In its heyday, Fez attracted scholars and philosophers, mathematicians and lawyers, astronomers and theologians. Craftsmen built them houses and palaces, kings endowed mosques and medersas (religious schools), and merchants offered exotic wares from the silk roads and sub-Saharan trade routes. Although Fez lost its influence at the beginning of the 19th century, it remains a supremely self-confident city whose cultural and spiritual lineage beguiles visitors. Something of the medieval remains in the world’s largest car-free urban area: donkeys cart goods down the warren of alleyways, and while there are still ruinous pockets, government efforts to restore the city are showing results.
Some 90,000 people still live in the Fez medina. It can seem like it’s in a state of perpetual pandemonium; some visitors fall instantly in love, and others recoil in horror. But its charms are many. Seemingly blind alleys lead to squares with exquisite fountains and streets bursting with aromatic food stands, rooftops unveil a sea of minarets, and stooped doorways reveal tireless artisans.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Fez.
The largest car-free urban area in the world, Fez El Bali (Old Fez) is a warren of twisting lanes and centuries-old monuments and mosques. As well preserved as the traditional architecture are the traditional crafts practised here for centuries: this is a rare opportunity to see how many distinctly Moroccan treasures, from fine leather to copper pots, are made.
The largest of the medina's several tanneries, Chouara is one of the city’s most iconic sights (and smells). Operating since at least the 16th century, the area was heavily renovated in 2016, but the scene, viewed from the surrounding balconies, remains remarkably medieval. It's striking to see the hard physical labour that goes into the butter-soft, elegant leather goods sold in the surrounding workshops. Try to get here in the morning when the pits are awash with coloured dye.
The most architecturally refined of Fez’s theological colleges was built by the Merinid sultan Bou Inan between 1351 and 1357. Beyond the massive brass entrance doors, its interior courtyard is a masterpiece of elaborate zellige tilework, carved plaster and beautiful cedar lattice screens. Smaller courts off either side functioned as classrooms, and students lived upstairs.
Founded in 1325 in the heart of the medina, this school is a marvel of elegant mosaic tiles, magnificent cut plaster as fine as lace and beautiful original carved cedar. A renovation in 2019 opened the upstairs rooms as well, so you can get a taste of student life – strikingly austere, though each room does have its own letterbox. The institution functioned as a kind of prep school; typically students here advanced to the adjacent Kairaouine University.
If you're interested in how Fez's beautiful pottery and tiles are made, head to Ain Nokbi, a district just outside the medina where potters were relocated in 2013 to spare their neighbours the dust and heat of the kilns. At Art Naji (and neighbouring operations, all popular stops on bus tours), free guides will take you through every phase of production, from pot-throwing to painting to the hand-cutting of the pieces for zellige tilework.
In a wonderfully restored early-18th-century funduq (inn used by caravans), the former rooms for travelling merchants are given over to displays of fine woodwork from across Morocco, including doors, prayer beads and musical instruments. Many show the difference between Amazigh traditional styles and the more Andalusian designs of Fez. A highlight are the worn wooden boards used by Quranic recitation students, patched with copper and adorned with their graduation certificates. The rooftop cafe is simple but has great views over the medina.
Unless you have a special invitation to the palace grounds, you'll have to settle for admiring its seven imposing front gates, surrounded by fine tilework and carved cedar wood. Built in the 1960s, they're masterpieces of modern craft work. The lemon trees planted in front are a handy prop for tour guides, who often demonstrate the juice’s astringent cleaning properties on the ormulu (gilt bronze) doors.
These 14th-century tombs are in a dramatic, advanced state of ruin. The real draw is the spectacular views over Fez and the mountains to the north. At dusk, locals gather to watch the lights come on and hear the muezzin's prayer calls echo around the valley. A paved path leads up from the main road west of the hill, or a taxi from Bab Bou Jeloud costs about Dh12. It's not a great place to hang about after dark.
This nonprofit organisation, established in 1927, is dedicated to giving the working donkeys, mules and horses of the Fez medina a better life, with veterinary treatment and also support and education for the often-poor families who depend on the animals for their livelihoods. The group welcomes visitors, and vet volunteers give insightful, ad-hoc tours around the 25 stables and other facilities. Given the possibility of seeing animals with severe injuries, a visit is not recommended for younger children.