Why you should visit Fez?
With more than a million inhabitants, the ancient walled city of Fes-el-Bali is the spiritual center of Morocco. The medina is a vibrant and bustling souk that has maintained its essence for centuries and attracts travelers like a magnet to enter what seems like another world. This mysterious city, founded in the 8th century and a host to thousands of Arabs, Jews, and Moors expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, is conveniently located on the road between the coast and the Atlas Mountains.
The UNESCO World Heritage City is especially hard to be explored solo, which is why we highly recommend hiring a good guide. Go back in time for a while and enjoy the mix of old and new in Fez.
What to Do & See in Fez
Fez is the second largest city of Morocco (after Casablanca), with a population of approximately 1 million people. It comprises of three distinct areas; Fès el Bali (the old walled city), Fès – Jdid (new Fès, home of the Mellah), and the Ville Nouvelle (the city’s modern expansion outside of the walls). The fascinating city is literally a labyrinth with so much to explore, which is why we are sharing some ideas and tips to get you started:
1. Fez Architecture: As a car-free “open-air living museum” with immense architectural and historic treasures, Fez is one of the most important UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Islamic World. No matter where you look, you are bound to be enchanted by the Moorish architecture that permeates the city’s mosques and synagogues, madrasas, hammams (bathhouses), souqs, caravanserais, historic houses, and palaces. Travelers who want to learn more about Fez’s fascinating architecture are encouraged to hire a guide to understand more behind the history and background of the city.
2. The first Jewish quarter, mellah, was established in Fez in 1438, and has quite the history. It was allegedly built to safeguard the city’s growing Jewish population by keeping the community separated from the rest of the residents in return for loyalty to the sultan. Ibn Danan is one of the region’s oldest synagogues in all of Northern Africa. Although as many as 240,000 Jews lived in Morocco as recently as the 1940s, only around 3,000 remain in the country today. Nowadays, the Fez Mellah is supported by UNESCO and only a small Jewish population remains, yet the traces of their culture have endured and they continue to play an active role in the countrynot unnoticed by many people.
3. Artisans Workshops: In Seffarine Square, the students leaving Al-Karouine (the mosque that continues to serve as the first University of Humanities) mingle with the rough routine of the blacksmiths clinking away at their copper. This wide crossroads (calling it a square would be a bit generous) is the gateway to the metal souk, the most prominent open-air workshop in Fez. Here, both artisans and creations bring a further range of colors and reflections to the kaleidoscope of the medina. Fez is truly a market in itself.
4. The great trade of the city has always been in tanneries, where hides are treated and painted in a spectrum of different colors. And so centuries later, it continues to be done in Chouwara, the most identifiable image of Fez. Smells aside (make sure to carry a sprig of peppermint at all times), the panorama of this place is amazing: dozens of small pools filled with quicklime and pigeon manure (do not be alarmed, it is natural ammonia) prepare the hides, while the rest of the tanks are overflowing with staining hues that, every fifteen days, change color. To be seen at least once in your life.
5. Meknès and its wines: The fact that the city of Ismail Ibn Sharif, named after the Warrior King, does not have an airport has helped it to preserve its genuine flavor without so much attention to tourists. Enter through Bab Masour el-Aleuj, an imposing gate, considered one of the most beautiful works of Ismail and the largest in Morocco and all of Northern Africa. It is one of the works that made Meknes, the “Versailles of Morocco”, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. Note the area around Meknes is the biggest wine making region in Morocco and a destination in of itself — you can learn more here.
6. Moulay Idriss is a holy place that is named after the Prophet Muhammad’s great-grandson, whose remains are buried here. Every August, a religious festival packs the entire town, with pilgrims dancing, setting up markets, and parading across the streets. The festivities are so important that they often attract members of the royal family.
7. Hammam: This cleansing of body and spirit is the most common ritual in the Middle East and North Africa. The origin of the hammam dates back to the era of Roman baths (balnea if they were private baths and thermae if they were public), whose function, apart from being hygienic and medicinal, was always social and even political. Be prepared to enjoy the most incredible deep skin exfoliation imaginable and leave with baby-soft skin. Locals normally attend public hammam once a week, so don’t hesitate and book one or more sessions ahead.
8. Donkeys and mules are the only legal means of transport in the medina, so don’t be surprised if you suddenly come across an equid carrying leather, produce, or other goods. It is common, typical, and, above all, necessary.
Food & Wine in Fez
Just like the souks of Fez, its culinary offerings are a delicious mix of sights, tastes, and smells. Let’s dive in and uncover its gastronomic treasures.
