The Intoxicating Medina of Fès, Morocco: 10 Things I Loved (And A Few I Didn’t)

If you have limited annual vacation time like we do, then there’s a trip planning exercise you’re probably familiar with: The Deadly Edit. It’s the point where you recognize you’re probably not going to be able to see an entire country in 9 days, and you’re going to have to make some tough choices. But even as I painfully sliced away at my itinerary, I knew Fès had to remain a part of it. This historical city is the heart and soul of Morocco.

Why you should visit Fès

A busy street in the medina with vendors interacting with customers in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Morocco has four imperial cities: Fès, Meknes, Marrakech and Rabat. Each one served as Morocco’s capital city, but Fès is the oldest, and it served as the capital under two different dynasties. Sultan Idris I was a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad, and is oft considered the founder of the Moroccan state. Though he settled in Walila (now Volubilis), his son moved the capital of the Idrisid dynasty to Fès in 808, where it thrived as a political and religious hub. Power shifted over the next many years, and Fès didn’t regain its position as the capital again until 1248, when it flourished under the Marinid dynasty.

Fès is made up of three parts: Fès el Bali, Fès Jdid and Ville Nouvelle. Fès el Bali is the oldest walled part of the city, more commonly referred to as the medina. The Fès medina was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 because it’s considered “one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world”.

The best things to see in Fès el Bali

You could spend weeks, months, and probably years, exploring the labyrinth that is the medina. But it’s best to start with some of the things Fès is most well-known for:

The Blue Gate

The external facade of the Bab Bou Jeloud Blue Gate and the minaret of the Medersa Bou Inania mosque visible through the arch in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Bab Bou Jeloud or the Blue Gate is the western entrance to the medina, so take a moment to admire its regal structure and watch as both locals and visitors make their way in and out of the busy old town. The gate also marks the point where the car-free medina begins. Blue is the official color of Fès, but once you pass through its arch, it might surprise you to find out that the Blue Gate’s interior facade is green. Green represents Islam, and Fès still holds religious prominance in Morocco. As much as the Moorish design has become synonymous with the Moroccan city, the gate was actually built by the French shortly after the French Protectorate was established in 1912.

If you’re entering or leaving Morocco via Casablanca, read our tips on how to make the most out of your layover there.

Dar al-Magana (the Clockhouse) and its famous Hydraulic Clock

View of Dar al-Magana's wooden beams from the entrance of Medersa Bou Inania in Fes, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
A view of the hydraulic clock from the Medersa entrance
A vintage postcard featuring Dar al-Magana
Carte postale ancienne [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Islamic scholars are credited with many discoveries in the fields of science and mathematics, and the Magana is a shining example of that early innovation. Though hydraulic clocks had already been invented in Egypt, the clock at Dar al-Magana was heralded for its unique design. The clock consists of 12 windows and platforms carrying brass bowls. Every hour, one of the doors would open and a metal ball would drop into one of the twelve brass bowls, utilizing an intricate system driven by a reservoir. People could tell the time by the sound of the ball hitting the bowl, or by counting the number of open windows. Sadly, the clock is no longer functional and the brass bowls were removed as part of restoration efforts, but it’s still a marvel that shouldn’t be missed.

Medersa Bou Inania

The interior courtyard and mosque minaret of Medersa Bou Inania in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Interior courtyard and minaret
A column in Medersa Bou Inania with carved plaster and painted ceramic tile featuring Islamic calligraphy and painted tile in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Painted tile, carved plaster and carved wood come together beautifully

Dar al-Magana was part of the larger Medersa Bou Inania campus, an educational institution which also had the unique feature of having its own mosque. The prestigious religious school only admitted huffaz, or individuals who had memorized the Quran in its entirety. The privileged few received free room and board, which allowed students of all economic levels to obtain a first-rate education. I’d fallen in love with the Andalusian architecture in southern Spain, and the design elements at Medersa Bou Inania felt instantly familiar. Classic architectural features shared by the Marinid and the Andalusian style include carved wood, carved plaster, painted zellige tiles, marble floors and a central courtyard fountain.

