The Best Things to Do in Fes, Morocco

A visit to Fes means moving between worlds, sometimes at a dizzying pace. You can visit the fragrant gardens of a palace mere moments after breathing the acrid air of the leather tanneries. Sunlight has never been so bright, nor has shade ever felt so dark and cool. Get lost in the medina of Fes (everyone does!) and discover its ancient charms.

Rue Talaa Kebira, Fes, Morocco
Magical, mysterious, magnificent—the ancient madrassas, or Koranic schools, of Morocco are unlike any other, and nowhere are they more extraordinary than in the Fes medina.

These architectural gems are home to students who come from all over the Arabic world to study their religion. The serene environment of the schools provides a welcome balm from the frenetic activity of life in the medina. Several of the oldest in Fes, while no longer in use, are open to the public, which allows a fascinating insight into the almost monastic existence of the former residents. A visit can also reveal layer upon layer of exquisite Islamic architectural details such as carved and filigreed plaster, delicate hand-cut zellij (glazed tiles), elaborate ironwork, and painted wood inlaid with gold leaf.

Among those you shouldn’t miss are the 14th-century al-Attarine, for its extraordinary plaster- and stuccowork that is said to have been inspired by the Nasrid Palaces in Granada’s Alhambra; the Bou Inania, near the Bab Boujloud (Blue Gate) and built around the same time, for its spacious, arcaded courtyard; and the 17th-century Cherratine in the Andalous Quarter, a fine example of Islamic architecture, with ornate carved-cedarwood balconies that go up and up and up, as if ascending to heaven.
Quartier Des Potiers, Fes, Morocco
Fes is well-known for producing the best pottery in Morocco. The local gray clay is much more hard-wearing than many clays used further south; items made from this material are often fired at volcanic temperatures, and usually capable of withstanding a microwave or dishwasher. The pots are still painted by hand here. If you’re keen to stock up on treasures for your kitchen or dining room table, you have several options. Several stores along Talaa Kbira stock good-quality tableware, including our favorite, the Fondouk Tazi, which also offers some lovely modern designs. Continue into the bowl of the medina to the Henna Souk to find traditional patterns such as the tomato flower, various Berber motifs, and embroidery-inspired designs. Serious buyers hop in a taxi up to Ain Nokbi, the industrial quarter, to see the potters at work. The shops can also organize big shipments for you, but oversee the packaging yourself if you want it to arrive intact.
The dyeing vats at Chouara—as well as at the city’s other tanneries—are among the Fes medina’s most iconic sights. The ancient craft of tanning and dyeing, in all its visceral authenticity (cow urine and pigeon poop are still key components in the process), plays out much as it always has. Chouara has been around since the 11th century. The dyes used in the tannery pits are natural: Blue comes from indigo; red, from poppy or paprika; yellow, from saffron, pomegranate, or even a mix of turmeric and mimosa flowers. The best vantage point for observation is from one of the roof terraces. Leather shops hawking everything from butter-soft leather babouches (iconic Moroccan backless slippers) and poufs, to copies of designer jackets and handbags. (That Hermès Birkin bag, or a facsimile of it, could finally be yours at a fraction of the price.) Although the guides around here are a tenacious lot, don your best smile, carry a posy of mint to hold beneath your nostrils, and settle in for a long chat with the shopkeepers to learn about fascinating process. Expect prices in the shops to vary wildly—much depends on your haggling prowess. A favorite store is the aptly named La Belle Vue de la Tannerie, off the main drag. The shop has sought out skilled tailors with European know-how to create items of better quality using all Moroccan hides, which results in better leather goods. The tailors can copy a motorcycle jacket for you in three or four hours from goat or lambskin, the softest of the hides.
Rue Talaa Kebira
The plaza of Place Seffarine, dominated by the entrance to the al-Qarawiyin Library and a sturdy old tree, is one of the most pleasing areas in Fes. As you approach, you’ll hear the sound of the copper beaters tap, tap, tapping away. It’s well worth perusing the stalls to find high-quality cookware to take home, such as pixie pans for boiling milk for your coffee, copper tagines and teapots, and prettily etched bowls for use in the hammam. Stop at the café for seriously strong coffee and to watch the world go by, or scoot around the corner onto Derb Chouara for hot, sweet mint tea spiked with various other healing herbs at a hole-in-the-wall where you’ll rub shoulders with local craftspeople taking a break from their labors.
Tala'a Kbira , Medina , Fés-Morocco، N°248 Rue Talaa Kebira, Fes 30000, Morocco
The most traditional of Fes’s two main shopping streets is a cornucopia of carpet vendors, leather babouche makers, Berber jewelry sellers, fondouks spilling over with handmade pottery, and much more besides. The trick here is to sort the wheat from the chaff and get some proper bargains. Among the myriad carpet shops, a favorite is Kilim Berber where the charming Youssef sells an affordable collection of top-quality Beni Ouarain, Azilal, and Boucherouite rugs. Take a gander at the wares of the Fondouk Tazi, which has an excellent range of traditional Fes pottery as well as groovier striped collections. Keep strolling downhill and you’ll see wooden buckets trimmed with brass items meant for the hammam (but which look just as stunning in a modern bathroom); aim to wind up at the Henna Souk, where you can stock up on traditional cosmetics and toiletries from Ahmed and Mohammed—who can also give you a crash course in how to use them.
