A sweaty, cramped old town, curious stray cats on every street corner, locals claiming to be your best friend, and more palaces than you know what to do with. This is Fes, Morocco.
Fes probably isn’t most people’s first choice nor the first place that springs to mind when you think of Morocco. Here I’m going to give you the best things to do in Fes and try to show you that this interesting Moroccan city is well worth a few days of your time.
Most of you will probably think of Marrakech when planning a trip to Morocco and, while you definitely should visit Marrakech, Fes is a city steeped in culture with several interesting things for tourists.
The city is a lot rougher around the edges than Marrakech which requires some extra common sense, especially at night, but this shouldn’t put you off visiting by any means.
After reading about Fes before I visited, I didn’t expect to see a single tourist and had visions getting chased down maze-like alleys by angry locals. Well, it wasn’t like that at all but there’s a significant difference when comparing Fes to Marrakech which requires some caution.
The city is in a great location for tours into the desert as well as travelling to different parts of the country.
A Bit About Fes
- It’s Morocco’s 2nd most populated city with 1.1 million inhabitants.
- The city was founded in 789.
- It has been the capital of Morocco on several occasions.
- It’s widely believed Fes has the oldest leather tannery in the world – over 1000 years old.
- It is still often considered as one of Morocco’s main religious cities.
- The city has over 300 mosques because of the law stating that ‘every neighbourhood in Fes must have a mosque’.
- Like several Moroccan cities, Fes is separated into the Old Town (Medina) and the New Town.
- The Medina is a completely car-free zone.
- Fes has one of the world’s oldest water clocks – built in 1357.
- One of its universities used to be the largest mosque in Africa.
- Fes with an ‘s’ is the French and more common spelling.
- Fez with a ‘z’ is the spelling of Fez hats which are, you guessed it, from Fez.
- Although not dangerous, crime rates are higher here than in the more touristy parts of Morocco requiring more caution.
- Like the rest of Morocco, you will get hassled everywhere you go in the Old Town – embrace it and don’t be afraid to say no.
- Fes was apparently the largest city in the world for a period in the 12th century with a population of 200,000.
Best Things To Do In Fes
1. Get Lost In The Medina
It’s a no-brainer that I start with getting lost in the Medina. In case you didn’t know, Medina is Arabic and refers to the walled part of a North African city. It’s one of the most enchanting places in Fes. The Medina in Fes is commonly known as Fes el-Bali.
The winding streets have hundreds of Souks selling more artisanal goods than you can imagine. From rugs to ceramic plates to pretty fridge magnets, if you look hard enough you’ll find just about everything. The narrow streets will sometimes make you feel claustrophobic with buildings of up to 3 storeys high with kids asking to be your guide for a few Dirham. The Medina is the focal point of Fes and is a real insight into the raw Moroccan culture.
More than likely, you’ll end up spending most of your time in the Medina. If you like to separate your trip into city areas then the Medina is well worth at least a day of your time.
The whole point is to get lost here and just meander to wherever the streets decide to take you. It’s important to not worry too much, you’re never too far from an entrance or main street.
You can get a map or try and rely on GPS to navigate but this doesn’t work that well. The maps tend to be hard to follow due to the sheer number of streets in the Medina, and I felt that the GPS was inaccurate with the high and narrow streets.
As already mentioned, just wander and enjoy Morocco at it’s finest. There are plenty of touristy and more authentic cafes to enjoy a drink or some food throughout the day.
A quick word of warning: if you do stop to check your map or GPS then it’s only a matter of time until a ‘friendly’ local will pick up on this and start offering you their ‘help’.
This varies from students who want to ‘practice English’ to young kids just wanting a couple of coins.
If you accept their help then you’ll most likely end up in a relative’s shop and generally not where you intended. I learnt the hard way and if you firmly say NO several times they’ll eventually get the message.
2. Enjoy The Views From Borj Nord
I’m a big fan of city viewpoints and the Borj Nord, constructed in the late 16th century, is Fes’ best spot for a panoramic photo.
Make your way along the walkways enjoying the scenery on offer. Directly in front of you is the Medina, your eyes can follow the wall all the way around to the other side.
Beyond the back wall are some sketchy Fes neighbourhoods in the ‘New Town’ which signify the end of Fes and the beginning of the monstrous Sahara Desert.
If you have time then the national arms museum may be worth your time and the entrance is easy to find next to the main viewpoint. We didn’t have time to visit but reviews are good and if weapons are your thing then check it out.
TIP: For some strange reason, it’s not permitted to sit on the benches at the Borj Nord. We tried a few times but were abruptly told to get off by the guard and his whistle. Maybe there was wet paint? If not, then I’m clueless. Bear in mind lots of things in Morocco aren’t worth questioning.
