You could spend a lifetime in Fez, Morocco and still not know every street. After all, there are more than 13,000 streets, alleys, derbs, and courts in the old medina of Fez alone.
Fez was once the capital of Morocco and that imperial history is evident wherever you may look. The King of Morocco still maintains a royal palace in the city and while it is no longer the political capital, the city is still the Spiritual Capital of this Muslim nation. There is a lot to do in this remarkable city, but if you only have 48 hours, here are the highlights I recommend.
I’m going to assume that you arrive in Fez in the afternoon and soon after you should check into my friend Graham’s traditional riad, Dar El Menia. I recommend Graham’s place for a couple of reasons – 1) His house is a 17th century, meticulously restored courtyard house with modern bathrooms in the heart of the ancient Medina 2) Graham and his staff all speak English and are happy to help you arrange tours or give advice about sightseeing 3) Graham is my friend and he’s a good guy who won’t price gouge you or rip you off with a ‘carpet tour’. This is the first thing on your checklist – staying in a traditional guest house.
Graham can arrange for you to have a traditional meal of couscous or tajine delivered your first night – just relax and soak up the atmosphere. Rest and be prepared to be overloaded in the morning.
The title of spiritual capital doesn’t come easy in a religious nation and Fez has worked hard to make itself the spiritual capital. There are more than 365 mosques in the city and you will hear them. They are going to wake you up no matter what, so the first morning you are there, go to the rooftop of Dar El Menia (or wherever you may be staying) and listen as the call to prayer comes at you from every direction. While it is just as powerful at dusk, for some reason the solitude of early morning makes it exquisite.
Enjoy your breakfast on the terrace and then set off to explore the old medina. My recommendation is that you arrange an artisanal tour through Artisanal Affairs . On this tour you will learn about the traditional crafts of the Fez Medina and get to see the artisans in action. You will visit the tanneries, the dye pits, and get an in-depth look at the real life of the old city. I should mention, this is the largest car free urban area in the world in addition to being the oldest inhabited medieval Islamic medina on the planet – so be careful not to get run over by a donkey.
When the tour is over – take some time to wander around by yourself – it’s better to do this after the tour because you will have at least a rough idea of how to get around and where you are. Also, since you will have seen the craftsmen in action, you won’t be quite as susceptible to the wily pitches of faux tour guides and sneaky rug merchants.
You’ll want to find a comfortable place to relax after your hectic day and just up Talaa Saghira from Dar El Menia you will find Cafe Clock. This tourist friendly cafe in the medina has free wifi – great lattes and you can even order a camel burger or pizza if you need something less exotic than a tajine – but you can also find traditional fare there as well. Cafe Clock has a very nice cultural program of films, dance, live music, henna, and calligraphy classes – this is a wonderful place to sit back, relax, and absorb Morocco with a nice coffee or milkshake.
Following your breakfast the next day, head up to visit the new city. Ancient cities in Morocco are broken up into two distinct cities – the ancient cities aka old medinas and the ville nouvelle which are the administrative centers built by the French during their occupation. The Ville Nouvelle of Fez is very modern and chic and you can find one of Africa’s largest shopping malls overlooking the ancient medina. Stroll down the wide Boulevard Hassan II, explore the shops and restaurants, and then after lunch – head toward the Mellah – which is the old Jewish Quarter of Fez. This part of the city is home to antiques and bazaars – on the way, be sure to stop look at the massive gold doors of the King’s Palace.
Enter back into the old Medina through Bab Boujaloud – the famed Blue Gate and since you are now savvy to the touts and prices – sit down and enjoy a delicious meal at one of the restaurants near the gate. For about 100 dirham per person you should be able to have a multi-course feast and if blue clad holy men come begging for coins while you eat – give them some and then enjoy their chanting and singing.
Finally, head back to your guest house and marvel at how much you’ve been able to see and do in just two days. You’ve just traveled seven centuries and world’s away from home. There is much more to see in Fez and Morocco – but 48 hours should be sufficient to whet your appetite for more.
Vago Damitio is a parent , author, traveler, and travel consultant. He currently lives in Reedsport, Oregon but has also lived in Morocco, Turkey, Indonesia, Hawaii and the UK.