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One of Morocco’s old imperial cities, Meknes became the capital city in the 17th century. Located in the Middle Atlas region, it sees fewer tourists than nearby Fez and is a pleasant place to take a journey back in time and enjoy a less-frenetic stay. Friendly people, historic hotspots, an energetic night scene, and reasonable prices are just a few reasons not to skip Meknes when visiting the northern part of Central Morocco. Be inspired by these top things to see and do in the city.
Meknes has a number of places of architectural and historic interest, including Heri es-Souani and Borj Belkari Tower. The former was once a royal granary and stables, while the latter was a lookout tower in the city’s defensive walls. People who enjoy visiting religious sites will find several grand mosques, including the Grande Mosque. Do note that non-Muslim visitors aren’t allowed inside the city’s mosques. Bou Inania Madrasa is an eye-catching building with many fine details. It was originally used as an Islamic school. The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is one of Meknes’s major attractions. A grand building, it is the final resting place of Moulay Ismail, the fearless sultan who established Meknes and a man that is still said to have been one of the nation’s most powerful leaders. Because of the site’s significance, non-Muslims are allowed to look inside, although they cannot go close to the actual tomb.
The core of Meknes’s old city is within the imposing walls of the medina. The ancient fortified city can be entered through numerous gates, several of which are very impressive. Bab Mansour is often said to be one of the most beautiful gates in all of Morocco, and one of the world’s finest entrances. Arches and columns, wood carvings, and striking zellige tile work combine to make this a photogenic beauty. Bab el Khemis is another well-preserved splendid gate into Meknes’s medina. The arched gate stands between two towers, and there are many examples of traditional Islamic craftwork to be admired.
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 is especially lively in the evening time, when you’ll find an assortment of snack vendors and stalls selling freshly squeezed juices, music, and carnival-like games and competitions, such as trying to hook a bottle on a fishing rod.
Several restaurants, riads, hotels, and independent cooking schools provide visitors with the chance to learn how to replicate their favourite Moroccan meals back at home. A cooking class is a great way to learn a bit more about the local way of life, too, as many sessions also include a visit to the local market to buy ingredients and a discussion about the various spices and herbs typically found in a Moroccan kitchen. Couscous, tagine, pastilla, salads, and different types of Moroccan breads and pastries are a few things that you may learn how to make.
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 low ceilings and archways and narrow passages. It is said that the prison could contain up to 60,000 people at any given time. Slaves, prisoners of war, and political prisoners were among the unfortunates detained here.
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.
While Meknes’s souks aren’t as extensive and hectic as those in Fez or Marrakech, they are 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 is a skilled process with a Jewish heritage that involves embedding silver on another metal surface and creating a decorative item.
Meknes has several interesting museums where you can learn more about the city’s past and present, the people who have called Meknes home over the years, and the day-to-day life in Meknes today. Housed in an old opulent palace, Dar Jamai is one of the top museums in Meknes, with a large collection of historic artefacts, ancient copies of the Islamic holy text, jewellery, art, and more. The small Meknes Museum also yields fascinating treasures, including rugs, pottery, agricultural tools, metal items, textiles, and an ornate suit of armour.
An ancient Berber and Roman site in the mountains, Volubilis is one of Morocco’s most significant places of archaeological interest. Just 30 kilometres outside of Meknes, it is 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.
Although Morocco is an Islamic nation, and drinking is not common among the local population, it is still possible to find at least a small selection of bars in most major cities and towns. Meknes is unusual when it comes to nightlife as, given its size and the relatively low number of foreign visitors, as it has a large selection of bars. A handful cater primarily to international clientele while the rest exude a local vibe. Smoke often hangs thickly in the air and the edgy and gritty ambience can be a bit much for travellers who prefer to stay on the well-worn tourist track. There are several local dive bars in the area around Place Ifriquia. For an al fresco drink head to Hotel Zaki. For music, dancing, and gaiety, check out the two-level Le Pub. The bar in Hotel Rif is cheap and cheerful.
Stay in a traditional riad, have a henna tattoo, dine on delicious Moroccan cuisine, wander the narrow streets in the old medina or take a day trip to the sacred town of Moulay Idriss… there are many terrific things to enjoy in and around Meknes.