3. Smell The Chouara Tannery
Have you ever experienced an aroma so strong that you have no choice but to cover up your nose? At times, the Chouara tannery is like this.
A tannery is where the hides of animals are ‘tanned’ – treated to alter the hides’ properties such as durability and resistance to decomposition. The end product is something we commonly know as leather.
The process is actually very interesting and is as follows:
- Raw hides are brought to be treated, these include: sheep, goat, and cow skins.
- These skins are then bathed in a disgusting mix of urine, faeces, salt, water and lime. This is to loosen the hides’ hair.
- The hides are then hung to dry for a few days.
- The workers then dip the hides into wells which each have a variety of natural substances. Some of these are saffron, indigo and poppy and they are what give the leather its colour.
- They are left in these wells for a few days to absorb the chose colour.
What’s so special about the Chouara tannery? According to Tripadvisor, it’s the oldest in the world and this is believable considering it started business in the 11th century. A negative effect of the tannery is that Fes is sometimes labelled with the less glamorous title of ‘world’s smelliest city’.
As you’re heading off the viewpoint, there’s a shop selling an array of leather goods treated in the Tannery. They have impressive jackets, bags, belts and many more at great prices.
TIP: In these shops, you may get followed by a so-called ‘expert’ who will probably ask for a tip for his unrequested service.
This is one of the city’s biggest attractions and on my Marrakech post I mentioned the Tanneries. I also said that if you’ve come to Morocco just to visit these factories of art then Fes has to be your go-to place.
When you get close you’ll probably find yourself cornered by young guys offering some peppermint leaves. These are to remedy the sometimes suffocating smell when you enter and if you accept this ‘free’ gift be aware that you’ll probably be expected to pay something on your way out.
The image of the Tannery is something strangely spectacular – a massive grid of ceramic pots each full of a variety of colours. You’re more than welcome to observe the Tannery workers and don’t have to pay a penny (you may be told otherwise).
LOCATION: In the old town close to the al-Karaouine University. You’ll smell it before you see it.
4. Check Out The (Supposed) World’s Oldest University
UNESCO and Guinness World Records both claim that Al-Karaouine is the world’s oldest university. It was apparently the first ‘degree-awarding educational institution in the world which is impressive considering how many universities we have nowadays.
The founder of this institute in 859 came from the city of Kairouan in Tunisia which explains the name. Her goal was to construct a mosque and university rolled into one. She achieved this and nowadays it remains one of Africa’s largest mosques.
In the early 20th century, the university gave in to modern day pressures and started introducing traditional subjects such as chemistry and mathematics. Beforehand, the main focus was religion and Qu’ran intensive study.
Unfortunately, you cannot enter this university/mosque unless you are Muslim. You will have to make do with admiring the intricate mosaic patterns and structures from the entrance gates. Feel free to take photos but just make sure that you respect those who may be praying or worshipping.
LOCATION: The University of Al-Karaouine (sometimes al-Quaraouiyine) is deep in the Medina and close to the Chouara tannery.
5. Head Into The Al-Attarine Madrasa
You will see a lot of these ‘Madrasa’s’ not just in Morocco all over the Arabic world.
The word ‘Madrasa’ is Arabic for a type of educational institution, whether it be religious or educational.
The Madrasa was built in 1325 by a Sultan called Ya-qub Abu Said Uthman II, he directed construction of this along with several other buildings in Fes.
The exquisite mosaic decorations and cedar wood carvings are worth noticing and analysing – it’s hard to imagine some of the decorations being carved by hand. The tiles have a shiny glow to them and we were told that this is down to a special type of historical tile work applied to this Madrasa.
It costs a mere 20 Dirham (£1.50 at the time of writing) to enter and is one of Fes’ main attractions. You have the option to pay slightly more for a guide.
The Madrasa courtyard is where you’ll spend most of your time taking photos, just to admire and take photos. Make sure that you head upstairs to what was the students’ accommodation.
If you’re with someone, you can get a good photo from the courtyard of your partner/friend looking from the window of one of the student rooms.
Al-Attarine translates to ‘spice and perfume’ and the Madrasa’s location in the Medina (next to the spice and perfume market, funnily enough) is why it gets this name.
See what others had to say about it on Tripadvisor.
6. Take A Trip Into The Desert
This is essential wherever you are in Morocco. Along with Marrakech, Fes is undoubtedly one of the best-located major cities to take a desert tour from.
A popular option is a 3-day tour from Marrakech to Fes through the desert (or vice-versa).
Some of the many things on offer are camel rides, camping and ATV riding in the sand.
7. Enjoy Some ‘Real’ Fresh Orange Juice
Something that must be done in Morocco, not just Fes, is trying some fresh juice from one of several dozen kiosks.