✧ FOODS NOT TO MISS
- Courscous – Derived from the Berber word k’seksu, this is the most iconic dish of North Africa. Also known as a festive dish, couscous is served on Fridays when families gather together in prayer. Salty or sweet, you can even opt for the Couscous Royal, a plate of fluffy couscous topped with a generous portion of varied meat.
- Tajine is eaten everywhere in Morocco, and is so popular across the country that it was featured in the famous story collection, One Thousand and One Nights. In Fez, the chicken tajine with bitter green olives and preserved lemon is a dream!
- Zaalouk is a lovely cooked aubergine salad similar to the popular French ratatouille. It is also one of the tastiest side dishes and pairs perfectly with the crusty Berber griddle bread. Want to know how to make it? Check our recipe.
- Khli’l is a preserved dried beef or sheep specialty from Fez. Even if you are in a different region of the country, they will highlight the quality of their khli’l by saying, “we bring it from Fez!”. It requires a long preparation process: the meat is cut into strips, then coated in a mixture of spices (turmeric, saffron, plenty of salt, coriander powder, garlic, vinegar, and olive oil) before marinating between one night to an entire week. Dried in the sun, it is then candied in the fat of the animal for a few hours. However, the taste makes the long preparation process worth it. Eggs with khli’l t in omelet style are commonly served at breakfast too.
- Olives – Spicy to sour, from breakfast to dinner, Succulent greens, buttercup yellows, and classic black olives… the options are endless! You can travel through Morocco just by tasting all of the delicious olives that the country has to offer.
- Amlou or “Berber Nutella” is a culinary preparation made from three ingredients: honey, almonds, and argan oil. Originally created in southern Morocco by the Shilha people (a Berber subgroup), locals like to serve this multipurpose paste on bread, msemen (flatbread), or baghrir (pancakes). It’s a delight!
- Pastilla (also named b’stilla or bastilla) is a savory Moroccan pie traditionally served as a way to welcome guests. Pastilla can be made with either seafood or poultry: it was originally stuffed with young pigeon, but nowadays chicken is a popular alternative. It’s sweet and sour thanks to the apricots used in the stuffing, as well as the powdered sugar and spices used for the crust.
- Sfenj are a sort of fried Moroccan doughnuts that are addicting – we bet you can’t stop at just one! Chewy on the inside and crispy on the outside, Sfenj can be topped with powdered sugar, honey, jam, or eaten plain. Fez locals like to purchase their sfenj from the souk and enjoy snacking on them while on the go – it’s a lovely treat after a long day of shopping.
- Jben is the traditional fresh cheese found all across Morocco. Jben comes in a soft white texture and uses either goat or cow milk (goat is our favorite!) Although it hails from the Rif Mountain region in northern Morocco, jben is a real delight that locals from all over Morocco enjoy. Soft on the palate, it can perfectly be enhanced with thyme, pepper, salt, or your favorite garnish. Its short production timeframe (1 to 2 days) produces a moist cheese that is very suitable to combine with dry herbs.
- Mint tea – Is there a more sacred ritual than pouring a cup of mint tea? Traditionally garnished with a sprig or two of mint and nestled in a beautiful ornate glass, mint tea is a tradition that’s as old as the souks in which they’re found in.
✧ WINE REGIONS AROUND
We invite to read our Moroccan Wine Regions guide to learn more about this country’s viticulture. Discover the region of Meknès, which is regarded as the most important wine region of Morocco thanks to its two AOC’s and 6 AOG’s (Appellation d’Origine Garantie).
Where to stay in Fez?
Top: Riad Palais Amani | Bottom left: Karawan Riad | Bottom right: Palais Faraj
Nestled in the medina, Palais Amani is an 18-room family-run riad with five star service. Palais Amani’s rich history started in the 17th century as a home to one of Fez’s most prominent families before falling into disrepair, undergoing a 4-year renovation, and becoming one of the most sought-after accommodations for travelers around the world. From the Iraqi stained-glass windows to the Moroccan tiling, carved arches, and Art Deco pops of color, each detail of Palais Amani was lovingly selected by its owners. Other perks include Eden Restaurant, a rooftop bar; and an in-hotel hammam. The hotel staff should be highlighted for their kindness and efficiency.
For a more sumptuous experience, Palais Faraj is a sure bet. Like the name states, guests are treated like royalty at this marvelous palace, which sits atop a hill overlooking the medina. The classical Fassi architecture and charming Moroccan motifs, such as painted cedar ceilings, carved wooden doors, and zellij mosaic floors are sure to delight. Palais Faraj also includes a swimming pool, spa, two restaurants, and a panoramic lounge.
Traveling to Fez and looking for the best in accommodations? Our expert team at Paladar y Tomar will find the best hotel, villa, or riad that suits your personality and needs – contact us today to learn more.