If you’re in Morocco’s third largest city, chances are you’ll spend a fair whack of your time in the medina. These are the important places to visit in and around it…
Before visiting Fez, I’d had some experience of the country’s souk culture on a trip to Agadir’s Souk El Had, but it definitely hadn’t prepared me for the sights, sounds and smells (yep) of Fes el Bali medina. It’s huge, kids.
So huge, I fully recommend experiencing it with a guide, as chances are, you’ll get lost alone. I took a private tour with a local (and I feel AWFUL because I’ve completely forgotten his name), who showed off some of the best bits of the medina and surrounding area.
And here, for your travelling pleasures, I’ve pinched picked out some of his best recommendations and shared my thoughts on them…
Borj Sud & Borj Nord
The first stop of the day involved some pretty special views. Fez el Bali is the largest medina in the world, spanning 540 acres, and seeing it from above before delving into its maze of streets gives a sense of perspective on how vast it is. For a great photo point, head to Borj Sud (a military monument) and Borj Nord (a weaponry museum), at the South and North sides of the medina (bit obvious from the names, eh?)
Mosaique Et Poterie De Fes
Handcrafted mosaic work is synonymous with Moroccan traditional crafts, and at Mosaique Et Poterie De Fes, you’ll discover an insight into how much work goes into every single handmade item. Starting off with a big pile of clay, this workshop shows off the stages of creating items from small vases to intricate tabletop designs. Hand-painted designs, perfectly carved tiles and beautifully shaped pieces of pottery are delivered by local workers, all before your eyes. At the end, you can even pick up a souvenir from their impressive shop collection.
The Royal Palace
This one’s a quick stop, as you can’t actually going inside – but it’s worth checking out the exterior of the Royal Palace for it’s intricate decor. Every single tile is hand made; every indent into the metal completely hand carved; every brush stroke handpainted. Which is pretty mindblowing. These famous doors lead into the residence used by Moroccan royalty when visiting Fez, and you can only imagine what lies behind them…
The streets of Fes el Bali
Not much can prepare you for exploring your first Moroccan medina. And Fes el Bali is unlike any other place I’ve visited; even after my previous experience of Morocco. It’s not always clean, but always lively. Stray cats chow down on unwanted wares from grocery stands, women bake bread alongside the pathways and donkeys barge their way past the crowds.
If you’re hoping for Instagram-pretty pictures, opportunities aren’t quite as free-flowing as some influencers of the world would have you expect. And that’s in the best possible way. The parts of the medina I explored were much more rough and ready than a Pinterest-perfect snap would have you believe, giving a true insight into the buzzing heart of a Moroccan walled city.
Perhaps as a result of the tour guide’s local knowledge, I encountered far less tourists than expected – to the point where I’d probably have felt a little on edge as a solo female traveller. But with a guide in tow, I felt completely safe, and relished the chance to get what I hope was a more authentic experience of Morocco.
If you want to experience Fes el Bali’s liveliest, noisiest spot, this is it. From streets away, the sounds of clanging pots and crashing metal meet your ears. This area is home to the medina’s main copperware production, and you’re able to get up close to the action as pots and pans are crafted around the square’s edges. It’s fascinating to watch, but maybe pack some earplugs.
Al Quaraouiyine University
The University of Al Quaraouiyine is the oldest continually operating university in the world, and is at the heart of Fez’s religious and spiritual culture. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside, but can catch a glimpse of the courtyard and library areas.
I stopped off here for lunch, and as well as a top-notch tagine, you can also enjoy the grandeur of this beautiful, ancient building. It’s particularly important in Moroccan history, as it was here that the Protectorate Treaty between Morocco and France was signed, marking Morocco as a dependent city of France, but still granted its own autonomy. The Palais Mnhebi is full of traditional Moroccan design, tilework and textures, and also has a rooftop that offers views over the medina.
Medersa Bou Inania
One of the few religious spots in Fez that non-Muslims are able to visit, Medersa Bou Inania was originally built in the 1300s, as a theological school and mosque. Going upstairs from the courtyard, the former living quarters of the students can be visited. Those living in the school would stay in small, simple rooms – about the size that make a London flat look like a palace. Although I don’t think you’d find a city flat anywhere near as beautiful as this.
(Quick note: I don’t buy leather, and actually felt torn on visiting the tanneries as it’s not a practice I particularly support. I chose to see it in the end, as it’s such an integral part of Fez’s culture and industry, however many people may opt not to – do skip this part if it’s something you feel strongly about, and I’ve purposefully excluded any close-up imagery that focuses on the hides themselves.)
At the heart of Fes el Bali, the Chouara Tannery is a real sight to behold. Vats of coloured dyes are busied around by local workers in this 11th century tannery, the biggest of three in the city. Much of the process involved in the leather industry of Fes is basically unchanged since its early days, a traditional craft that tends to run in families for its worker supply.
As I entered, a mint spring was bestowed on me, as apparently the smell from the dyes can be overwhelming. I didn’t actually find it that bad, but the mint made for a good photo prop, at least.
The best way to see the tanneries from a rooftop vantage point involves going through one of the leather shops that surround it. Door No. 10 on Derb Chaouwara offers one of the best views. Although the view is technically free, be prepared to tip the store owner if you’re not buying something – as I was with an official guide, I wasn’t pressured for a tip – but around 10-20 dirhams (roughly 80p-£2) seems the norm.
Zaouia de Moulay Idriss II
Another one you can’t actually go into as a non-Muslim, but it’s pretty cool to peer into from the outside nonetheless. Inside is the tomb of Idriss II, who ruled Morocco in the early 800s.