The first building I entered in Morocco was my hotel in Fez. Right away, I knew I was not in Kansas anymore!
Now let’s go into the medina…
Fez’s medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site…all 540 acres of it! Hold onto your hats because wandering around the medina is fascinating and fun. Here you will see the major cultural sites of Fez, observe its medieval lifestyle, and see the exotic wares for sale in its little shops.
See the Sites in the Medina
- Al Qaraouyine (aka, Karaouinne), is a Koranic college founded in 859, the oldest continuously operating university in the world!
- Al-Attarine Madrasa (Koranic school) founded in 1325 (adjacent to Al Qaraouyine)
- Zaouia (14th cent. mausoleum) of Moulay Idriss II, founder of Fez
- Palais El Mokri (CNTraveler, 2017)
- Bou Inania Madrasa (14th century) — This is a combo school and mosque. We went here. Beautiful architectural details!
- Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts “housed in a beautifully restored caravanserai, a rooming house for traveling merchants.” (Financial Times) This multi-tiered, wood-paneled caravanserai was built in the 14th century.
- Batha Museum of artisan objects (peaceful garden, pretty carved and painted doors, pottery, etc. with interesting history)
A Note about Tour Guides: While I prefer not to be herded around by a guide, I highly recommend hiring one to navigate Fez’s medina because (1) you will most definitely get lost otherwise (2) the merchants will leave you alone (3) our guide, Mohamed, advised us how much to pay while haggling with various merchants. Hire a guide:
- Through your hotel. That’s how we got our excellent guide, Mohamed.
- Hire Mohamed directly (Cell: 0661 2524 88 or email@example.com)
- “…sign on to a savvy local tour: the four-hour “Hidden Fez” offered by Plan-it-Morocco, a travel company run by two women — English and Australian — who live here and know the city inside and out. The tours, usually led by Moroccans, visit the city’s exquisite private palaces, enchanting hidden gardens, spaces where weavers work hand looms, the odoriferous tannery quarter and other places you would probably never find or gain access to on your own. The tour requires a minimum of two visitors and costs 1,600 dirhams. More information is available at plan-it-morocco.com.” (NYTimes, 2017)
- “there is nothing like a tailor-made tour from Fez-based New Zealand novelist Sandy McCutcheon, a contributor to The View from Fez blog (riadzany.blogspot.com), one of the most useful resources on the city, or his colleague Helen Ranger to give you the inside track on Fez, while showing you the best places to buy Berber rugs and the rest of Fez’s traditional crafts.” (“How to Spend It,” 2011)
TIP: “Many maps of the medina are either poor or incorrect (plan de Fez is the exception),” according to The Ruined Garden restaurant in Fez medina
TIP: “Most of the souks and cafes in the Fez medina are closed on Friday” (NYTimes 2017)
Shopping in the Medina
The things to buy are leather and suede (made by tanneries in the medina), pottery and tiles, carved & inlaid wood, Berber rugs, and metal lamps cut in lace-like patterns. Argan oil is big, too.
- Poterie de Fez (Quartier de Poterie, 32 Ain Nokbi Route Sidi Hrazem) — Love this place because they showed us how tiles are made, how tile designs are laid into place, and how pottery is painted. They can make anything your little heart desires.
- Terrasse de Tannerie, El Haj Ali Baba (no. 10 Hay Lblida Chouara) for a huge array of leather and the softest suede clothes, purses, wallets, belts…plus the proprietor offers an interesting explanation of the tanning process, complete with views from its terrace of the dying vats in the square below.
- Au Coin du Bois (20, Derb El Hammam, Guerniz) for gorgeous carved and inlaid wooden items
- Talisman Art Gallery (No. 150 Sidi Moussa Guerniz) for many beautifully sophisticated antiques like this chest, for which my husband is still longing…
In addition to these beautiful things are others, exotic and intriguing. For example…
Sights Outside of the Medina
- Royal Palace – While you can’t go inside, this is fun to see. It is one of the king’s 45 palaces.
- “an afternoon stroll takes you past the swarming Bab Bou Jeloud gate and into the Jnan Sbil gardens, recently reopened and a delicious respite from the city’s pressure-cooker heat…,” per How to Spend It. We recently visited this and while it’s not world-class, it is a nice, open green garden that one can walk through in 15 minutes.
- “While the Ville Nouvelle, the administrative quarter invented by the colonial French, has wide avenues lined with Jacaranda trees, shiny modern cafeterias, office blocks and ATMs, the soul of the city resides in that gigantic medina” (How to Spend It)
- Field trip: “From there (Fez), a three-hour drive gets you to Chefchaouen, the famed Blue City that is even more dreamy in reality than in photographs. Imagine if there was fresh snowfall in Santorini, in every shade of periwinkle, indigo, sky, and powder blue. There, you can almost feel sustained off the visual stimulation without food, but when hunger sets in the best (casual) meal can be had at Bab Ssour, while prime views of the stacked blue city are had from the top of Lina Ryad, the prettiest riad in town.” (Architectural Digest, 2018) My friend, who went to Chefchaouen this month, says there’s not that much to do here so recommends one night only.
