices, the king’s palace and embassies but without nightlife or other attractions.

However, expats beg to differ. More foreigners in Morocco are choosing Rabat as their home base over Marrakech or Casablanca.

“Rabat is not boring at all,” Elizabeth Gribbs, an English teacher from the United States, said as she entered Rabat’s lively medina. Her light skin and blonde, curly hair stood out in the mass of Moroccans making their way through the narrow streets of the old city.

“Even if you live in a quiet neighbourhood in Rabat, you can always find areas with restaurants and cafes to go out and have fun,” Gribbs said.

Gribbs said she has been in Rabat for two years. When she arrived in Morocco four years ago, she settled in Tangier, in northern Morocco. However, after visiting Rabat, she decided to relocate.

“Tangier is beautiful but it’s small and you end up going to the same places over and over again,” she said. “Rabat has many different areas to discover.”

The city has mostly maintained its traditional vibe and atmosphere. There are men’s cafes on every corner, Moroccan flags and pictures of Moroccan King Mohammed VI in every office but Western influence is visible in a number of neighbourhoods.

In Agdal or Hassan, there are Americans and Europeans at almost every bar. Visitors can get a smoothie bowl or chai latte at a “hipster” American-style coffee house and buy alcohol in cafes and stores.

With its ancient Hassan tower and Kasbah, exotic gardens, beautiful seaside and historic mosques, Rabat has plenty to offer tourists.

However, with more than 2.5 million visitors last year, Marrakech has the title of Morocco’s top tourist destination. The city, north of Rabat, was dubbed the “Sahara’s Paris” by Winston Churchill 70 years ago and has since gained popularity among travellers across the globe but its status has recently subsided among Morocco’s expat community.

Aside from a couple stares and small children trying to sell her roses, the locals barely seemed to notice Gribbs as she walked through the market inside Rabat’s medina.

The lack of attention for tourists and expats in Rabat is one of the biggest ways in which it differs from Marrakech, Gribbs said, adding that’s a good thing. “Marrakech is dirty and crowded,” she said. “You always have to watch your bag to make sure nothing gets stolen and you’re constantly hassled by street vendors.”

An important selling point of Rabat is that it’s not overrun by tourists and tourism hasn’t become the main source of income for locals. The residents of Rabat’s medina generally don’t speak English and don’t have their sales talks ready for every tourist who passes, making the streets of Rabat comfortable to walk for foreign-looking expats.

A selling point for female expats is safety.

“In Rabat, I can go anywhere by myself, even in the evening,” said Gribbs. “Casablanca has sketchy areas. I don’t always feel comfortable there.”

Even though Casablanca is worth a visit, it’s easier for women to live in Rabat where they don’t have to avoid too many neighbourhoods and are safe to move around on their own.

Rabat remains a hidden gem for expats in Morocco but with its growing popularity and great appeal it can’t be long before it turns into one of the main expat cities of North Africa.

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