Pro Tip: With the Medersa being one of the few religious institutions to offer access to non-Muslims, it’s a popular site for tourist groups. Go early to avoid the crowds. The Medersa is also closed during Friday prayers, so check the hours before your visit.

Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts

Interior of the Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

I don’t know that a woodwork museum would have normally made my list of things to do, but I was pleasantly surprised by the Nejjarine Museum. First of all, it’s a splendid example of a fondouk, which was an inn of sorts for merchant travelers. It would provide them with a place to stay, as well as a stables for their horses and camels. As soon as you enter the impressive space, you’ll notice two sets of large scales, which were used to weigh the merchants’ goods. It ensured all possessions were returned to the rightful owners the following day. Fondouks were also centers for trade during the day. Now fully restored, the Nejjarine Museum’s 51 rooms exhibit samples of both traditional and contemporary Moroccan woodwork, as well as tools of the trade.

Chouara Tannery

View of the stone vats at the Chouara Tannery in Fès, Morocco with the city in the background via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
White vats are for softening the hides and brown vats are for dyeing them
Rows of colorful leather Moroccan slippers and boots at Chouara Tannery in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Colorful leather shoes for sale at the tanneries

The tanneries of Fès have been around for centuries, though you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at them. A multi-million dollar restoration project from 2103 to 2018 spearheaded by the Agency for the Development and Rehabilitation of the Medina gave Chouara Tannery a much-needed facelift. When you arrive, you’re escorted upstairs to balconies that offer not only an amazing view of the tannery, but of the city as well. Giant stone vats fill the space, and in these vats leather hides are softened then dyed every color imaginable. To soften the leather, the tanneries use a noxious mixture of water, salt, chemicals, and animal urine and excrement, so accept the sprigs of mint leaves offered by the staff because trust me, you’ll need them. I’ve often said my impaired olfactory senses can be a boon, and that was definitely true here!

Entrance to the tannery is free, but note there’s an expectation that you’ll do some shopping afterwards. A tour through the shop usually follows, accompanied by some pretty aggressive selling. Colorful Moroccan slippers make a good souvenir, though admittedly, the selection is pretty varied. (I spied some fringed leather jackets and cowboy boots.) If you’re buying, be prepared to haggle. But if nothing catches your fancy, then you can make your way out after the tour.

If you’re thinking about hiring a guide in Fès, read our guide so you know where to find an official one and what to expect.

Mosque and Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II

Gilded entrance to the lavish Moulay Idriss II mausoleum with a vendor outside in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The western entrance to the mausoleum
Wooden bar across the elaborate carved entrance to the Moulay Idriss II zawiya in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
A wooden bar across the street entrance

As mentioned earlier, Idriss II was a descendant of Prophet Muhammad the first ruler to make Fès his capital. His tomb is located in an elaborate shrine in the heart of Fès el Bali. As you approach this sacred part of the city, you’ll see a wooden bar across the street entrance, which was used to indicate mules were not allowed to pass. The mosque and mausoleum are restricted to Muslims only, and some make the pilgrimage in hopes of being blessed with good fortune and/or fertility.

The Largest Medina in the World

Visiting the Fès medina isn’t just about ticking off a list of sites, though. Here are some of the other things I fell in love with:

A Dose of Daily Life

A tiled communal fountain flanked by potted plants in the medina of Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
A beautiful communal fountain in the medina

How often have you visited a new place and felt like you only got to see the “touristy” parts of town? The ones locals wouldn’t be caught dead in? That’s not the case with the Fès medina, as it’s made up of a number of neighborhoods. Fassis live and work here, so you’ll get a glimpse of local, everyday life. Arches mark entrances to the neighborhoods, and there are five common elements you’ll see in each one: a mosque, a fountain, a school, a communal oven, and a hammam. (Though in some neighborhoods, it appeared the hammam had been converted into public restrooms.)

