Fes, also spelled Fez, (multiple spellings are quite common in this city) seems, at first glance, to be quite similar to other large cities in Morocco. And it is fairly large – with over 1.1 million people calling it home, it is the second largest city in Morocco. It has a centrally located “medina” (which is a word used to describe a walled old city with maze-like streets), pretty doorways, souks selling a variety of souvenirs, a royal palace, and several lush gardens.
But once you spend some time in Fes, you’ll begin to see some distinct differences. For starters, the medina of Fes is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is free of pesky cars or motorbikes. In fact, it is believed to be one of the world’s largest car-free urban areas. But you’ll still have to get out of the way of the occasional donkey cart barreling through. 70,000 Fasis (people from Fes) choose to live in this confusing, ramshackle area of the city that will have you feeling like you’ve transported back in time.
Read on to discover the highlights of this fascinating city!
Preparing for your Trip to Fes
The currency in Morocco is the Moroccan Dirham (Dhs). At the time of writing (January of 2018) the conversion rate was about 9.25 Dhs to $1 USD. We’ll be referring to costs in Moroccan Dirham so just keep in mind that if we say something costs 100 Dhs, that’s just about $11 USD.
There are a number of languages spoken in Morocco but the two official languages are Modern Standard Arabic and Amazigh (Berber). The second language for most Moroccans is French. You’ll also find that many people speak at least a little English.
Learn a few phrases in Arabic to get around! “Al Salam Alaikum” (pronouned sall-em wall-a-come) is a nice way to say “hello”. “Shukran” (pronounced shoo kran) is “thank you”. “Ma’-Elsalama” (pronounced ma sell lem-a) is “goodbye”. And “La” is “no” – use it when approached by touts!
If you would prefer to speak in French, “Bonjour” is “hello”, “Merci” is “thank you” and “S’il Vous Plaît” is “please”.
While Islam is the primary religion in Morocco, Fes is considered to be a Jewish City. It was home to Morocco’s original segregated Jewish Quarter, established in 1438, and an area that you should explore during your visit.
In general, non-Muslims aren’t allowed to enter mosques around Morocco. In Fes there are several beautiful mosques that you can peek into from the front doors but unless you are Muslim, you will be denied entrance. As with most conservative countries, most women choose to cover their knees and shoulders when venturing out of the house and many also cover their hair. Foreigners will probably feel more comfortable if they avoid tank tops and shorts.
Is it Safe?
While the maze of alleyways in the old city may make you feel a tad uncomfortable after dark (especially if you are a woman traveling alone), you’ll find that most people in Fes are incredibly friendly and harmless. Of course you should keep your wits about you as you would in any large city.
Best Time to Visit
Fes has a reasonably temperate year-round climate but you’ll find that summer can be incredibly hot. June through September see average temperatures ranging from 82°F – 95°F. Spring and fall are the most pleasant seasons to visit Fes with temperatures in the mid-70°s. Clear skies and sunshine will allow you to take advantage of your hotel pool and sit outside at one of the many terrace cafes.
The winter months of November through March are the coldest of the year with average temperatures in the 50°s. February sees the most rain so either avoid visiting during that time or bring an umbrella.
Getting There and Around
- Fès–Saïs Airport (FEZ) is the international airport servicing Fes and the surrounding area. You can find cheap flights on Ryanair from many European cities to and from Fes throughout the year.
- ONCF trains depart frequently throughout the day to and from Fes. It is easy to book tickets at the train station or on the train directly. Opt for first class or arrive to the train early unless you want to stand for the duration of the ride.
- If you choose to hire a private taxi to Fes it will run you about 1400 Dhs from Casablanca and 2500 Dhs from Marrakech.
- You’ll find taxis in Fes are far more accommodating about giving rides on the meter. The flag drop will start at 1.5 – 3 Dhs depending on the time of day and then add a few dirhams each kilometer traveled. You shouldn’t pay more than 15 Dhs to travel from the Marriott to the old medina. Sadly Uber is not yet available in Fes.
- Download an offline map via Google Maps. Navigating the medina is incredibly challenging if you get off the main street and Google Maps is surprisingly accurate.
- You don’t need to hire a guide. Most of the foreigners that we encountered during our stay in Fes were a part of a tour group. But it’s easy to navigate the medina with a map and hit all of the highlights if you follow our guide!
Where to Stay in Fes
The Fes Marriott Hotel Jnan Palace is a former palace has been renovated into what is now a gorgeous 5-star hotel offering guests the royal treatment while visiting Fes.
Located in a peaceful area outside of the hectic medina, you’ll be just a short taxi ride away from all of of the tourist attractions in Fes. And with a helpful and attentive staff attending to your every need, you’ll have all of the amenities you could ever wish for right at your fingertips.
