- The third largest city in Morocco, with a population of about 1 million people.
- Fes el-Bali (Old Fes) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and contains the world’s oldest university – the University of al-Karaouine.
- Nicknames: Mecca of the West, Athens of Africa
- Currency: Dirham (MAD).
- Spoken languages: Arabic and French.
- Best time to visit: from May to September for the balmy Mediterranean climate. Note: August can be a bit intense with temperatures creeping above 30°C (90°F).
- Arriving from the airport: Fes-Saïss Airport (FEZ) connects to the city with bus route #16 priced at Dh20 one-way. Taxis charge a flat fee of Dh150 to the centre, but are not allowed inside the Medina.
WHERE TO STAY
The walls of the Medina are home to the best riads in view of the medieval centre, with the gate of Bab Boujloud marking the busiest thoroughfare. Ville Nouvelle is the new part of town, removed from the hustle and bustle and therefore perfect for those looking for a more tranquil setting.
- Walking is the most convenient way to explore the city. Most attractions, entertainment and eating options are clustered around the Medina – pack comfortable footwear for as the streets are cobbled and uneven.
- Petit taxis can be hailed from anywhere on the street, and are supposed to run on meter and have a laminated display of tariffs. As the Medina is closed to motorized traffic, passengers are dropped off at the main gates.
- Rental cars are available from a number of international companies such as Hertz and Europcar for reasonable prices (starting at $100/£70/€85 weekly). Cars can be picked up at the airport and returned at other recognized stations.
- Drinking age is 18 and last call is 2 AM.
- As the most conservative Islamic city in the country, nightlife options are limited to restaurants and cafes or hotel lounges. The rooftops surrounding Bab Bou Jeloud are an impressive setting for dinner and drinks.
- Smart casual does the trick at Fantasia for an evening spent savouring authentic Moroccan cuisine followed by theatrical performances with exotic Arabian and Bedouin dancing.
- The Mezzanine in Fes el-Bali is popular with the hip crowd. Chilled beers and cocktails are complemented by a stunning courtyard and live music.
UNIQUE LANDMARKS TO VISIT
- The 9,000 alleyways that serve as arteries to the Medina are a trove of cultural interests. Hammams, mosques, tiled fountains and historic workshops stand elbow to elbow in a dense flurry. Note: if approaching a tour guide, negotiate on prices before embarking on the trip and pay no more than Dh250 per half day and Dh400 for the whole day.
- The Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts has a fascinating collection of traditional wood crafts in what used to be an important foundouk (an inn for travelling merchants).
- Bou Inania Madrasa is an impressive example of Merinid architecture. The former theological institution dates back to the 12th century and is the only madrasa complete with a pulpit and minaret.
- Chouara leather tanneries are an experience unique to Fes. The harsh odours of animal hide and pigeon excrements are impossible to miss but there is no better way to witness the medieval process of dyeing leather than here. If offered a sprig of mint, accept and hold it under the nose to mask the pungent smells.
- Although access to Kairaouine is restricted to Muslims, the mosque is Morocco’s second largest and one of the world’s oldest universities. Peek through the gates and admire the façade.
- The souks in the Medina are famous for their diversity. For antique ceramics, genuine handmade carpets and authentic jewellery head to Coin Berbere.
- Walk along Fes el-Jdid until the Royal Palace rises in sight. The Mellah and its emblazoned Jewish iconography can be found in the same neighbourhood.
- Unwind in Jardin Jnan Sbil away from the congestion of the claustrophobic alleyways.
- Hike to the Merenid Tombs off Borj Nord and take in the skyline of the old city.
- The Festival of Sacred Music held in June is the region’s pride, with performances brightening up courtyards and stages hosted around the main squares. Accommodation sells out quickly as early as the year before, so book in advance.
- Business negotiations almost always require the proceedings to be discussed over mint tea. It is considered rude to decline the offer, so accept even if not feeling thirsty. Customs are very important to the locals.
- Moroccan cuisine takes influence from Berber, Arabic and Moor civilisations. Classic dishes include Harira, a soup used to break the fast observed during Ramadan, Tagine (a stew of meats and vegetables), and Pastilla, made from pigeon meat.
- While the observance of Ramadan shouldn’t affect visitors, it can make for an interesting visit. Dates change every year but generally fall in the month of August-September according to the lunar calendar. Out of respect, try not to eat, drink or smoke in public while the locals observe the fast.
- Official guides must carry a laminated badge around their neck – if they don’t, they are not registered and are probably just looking for quick cash.
- Where to find good cheap eats: the streets of the Medina are unbeatable for variety and prices, while Fassi flavours are best savoured sitting at any café and restaurant in Batha. Bakeries are plentiful and sell excellent pastries, baguettes and breads from early morning.
- Dangerous areas: the same alleyways that appear safe during the daytime can turn sinister when it gets dark – avoid wandering around the Medina late at night. Female travellers should expect to get plenty of unwanted attention – this is unavoidable and best ignored.
RECOMMENDED FES GUIDE BOOKS
Recommended trip duration: 2-3 days