Derb El Miter, Fès, Morocco
Hit the Fondouk Kaat Smen, otherwise known as the honey souk, to taste your way through as many as 17 different wild honeys for sale. Varieties range from familiar orange blossom and lavender to more unusual treats like caper and carob. If jujube is available, note that it’s favored for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, is considered to be particularly good for the liver and is locally consumed more as a medicine than something to spread on toast. People travel from afar to take this honey home, so the proprietor, Mr. Hicham, is used to packing it for air travel. Pop around the corner to the spice shop on Rue Bouhaj to stock up on freshly ground spices, too, like lemon-scented cumin, rich red paprika, ground ginger, sweet and earthy turmeric, and heady cinnamon.
Dar Tazi, Fes, Morocco
To immerse yourself in the life of a Moroccan housewife, take a stroll through the fresh-produce market of R’cif, which winds through the lower part of the Fes medina. Plan to arrive by 10 a.m. when the market really gets going (by 11:30 a.m., it’s packed). In addition to browsing stalls of plump fruit and vegetables from farms in the Middle Atlas, you can snack here, too: hot trid—a gossamer-thin pastry baked over a rounded clay pot or “egg”—and irresistible meloui (multiple layers of dough that become soft and flaky as they are cooked) stuffed with spiced onions. Don’t miss seeing the infamously grumpy camel butcher whose signage is a real camel’s head hanging from a hook. Around lunchtime, mastermind your way deep into the souks to find the Achabine area, where the city’s best street food vendors ply their trade. The dishes served up here built this city and continue to do so every lunchtime: comforting bessara (split-pea or broad-bean soup) and harira (a Moroccan staple of chickpeas, lentils, and lamb broth); sardines doused in charmoula and deep-fried until crunchy; hard-boiled eggs dipped in cumin. Come in the evening if you crave bite-sized brochettes of tender lamb and spiced liver.
Nouawal, Fès, Morocco
To come to Fes and skip the Jewish Quarter is to miss out on a massive chunk of the city’s history and identity. After the Sephardic expulsion from Andalusia in 1438, a walled Jewish quarter was established in Fes. It was named the Mellah, meaning “salt marsh” in Arabic. The Jewish community was protected and accepted to the point where a Jew was appointed to be a vizier, or government minister, in 1465. The appointment unfortunately stirred up a wave of anti-Jewish protests and, on May 14, 1465, a massacre of nearly all of the Mellah’s inhabitants. When the next influx of exiles from Spain arrived in 1492, they bought with them an injection of wealth and creativity that allowed the community to prosper until the 16th century. Sadly, the next few centuries saw a steady decline in population: Only 2,500 Jews are said to remain in Morocco, some 150 or less in Fes. This rather handsome neighborhood with its enclosed hanging balconies reveals fascinating history to those willing to look. Don’t miss the atmospheric cemetery, the 17th-century Ibn Danan Synagogue (which can be accessed if you ask the guard nicely and reward him with a few dirhams), and the daily markets. You’ll also find the best goldsmiths and jewelers in Fes here.
It’s fair to say that a trip to the hammam is a quintessential Moroccan experience and is a salve for the soul as much as it is for the body. Fes’s bathhouses may not have the sheer wow factor of those in Marrakech, but they perhaps offer a more intimate and authentic experience at more wallet-friendly prices. Your safest bet is to take a taxi to Nausikaa in the Ville Nouvelle and hang with locals while being treated to a deluxe treatment which involves a luxurious steam, followed by an enthusiastic scrub-down (gommage) with an exfoliating mitt (kessa) and olive oil soap, before getting slathered in rose-scented clay which leaves the skin baby-soft and sparkling. It also offers excellent pedicures and waxing.

If your heart is set on going old-school, be aware that the medina’s hammams are not always as hot, nor as clean, as you might like. In the medina, the pink and womblike hammam at Dar Bensouda is perfect if you’d prefer a private to a public hammam. It’s properly hot, and the local women who do the gommage mix their treatment lotions with lavender and chamomile as well as with other healing herbs and spices. A treatment costs 350 dirhams. The Riad Laaroussa provides a luxurious, candlelit experience. It’s the place to go if you want to experience a hammam with your partner, followed by sublimely relaxing massage. Have a cocktail in the courtyard afterwards; the orange- and cinnamon-infused gin and tonic is legend.
Fes, Morocco
These meticulously manicured formal gardens on the edge of the medina were planted over a century ago. Inevitably, somewhere along the way they fell into disrepair, but after several years of replanting, renovation, and the odd scandal (reputedly, a pile of human bones were dug up here during the process), they reopened in 2011 as a glorious version of their former selves. In a city that’s near desert much of the year, the gardens represent the only proper green space, a literal breath of fresh air just when you need it most. Straddling the medina and the Mellah (the Jewish quarter), the gardens are the perfect picnic pit stop on a sunny day of exploring Fes, and provide a balm to the frenetic energy of the souks. You’re not allowed to throw down your picnic blanket just anywhere, but you can sneak a sandwich on a shady bench.