- Field trip #2: See the beautifully preserved Roman ruins at Volubilis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site…Easy day trip from Fez (1+ hours drive) and fun to drive through the countryside, which is covered with acres of olive and fruit trees.
- To be Combined with Volubilis: One hour’s drive from Volubilis is the 17th century capital of Meknes, one of Morocco’s four imperial cities & a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the FT recommends seeing the mausoleum of Sultan Moulay Ismail, Bab Mansour gateway, the ruins of the Sultan’s stables (built to accommodate 12,000 horses!), the Granaries, the Dar Jamai Museum (19th cent. palace) w/collection of ceramics, jewelry, and textiles; nearby is the holy city of Moulay Idriss. The drive back to Fez takes about an hour.
I recommend our driver, Karim Khalil, of Transport Touristique VIP (firstname.lastname@example.org). Our hotel, Palais Faraj, arranged for him to drive us from Fez to Volubilis to Meknes and back, which was a great day.
Cocktails & Restaurants
When you make dinner reservations in the medina, the restaurant asks “with or without a porter?” Take the porter. Otherwise, you will be fruitlessly wandering the medina, hungry and confused!
- “…it’s an adventure in itself to venture—with a porter to guide you—into the medina after dark to savor the six-course prix fixe menus at Nur, open in September for its second “season” of fine modern-Moroccan-with-a-Mexican-twist cuisine, made from ingredients purchased each morning in the market and formed into innovative dishes later (they’re closed in summer),” per Architectural Digest, 2018). CNTraveler (2017), Wall Street Journal (2017) & NYTimes (2017) also recommend Nur, as does Mimi’s Travel File. The decor is modern, elegant medina.
- “The candlelit tiled courtyard of the five-room riad hotel Dar Roumana (House of the Pomegranate) offers a romantic setting in which to discover the excellent cooking of Younes Idrissi. The changing prix fixe menus are inspired by the French and Moroccan kitchens.” (NYTimes, 2017) Mimi’s Travel File can attest to the food and romantic ambiance of this traditionally beautiful riad in the medina.
- “The casual Café Fez, in a walled, lushly planted garden, is run by the renowned French antiques dealer Michel Biehn…Reasonably priced, friendly and serving fresh, inventive Franco-Moroccan cooking, this place is especially popular with local expats.” (NYTimes 2017) Mimi’s Travel File recommends CF (it’s fun!), as does CN Traveler, 2017.
- Eden, the restaurant in the Palais Amani, was recommended by CN Traveler, 2017. If you would like a break from traditional Moroccan decor, this modern, white and pretty (slightly cold in feel) restaurant is a good get. I liked the bar at Palais Amani.
- The Ruined Garden, in Riad Idrissy, was recommended by CN Traveler, 2017
- Cafe Clock was suggested by Travel +Leisure, 2015
- Palais Amani (Andrew Harper, New York Times, 2017 & Mr. and Mrs. Smith recommend this; Mimi’s Travel File visited it and thought it attractive)
- Palais Faraj (Abercrombie & Kent, 2016 and Travel+Leisure 2015) – highly recommend! We stayed here for a week last month and loved the decor, location and nice staff. PF is built up against the medina, on the outside the wall.
- Architectural Digest (2018) said: “It should be required to stay at a riad (the Moroccan term for a house with gardens) inside the medina, many of which have been lovingly restored into intimate boutique hotels. There are handfuls of particularly pristine and transportive ones to choose from, including
- the Relais & Chateaux property Riad Fes, with its peaceful pool and incredibly chic wine bar, and (Departures, 2016 likes this, too)
- Palais Amani, the regally outfitted 17th-century bolt-hole of stained glass and Technicolor tile work whose ceilings are sky-high and whose rooftop is being transformed for open-air cooking classes and dining.
- Karawan Riad opened two years ago after a painstaking ten-year restoration and renovation that comprises intricate moucharaby paneling and a lounge wallpapered with rich red rugs. (T+L, 2015, also recommended it) A friend of mine stayed here this month, loved it & said, “It’s gorgeous!”
- The food at all these riads is mouth-watering…”
- “Overlooking the medina, the 50-room Sahrai became Fez’s first real boutique hotel when it opened in 2014. Using rich local materials like biscuit-colored Taza stone and custom-made décor like copper-framed lanterns, the Parisian designer Christophe Pillet coined a new decorative idiom of contemporary Moroccan chic that has made this stylish establishment a favorite of the local beau monde. Join this cosmopolitan crowd for cocktails either in the curtained open-air gallery near the bar or in the rooftop bar overlooking the city.” (NYTimes, 2017) Travel+Leisure (2016) also recommended it.
BTW, while many Moroccans speak English, more speak French, and all speak Arabic or Berber. How’s your Berber?