Lesser-known than its famous Moroccan sibling Marrakech, Fez is fast becoming a popular short-break destination from Europe, and with good reason. With a brand new (and quite gorgeous) airport now being served by most capital cities at least once a week, it's easy to get to, and worth the effort when you do. Its ancient medina has become a UNESCO world heritage site. It's already quite stunning but it continues to be udpated and preserved as more and more tourists arrive to explore it.
The medina has been beautifully restored
Spending time there is like stepping inside a time machine. With streets not big enough for motor vehicles, the pace of life is different altogether, and while sharing elements of luxury now commonplace in Marrakech, Fez feels more 'real' somehow. Here's how we recommend you spend 72 hours in the city.
Morning: Explore the medina with a guide
Fez’s medina, Fes-al-Bali is spectacular. It was founded in the 9th Century and remains the largest continuous non-vehicular area in the world, a nearly intact medeival city. But while the word labyrinthine is bandied about freely in guidebooks to describe any city of unorthodox layout, in Fez’s case, it really is true. The streets are so narrow you will literally be carried along on a wave of local activity – whether dodging donkeys carrying calor gas to and fro, avoiding men responding to a call to prayer or giving way to women carrying their dough to communal bread ovens, the pace in the medina is swift. So it’s a very good idea to hire a guide to help you out at least on your first morning, if not for a little longer.
Children run through the streets of the medina at lunch time to get home from school
Our guide was recommended by our hotel, the Palais Amani (see below) and his knowledge for and passion about this city, justly known as the cultural and spiritual centre of Morocco, was great. The benefit of a guide is threefold; first, you can wander and take in sights, without having to worry about memorising every corner you turn so you know your way home. Secondly, you can look freely and explore, take photographs and marvel at the artisans' work out being constantly hassled to buy – guides are known and respected so their clients are not fair game. Thirdly, you discover areas you’d never find alone, and find the answer to questions you couldn’t find anywhere else. The visit to the primary school, the peeks inside mosques (otherwise no-go areas to non-muslims) and the stories about life growing up in the medina really brought the place alive.
Afternoon: Visit one of Fez’s numerous tanneries
The sight (and smell!) is one you'll not forget
The amazing thing about Fez is you have no idea what lies behind the wooden doors and tall plastered walls which make up the maze that is the medina, and without our guide's help, it’s questionable whether we’d ever have had a clue that up an unmarked staircase was a tannery (apart, perhaps, from the smell). It’s important to grab a sprig of mint when you enter (the pong in May was pungent, by full summer it must be overwhelming) and once you’ve made your way through the various leather shops onto a balcony to view the tanneries, the sight and smell is quite unlike anything you could imagine. Pigeon excrement is used in the first process, to strip the hair off the hide, after which the leather (cow, goat or camel to name a few) is dyed in huge vats, which the tannery workers press into the animal skin using their feet. Of course even as a guest of our guide, we were not immune to some sales pressure at times (he knows the few locations he wants to take you to, to buy, and in those places you are handed over to his friends who try to extract a purchase). If you like to haggle, you’re in the best place. If not, you have to do it anyway, and who would want to leave Fez without a souvenir or two anyway - there are some beautiful, handmade bargains to be had.
There are also some scams to avoid – and when I fell foul of one I was pleased to have the backing of a reputable guide and a good hotel to fall back on. A leather satchel I haggled as hard as I could over, was wrapped up in two plastic bags and given to me as I passed over my cash. I didn't think to check it definitely contained the satchel I'd been looking at. Back at the hoteI, I realised the the one I’d been given (and it had not been inexpensive, as my haggle skills are lacking) was not the one I’d chosen, and had terrible water marks all over it. Not a disaster however, as staff at the Palais Amani swiftly made some calls, and within half an hour, a replacement was at my hotel.
Evening: Enjoy sundowners on Palais Amani’s roof terrace
As the sun sets the call to prayer echoes out across the rooftops
The Palais Amani is a stunning riad within the walls of the medina and behind its huge wooden doors is an oasis of calm, much needed after a few hours in the intense hustle and bustle of Fez’s tiny streets. Birds sing, fountains trickle and trees burst with lemons in this former private palace with a roof terrace on the top floor. Here, an evening can be whiled away, sipping cocktails and snacking on olives while the pink sun sets across the seemingly endless flat rooftops of the city, the peace only punctuated with the calls to prayer from the many surrounding mosques, whose towers light up as night falls. It’s a magical experience.
During Ramadan (a month-long time of fasting for Muslims), visitors can eat as normal – apart from at dinner time when the 7.30-8.30pm slot is reserved for staff of the hotel, who break their fast at sunset (visitors can opt to join) before serving dinner to guests.