Spacious rooms with beautifully designed modern decor and large windows provide the perfect place to relax and unwind after a busy day of shopping in the medina. You’ll love the massive and luxurious feather bed and the large windows providing natural light to wake you up in the mornings.
Enjoy a cup of coffee on your private balcony while gazing out into the courtyard and botanical gardens below. 120 organic olive trees in the garden are hand-picked and harvested for the olive oil that is used in the restaurants in the hotel!
When you’re not exploring the city of Fes you can make use of the amazing amenities at the hotel including a giant pristine outdoor pool, a state-of-the-art fitness facility, and a spa where you can unwind in the sauna or the traditional hammam. Or just relax in the beautiful garden or lounge in the lobby with a cup of piping hot mint tea.
Where to Eat and Drink in the Marriott
- Marriott Cafe – serving up an incredible breakfast buffet filled with a variety of Moroccan tajines, porridge, freshly baked breads, made-to-order omelettes, and other scrumptious treats, this breakfast will get you ready to tackle the day!
- L’Herbier de l’Atlas – this stunningly beautiful Moroccan restaurant has a creative take on standard Moroccan fare. They serve food tapas-style so you can enjoy a variety of flavors without paying (or eating) too much. You’ll love the traditional Moroccan style of the archways, tilework, and fabrics in this picturesque restaurant.
- Dolce Vita – this delicious Italian restaurant serves up some of the freshest seafood in all of Fes! Order the mushroom soup as a starter and the risotto as your main!
- Piano Lounge Bar – serving up wine, beer, cocktails, and some delicious bar food, this spot is great for a casual dinner. They also have live entertainment Wednesday through Saturday evenings!
The Best Things to do in and Around Fes
Take a Walking Tour of the Old Medina
The Old Medina of Fes is a maze of small alleyways jutting off of the main street that runs down the center. The medina is on a slope so the best way to tackle a walking tour is to start at the top and make your way to the bottom, then hail a taxi to head back home. Unlike other medinas in Morocco, this one is only for pedestrians so you don’t have to worry about making way for motorbikes.
Have your taxi drop you off at Bab Boujloud, the impressive archway that leads into the Old Medina. Stop here and snap a few photos before heading inside. Immediately you will join the crowd of tourists and locals making their way through the narrow streets. You’ll be overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells of this ancient wonderland!
Your first stop will be a turn off of the main street to visit the Bou Inania Madrasa (entrance fee: 20 Dhs for adults, 10 Dhs for children 12 and under). Built in the 14th century, this gorgeous former Islamic university has a large center courtyard surrounded by stunning hand-carved plaster, large intricate doors, and ornate lattice screens. It operated as a school until the 1960s when restoration work began which allows the public to enjoy it’s original beauty.
Along the way you will pass by a few beautiful mosques. Non-Muslims cannot enter the mosques in most of Morocco, including Fes, but you can peek your head in or take a photo from right outside. Zaouia de Moulay and Al Quaraouiyine Mosque are two that are worth stopping along the way to take a look at.
Similar to the Bou Inania Madrasa, the Al-Attarine Madrasa (entrance fee: 20 Dhs for adults, 10 Dhs for children 12 and under) also consists of a large courtyard surrounded by intricate carvings and impressive doorways.
The black and white tile on the ground is an interesting contrast to the stone and marble facade.
Check out how the Moroccan souvenirs that you’ve been eyeing in the souk are made! First is the coppersmiths in the Place Seffarine where shop owners are pounding designs into copper and buffing them smooth.
And then the Chouara Tannery which is the most iconic site in Fes. It is the oldest tannery in the world and smells terrible so be sure to grab some mint to rub under your nostrils on your way in. It’s quite impressive that all of their leather dying is still done entirely by hand!
Finally you’ll pop out at Place R’cif where you can cross under the arch and hail a taxi home. If you haven’t had enough of the medina, turn around and go back through the way you came but be prepared for an uphill climb.
Where to Eat and Drink in the Old Medina
- The Ruined Garden – this darling garden setting is like an oasis in the middle of the hectic medina. Try the cauliflower salad and the kefta meatball tajine, you won’t be disappointed! Reservations are recommended for dinner during peak season.
- Fez Café – with a rotating menu that changes daily and a large selection of wine, this is a must-try restaurant while visiting Fes. Sit in the courtyard to enjoy the lush vegetation and the fresh air.
- Café Clock – this darling restaurant has quaint seating areas in creative nooks throughout the house. If the weather is nice, be sure to head all the way to the roof for spectacular views of the city and colorful cushioned seating. Have mint tea and the tapas platter for an afternoon snack!
- Chez Rachid – offering the best location for people-watching in the old medina and serving up a delectable chicken, almond, and plum tajine, this is a must-visit restaurant in Fes!
