Fez (Fés in Arabic), is the most traditional of the four big imperial cities of Morocco and walking (or sometimes crouching) in the old Medina will throw you back centuries in time. The most dazzling, and to some horrifying, aspect of Fez is beyond doubt the dark and dirty medina. Thousands of little alleys crawling over each other. Filled with chaos, beggars and barters, donkeys and cats. Getting lost here is unavoidable. Fez will definitely shock you, but this is a shock you do not want to miss out on.
– The sights of Fez –
Fés El-Bali is the name given to the heart of the old Medina. A place where GPS navigation blacks out and street-names are faded. If you thought the Marrakech Medina was a maze – think again as you’ve just entered the pro-league of getting lost.
But getting lost in the little streets is a small price to pay for the impressions this place will imprint upon you. Life in the Old Medina hasn’t changed much in the last 700 years or so and just strolling (and sometimes crawling) around in the labyrinth is wildly interesting. The one moment you’re walking in a dodgy abandoned cold alley, and the next your trying to squeeze yourself through between a donkey-cart and a display of colorful carpets in a busy sunlit street bustling with trade. Some people instantly fall in love with it – others hate it. I am somewhere in the middle – missing out on Fez while traveling Morocco would be a dead shame. But I do not recommend staying more than a few days.
Take tradition into account
There are some things to take in mind, to avoid getting into unpleasant situations. Fez is a very traditional city and this is even more through in the old Medina. This means that for female travellers walking around in skirts or shorts that are cut above the knee, shirts with open backs or cleavage or tight-fitting outfits, in general, is a bad idea – and asking for trouble after sundown. Also, take into account that Friday is a holy day. Most sights and shops will be closed and fewer tourists are out. The few people that do walk on the streets can expect a lot more (unwanted) attention then on any other day. This is especially true for (solo) females. Don’t get too scared though – it is only a select group of young men that do so and apart from some dirty comments and a few rude hisses, they are mostly harmless. Take into account though that most people in Fez regard it as really offensive and inconsiderate to not cover yourself – this is true for male and females alike.
How to avoid getting lost
The layout of the old medina is like a bowl with the centre at the bottom. In this bowl, there are two main streets that meander through Fés El-Bali from east to west like arteries. Do not expect wide lanes – the whole medina is pedestrian only and even these main roads are considered alleys in most places. The main streets are the Talaa Kebira and the Talaa Seghira. West they connect at the Blue Gate (Bab Bou Jeloud) – next to the big parking space Bou Jeloud Square. On the other end, they merge into one forming the street called Attarine that continues East until it runs into Kairaouine Mosque where it turns north and crawls around the 14 doored religious building leading you to the Chaouwara Tanneries. The area around the Mairaouine Mosque is also where the Souqs are. Make sure you know how to find your way back to your hotel from these main streets (A lot of Riads have placed directions on small wooden signs to throughout the Medina like a true scavenger hunt) and you’re all set to get lost without worrying about having the spend the night in the streets!
Not an official sight but worth seeking out is Rainbow Street. It connects Talaa Kebira and Talaa Seghira (which is helpful in navigation) and was on our favourite route when we were in Fez. It is basically a small alley of which the floors and walls are brightly coloured. Big rugs and paintings are lining the walls and colourful souvenirs are stacked in piles along the way. Of course, everything is for sale but you are free to just walk through it and snap a picture without being urged into a sale to strongly. You can find it a few hundred meters from the Blue Gate. In Talaa Kebira it starts about 30 meters from the entrance of the well known and visited Clock Cafe.
The tanneries of Fez are probably its most well-known attraction. There are three distinct tanneries that can be visited of which the Chouwara Tanneries are the biggest and most famous. Even at peak-season, the Chouawara Tanneries are reasonably quiet so there is no reason to choose one of the smaller, less impressive and harder to find tanneries. Different from the Tanneries in Marrakech – these tanneries can only be seen from above (but they are actually in use where the Marrakech tanneries also partly serve as a tourist attraction). Tourist shops have big terraces that overlook them from which you have the best view. Shop-owners are usually not that aggressive to make a sale. You’ll get the obligatory tour around its wares but if you just buy a small trinket or tip the man that gives the tour about 10 MAD you should be fine – which makes for a very cheap tourist attraction. The smells can be a bit overwhelming but a small bundle of mint helps greatly (this will be provided to you by the shopowners).
Getting to the tanneries is easy. Follow Attarine until you find yourself in the souqs where you’ll quickly bump into the Kairaouine Mosque. turn left and follow the street as it winds around the Mosque until you hear a lot of hawkers ask you about the tanneries, which is when you know you have arrived.