Oranges and clementines comprise over 8% of fruit grown in Morocco so it’s no wonder there are vendors in abundance.
The oranges are crushed right before your eyes, I found that the ones with more pulp tasted best.
You won’t be hard-pressed to find some of this energising potion in Fes – look no further than the Medina entrances or anything that resembles a square or courtyard.
A glass of it will set you back anything from between 10 and 20 Dirham (£0.77 – £1.54) so you really have no excuses.
8. Go Carpet Shopping In The Old Town Souks
Well, I say carpet shopping because carpets are what I recall seeing a ridiculous amount of. They have patterns and designs that you’ll find on only the most expensive types at home so it may be worth getting it here for a fraction of the price.
I’m not a shopping lover but even I was in awe at the sheer amount of things on display. There is an ocean of carpet and tapestry stalls so it’s a case of taking your pick and finding the best price.
TIP: For the best shopping opportunity, you should head to the street west of the University of Al Karaouine.
9. Have A Drink And Some Lunch At Cafe Clock
This was a unique place in Fes for a couple of reasons.
First, it was the only place in the city that seemed to have ice. I’m not sure why but hardly anywhere in Morocco offers ice with your drink. This was starting to get annoying so Cafe Clock was a welcome change.
Or maybe it’s because we visited in winter? Add a comment below if it was different for you in summer!
Second, they sell camel meat. At least, they did when we were there. Camel burgers stood out to me on the menu and, while many may not be in favour (it’s not something I’d normally eat), I’m always up for trying local dishes no matter how weird it seems.
The meat itself was actually good and tasted similar to beef in my opinion.
Cafe Clock also offers an array of smoothies, cold drinks, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, vegan and vegetarian options and best of all – for a decent price. It’s got a cosy balcony with plenty of seats and views over the rooftops of the Fes Old Town.
LOCATION: Up the street from the Bab Bou Jeloud.
Check out the Tripadvisor reviews here.
10. Visit The Dar El-Makhzen (Royal Palace Of Fes)
We didn’t visit this because it’s actually closed to the general public. We decided to spend our limited time (3 days) in Fes doing things we could enter and explore.
It is regarded, however, that the 7 gates of the palace are among the most impressive pieces of architecture in the city.
It’s where the Moroccan King stays if he’s visiting Fes and I heard that you need to be careful taking photos outside, the guards may not appreciate it!
LOCATION: Next to the Jardin de Nouveau Mechouar.
11. Get An Iconic Photo Of The Bab Bou Jeloud
The Bab Bou Jeloud (blue gate) is the massive gate separating the Medina from the rest of the city.
There are so many beautiful structures in this country that you could spend months filling up several gigabytes of your camera’s memory. This one stood out to me in Fes because it’s what separates the old town’s authenticity from the slightly more modern and ‘westernised’ new city.
The old gate was constructed back in the 12th century and was a lot smaller than the new structure.
The current Bab Bou Jeloud was built in 1913 making it a very modern structure for Morocco! The archway has a horseshoe shape with mosaic tiles again crediting some of the unbelievable designs present in this country.
Hikes Near Fes
As you probably know, Morocco has some of Africa’s highest mountains meaning there’s an array of hiking opportunities.
Mount Zalagh is the hill looming over Fes, you get a good view of it from Borj Nord looking north.
Zalagh offers views of the city and surrounding areas, it takes a couple of hours to complete even at a leisurely pace.
Taxis will take you to the base of Zalagh and no guides are required. Expect some snow in the winter, during summer it’s a great way to escape Fes’ searing heat.
This is a popular little village outside Fes with various hiking trails on its edge.
The village gets plenty of snow in winter and is hot in summer. Hikes are easy and relaxed with not much climbing involved.
Middle Atlas Mountains
The Middle Atlas Mountains are relatively unvisited and there are plenty of options for day trips or more.
Check out NaturallyMorocco for more information on excursions and trips from Fes.
When To Visit
Morocco’s latitude means the climate is hot and dry in the summer and slightly cooler but still relatively warm at lower levels in the winter. In the summer, temperatures in Fes regularly climb to above 35 Celsius (95F) and sometimes even 40 (104). In the winter temperatures hover around 10 – 15 Celsius (50 – 59F). I would personally say the best time of year to visit is Spring or Autumn but it’s entirely down to your preferences.
Eating In Fes
As already mentioned, avoid street meat at all costs! It may look tempting and you might be told otherwise but a lot of this stuff is dirty and bacteria ridden.
The wafting aromas are intense but we were warned on several occasions to avoid street food.
I’ve seen guides that recommend the street food but I always trust the locals.
Fes has been branded as Morocco’s culinary capital and this is for good reason. While rivalling city Marrakech almost has more restaurants and cafes than people, this isn’t the case in Fes and finding a decent place to eat is more of a challenge.
