Our Fes day trip through 1200 of history
Fes is the oldest of the four imperial cities, founded in the early 9th century as the country’s first political, religious and cultural capital.
Its bustling Medina, inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list site in 1981, is a fascinating maze of narrow alleys with many shops where donkeys and mules are the only means of transport.
With its 12 km of extension, it is considered the largest closed urban traffic area in the world with a population of 156.000 residents.
What to Do & Where to Go in Fes
We have been in Fes twice, but this city is so amazing that it is impossible to be bored and, like the first time, we can’t wait to visit its old Medina!
At 8 a.m. we are already in front of the hotel waiting for our local guide. Usually, we prefer to go around on our own, but the old city of Fes is a vast labyrinth of more than 9000 narrow alleys, and the chance to get lost is high.
Yeah…9000 alleys! This chaotic and lively maze of goods, people, animals, smells and colours is divided into districts. You can visit the souk of Henna, one of the oldest in Fes, where you can find cosmetics and pottery, the Attarine souk, dedicated to spices and perfumes, the Essafarine souk where artisans still work wrought iron, the coppersmiths souk, and of course, the most famous tanners’ quarter with its colourful dyeing tanks where the workers still use the traditional process to colour the skins.
1) Royal Palace
We begin the visit with a stop in front of the golden doors of the Royal Palace. Even though it cannot be visited as the king’s residence when he is in Fes, its facade with 7 big golden doors worth a quick stop.
Then we walk towards the close Mellah, the old Jewish quarter of the city. The quarter is full of history and Jewish-style architecture, such as the Ibn Danan Synagogue located in the heart of the Mellah.
Strolling here is interesting since the buildings present an architectural style different from the purely Arabic style of the neighbourhoods.
The buildings have balconies and openings to the outside, which you do not find in Arabic buildings where every opening is turned inwards.
3) Fes viewpoint and Place Sefferine
After the exciting walk through the alleys of the Mellah, we jump on our vehicle to reach and high observation point (pic of the cover) where it’s possible to admire the boundary walls that encompass the incredible and ancient medina of Fes. Indeed the old city is vast, but you can’t realise how much it is until you get to this viewpoint. Here, the first thought is: “what the hell…impossibile not to get lost there!”.
Anyway, it’s the time to get into its alleys, so we jump on the car going towards the Medina. Starting from Bab Rcif gate, crossing the large Rcif square lined by the big Rcif mosque, we finally enter inside the beating heart of Fes.
Our first stop is Sefferine square that owes its name from the coppersmiths who practised one of the essential handcraft jobs in the history of Fes. Here, around the square and its alleys, it is still possible to admire coppersmiths and boilermakers pounding copper and brass and the many shops exposing a variety of tools such as pots, trails, teapots, incense burners and much more.
4) Madrasa Ras Cherratine
Walking only a few minutes from Place Sefferine, we visit the interesting Ras Cherratine Madrasa. Built by Sultan Moulay Rachid in 1670, it was the residence and Koranic school for students who attended the nearby Al Quaraouiyine University. Although the madrasa is less decorated than the most famous Bou Inania, it boasts a courtyard with mosaics on the floor and a small fountain in the centre. On the upper floors, it is possible to visit the rooms that were once used by the students.
5) Madrasa Al-Attarine
This old Koranic school, located in the spice and perfume souk, was built in the 14th century and is considered a wonder of Marinid architecture. Its interior design is simply amazing. It’s fully decorated and adorned with green and blue zellige tiles, carved plaster with Quranic inscriptions, cedarwood doors and a fountain in the courtyard.
6) Al Karaouine Mosque and University
Close to Al Attarine Madrasa is located the Al-Quaraouiyine Mosque (or Karaouine), built in 859 and believed to be one of the oldest university in the world. It now operates as a mosque and cannot be entered by non-Muslims. Even today it is considered one of the leading spiritual and intellectual centres of Islam and is still the seat of the Islamic University of Fes.
It can host up to 20,000 people in prayer, and his library has more than 30 thousand volumes, including some valuable pieces such as the manuscript of the Arab doctor Averroè of 1320. If you like, you can have a perfect view of the mosque courtyard from the rooftops of nearby restaurants.
7) Najjarine square and Najjarine Fondouk
Going on with our walk, we reach the tiny and suggestive Najjarine square. The first thing that draws our sight is the beautiful mountain Najjarine, finely decorated with colourful mosaics. Next to the fountain, inside a Fondouk, it is now located the Museum of the wood. Built in the 18th century, this Fondouk provided login and rest to the many luxury goods merchants who came to Fes from all over the country. It was declared a historical monument in 1916 and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
8) Mausoleum of Zaouia Moulay Idriss II
Leaving the square we pass through a curious alley where the merchants sell wedding decorations and wedding dresses, and then, with a short walk, we reach the Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II. The mausoleum, built at the end of the 18th century, contains the tomb of Idris II who ruled Morocco from 807 to 828 and is considered the principal founder of the city of Fes and the first Moroccan Islamic state.