The Blue Gate
The Blue Gate (Bab Bou Jeloud) is probably one of the most iconic sights of Fez. If you arrive by car you’ll probably park your car in the nearby car park (Bou Jeloud Square) and the blue gate will serve as your entrance to Fés El-Badi. Viewed from the inside, the gate is actually green. It is beautifully decorated with mosaic but apart from looking at it – there’s nothing much to do. Next to the gate (inside) is a small square filled with eateries, cafés and restaurants.
Souqs & Kairaouine Mosque
One of the best places to go souvenir-shopping in Morocco. Prices are great and selection is extensive. As all high-grade pottery and ceramics are produced in Fez – this is where you’ll get the best value for money. The Souqs (street stalls) can be found in the area surrounding Kairaouine Mosque which can only be visited by Muslims but can be viewed from the outside through one of its 14 doors.
For only 10 MAD entrance – this is worth the visit. The beautiful palace needs some renovations but hosts an interesting collection of crafts and traditional clothing.
Jnan Sbil Bou Jeloud Gardens
The Bou Jeloud Gardens provide a great green relief from the chaotic and dark Medina. About a 5-minute walk from the Blue Gate this park is well-maintained and hosts a small cafe that serves coffee and mint tea on a sunny terrace.
– Where to eat and sleep –
There are a few places in Fez I recommend eating. If you are packing a fat wallet, try out Restaurant Dar Roumana and the Ruined Garden. Both provide excellent food in a great ambience, with a good selection of premium wines. If you are on a more ‘adventurous budget’ try the well-known Clock Café, that mixes Moroccan flavours into Western dishes. Rooftop places should be reserved for dinner. At night the place is also popular with tourists for its live-music, however, it does not serve alcohol. A great little place to have lunch is Smile Café. Do not be fooled by its somewhat cheesy and stupid name. The food is good and they have a nice little rooftop where thick rugs provide welcoming shade during the hotter months.
In such a chaotic place as Fez’s old Medina, you really ought to choose accommodation that provides some peace and quiet from it all. A rooftop-terrace is almost a must and after some research, we found the prettiest rooftop of them all.
The founder of this gem is Laurence, who finally decided to permanently move to Morocco (from France) a few years ago after having years of travelling back and forth. The central courtyard of the Riad is stunning – topping most sights throughout the city – with detailed mosaics everywhere and intricate woodcarvings lining the ceilings. The rooms are equally beautiful but what makes this Riad stand out above others is its rooftop-terrace overlooking Fez. Having breakfast in this idyllic little oasis forms the perfect start for a day of exploring the Medina. Ahmed takes care of the day-to-day management of the place and will pick you up from the car-park or another drop-off point to make sure you’ll actually find the place. Afterwards, the signs that are put up everywhere around the Riad will help you find your way back. A double will costs you €50 – 80 (60 – 95$) which includes breakfast.
If you are travelling on a smaller budget, try Funky Fez, where a dorm will set you back 100 MAD (€9/$10) incl. breakfast. it has good WiFi, a great rooftop and an excellent location.
– Practical Information –
When: Fez does not receive a lot of rain throughout the year but the little rain that does fall can be expected between mid-November and the beginning of May. Avoid mid-June to mid-September because of the gruesome heat. April, May, October, and November are perfect – winters can get a bit chilly (especially at night).
If you are only there for a few days, take into account that Friday is the holy day. Most sights will be closed and so will the majority of the shops. This is the least interesting day of the week to be in Fez.
In & Out: Fez has an international airport that serves most European capitals and some North-African cities as well. Budget-travelers will be pleased to learn that with it has a large RyanAir hub which means cheap flights. Fes-Saiss is located 15KM (10 miles) from the city center and can be reached by taking bus line 6 for only 4 MAD. A taxi will set you back around 100 MAD (for the whole car).
Fez also has a railway station with connections to all major cities in Morocco. The easiest way to get there is by petit-taxi (the little red taxi’s) which costs between 15-20 MAD (20-30 after dark) – insist on using the meter. You can find the taxies at all city-gates. From the railway station its easiest to ask to be driven to the blue gate (Bab Jeloud) and enter the medina from the west.
Lastly, there is a CTM bus station but unless your destination is very specific I would always prefer taking the train above the bus in Morocco. Its safer, faster, more comfortable and approximately the same price.
Budget: cheaper than Casablanca and Marrakech but more expensive than the country-side of Morocco. A meal in a mid-range restaurant sets you back between 60 – 100 MAD, double this for gourmand restaurants. Budget-accommodation starts at 40MAD for a dorm, a mid-range Riad (that are often extremely comfortable providing the service of high-end boutique hotels!) anywhere between 500 – 1200 MAD for a double incl. breakfast.