Moroccan architecture fuses many architectural styles, including 20th-century art deco, early neo-Moorish, and European colonial, and the city of Fes, roughly 1,200 years old, is no different. Main attractions include a Royal Palace, the Blue Gate, Fez Medina, a madrasa and the world’s oldest tannery. Read our guide to the five best things to see in Fes, Morocco.
Travel Essentials for the five best things to see in Fes, Morocco
Air: No direct flights from London. Direct from Amsterdam (AMS) to Fes-Saïss (FEZ) with Air Arabia from £200, return.
Local transport: Take the Chefchaouen and Erfoud bus that stops in Fes.
Things to note: Four buses a day. There are no trains.
Cost: 75 MAD (approximately £6.10).
Journey time from Chefchaouen to Fes: 4 hours 20 minutes.
Need to know
Visa: Australian, NZ, UK, US and Canadian residents – no visa for stays up to 90 days.
Currency: Dirham (1GBP = 12 Dirham approx.) – closed currency – purchase only within country.
Language: Arabic, French, some Spanish. People speak English.
Best time to visit: September to April (nights can be cold). June to August is hot.
Time: GMT +1
Quick Facts about Fes
- Home to the Al Karaouin, the world’s oldest university.
- Roughly 100,000 people and 9400 alleyways in the car-free Fes medina.
- Morocco’s capital until 1925.
- Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1981.
- Famous for Fes hats.
Five best things to see in Fes, Morocco
- Royal Palace of Fes (Dar el Makhzen) دار المخزن
- Bab Bou Jeloud Ornamental Gate باب_بوجلود
- Fes el Bali Medina فاس البالي
- Al-Attarine Madrasa مدرسة العطارين
- Chouara Tannery.
1. Royal Palace of Fes (Dar al-Makhzen)
The Royal Palace of the King of Morocco has distinct, ornate 20th-century gates at the Place des Alaouites. Mosaic tile work, carved cedarwood decorate the doors of gilt bronze. The palace interior is not open to the public.
2. Bab Bou Jeloud Ornamental Gate (The Blue Gate of Fes)
Found at the western entrance to Fes el Bali (فاس البالي), and known as The Blue Gate of Fes. It is blue when entering, but green on the other side, representing the colour of Islam. The original gate from the 12th century is no longer in use. The main street crossing the medina leads to the Mosque and University Karaouiyn (جامعة القرويين )
3. Fes el Bali Medina
A labyrinth of 9,000 alleyways and 100,000 people remains car-free, beware of motorcycles and scooters that zip along at full throttle, revving as they weave through the crowds with large, dented steel milk canisters on both sides.
Bashir, a camel butcher, told me, “Some people are born and die inside the medina; they never leave.” Having spent an hour walking around in circles with no mobile phone signal, it is easy to understand why this is true.
Some people are born and die inside the media, they never leave.
Fes medina is one of the best conserved in the Arab world. It projects a way of life and culture that has remained the same for several centuries.
4. Al-Attarine Madrasa
Deeper into the medina is the Al-Attarine Madrasa, buillt in the early 1320s, and taking it name from the pefume and spice market. The interior is a splendid example of Marinid architecture.
Walking through an archway leads to the courtyard of the two-storey madrasa. The prayer hall and mihrab are in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca towards which Muslims face during prayer.
Near the madrasa is the University Karaouiyn, the world’s oldest university, dates back to AD859. Entry is for Muslims only because as it connects to a mosque. Prospective students of the university are required to have memorised the Qur’an in full, alongside shorter medieval Arabic texts. A recent discovery in the library is the oldest surviving medical doctorate from AD1207.
5. Chouara Tannery
As one of three tanneries in the medina finding the Chouara Tannery is tricky. It happens to be the oldest tannery in the world. Once you find it and enter, the staff hand out sprigs of mint, and it soon becomes apparent why. The smell is so incredibly pungent that it requires holding your breath to prevent spluttering, similar to swimming underwater.
Overlooking the enormous vats of dye, where leather goods are repeatedly soaked, as practised for several centuries, provides an insight into leather-making. Workers build a tolerance to the smell over time, but for the uninitiated, it is unbearable.
The smell is so incredibly pungent that it requires holding your breath to prevent spluttering, similar to swimming underwater.
Sheets of leather soak in a mixture of white liquids comprising animal urine, pigeon faeces, quicklime, and salt. The fetid air is dense, a combination of the smell and the rising heat. Occasionally, workers who squat on the lips of these large vats lose their balance and fall.
As part of any production facility, there is a shop selling wares to the public. It sells everything from miniature purses to large leather sofas. Do practice the art of haggling to get the best price, and do not agree to buy a £500 mini-leather pouch at the first offer.
The indigenous population of Berbers, Arabs, Africans, and Mediterraneans make Fes the city it is today. Although we have highlighted the five best things to see in Fes, Morocco, there are many more. Walking through crowded markets, observing locals as they work and shop, resting to sample food, and Moroccan mint tea is part of visiting Fes.
The Medina of Fes is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The main attraction inside the medina walls is the Chouara Tannery, with their shop providing a perfect opportunity to buy authentic leather goods at a fraction of the standard retail price.
The people are warm, open and hospitable. With fewer tourists than other parts of Morocco, you get more value for money and experience Moroccan life that closely resembles a local. Fes is worth visiting away from Marrakesh’s chaos, with excellent cuisine and a favourable climate.
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