What to see and do in Meknes
Located in the Middle Atlas region and founded in the 10th century, Meknes is one of Morocco’s four old imperial cities and offers a myriad of attractions for a visitor.
The city served as the capital of Morocco starting from the mid of the 18th century and in 1996, the UNESCO put the Historic center on its list of World Heritage sites.
During a tour in the northern side of Morocco, it’s worth spending a day visiting the stunning architectural gems of the city and get lost in the narrow alleys of the vibrant souk.
Let’s go to discover the Meknes top attractions
1) El Hedime square
This is the main square of the city, beating heart of the Medina, and connects the Medina itself with the Kasbah.
It is lined with restaurants, cafes and a covered market selling sweets, meat, vegetables, and fruit.
El Hedime square recalls the Jemaa el Fna square in Marrakech when in the late evening it turns into a vibrant and charming place plenty of merchants with their booths, monkey trainers, local musicians, storytellers, traditional healers and snake charmers ready to “kidnap” you for a pic.
Since Meknes is the least famous and visited of the 4 imperial cities, the square is much more authentic and the artists perform here for locals, not for tourists.
2) Bab El-Mansour
“I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I’m like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front’’. This is the translation of the Arabic inscription you’ll find on this imposing historic imperial gate facing El Hedime square.
Built in the 1730s, it is adorned with stunning zellige tiles in various colors, fine brickworks, carved wood, arches and it is often celebrated as the most beautiful entrance gates in the whole Morocco. It is about 16 meters high wheres the span of the arch of the door is 8 meters.
3) Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail
Built in the 17th century, it is the mausoleum in which Sultan Moulay Ismail, his millet and his son rest. Moulay Ismail reigned Morocco between 1672 and 1727 and he was the king who moved the capital to Meknes building new gates, ramparts, mosques and palaces.
It is one of the very few religious sites in Morocco open to non-muslim visitors (not allowed to approach the tomb itself).
During the visit, you can admire the beautiful chambers decorated with a series of intricate tile “windows”, chandeliers, carved wood, colonnades and fountains. Note: The Mausoleum is currently closed for restoration works.
4) Bou Inania Madrasa
The Bou Inania Medersa is a Koranic school and it was a major center of learning for followers of Islam. It was built in the 14th century during the reign of the Merinids (13th to 15th century) and completed in 1350 by Abu Inan Faris, a former sultan of Morocco.
It’s an authentic jewel and architectural highlight of Meknes and boasts refined courtyard richly decorated with zellige tiles, stucco, carved olive wood, a detailed cedar ceiling and Quranic inscriptions on the decorative walls.
On the upper floors are located the small cells where students and teachers once lived, whereas on its roof there is a terrace from which to admire a beautiful view of the Medina. Not to be missed il also the ancient hammam of the Madrasa with its flaking plaster.
5) Strolling through the old Medina
So as in all the Moroccan city, one of the most interesting thing to do is to get lost in the narrow street of the Medina, the ancient part of the city.
Strolling in this labyrinth you will find sheer endless corridors of shops, from clothing to spices, fruit, vegetables, food, animals and, as our guide said, probably there is literally nothing you won’t find here.
The streets are so narrow that the locals can just use hand wagon or donkey. The Medina is very authentic and shops sell exclusively to the demands of the locals and you won’t find the cheap trinkets like in the touristic Marrakech.
6) Heri es-Souani
Built by Moulay Ismail, Heri es-Souani is a monumental building, once the city’s Royal stables and granaries. Heri es-Souani was built to accommodate up to 12.000 horses and also with the purpose of preserving the immense grain reserve.
Partially restored, both buildings were destroyed quite heavily in the earthquake in 1755. Next to the stables, there is the huge Sahrij Swani Basin, fed by several canals and built to provide water for the many horses.
7) Habs Qara prison
It is a huge ancient prison that stretches deep down below the streets of Meknes. Habs Qara was sadly home to up to 60,000 prisoners, mostly slaves and Christian prisoners of war.
It is said that these prisoners were used by Moulay Ismail as labor for the construction of large works. If you have time, don’t miss to visit this impressive building walking through its damp corridor, cells, narrow ceiling and staircases reliving the terrible living conditions of the prisoners with your imagination.
8) Dar Jamai Museum
There are a few museums in Meknes and with no doubt, Dar Jamai is the most interesting. Located at the far end of El Hedime square inside an old palace, it houses a collection of Moroccan art ranging from wrought iron objects to wooden sculptures, from fabrics to ceramics, with pieces dating back to the reign of Moulay Ismail.
Need to Know
1) When to go and how long
All year round but the best seasons are spring and autumn to avoid the strong heat of the summer season and perfect for taking pictures or sitting in one of the many outdoor cafés. We visited Meknes in December and it was a bit cold during the early morning and at night. The best way to enjoy Meknes is to have an overnight stay and visit the wonderful attractions without rushing. On our itinerary, we got to Meknes around 6 p.m. from Casablanca (and Rabat), we had an overnight there, then the next day we enjoyed the city for 5/6 hrs before heading to Moulay Idriss, Volubilis and finally Chefchaouen.
2) How to get there
If you are traveling around on your own, the cheapest way is by bus or train (around 3 hours) from Casablanca. Obviously, 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. In our 2 trips around Morocco, we arranged the vehicle with driver with Tizi trekking and Atlas discovery.
3) 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 guest houses (if you have heavy baggage keep in mind that inside the medina you just go by walk). We slept at the wonderful Ryad Bahia (half board), a 5-minute walk from El Hedime square. The owners are lovely and they also arrange guided tours of Meknes and in case all the things you need. Alternatively, if you want to see the list of the best accommodations in the city, click here.
4) Where to eat
You’ll find good local restaurants in El Hedime square and through the Medina. Click here to see the best restaurants in Meknes.
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