Top Things to See and Do in Meknes

You can't miss the stunning interior of the Dar Jamai Museum on a visit to Meknes
You can't miss the stunning interior of the Dar Jamai Museum on a visit to Meknes | © funkyfood London - Paul Williams / Alamy
Photo of Sarah Williams
2 August 2021

Plum in the Middle Atlas region of Morocco, Meknes is one of the country’s finest old imperial cities, enjoying status as the capital in the 17th century. It sees fewer tourists than nearby Fez – and it’s all the better for it, creating a perfect backdrop for a leisurely few days. With friendly people, fascinating historic sights such as the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail and a lively scene after dark, don’t miss Meknes if you’re travelling in this part of Morocco. Here are the top things to see and do.

The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail

Cemetery, Memorial
Map View

The peaceful final resting place of Sultan Moulay Ismail – the man who made Meknes his capital in the 17th century – is one of the essential sights. Conveniently, it’s just across from his reception hall, the Koubbat As Sufara, in the Imperial City. As you approach the tomb you pass through a series of meditative, pale-yellow courtyards – serene spaces in one of the few sacred sites in Morocco open to non-Muslims. Crane your neck as you wander – this building is a beautiful example of Islamic architecture and opulent design.

Bab Mansour

Historical Landmark
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Bab Mansour Gate, Meknes, Morocco, North Africa
© Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy
This monumental gate (bab in Arabic) was originally the principal ceremonial entrance to the Kasbah of Sultan Moulay Ismail. It’s a spectacular example of architecture from the North African Almohad Caliphate. According to one apocryphal story, once construction was complete, the sultan questioned Mansour Laalej, the architect, as to whether he reckoned he could do a better job. He didn’t know how to answer other than yes, upon which the sultan ordered the hapless man’s execution. The gate is certainly a lot prettier than this tale, embellished with engraved Quranic panels and green and white zeillij (mosaic) tiles

Enjoy the local vibe in at Place Hedim

Architectural Landmark
Map View

While nowhere near as lively and chaotic as the main square in Marrakech, Place Hedim is often said to be Meknes’s version of the famous Djemaa el Fna. The main square in Meknes, Place Hedim is surrounded by historic buildings and narrow alleys that lead into bustling markets. It’s especially lively in the evening, when you’ll find music, an assortment of snack vendors and stalls selling freshly squeezed juices and carnival-like games and competitions, such as trying to hook a bottle on a fishing rod.

Cooking class at Haja’s home

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Learn the secrets of all the sublime Moroccan cuisine you’ve sampled during your holiday – and what better way to immerse yourself in authentic recipes than by taking a cooking class at Haja’s place? First, you head out to shop at the market for local produce, before returning to your host’s residence to create a menu with a selection of seasonal vegetables – expect to be working with aubergines, green peppers, beetroot and cucumber – prepared in different ways with added Moroccan spices. Then sit down to tuck into your meat or vegetarian tagine – alternatively couscous and a sweet surprise for pudding.

Visit an old prison with lots of history

Historical Landmark
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painting exhibition, in Koubbat as-Sufara or Prison of Kara, Meknes. M9WMNA
© Lucas Vallecillos / Alamy

Descend into the former prison of Habs Qara and see where the Sultan Moulay Ismail held prisoners far away from the public eye. Rather eerie and unnerving, the huge underground chamber is gloomy, with narrow passages and low ceilings and archways. It is said that the prison could hold up to 60,000 people at any given time. Slaves, prisoners of war and political prisoners were among the unfortunates detained here.

Explore the attractive city by calleche

Architectural Landmark
Map View

See Meknes from a different perspective with a relaxing ride in a calleche. Horses pull cute carriages through the streets, reaching areas that are sometimes tucked away and difficult to find on foot, or challenging to access by larger vehicle. The rhythmic clopping of the horses’ feet is somehow quite soothing against the noise from the city’s streets and you can chill out as you’re taken from place to place.

Shop for bargains in the souks

Market
Map View

While the souks in Meknes aren’t as extensive and hectic as those in Fez or Marrakech, they’re still ideal for visitors who want to purchase local souvenirs and see how people traditionally shop and sell. As with most places in Morocco, haggling is essential. Prices are generally more reasonable here, though, as compared with other cities around the country. Decorative lamps and shisha pipes, skillfully woven carpets, traditional clothing and footwear, musical instruments, jewellery and an array of items made from iron are just a few things to expect. For a truly local souvenir, look out for damasquinerie products. Damasquinerie is only now practiced in Meknes – it’s a skilled process with a Jewish heritage that involves embedding silver on another metal surface and creating a decorative item.

Dar Jamai Museum

Museum
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Marbled and columned, this stunning structure has been a museum since 1920. Originally built in 1882 as the home of the influential Jamaï family, it was later used as a military hospital. It’s an intriguing place to wander, as you inspect the collection of traditional ceramics, jewellery, textiles, sumptuous rugs and objects carved from cedarwood. The building is punctuated with windows of elegantly painted frames, intricately detailed tiles, and sculptured plasterwork – a testament to the gifted artisans who honed every inch. Spend a tranquil hour or so afterwards in the pretty Andalusian garden, and the courtyard lined with cypress and fruit trees.

Take a memorable day trip to Volubilis

Ruins
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Volubilis, Interior of the Basilica, Roman ruins close to the city of Meknes. Volubilis was excavated by the French 1912-1956 Morocco
© Adrian Seal / Alamy
An ancient Berber and Roman site in the mountains, Volubilis is one of Morocco’s most significant places of archaeological interest. Just 30km outside of Meknes, it’s easy to visit on a day trip. Now a Unesco-listed site, you can see stone carvings, statues, mosaics, extensive foundations and numerous dividing walls, an ancient bathhouse, a section of an aqueduct and more. Information boards around the complex explain the significance of different sections.

Drinks at Le Churchill bar

Bar, Moroccan
Map View

The plush Zaki Hotel & Spa has a great setting, overlooking the ramparts of the old town. Head inside, through the glistening marble lobby, and things get even grander. Le Churchill bar is a unique, martini-laced nook in this pious town, with bottle-green Chesterfield sofas to sink into, atmospheric wood-panelled walls, curious wall art and soft lighting falling on thick carpets. Jazz fills the air, as does cigar smoke from the large selection on display. This is probably the closest you’ll come to inhabiting the set of the movie Casablanca. Here’s looking at you, kid.

Jo Fernandez-Corugedo contributed additional reporting to this article.

These recommendations were updated on August 2, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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