Although demoted from the position of Morocco’s capital city, there is little doubt that Morocco’s former capital, the city of Fez, remains one of the most important cities in the entire country. Fez was the capital of Morocco for over four centuries, and it still remains the cultural center of the country, as well as one of the most important religious centers. The city was founded in the late 8th century, and a large part of Fez remains a medieval city in design, a visual proof of the city’s history and culture.
Scrolling through our Morocco photos, you’ll be able to see why Fez is a must stop – it is intriguing, its old buildings reflecting an architecture most of the world moved past centuries ago, with winding narrow streets that are too small to allow for common automobiles. This means you will see throngs of people on foot, and the streets are full of donkeys and mules, just as they were hundreds of years ago. The city is the cutting edge of Moroccan art and culture, yet with the same feel and similar appearance that maintained itself centuries before the first Europeans even appeared.
Finding Your Way in Fez
The most central place to start your journey through Fez’s walled city is at the gate of Bab Boujloud – the Blue Gate. It is a good place to regroup, and an easy drop off point for a petite taxi. Before getting out of the taxi, decide if you want to explore the ancient medina – Fez el-Bali – on your own or hire a guide, because, as soon as you open the car door, local tour guides, both official and non-official, will close in on you to offer their services. If you don’t have a map and don’t speak French or Arabic, it can be worth hiring a guide for a walking tour to help you find your bearings and making sure you don’t get lost – and there are over 9000 streets in which to lose yourself!
In contrast, the Ville Nouvelle (new city) has wide, tree-lined streets that are a lot easier to navigate – it is this juxtaposition of medieval and modern that makes Fez one of Morocco’s top tourist destinations.
The Mosques and Museums of Fez
There is no shortage of historical sites, museums and mosques to discover and explore in Fez. It is worth doing a bit of research and picking out the ones that appeal to you – but here are a few suggestions.
One of the most tempting sites to visit is the Kairouine Mosque, which has stood for over 1,000 years. The Kairouine Mosque is considered the most important mosque and Islamic learning center in all of Morocco. Because of tradition, non-Muslims are not allowed inside, but there are open doors that you are allowed to look through, so long as you are respectful about it. Even glancing down these hallways gives you a sense of how much the building has expanded from a humble building to the giant center it is today.
Even though the Kairouine Mosque is off limits to most travelers, several of the Islamic schools that are around the mosque do allow visitors. Many of these schools are literally hundreds of years old and contain beautiful courtyards led to through open doors rich in detailed work, using everything from marble to cedar. Close by to this area is the tanners’ quarter, where you can visit and watch expert craftsmen apply their trades.
One of the few mosques in Morocco that remains open for all to visit, including those that are not Muslim, is the magnificent Medersa Bou Inania (also known as Madrasa Bou Inania or simply Bu Inaniya). Built between 1351 and 1358, the medersa stands today as one of the most stunning examples of Merenid architecture in the world.
Visiting the Fondouk el-Nejjarine should definitely be on your itinerary if the ancient artisanal arts and crafts of Morocco are a point of interest for you. This museum showcases the traditional woodwork of Morocco and its history which dates back thousands of years.
The Sights and Sounds of Fez
Fez is a city where the modern culture sits comfortably alongside buildings and streets that speak about centuries worth of experience and a history never forgotten. Many of Morocco’s most renowned cultural festivities, from film festivals to art and music festivals, occur here, bringing travelers from all across the nation and beyond. One of the most prestigious of these events is the annual Festival of World Sacred Music, dedicated to the traditions of knowledge, art and spirituality of the city. It began as a peace initiative following the first Gulf War but has since become an established part of the world music and art scene.
And Finally…Some Shopping in Fez
No visit to Fez is complete without a trawl around the workshops and souks where you can see the production and decoration process firsthand. From the potters wheels to the weavers looms, even if shopping isn’t your thing, take time to wander, admire, appreciate the skill before finally making space in your suitcase for that handmade treasure that caught your eye. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you will go back for it later, because you might not find that particular little shop on that particular corner of that meandering medina street again – one wrong turn, and those leather babouche you wanted are history!
A large part of the charm of Fez is that sense of a different time. While you will see all the evidence of modern cultural influence from blue jeans to boom boxes to modern goods, a traveler can not shake that sense of the past, from the narrow streets, to the buildings of old stone and wood, palaces and Islamic schools with elaborate entrances, to all the various sights that remind one of the past from ramparts, balconies, and courtyards to the walls that were once used for defense. The voices of people—from old men, to merchants, to children—envelop this giant human beehive of a city, enticing you in and leaving its mark.