Fez and Marrakech are armed with mystique, imperial grandeur and gorgeous architecture. However, these exotic locales are far from interchangeable. Think of them as siblings: The former is older, wiser and a bit reserved, while the latter is exuberant, provocative and spontaneous.
As the oldest and (arguably) most fascinating of Morocco’s imperial cities, Fez is steeped in timeworn splendor and has a deep sense of history that’s not just palpable, it’s tangible. Its medieval medina — the world’s largest car-free urban area — is a mystifying mix of chaos and calm, a maze of corridors, souks and ornate mosques.
This ancient epicenter of education, religion, art, and gastronomy has many monikers — among them the “Mecca of the West” and the “Athens of Africa” — stemming from its long-term status as the country’s cultural capital. Adding to the allure is a parade of design-focused properties and a delicious dining scene.
If this has piqued your interest, scroll on to get the full scoop on this indelible destination.
MEDINA VS. MODERN LIFE
Fes el Bali (Old Fez) is an enduring snapshot that lives and breaths. Life within its UNESCO-listed medina remains remarkably unchanged hundreds of years later — at moments unfathomably so. Locals maneuver through the skein of 9,000 narrow alleyways, cobbled lanes and blind corners as they have done for centuries. (Needles to say, this labyrinth can be rather challenging to navigate, so a licensed guide is highly recommended, nay a requisite, for first-time visitors.)
Shopkeepers and artisans fulfill the career destiny set forth by their parents and their grandparents before them. Cows feet and the occasional bloody bovine head hang at the butcher stalls. The familiar smell of fish wafts through the air from the nearby seafood stands. Cats stare longingly, licking their chops and impatiently waiting for a scrap to fall to the ground. Vendors hustle to hawk all manner of goods from metalwork lanterns and Berber rugs to rose water and argan oil.
Outside its fortified center is Ville Nouvelle, a neighborhood that perhaps best exemplifies the city’s flirtation with the present. Here, you’ll find a shopping mall, French supermarket chain Carrefour and a liquor store. Its mere existence is an anecdote to the tradition that dominate the rest of this imperial capital.
DON’T LEAVE WITHOUT SEEING…
From spiritual centers to tanneries, Fez is flush with storied sites.
Madrasa Bou Inania
The Madrasa Bou Inania is a striking example of medieval Marinid architecture. Hidden behind huge brass doors is a treasure trove of exquisite zellige, artfully carved plaster, cedar mashrabiyas and marble columns. And its green-tiled minaret is visible throughout the city.
Chouara Tannery is as iconic an attraction as any. Truth be told, the vats of pigeon excrement, cow urine and quicklime are quite pungent, but that’s part of the experience. Plus, the view from balcony and feeling of accomplishment having scored a pair of genuine leather poufs — after some serious bargaining — more than make up for it.
The Bab Boujloud is the ornate, Mauresque-Andalusian-style gate that marks the main western entrance to the medina. It’s adorned with blue Fassi tiles on the outside and green on the inside. To the left is the original 12th-century entryway.
University of al-Qarawiyyin
Founded in 859, the University of al-Qarawiyyin is the oldest continuously operating institution of higher education. And its mosque is regarded as one of the holiest places in Morocco. Although non-Muslims are prohibited from entering, peeking through the gate is allowed.
Khizanat al-Qarawiyyin, the world’s oldest library, opened to the public in 2016 following a multi-million dollar restoration. Today, visitors can bare witness to the beauty of its 4,000 antique texts, including a ninth-century Quran written in Kufic calligraphy on camel skin.
LODGINGS YOU’LL LOVE
The trend of revamping riads (traditional Moroccan houses with central courtyards) into boutique hotels has made its way to Fez — and travelers are reaping the rewards.
Located in the Andalous Quarter, Karawan Riad is a serene and sumptuous escape from the maelstrom of the medina. Each of the seven lavish suites is swathed in damask, silk brocade and zellige. It also touts an Ottoman-style spa with an array of tranquility-inducing treatments.
Riad Fes is luxurious, refined and atmospheric. Rooms — of which there are 30 — are appointed with hand-carved furnishings, exquisite textiles and tadelakt en-suites. Service is exceptional and the rooftop terrace gives guests a front-row seat to the sensational sunrises over the Atlas Mountains.
While tajine reigns supreme, it’s not the only delish dish. The city is brimming with eateries serving generations-old recipes and even a few creative newcomers.
Dar Hatim is a family-run restaurant in every sense of the word. Chef Karima and her husband, Fouad, warmly welcomes diners into their actual home for lamb tajine so tender it falls off the bone and flaky, fragrant chicken pastilla.
However rare, there are flashes of modernity amidst the ancient wonder of Fez El Bali — at least as far as food. At Nur (which means “light” in Arabic), chef Najat Kaanache puts her own innovative spin on classic Moroccan dishes. The multi-course tasting menu changes nightly. Equally superb is the selection of local wines and interior design by Stephen di Renza.
FEZ vs. MARRAKECH 101
Propriety is important in both places. Although things are slightly more lax in the “Red City,” where you might see tourists in shorts strolling through Jardin Majorelle or Jemaa el-Fnaa. We wouldn’t recommend following suit. Unless you want to stick out, and not in a good way, the move is to cover up and conduct yourself with decorum.
Marrakech is a feast for the senses, with taste right up there with sight and smell. It may have the edge in terms of contemporary dining — with a mix of and rooftop restaurants — but Fez is the more delectable destination.
Morocco has a somewhat complicated relationship with alcohol. That said, regulationsand mindsets are fairly liberal as compared to other Muslim countries. Booze is available at supermarkets, liquor stores and bars.
Speaking of, for those looking to party, Marrakech has a vibrant nightlife scene with sultry lounges and lively clubs. Fez, on the other hand, prefers intellectual and culinary pursuits. If your idea of a dream getaway is exploring a museum-come-to-life, followed by an evening of gastronomic indulgence, you might want give this cultural mecca a try.
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