Amble through, taking in the zellij-tiled water gardens, festooned with roses and lulled by tinkling fountains. Admire the towering palms and poplar trees before circling back around the pond to the ancient waterwheel. Hit the kitschy, slightly-down-at-the-heels-but-charming-anyway Café La Noria for a pot of mint tea. Or try Mezzanine, a rooftop terrace lounge, for a cold beer or a glass of chilled Moroccan rosé with lush views of the garden’s canopy. (The park is closed on Mondays.)
Ville Nouvelle, Fès, Morocco
Although medina dwellers tend to favor local markets for their daily shopping, and tourists enjoy strolling them to get a sense of life in the ancient city, the art deco fresh-produce market in the Ville Nouvelle provides a less harried experience. This is where you’ll find premium regionally grown fruits and vegetables, ranging from gorgeous artichokes, peas, and fava beans in the spring; sweetly fragrant peaches, nectarines, and melons in the summer; and earthy sweet potatoes, great bunches of fennel, and Jerusalem artichokes going into the autumn and winter. Haunches of beef and lamb hang from butchers’ hooks, and the catch from Kenitra and Tangier lays glistening on ice-covered wooden slabs. The market is a great place to stock up on dried fruits and nuts, and souvenirs of herbs and spices, handwoven baskets, and Moroccan serving platters. After shopping, stop at one of several cafés on lively Mohammed V Boulevard for freshly squeezed orange juice or a coffee strong enough to make your nerves jangle, and watch the world wander on by.
Fes, Morocco
Founded in 859 by the pious Tunisian entrepreneur Fatima al-Fihri, the Qarawiyin is the oldest continuously operating university in the world. Originally the course of study was entirely focused on the Koran (prospective students still need to have memorized the religious text in its entirety before applying), but over the centuries, music, medicine, and astronomy were added to the curriculum, as well as practices like Sufism. This multidisciplinary place of learning is thought to have become the blueprint for universities everywhere—and it’s still possible for young Muslims to earn a first-class honors degree here. The mosque, which also boasts an area for women’s worship, has space for 22,000 people, making it the biggest in Africa. Though non-Muslims can only glimpse the interior of the complex through various doorways, there have been recent reports that the library may open to the public at some point. (Also note there are several spellings for the university’s name: Kairaouine and Qarawiyyin seem to be the most frequently seen.)
Fes, Morocco
When temperatures soar, the best thing you can do for yourself, and anyone you are with, is to buy a pass to one of the hotel pools. The Riad Alkantara is situated at the heart of the medina and offers a long, deep, aquamarine-colored pool surrounded by a small but lush garden busy with butterflies and warbling songbirds. It’s usually very tranquil, but it’s worth arriving around 11 a.m. to be sure of a sun bed in high summer. Note also that service is painfully slow, so if you want to order a simple lunch (sandwiches, salads) be sure to order at least an hour and a half before you actually want to eat.

In the Ville Nouvelle, the Marriott is another good option and a better bet if you have kids in tow, as it has a shallow pool for children as well as a large pool for adults. Plentiful sun beds, not to mention a decent Italian restaurant that serves cold beers and chilled Moroccan wines as well as child-friendly pizza and pasta, add to the perfection. The Hôtel Les Mérinides is situated high on a ridge above the medina and it has a medium-size pool surrounded by a dining terrace with expansive views. It’s more exposed than the other two, but rounding off the day up here with a gin and tonic as the sun goes down over the ancient city is arguably one of the most magical summertime experiences you can have.

Finally, if time and budget allow, it’s worth booking transport to ferry you out to Dar El Mandar, less than an hour’s drive away from the city center, near the Middle Atlas town of Imouzzer (pass price includes lunch). Perched on a hillside overlooking the Saiss Plains, you can spend a delightful day lolling poolside amid terraced gardens dotted with cushion-strewn Berber tents for those all-important afternoon siestas.
12 Derb El Miter, Fès 30000, Morocco
Palais Amani is one of the most romantic Fes riad dining experiences. Tinkling fountains? Check. Orange trees strung with twinkling lanterns? Check. Rose petals strewn hither and thither? Check. Start your meal with a rooftop aperitif to admire the 360-degree views of the medina, or with a beefy red wine fireside in the lounge instead; then, feast on chef Houssam Laassiri’s modern spin on traditional dishes like slow-cooked beef tagine or confit duck with prunes, as well as a divine chocolate mousse. The restaurant hosts occasional pop-ups, too, featuring celebrated chefs from the U.K. and Europe, so keep an eye on the hotel’s website for what’s up next.
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