It was around the time that I was face down on a wet tile floor, grimacing as a nearly-naked (save for a pair of hot pink frill-accented black underwear) woman straddled me as she aggressively exfoliated my body that I realized: I really, really like Morocco. But then again, you probably knew that; the North African country is home to some of the most famous--and exotic--destinations, from Marrakesh to Fez to Casablanca. So for my very first visit there, I decided to do something a bit different and headed towards Rabat, the capital city. It's a nice mix of the old (such as the aforementioned hammam I found myself in one afternoon) and new to keep even the pickiest of travelers entertained. In fact, through June 1 is the annual Festival Mawazine, a music extravaganza that, for this edition alone, has brought in Rihanna, Jessi J, Ceelo Green (who performs on Friday), and more, all giving free shows. There's still time to catch the tail-end of the festival--here's what to do when you're not rocking out:
SEE THE SIGHTS My trip to Rabat felt like it had endless photo ops--and not just because I was traveling with a pack of fashion bloggers. From blindingly white, sculpted buildings to intricately patterned mosaics on neighborhood fountains, it's a city that feels functionally beautiful. You don't need to spend the entire trip sight-seeing--after all, the beach beckons--but you can spend an afternoon circling the city and getting a true sense of the major landmarks. My favorites are the Kasbah of the Udayas, which was built in the 12th century and features still-inhabited winding streets and a charming tiled cafe overlooking the ocean, and the mausoleum of Mohammed V, a jewel perched on a hill overlooking the city whose guards alone provide ample photo fodder.
HIT THE BEACH Don't let the high-rises fool you: Rabat is on the water, and has long, sandy beaches perfect for a low-key (cough, hungover, cough) afternoon or particularly hot days. For a truly relaxing experience, head out of central Rabat to L'Amphitrite Palace, a five-star hotel whose serene beach is open to the public (technically for a small fee, but look like you own the place and we bet they let you walk right out, too). If you're more of an active traveler, join the surfers who hang right next to Kasbah of the Udayas (and get your gear at the Oudaya Surf Club).
WASH UP Although hammam techincally means Turkish bath, the Moroccans have embraced it as their own. For a real authentic experience, ask your taxi driver to take you to his favorite local spot--I ended up at Hammam Masara, down a residential one-way street and definitely not filled with tourists. You'll pay a small entrance fee, but "splurge" (we're talking about $5) on getting an exfoliating treatment. Yes, you'll end up being buck-naked in a room filled with strangers, but you'll also leave with the softest, smoothest skin of your life.
EAT UP Tagines and cous cous and pastilla, oh my! You will eat well in Rabat--not only is there nearly an endless stream of bright, flavorful salads and dig-in-with-a-fork mains, but no meal is complete without at least one cup of mint tea. For a traditional--with a modern twist--experience, head to Al Warda inside the Sofitel hotel, where we feasted on rounds of marinated vegetables and slow-cooked meats while a belly dancer shimmied to live music.
RETAIL THERAPY If your visit to the hammam or the beach didn't have its intended effect, head to Rabat's main medina--and accompanying souk--to load up on local essentials. Though you'll spot other tourists eyeing carpets and metalwear, instead look for the all-Arabic buckets of black soap, which come in a range of scents and go for about $1, vials of local Moroccan saffron for $3, and the rug-accented leather suitcases that you can bargain down to around $10.
Outside the mausoleum of Mohammed V
The jeweled ceiling inside the mausoleum
Not the Garden of Eden--but the view inside the Kasbah
Surfers head home for the day
Inside the medina
Endless olives at the medina
They may not be magic carpets, but they're still really cool
The Kasbah's massive gates