A communal oven in Marrackech, Morocco with a baker and a long oven paddle in front of the open oven door via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
An example of a communal oven

As you navigate the narrow streets, it’s not uncommon to see locals fill their water receptacles at the fountains or head to the area mosque for their daily prayers. I was fortunate to get a rare glimpse of a communal oven in Marrakech, which is usually off-limits to visitors. Similar communal ovens exist all over the Fès medina. Even if you can’t pop in to see the bakers hard at work, the wafting smell of freshly baked bread is pretty hard to miss. Families drop off their bread dough, then pick up their baked bread later in the day for their meals. It’s a rare occasion when the outsider is offered such an intimate glimpse into the local culture.

Cats of the Medina

An orange kitten in front of some Moroccan pottery in the medina of Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
A black cat at the door of a shop in the medina of Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

You’ll likely cross paths with many Fassi cats, as statistics suggest there’s a 1:1 cat-to-human ratio in Morocco. Cats have always held an esteemed position in Arab-Islamic cultures for guarding precious food reserves and books from menacing rodents. It’s also rumored Prophet Muhammad had a soft spot for them. In the medina, the cats seem to enjoy access to a never-ending supply of scraps from the butchers, and they make comfortable beds out of baskets and boxes. But the large number of strays in Morocco simply means it’s impossible for all of them to get first-rate care. Having been a cat owner for many years, I could recognize eye infections in young kittens or bald patches on older cats. It was heartbreaking to see the effects of feline overpopulation.

Magical Moroccan Doors

An old door in the Fès medina featuring a smaller inset door and the Hand of Fatima symbol via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

The ornate doors of Morocco are mesmerizing, and it took an incredible amount of willpower not to photograph each one. In Fès el Bali, the doors are exactly what you would expect from a mature city: sedate, yet full of character. Weathered and worn, they make the imagination run wild about what lies within. There’s a door within a door, and though I wanted to believe the inlaid door was simply for petite folk like myself, it’s a meaningful part of Moroccan culture. The smaller door requires the guest to bow his head as he enters, a gesture of respect to the homeowner. Another common feature you’ll come across on the doors of the medina is a horseshoe design. Upon closer inspection, you might notice the horseshoe has five prongs. It represents the Hand of Fatima, a symbol of protection.

Where to Eat in the Fès Medina

Nacho Mama

A selection of tacos and burrito bowls at Nacho Mama restaurant in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Najat Kanaache is a world-renowned chef and television host. She was born and raised in San Sebastián, one of our favorite foodie destinations, and her impressive resumé features several Michelin-star restaurants. After striking out on her own, she now splits her time between Fès and Mexico City. Her fine dining restaurant, Nur, was named World’s Best Moroccan Restaurant in 2017 and has received accolades from top publications around the world. But I’m less of a Michelin-star fan and more of a Bib Gourmand fan, so I was thrilled to learn that she had opened a casual dining restaurant in the heart of the medina that combines her two home cuisines. Nacho Mama was a breath of fresh air, serving tacos and burritos featuring local Moroccan ingredients.

Café Clock

A burger with fries, falafel, hummus and soup at Cafe Clock restaurant in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Café Clock is located only a few feet away from the Blue Gate, and if you snag a seat on their terrace then you’ll have a great view of the Medersa Bou Inania Mosque as you dine. The eatery is highly regarded by many, but I honestly found my meal to be fairly mediocre. Admittedly, I didn’t order its most popular menu item: the camel burger. Café Clock is a tourist magnet, and when settling the bill, I felt the “suggestion” to tip was rather heavy-handed (tipping is not required in Morocco). But the eatery also offers live music, jam sessions and cinema nights, so perhaps food is not the main draw here.

Pro Tip: If you plan on dining at Café Clock, I highly recommend making a reservation to avoid a long wait. Your hotel or riad should be able to make the necessary arrangements.

Where To Stay in Fès

Disclosure: Booking through links in this section may result in a commission to Mad Hatters NYC at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support.

Riad Laaroussa

The courtyard of Riad Laaroussa with lush orange trees, a centerpiece fountain and comfortable seating in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The stunning courtyard of Riad Laarousa
The view of the city and the mountains from Riad Laaroussa's rooftop terrace in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The view from Riad Laaroussa’s rooftop terrace

Riad Laarousa’s spa treatment came highly recommended, which is how I first came to discover the property. After I indulged in a lovely package which included time in the traditional hammam and a massage, I took the opportunity to explore the beautiful 17th century riad. The stunning property doesn’t just offer luxurious rooms and suites, but also a pool and a beautiful rooftop terrace with sweeping views of the city. The service is impeccable: from the time I set foot on the property, I was treated with the utmost care. Riad Laaroussa is located in the heart of the Fès el Bali. While the medina might seem like a maze, don’t let it deter you from staying here. Riad Laaroussa has porters available to escort you to and from the property.

