Fes or Fez, once the capital of Morocco, is still considered to be the country’s cultural and spiritual centre. It’s hectic, busy, and noisy, but what a fascinating city to explore.
One day in Fes will give you enough time to explore the wonderfully chaotic medina, lose yourself in its narrow alleyways, see traditional handicrafts, visit the tanneries and relax at the end of the day in one of the Hammans.
Lose Yourself In Fes Medina
The walled medina of Fes (Fes el Bali) is the oldest in North Africa, dating back to the 9th century.
With 9454 cobbled alleyways and 300 mosques, it is both the world’s largest living medieval Islamic city and the largest pedestrian zone.
So because of its historical significance, and cultural importance, it is also listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Tip: When you get lost inside the medina, which you will at some point, just ask shop or restaurant owners how to get to your destination. Be aware that many people on the street will offer to help you with directions but will expect money in exchange.
If you don’t like the idea of getting lost in the maze that is Fes, why not take this four-hour guided medina tour?
Embrace The Aromas of the Leather Tanneries
You must visit the world-famous leather tanneries of Fes! Yes, they are a bit smelly, but it’s fascinating to see the hundreds of earthen pits full of various coloured dyes. The tanneries are a unique part of Fes culture.
To cope with the smell, which I actually didn’t find that bad, you are handed mint leaves to sniff.
The Chouara Tannery is the largest of the three tanneries found in Fes and is believed to be the oldest one in the world. For almost 1000 years, the structures within the tannery and the leather tanning techniques have hardly changed.
If you are hoping to buy something here, note that it’s very much tourist prices and expensive. So you will need to practice your haggling skills. And let’s just say the leather sellers are incredibly keen to sell you their products.
Visit The Bou Inania Madrasa
The 14th-century Bou Inania Madrasa can be found in the heart of the medina. It was the only madrasa (a school for Islamic studies) in Morocco that was also a mosque. It’s now open to the public and is fascinating to have a wander around and is also one of the few religious sites in Fes that non-Muslim people can visit.
Opening times: 9 am-5 pm (except during prayer times).
Entrance fee: 20 Dhs (about $2).
The World’s Oldest University: Al- Karaouine
Founded in 859 A.D. by Tunisian-born Fatima al-Fihri, the University of Karaouine in Fez is the world’s oldest university. It’s also the second largest mosque in Fes.
You may have thought the oldest one in the world was in Bologna or Oxford. However, according to UNESCO and the Guinness World Records, Al-Karaouine University (also known as Al-Qarawiyyin) is the “oldest existing, continually operating educational institution in the world.”
The university is not only the world’s oldest higher education institution but also the first to be founded by a woman.
Tourists can’t access the interior, but you can take a glimpse inside through several of the entrance gates and the stunning marble courtyard, fountains, arches, tiles, and carvings.
The Royal Palace (Dar Al-Makhzen)
As the Moroccan royal family and government still use this building, tourists aren’t allowed inside, but you can admire the outside of the royal palace.
Wander Through the Historic Jewish Quarter
Just around the corner from the Royal Palace is Fes el-Jedid, the old Jewish Quarter known as the Mellah. It’s easy to recognise as the old Jewish homes all have balconies and windows that face the streets, whereas the Muslim homes face inwards onto courtyards.
The Mellah’s history started in the 14th century as a refuge for the city’s Jewish people. The Jewish Quarter was once a place of wealth, but over time the Quarter has fallen into serious disrepair.
Of the 250,000 Jewish people that once lived in Fes, only a handful remain and have relocated to the Ville Nouvelle area.
See How Fassi Pottery And Mosaic Zellige Tilework Is Made At Ain Nokbi
Fes is famous for its Fassi pottery and mosaic tile work; you can see how it is made at the Ain Nokbi pottery village in Fes.
It’s free to visit, and of course, there is plenty of opportunity to buy, but what is nice here is there is none of the aggressive hard sell you might experience in the medina.
If you are travelling independently, the pottery village is just over two kilometres from the medina, so it’s a half-hour walk or a short taxi ride.
Top Tip: As you can imagine, negotiating with taxis in Morocco can be a bit of an exhausting experience. Walking away often brings the rate down, but if you have bought a Moroccan SIM card (it only cost 20 euros at the airport for unlimited Wi-Fi and lasted the whole three weeks I was there), I’d suggest downloading the taxi app Careem, it works just like Uber and is a lot less stressful.
Try A Hammam And Spa Experience In The Heart Of The Medina
I had my first ever hammam experience in Fes at the Royal Medina Spa, which was an interesting experience.
Buckets of hot water hurled over me, and then every inch of me scrubbed to the point that I wondered if I would have any skin left. Then, I nearly fell off the soapy, oily marble slab as they turned me over. But once the ‘torture’ was over, my skin felt so clean and smooth, and the massage was truly lovely and relaxing.
Don’t Want To Miss Anything? Why Not Take A Private Tour Of Fes?
If you prefer hiring a private guide to show you around Fes, this private day tour comes highly recommended.
How To Get To Fes
Fes-Saiss Airport (FEZ) is around 10 miles from the city centre. From the airport, take bus number 16 bus or a taxi.
There are regular flights to Fes from major European cities.
The central railway station in Fes is Fès-Ville. There are regular connections from other Moroccan cities, such as Casablanca, Marrakech, Rabat and Tangiers. For schedules and tickets, check the ONCF website.
I took the train from Marrakesh to Rabat, and as train journeys go, it was very clean and comfortable. A man appears regularly, offering refreshments and drinks. I bought my ticket at the station. Speaking some French will come in handy, but you can easily get by with English and charades.
The CTM buses are a safe and reliable way to get around Morocco. The buses are comfortable and have air-conditioning, and light refreshments are usually available on board. Tickets can be purchased at any CTM office or on the CTM website , although some people have reported problems paying with a foreign credit card.
The road network is good in Morocco, so consider renting a car for more flexibility and freedom. The A2 road connects Fes with Casablanca and Rabat. But remember that the medina in Fes is pedestrian only.
On A Tour
I visited Morocco on this two-week tour with Nomadic Tours. It was a great way to cover a lot of Morocco before I headed to my one week house sit in Rabat. What I liked about this particular tour was that there were many opportunities to wander off and explore on your own. And all the accommodations and transport were arranged for me, and as luck would have it, it was a small group made up of mainly solo female travellers.
If you don’t fancy exploring Morocco independently, then joining a tour is a great way to see as much as possible in a short time.
Want To Stay Longer Than One Day In Fes?
Check here for great deals on accommodation in Fes.
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I am learning that there is so much more to see in Morocco than I thought. We will certainly have to plan to visit Fes when we get there. But I am not sure how long it might take us to explore with so many cobblestone streets to wander and mosques to visit. It would be fun to see how the colourful Fassi pottery and mosaic tiles are made. A busy few days to see it all for sure.