It has a mosque on its grounds that is used for religious purposes and a tomb for funerals. The area surrounding the Mausoleum is considered sacred, and it’s delimitated by horizontal wooden bars that were initially used to keep Christians, Jews and donkeys out. Like most religious sites, access to non-Muslims is prohibited, so you can only take a look at the front door.
9) Tanneries district
After a quick stop in a local small factory selling beautiful handmade scarves and carpets, we reach the most famous attraction of Fes: the picturesque tanneries. Going up the stairs of one of the several leather shops surrounding the tanneries, we reach its terrace from where we can enjoy a fantastic view of the many colourful dyeing tanks.
In this Unesco World Heritage site, the workers still use the same process of the 16th century, when Fes established itself as a leader in their production to treat camel, cow, sheep and goat skins. Since they use pigeon poo to soften the animal hides, we are given a small sprig of mint to ward off the bad smell.
Even though we would never be tired to watch this worldwide unique place, it’s the time to go on. Since the viewpoint is on the terrace of a shop, we have to wander inside it for some minutes while the owner tries to bargain his leather garments.
10) Lunch in the Medina
It’s almost 2 p.m., so the moment for our break is coming up. Following our guide through the narrow alleys, we decide to try some local food along our way. We find a tiny stand cooking on the grill meat skewers, so we choose to stop here. Just behind the display of the food, on the right side there is the grill and on the left a small space with a table and 5 chairs that we share with 2 locals. It was a great choice, and the food was delicious!
11) Bou Inania Madrasa
Satisfied with the tasty lunch, we continue our exploration towards Bab Bou Jeloud gate. Now the medina is overcrowded, and we have “to fight” like a rugby player to keep our way. At some point, we hear two people screaming at each other…obviously we don’t understand as they are arguing in Arabic. Later on, we are told that the young guy bumped into the leg of an older man with a handcart…alright…this can also happen in the medina!
Anyway, with a long walk, we get to the Bou Inania Madrasa, considered the most beautiful Koranic school of Fes. It was built in the 14th century, and it features gorgeous mosaics, carved plaster, hand-carved walls, zellige tile work and a fountain in the courtyard. Now it works as a mosque (it also has a minaret) and during the prayer times is not allowed to enter.
12) Dar al Magana and Bab Bou Jeloud
Opposite to the Bou Inania Madrasa, we have a quick look at the interesting Dar-al-Magana, the old water clock built by the Marinid Sultan Abu Inan Faris and now out of use. Passing by stalls selling fruit, vegetable, meat and also fish, we reach the fantastic Bab Bou Jeloud gate. Built in Andalusian Moorish style, Bab Bou Jeloud is decorated with ceramic tiles glazed with arabesques and Moroccan geometric patterns.
It’s the west entrance of the Medina, and from here it starts Talaa Kebira and Talaa Seghira, the two main streets of the medina, which lead to the Al Karaouine mosque-university. Our enjoyable day through the old beating heart of Fes is over, and now it’s the time to end up our day with a relaxing massage in a hammam!
Need to know about Fes
The old Medina is a labyrinth of narrow alleys, small squares and souks, where about 156,000 inhabitants live, so it’s effortless to get lost. Our suggestion is to ask for a local guide to be led throughout the old city without wasting time and get the most out of it. We spent there more than 6 hours enjoying its most exciting attractions, visiting some shops with typical products and tasting local sweets and meat skewers in one of the many tiny restaurants hidden in this fantastic Moroccan gem.
You can ask directly to your accommodation to arrange the visit with a local guide; We made our tour of Fes with an experienced local guide that we highly recommend. His name is Said if you need you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and arrange your visit.
3) When to go and how long
All year round but the best seasons are spring and autumn to avoid the intense heat of the summer season and perfect for taking pictures or sitting in one of the many outdoor cafés. We visited Fes in December, and it was a bit cold during the early morning and at night. We suggest you spend here at least a full day. On our itinerary, we got to Fes around 6 p.m. from Chefchaouen, spending here 2 nights.
4) How to get there
If you are travelling around on your own, the cheapest way is by bus or train (about 3 hours) from Meknes. The best way is to book a private car with a driver through a local agency to avoid wasting time and do your visits with no rush.
Fes airport has just a few flights a day, anyway is served by some low-cost companies like Ryanair and Air Arabia Maroc. Get your ticket on Skyscanner!
5) Where to sleep
The Medina is absolutely the best choice since it allows you to visit all the attractions by walk. It’s also plenty of affordable accommodations like Riad and guesthouses. We slept at Fes Inn Hotel, an excellent choice even out of the Medina (only 15 minutes by taxi from Bab Bou Jeloud). If you want to see more accommodations in Fes, click here.
6) Where to eat
You’ll find some good local restaurants around Bab Bou Jeloud square. We ate at La Kasbah Restaurant and Cafè Clock Restaurant: both of them are cheap and have delicious food. Anyway, if you want to check more restaurants in Fez, click here.
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