- Cafe Clock: Delicious camel burger, tasty salad and varied vegetarian menu at a good price. Located on Derb el Magana and a nice break from exploring the Medina.
- Riad Andalib: Consistently rated as one of Fes’ best restaurants with a beautiful setting. Local dishes aplenty here but in the more expensive range.
- Bab Bou JeIoud Square: A selection of quality restaurants are just down the street from the Blue Gate, take your pick and enjoy some cheap, local food. TIP: The restaurants are cheaper past the main square around the corner.
There are some direct flights to Fes but most travellers end up flying to Marrakech because it’s by far the most visited city and has the most incoming flights.
AirArabia and Ryanair currently fly directly from London to Fes. Other such airlines are Air Portugal and British Airways but they usually require a stop.
There are plenty of buses connecting Fes with the rest of Morocco. The bus schedule is more flexible and cheaper, although the trains are by no means expensive.
The main bus companies are CTM and Supratours. Trains are run by ONCF.
You should get your tickets directly from the train or bus station because the Moroccan websites aren’t very clear or up to date.
The best and only way to get around the Medina is by foot. You will typically spend most of your days walking and this is the ideal way to explore Fes.
If you want to go elsewhere in Fes then take one of the red taxis.
The initial quoted price may be 10 times the normal so make sure you haggle it down and agree on a price before setting off. You shouldn’t pay more than 20 – 30 Dirhams.
The man in our Riad said if you take a taxi and they don’t turn on the meter then you have a right to refuse payment.
He said it’s easy to jump out and inform a police officer who will always take the tourist’s side.
Needless to say, we didn’t try this and I wouldn’t recommend it – just make sure a price is agreed before you set off!
Don’t bother. It’s impunctual and unreliable, you’ll save a lot of time taking a taxi.
Well, if this is your first and only destination in Morocco then you have to stay in a Riad.
A Riad is a traditional Moroccan guesthouse typically built around a courtyard. They tend to have beautiful interior designs with quaint mosaics and typical Moroccan motifs.
The nicer Riads are more expensive but definitely worth the few extra Dirham. Some of the more popular, and expensive, ones are:
There are plenty of budget options in Fes, some dorm prices are as ridiculously low as £3 – £5 ($5 – $7). You can also get the Riad experience for less money because a lot of them have been converted into hostels.
It’s not quite the same as a more luxurious Riad but still beats your standard, run of the mill old town hostel. A couple of the better ones are:
If you want to have a browse for your own accommodation then have a look at the booking.com search box.
Safety And Security
You might read or hear from different sources that Fes is very dangerous, one of the most dangerous cities in Morocco.
While I’m in no place to refute these claims, your visit to Fes can be perfectly safe and incident free if you follow some basic guidelines. I’ll also include some tips for your general wellbeing. In general, this advice is for the Medina where you’ll spend most of your time and you might have to be extra vigilant in less touristy neighbourhoods.
- If you’re a woman, cover your shoulders and try not to wear any low-cut clothing.
- If street vendors start to get pushy, be firm saying NO and don’t be afraid to walk away.
- Don’t stay in the Medina past the shops’ closing time which is around 9 – 9:30 pm.
- If it’s getting late, try and always note the nearest Medina gate and be ready to leave before everything closes.
- Everybody will approach you inside the Medina claiming to be official ‘guides’. 99% of them are not and will follow and badger you. Again, be firm.
- If you want a guide, organise it through your hotel or Riad.
- Use reference points to avoid getting too lost in the Medina. There are plenty of tall buildings and stand out structures which can act as navigators.
- Don’t wear flip-flops in the Medina. The place gets absolutely rammed with mules, people, motorbikes and fruit carts and believe me, they won’t stop for your feet.
- Smile and be friendly! Even if you notice some hostility from locals, it’s always a good idea to smile and be positive. If you’re rude or abrupt then their retaliation may be worse.
- If you’re travelling alone, especially as a female, then you should exercise more caution, especially at night.
Fes is definitely not the picturesque, photogenic Moroccan city that you might expect but it boasts the largest and best-preserved Medina in Morocco.
While the romantic notions I had about the city were quickly dispelled after the first day of badgering from ‘professional guides’, Fes still has an edge to it which I didn’t feel in Marrakech.
It’s been dubbed as the ‘least-westernised’ Moroccan city.
I recommend that you spend a couple of days in the city to truly get a feel for the place. Throw yourself into the deep end of the Medina and try not to plan too much.
I hope this guide of the best things to do in Fes has been helpful. This is based on my experience and interpretation of the city and you might find further things to add. If you do, then please don’t hesitate to drop a comment in the box below. Thanks a lot for reading and I’d also love to hear any opinions or queries. 🙂