Fes is really the place that defines Morocco, for worse or for better. We had a killer time weaving through and getting lost in everything that one of Morocco's oldest civilizations gave to us, but on the other hand I could see how someone with a different personality could easily feel overwhelmed — and to me that is the beauty of Fes.
Fes is located in the northern, more mountainous region of Morocco — a more lush green than most of what we'd seen up to that point. We checked into our hostel after parking our rental in a little bit of a sketchy parking spot surround by construction (it wound up being 100% fine) and after meeting the Riad's owner we stepped into our room (again, amazing quality in every way) we headed checked out the stunning rooftop view and then headed out to Fes El Bali, the oldest and most popular of Fes' two medinas.
Fes is extremely old — around 1200-1300 years, and the ancient walls and shops of the medina show it. Fes El Bali seems huge compared to Marrakech. The walkways and souks of Fes' medina are the definition of a maze. We got lost multiple times, but as long it's not too late and you still feel confident, that's part of the Fes or Marrakech experience.
While we thought Marrakech was big, Fes was even bigger, the size of the medina here didn't really set in until we got lost in it. Start early and just walk around to the different districts. Fes' medina is so large that it's got sections the each specialize in specific items or practices. Restaurants litter the streets, both traditional and modern, so finding quality food is not a problem. Eat some of the delicious snacks and juice from the street vendors, the pomegranate juice is notably good (and cheap as hell).
We were able to try one of the most popular restaurants in all of Morocco, Cafe Clock. While it's not the most authentic place ( famous for tourists and some, albeit delicious, white people shit on the menu.) I got the camel burger and ginger lemonade, both incredible. The Fes location is also like a badass 4-story building with a great rooftop view, right in the medina. There's also a Cafe Clock location in Marrakech and Chefchaouen.
While Marrakech felt mostly flat inside the medina and surrounding area, Fes is a different story. There were plenty of what seemed like 45 degree grades right in the middle of the medina, with plenty of mountainous landscapes in the backdrop. Fes isn't a place you want to wear slides or an ill-fitting pair of footwear.
One of Fes' most popular spots to check out is the Chouara Tanneries. One of the oldest professions in the world, this tannery is still going strong, creating all sorts of dyed leather and animal hides. We were fortunate to stumble upon a store on the edge that featured a great rooftop view of the tanneries.
Seeing the tanneries and the process behind it was probably one of my favorite experiences in Fes. Supposedly the same process for dying has been used for hundreds of years, but I have more reliably heard that the tanneries have made the unfortunate move to more chemical methods in production.
We wound up purchasing a hand-made leather cushion from the same place for around $80, but I was able to negotiate that down from $150 (1500 dirhams). My best advice for haggling is to show a little interest, but the real dagger is to just get up and act like you're going to leave (or just get up and leave). The profit margin on most things being sold to tourists is already marked up a ton, so even at half of the initial price vendors are still making a good profit.
While one can cover most of Marrakech in a few days, Fes is absolutely huge, and a lot of the city is residential or dedicated strictly for business or schooling. In our experience, and essentially everyone else that we talked to about Fes, mostly everything that you could want to visit in Fes will more than likely be in or immediately adjacent to the medina — sans any hiking or day trips, of course.
Fes' Mellah (Mellah is name for the old Jewish quarters of Morrocan cities), is somewhat similar to Fes El Bali and also worth visiting. The South side of the Mellah features a stunning gate with golden-like brass accents. Fes' Mellah seemed to sell a lot of clothes, both bootleg and not. Neither of us were really interested in knock-off Gucci or "Superme" as it's often mispelled in Morocco, but the Mellah is more than that.
Fes is one of Morocco's oldest cities and its cultural capitol — it only makes sense that places of prayer would be one of the city's defining features. Kairaouine Mosque is one of those places. Non-Muslim people may not enter the majority of the mosques within Morocco, so for most Westerners an outside glance is the best we'll get.
On the south side of Fes El Bali is Palais Royale (Dar al-Makhzen). While it's really nothing more other than some architectural admiration and a photo opportunity, it's worth a stop when you're around the mellah in Fes. A truly incredible feat of ornate design and execution.
Another popular Fes landmark is the Blue Gate at the Fes El Bali southside entrance. While it's blue on one side and green on the other, it's much easier to see the blue side facing outwards. Not the most groundbreaking thing to see in Fes, but worth checking out.
We were propositioned by young dudes (trying to sell us on all sorts of shit) the most in Fes. We were pretty immune to the persistence and sometimes aggressiveness by this point, so we were pretty good about not letting it get to us. Again, it's just part of the Moroccan experience when you visit certain areas. As long as you have a a solid idea where you're going and are vigilant with your answers, they'll eventually leave you alone.
My advice, especially at night, is to make sure you definitely know what route you're taking the the medina. If you're planning on walking deep into the medina for a dinner late in the evening maybe try and take a stroll by your destination during the day so you're familiar. Again, as long as you use common sense you should never be in any real danger, just don't be stupid.
On our drive out of Fes we stopped at the Merenid Tombs, located on one of Fes' many hills on the northside of the city. Great view of both Fes, and the backside of the valley the city is located in.
Fes is another must-visit in Morocco. Sure, you can get a somewhat similar experience in Marrakech, but nothing can replace the sheer size and historical weight behind Fes' medina, Fes El Bali.
The most important things I can recommend for Fes are:
- Stay in and plan on spending most of your time in the main medina, Fes El Bali.
- Be prepared for lots of incline/decline walking, this part of Morocco is hilly.
- Like many big cities in Morocco, choosing where to eat can be overwhelming, do some research and go somewhere vetted at least once a day.
- If at all possible, try and memorize/map the exact route from your lodging to wherever you're going in the medina, it gets more than confusing and even with service, Google Maps is not much help.
- We bought the majority of our stuff in Fes, the amount of shops is unmatched anywhere in Morocco — just make sure you barter and vet the product as authentic.