Riad Tizwa Fès

The courtyard of Riad Tizwa with an inlaid wall fountain and a set of table and chairs in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The courtyard in Riad Tizwa Fès
The breakfast spread at Riad Tizwa with m'semen, oats, bread, jam and fruit in Fès, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The breakfast spread at Riad Tizwa Fès

Riad Tizwa Fès isn’t actually located in the Fès medina, but it’s a short jaunt to the Blue Gate. The property was lovingly restored by its owners, Scottish brothers Richard and Daniel Bee, who fell in love with Morocco and now own two properties there. (They are currently working on their third.) A delicious breakfast is served every morning on the rooftop terrace. The staff speaks English fluently, and is able to organize tours and make reservations as needed. On my final day at the riad I had to catch an early train, and the staff arranged to serve breakfast in the beautiful parlor downstairs, much earlier than it normally would. Another added bonus: since Riad Tizwa is located outside the medina, cars can pull up close by, making getting in and out of Fès with your luggage much simpler.

Conclusion

There’s no better way to experience the collision of past and present than with a journey through the Fès medina. It’s thrilling, confusing, overwhelming and frightening all at once. But as they say, life begins outside your comfort zone.

Like it? Pin it!

Pinterest pin depicting the ornate arched entryway of the Medersa Bou Inania, with carved wood and plaster, painted zellige tiles, and marble floors in Fez, Morocco via Mad Hatters NYC.

– L.

18
Leave a Reply

avatar
9 Comment threads
9 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
10 Comment authors
Mad Hatters NYCVanessa ShieldsWendyJane FrithJason Reid Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Trudy
Guest

Your pictures are beautiful, Lynn! And I love your insertion of history for the different parts of the city. I think that a lot of tourists neglect that when visiting as to why a country of people do what they do, so it’s important to have some background. Great post!

Tara Kothari
Guest
Tara Kothari

I didn’t know about Morocco being divided into 4 cities.
You know the Damascus Room at The MET and all the beautiful tile work – It’s like you got to see so so so so much more of that beautiful art and architecture.
How fun is the communal oven. I love it!
And as always your photos of the food—— what can I say??!!!
All I’m saying is that I’m getting off my ass to go grab a snack.

Nisha
Guest

What a lovely , interesting and exotic place !Thank you for taking us there through this post .Just love the beautiful architecture and the lovely doors and tiles. The food looks amazing as well. Very informative post , hydraulic clocks sound fascinating and learned something new today !

Michael & Phil
Guest

Fabulous place, great photos. We love Morocco, Fez is on our list for next year. Thanks for sharing

Cynthia - Adventuring Woman
Guest

I can only think you didn’t get out of there without bringing away some of that beautiful pottery or those textiles! The Fes Medina is someplace I’ve long wanted to explore. I love how you were able to see the communal oven. Morocco looks like such a wonderful country, can’t wait to read more about your visit.

Jason Reid
Guest

Wonderful read. Morocco is high on my list to visit and I think you covered many of the reasons why. Some of that food looks incredible too! Haha.

Jane Frith
Guest

I know what you mean about having to make difficult decisions about what to omit when travelling, but I love the way you have identified the highlights if Fes in this post and included so many useful tips. I would love to wander through the Blue Gate, tour the tanneries and visit some of the religious sites (noted your comment about some not open to visitors). I have yet to visit Morocco, but it is definitely on the cards.

Wendy
Guest

This is way up high on my bucket list. Such a great article Lynn. Thanks for providing such a wonderful insight into it.

Vanessa Shields
Guest

What a great post! I had no idea that Fes consisted of three areas. I love your photos and how you captured the colors, architecture and culture of Fes. Morocco is definitely a country that I really want to visit one day! 🙂