Photo Courtesy of Tak
Fes is the spiritual capital of Morocco—it's a little modest compared to flamboyant Marrakech, but it exudes a self-confidence that comes with 1,200 years of history. The labyrinthine medina is the largest in Morocco, and one that insists that visitors get hopelessly lost in its alleys at least once… per trip. The joy comes from discovering what's down the next street—fabulous shopping, an ancient mosque, or a lively square where you can take a mint tea and watch the parade of medina life pass before you.
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UNESCO lists the Fes medina as a World Heritage site, and in many ways the simple joy of exploring the old city is the greatest attraction Fes can offer. From the gates at Bab Bou Jeloud and Bab Rcif, streets wrap themselves up and down the slopes of the medina. Lively food markets give way to artisanal quarters, while the Kairaouine Mosque and Bou Inania Medersa speak of a centuries-old religious tradition. There’s relaxation to be had among the bustle, from strolling through quiet gardens to getting a deep scrub in a hammam. Finish off the day’s adventures with dinner at one of the city’s fashionable riad boutique hotels.
Fes prides itself on its cuisine—any grand Moroccan household worth its salt would always have employed a Fassi as head cook. If you ever wanted to look beyond tajines and couscous, this is the place to visit. The city's signature dish is pastilla, a sweet-savory pastry parcel, while a more recent innovation is the city's own camel burger. The food markets groan under the weight of fresh local produce, the street food is excellent, and the fine dining options are ever-expanding. Fes also sits close to Morocco's main wine-growing region, allowing you to complement your morning mint tea with a good glass of chilled wine in the evening—a perfect way to end a day of culinary adventures.
Fes’s place as the religious capital of Morocco gives much of its culture a spiritual slant, something that’s reflected in the festivals and celebrations that punctuate the city’s calendar. The highlight of the year is the summertime Festival of World Sacred Music, which attracts musicians from across the globe and has had headliners ranging from Youssou N’Dour to Patti Smith. Festivals of Sufi and Berber culture are also thriving, along with a growing visual arts scene. All this is against a rich backdrop of some of Morocco’s finest urban architecture and traditional decorative arts and crafts.
Many of the best handcrafts in Morocco are created in Fes, and the souks of the medina positively bulge with souvenir options. The city is particularly famed for its blue ceramics and high quality leather. A visit to the potteries to watch pots being thrown, hand-painted, and fired is always a highlight, as is a stop at the (pungent) tanneries that produce the leather. Fine embroidery is another Fassi speciality, and there are plenty of carpet shops ready to unveil their wares to tempt those who never knew they were in need of a beautiful rug. The red signature hat is also a popular purchase, albeit one with an ironic twist: The fez is a foreign import and not worn in the city at all.
Spring and autumn are the peak tourism periods, with warm temperatures and long days. The heat in July and August can be oppressive, and during Ramadan, the logistics can be awkward for visitors since many restaurants close during the day. Visas are not required for visits of up to 90 days. Fes Saïss Airport has buses and taxis to the city center. Insist city taxis use meters. The languages are Arabic and French and the currency is the dirham. ATMs are widespread. Tipping is expected—a dirham or two in a café and up to 10% in upmarket restaurants. Electricity is 220 volts and sockets take round-pin European plugs.