Stroll Around the Jewish Quarter
The Royal Palace of Fez (Dar al-Makhzen) is not open to the public but the massive golden doors at the entrance are reason enough to visit. Have your taxi drop you here as this will be the start of your walking tour of the Jewish Quarter. While gated, the guards will allow you to enter the courtyard to snap photos.
The Royal Palace was built in the 1960s and if the brass doors are any indication of what the interior of the palace is like, we have no doubt that it is stunningly beautiful!
Head though the “Mellah” or Jewish Quarter to the Jewish Cemetery (entrance fee: 10 Dhs/person) to see the rows of whitewashed above-ground graves. You can also catch a few of the cemetery from above on the roof of the Synagogue Ibn Danan (entrance fee: 20 Dhs/person).
Cross the street to see the Bab Lamar gate at the entrance to Alaouites Garden. Don’t spend too much time here, it is less of a garden and more of a public toilet. A more impressive park in the area is Jardin Jnan Sbil where you’ll find cobblestone foot paths through lush greenery, and even a small lake offering beautiful reflections on clear, sunny days.
You’ll end your walking tour right near the old medina, right in time to grab a bite to eat!
Get a History Lesson at the Museums
- Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts – this museum is truly stunning and not-to-be-missed! Not only are the traditional wooden artifacts spectacular but the ornate 4-story building that they housed in is a wonder all on its own. Head to the rooftop cafe for views of the medina below! While most museums in Morocco only include descriptions in French and Arabic, this one offers English as well. (Entrance fee: 20 Dhs/person. Open all days from 10:00 – 17:00)
- Batha Museum – this former palace became a museum in 1915. Museum rooms surround a beautiful sunken garden with raised walkways in the center. The artifacts aren’t nearly as interesting as the garden area. (Entrance fee: 10 Dhs/person. Open Wednesday through Monday from 9:00 – 17:00, closed Tuesdays)
- Borj Nord Museum – this fort was established by the Saadi dynasty in the 16th century and is now open to the public as a Weapons Museum. The spectacular views of the city alone make a visit worthwhile. (Entrance fee: 20 Dhs/person. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 – 12:00 and 14:00 – 17:00, closed Mondays)
Shop in the Souk
Morocco is world renowned for their leather goods, spices, ceramics, colorful blankets and rugs, and metal lamps. While you’ll find many similar souvenirs in most every souk in Morocco, the souk in Fes sells leather goods that are actually hand made at the tannery in the medina! You can feel the difference in quality here and you will have the opportunity to see products being made in their small workshops.
Fes is the best place to stock up on gorgeous bags of all sizes. Check the stitching and the lining to make sure they high quality and ask if the bag is made of goat, cow, or camel. Leather cushions referred to as “poofs” are also popular to purchase in Fes.
Haggling is expected and welcomed in all of Morocco so when shopping in the souk you should never accept the first price offered. Don’t take the negotiations too seriously and be sure to have fun with it. And be willing (and able) to walk away. My advice is to counter with a price that is half of their initial offering and plan on meeting somewhere in the middle. So about 3/4 of their initial asking price.
Take a Day Trip to Meknes
Located only about 45 miles west of Fes, the Imperial City of Meknes is like a tamer version of its larger and more touristy neighbor. Highlights include an ancient medina with winding alleyways, plenty of beautiful architecture, horse-drawn carriage rides, and less hassle in the souks. It’s worth taking a day trip to see it for yourself!
Side note: we wouldn’t recommend making this day trip on a Friday as the medina will be closed.
Trains depart from Fes to Meknes every hour. You’ll pay 32 Dhs for first class tickets (we recommend first class as the slightly higher prices comes with an assigned seat and more leg room). The trip only takes about 40 minutes and trains in Morocco are impressively on-schedule.
From the train, take a taxi to the Prison de Kara (entrance fee: 10 Dhs/person. If you would like to hear stories of the prison while you wander, hire a guide for 20-40 Dhs). Explore this enormous and creepy underground prison for slaves that were forced to build the Imperial City. There are no cells as they were chained to the walls by night.
Once you are finished, cross the street to hire a horse drawn carriage to take you on a tour of the city in a carriage fit for Cinderella! They’ll take you by the entrance to the Royal Palace, stop at several impressive gates, let you tour the immense granaries and stables that once housed 12,000 horses (entrance fee: 10 Dhs/person), and finally back to where you started.
The trip should take about 45 minutes and cost anywhere from 120-180 Dhs depending on whether or not you choose to negotiate. If you find an English-speaking guide they will give you tidbits of history along the way.
Before you leave, check out the Madrasa Bou Inania (entrance fee: 10 Dhs/person) which is very similar to it’s namesake in Fes but has a second floor to explore.
And stop for a mint tea in Lahdim Square which is teaming with snake charmers, games, performers, and food stalls. Finally, head back to the train station and back to Fes.
We hope you fall in love with the city and people of Fes as much as we did! Want more advice on traveling to this fascinating city? Check out our favorite travel guides!
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