- Rebecca Wilkinson
Morocco’s cultural and historical capital, Fes is a city of treasures, both hidden and obvious. The city boasts elaborate architecture in its many mosques and madrasas, and the enticing labyrinth that is the old medina for which the city is predominantly known. Here’s our guide to some of the best things to do in the rich city of Fes.
Fes el-bali: Explore the old medina
By far the best to do when visiting Fes is explore the markets in the old part of town. Start at the top of the market, at what is famously known as Bab Boujaloud thanks to the huge and beautiful ‘door’ to the medina. This area is the most touristy, so expect higher prices and more attention from people wanting to guide you or invite you into their restaurant. For those looking for the true Morocco, venture down into the labyrinth like streets; on top of the colorful displays of traditional Moroccan shoes, clothes, and pottery, further down the market it becomes almost like a live museum, with people hand crafting everything from plates to wooden tables.
Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University
Located in the captivating labyrinth of the medina, the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University are located at the bottom of the steep hill decline leading from Bab Boujaloud. For well over 1200 years, Al-Qarawiyyin has been a leading spiritual and educational center in the Muslim world. Built in 867AD, the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque was one of the medieval period’s most distinguished universities. Today functioning as a mosque, it stands as a spectacular piece of architecture, whose views can be admired by non-Muslims from the surrounding restaurants, and by Muslims from inside. UNESCO has termed this the oldest university in the world, so it is definitely worth a visit.
As you trek through the narrow streets of the medina, you will undoubtedly hear countless offers to go to the tannery – “you looking for the tannery?”, “tannery this way?”. It is recommended to go with a registered guide rather than with random passers-by, but it is certainly worth a visit. Fes is famous for its clothing and fabrics, and the tannery is a demonstration of just where all of this comes from – with a strong smell and intriguing, colorful views, the tannery tells a story of the creation of everything from purses to dresses, and even bags. Afterwards, you will no doubt be shown a variety of products created from this very tannery and its wonderful resources.
The Old Madrasas
Madrasa means school in Arabic, and there are many old and historic madrasas in Fes. One is located just next to the Qaraween mosque, right in the center of the medina, and is open to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The good thing about these madrasas is that they generally cost only around £1 to enter. Another example of the fine Merenid architecture, Madrasa Al-Attarine has stood since 1325 and boasts a beautiful courtyard displaying the intricate decoration of this period. Another Madrasa is Madrasa Bou Inania, and is the finest of Fez’s theological colleges. Built between 1350 and 1357, this Madrasa recently underwent renovation, and now boasts beautiful brass doors and elaborate plaster carvings, true to its roots. Unique to this school is its mosque, complete with a green tiled minaret: another stunning piece of architecture.
Mellah (Jewish quarter)
Another place famed for its shopping as well as its history is the Jewish quarter of Fez. Boasting different styles of architecture from that of the old medina, the Mellah is a great insight into the once vibrant history of Judaism in the city. Home to the gold market and some of the best antique furniture shops, the Jewish quarter is tucked away near the gates of the Royal Palace. A fantastic place to hunt out odd, unusual, and often very old treasures, the Mellah is a great alternative to old medina shopping. Shopping aside, this atmospheric part of the city also hosts a beautiful synagogue with a collection of objects portraying Moroccan Jewish life, as well as a Jewish Cemetery.
Mount Zalagh is the biggest mountain overlooking Fes. Take a daring little hike up the mountain to admire the true scale and beauty of Fes. Fes is a huge city, but its size cannot be appreciated from inside. Only from the top of Mount Zalagh can you really appreciate how grand this historical city is. Go in the daytime as it is much safer, and preferably in good weather to get the best views. For the more adventurous, it’s even a great place for some mountain biking.
If you’re not keen on Mount Zalagh, but still want to appreciate some stunning views of Fes, take the short, steep walk up to the Merenid tombs, but only in the daytime. These tombs, built in the 14th century, were once the resting place of the Merenids’ finest however, they now stand as a simple skeletal reminder of what once was. They remain a beautiful place to sit among history, admire the views, and enjoy a picnic in order to escape the hustle and bustle of the tourist hub of Bab Boujaloud. You may even be offered the chance to buy some hand-made carpets or hats by local sellers – Morocco’s version of door-to-door salesmen.
Borj Nord Arms Museum
Suitably located in a historical fortress, this museum remains very true to its military tradition. The collections have been predominantly built up thanks to a number of royal donations which feature some spectacular and rare pieces. The museum is fabulous for the weapon specialists, who will doubtless appreciate the objects on display, as well as art lovers who will delight in the splendor of their design. Visitors can learn about everything from the pre-historic axe, to the modern rifle, as well as weaponry from every civilization, from Indian to European. Don’t be put off if arms museums aren’t usually your thing, this one tends to surprise people. With 13 rooms and around 775 military items, it’s also fuller than expected. To finish a visit here, be sure to head up onto the roof to enjoy beautiful city views.
Boujaloud gardens and Batha museum
These two fantastic locations are situated within a 10 minute walk of each other, and are a recommended combination. The Dar Batha Museum is a beautiful Andalusian style riad built at the end of the 19th century by Sultan Moulay Hassan I. Previously used for royalty visiting Fes, it has since been a museum displaying impressive exhibits, from clothing to ceramics. Very easy to get to, and excellent for learning a bit about the history of the city, it is a must-visit. A short walk from the museum, the Boujaloud Gardens are a beautiful place to head to. Otherwise known as Jnane Sbil Gardens, these were once used as imperial gardens, and were opened to the public in the 20th century. Boasting a serene lake, as well as orange, lemon, and pomegranate trees, this peaceful oasis in the center of a big city is a fantastic place to relax.
Visit a Hammam
With over 250 hammams dotted around the city, Fes is indeed one of the best places to enjoy this traditional Moroccan experience. Sometimes off-putting to the western visitor, a visit to a hammam, or local bath house, will involve stripping down and lots of naked bodies, although males and females are separated. Typically, a masseur – also naked – will scrub you down very intensely, giving you what will no doubt be the most thorough wash of your life. Don’t forget to take shampoo, soap and a towel, and be careful when choosing the location, as overpaying is common among tourists – a typical price for locals is between 50 and 100 dirhams.