One of the world’s best preserved medieval city

Surrounded by the foothills of the Atlas mountains, the city of Fez used to be a crossroads for caravans and it certainly is the most impressive and ancient imperial city of the country.

Fez – Morocco’s third largest city – was founded in the 8th century and it has a distinct traditional character, especially the old town called Fes el-Bali.

The city is divided in three parts, but the most famous and touristic one is the walled Medina which is part of the UNESCO Heritage. Getting lost in the labyrinth of narrow alleys and endless stalls is part of the package since many streets don’t have name and even Google Maps will show a flight flag when trying to find your Riad. Donkeys and bicycles run at full speed in the small alleys, and vendors will display all the leather products, textile, ceramics and dried fruits but in a less aggressive way compared to the Marrakesh’s souk.

The south of the city, was built by the Merenids’ rulers during the 13th century and for this reason it’s called the “New city“; The Jewish quarter called the Mellah has a particular architecture and it is characterized by tall buildings. We ventured here to explore some non touristic areas of the city but locals started shouting on us telling us to go away and to go back to the Medina tourist area.

We soon discovered that Fes has many different areas that are not recommended nor safe for tourists and we have been told by the hotel manager not to go out of the Medina early in the morning or after the sunset. Nevertheless this city was enchanting from the architectural and historical point of view and cafes offered us great panoramic views over the hills while sipping aromatic mint teas. The “Ville Nouvelle” has modern city center inspired to French architecture due to their early 20th century occupation.

We barely spent a couple of days in this stunning city but we will surely be back to see the places and gardens that we didn’t have the time to explore. Here is what you can’t miss:

1. The Leather Tanneries: the oldest tanneries in the world

The city is world famous for its colourful and strong smelled tanneries, a place where animal skins are cleaned, rinsed, refined and tanned with natural spices and colours. Locals will give you mint leaves “for free” asking for coins one minute later, and we soon realised that it was very much needed in order to be able to get closer and tale some fantastic picture from the top of the shops without feeling sick: the smell was really unbearable so we really couldn’t figure out how people could be possibly working endless hours with water at knee-level and breath without masks.

2. Fez el-Bali: the world famous Medina and leather souks

Located behind a high wall, the medina has narrow, car-free alleys where hundreds of merchants and craftsmen sell a range of products such as dates, fish, spices, copper urns, carpets and musical instruments. This part of the city has hardly changed over the centuries and it’s like stepping back in time. Fez is also famous for its leather products and most of it comes from the leather bazaar (souq). Fes el Bali is a paradise of local craftwork, with colourful Moroccan slippers, leatherwork, metalwork, rainbow-glass lamps, and tiles all displayed at stalls throughout the district. The souq is home to three ancient leather tanneries, the largest and oldest being the Chouara Tannery, which is almost a thousand years old.

3. The Old Mellah: the Jewish quarter

This compact area is situated north of the Royal Palace and it is characterised by examples of early 20th-century houses, which were once home to the vibrant Jewish community of Fes. On the edge of the Mellah is the Jewish cemetery, one of the city’s most tranquil spots which offers incredible views over the hills surrounding the city.

This compact area is situated north of the Royal Palace and it is characterised by examples of early 20th-century houses, which were once home to the vibrant Jewish community of Fes. On the edge of the Mellah is the Jewish cemetery, one of the city’s most tranquil spots which offers incredible views over the hills surrounding the city.

4. Borj Nord and the Merenid Tombs: the best panoramic views over Fez

As soon as you exit the tourist area you see how locals truly live and we noticed many people leading a flock of sheep, goats or donkeys up the hills or crossing the roads of the city center. Once you reached the top, the view over the hill and the Saadian tombs is stunning: green hills and mountains, almond and olives trees all around and you feel immersed in the echo of the prayer calls.

Little we know about these tombs besides the fact that they were built in the 14th century. The time period suggests that these were built during the Merenid dynasty, but it is not certain who specifically was buried there and why. The Merenids remained in power from 1269 until the beginning of the 15th century and left a deep mark on Moroccan history. During these two centuries, a number of construction projects were taken up all over Morocco and especially in Fez. Walking up the steep hill just outside the city ramparts, to the Borj Nord area, you’ll find a 16th-century fortress, home to an impressive arms museum. The collection of weapons includes some extremely rare pieces from across the world. From the top of the hill, you can see most of the landmark historical and religious buildings of Fez and enjoy the spectacular views.

It is recommended to visit this part of the city outside the walls with a group or a guided tour to be safe. We visited it on our own around 4 PM as advised by the hotel receptionist to enjoy the afternoon light but most of all because usually at the time the police is there checking on tourists as the area is famous for thieves.

5. Medersa el Attarine: a fine example of fine Merenid architecture

Built in 1325 by Abu Said, this Islamic school has been renowned in 2019 and it is a beautiful example of Merenid architecture which displays the intricate decoration from this period, with elaborate tile work and cedar wood carvings. The upper floor is made up of cells, which were once home to students studying theology at the Qaraouiyine Mosque (once one of the world’s first universities): from the top terrace you can actually see the green roofs of the university.

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Accommodation and restaurant tips

We found a true gem right in the city centre of Fez al Bali close to the Blue Gate: the Ryad Hala. We received a nice welcome on arrival with mint tea and the receptionist took the time ti suggest us restaurants and things to see in two days time. Traditional local breakfast is served: pancakes, pastries, jam, butter and bread, mint tea and fresh orange juice. Rooms are decorated in Moroccan style and the four-poster bed surrounded by red veiled brooded curtains was like living in “the One and a Thousand nights” tale.

Cafe Clock is a quirky restaurant great for lunch or dinner (we went twice): during the day is great to have a copious lunch on the sunny terrace and try local specialties such as hummus platters, falafels, vegetarian and vegan options etc. and their vast selection of fresh smoothies, fruit juices and teas. In the evening, films are projected in a small cinema enclosed in this charming restaurant where you can easily find interesting prices, high quality fresh local food and a relaxed atmosphere. Cherry on the cake: staff is nice and efficient too!