Morning: Chef’s tour of the food souk followed by a cooking lesson
Heading back into the medina on day 2 was an entirely different experience. Led by our hotel’s chef, we dived down streets and into shops we’d never even noticed to pick up the ingredients for our Moroccan cooking challenge. Warning: this is a long, long way from Tesco. Chickens are selected live, then slaughtered to order. Camels heads sit bloodied alongside hooves, on the floor in front of stalls selling camel-meat burgers. It’s jarring, but real. We pass dozens of stalls selling tomatoes until we stop at the one our chef likes to use (there is no obvious reason for this decision to outsiders like ourselves, but the feeling of insider knowledge is fun), then we pop into a shop selling spices and pick up some good quality, well-priced saffron to take home, as well as the spices we need for our cooking lesson.
We visit a spice shop where all sorts of treasures are on sale
We then return to Palais Amani to learn to how took a traditional Moroccan meal. As a vegetarian, I create a veggie tagine (others learn to cook the chicken version), in addition to a starter of zaalouk (an aubergine salad) and a traditional dessert of oranges drizzled with orange blossom water and sprinkled with cinnamon. The experience is fun and informative (learning how to create a passata by grating a tomato, and to chargrill an aubergine directly on a hob are skills I’ll be using again). And the setting – an open-air master-chef style cooking zone on the hotel’s gorgeous roof terrace, is perfect.
Our lesson on how to recreate the taste of Morocco
Afternoon: Eat prepared lunch and indulge in a hammam
After eating the large amount of food you’ve spent the morning preparing, there’s no better way to finish your day of indulgence than to participate in the Moroccan spa ritual of a hammam. There are a few on offer in Fez (the Hammam Medina and the Ain Azleten Hammam get good write ups) – but since the spa at the Palais Amani tops many Best Hammam Guides I came across, I took the easy option and remained within the hotel. I was stripped naked and first washed (my feet and hands cleansed with a mixture of bran and rosewater), then then massaged with oil and left to lie in a steam room. I was then then scrubbed again (this time harder, with a mitten and black soap) until my skin was literally squeaking with cleanliness and, later that evening, softer than it had been probably ever been before. A glass of homemade lemonade, and a post-shower drying session made completed the experience and as I returned to the Palais' courtyard to relax, I have to admit I felt a little regal.
The hammam is in the former kitchens of the Palais Amani
Evening: Be escorted to dinner at Dar Roumana
Stepping out into the medina during the day is one thing, daring to do so at night is another – not because it feels threatening, but because the shops are closed, the streets look even more like one another and since there are no maps (and mobile data costs a fortune) you’ve got no hope in hell of ever finding the restaurant you set out to eat at. Thankfully, Dar Roumana knows this, so sends out their porter (or waiter) to collect you from your hotel if you make a booking.
The stunning mosaic-work in Fez
Dar Roumana is another boutique hotel and the food and setting are completely stunning. The cuisine is local and seasonal, created by head chef Younes Idrissi – the perfect European/Moroccan fusion. And it’s fun to get out into a different hotel, to see the similarly stunning architecture and admire more sparkling tile work and glittering lanterns which you would have had no idea graced the inside of this delightful residence from the outside.
Morning: Jump in a taxi and visit the Blue Gate
The Blue Gate is a must-snap location
No Instagrammers trip to Fez is complete without a visit to the Blue Gate, or Bab Boujiloud, and you can do this by walking with another guide or jumping in a taxi. The towering main entry to the old medina is quite a sight, with its mosaic tiles, blue on the side you walk through (hence its name) yet green on the reverse, the colour of Islam. Similar, yet different, shops and sights abound and it's easy to spend hours walking through new avenues, keeping close watch on the turns you take, so you can get back to the gate later to make your return journey.
Afternoon: Lunch at Café Clock
There are several eateries just inside the gate, offering high up perches for an overview of the medina (height and distance are welcome when you feel overwhelmed by the bustle of the old city). Café Clock is a trendy hive of activity, offering a 'Clock Culture' program consisting of calligraphy lessons, traditional storytelling and sunset concerts. The roof terrace offers a welcome retreat with meals including camel burgers and milkshakes, being a perfect blend of authentic and Western cuisine.
A restorative mint tea is just the ticket after a morning in the medina
Where to stay:
As mentioned already, the Palais Amani is a quiet, beautiful and peaceful jewel in the middle of the bustle of the ancient medina - the decor is quite simply divine. Painstakingly renovated to provide the best combination of traditional craftsmanship and the kind of luxuries European travellers demand (aircon and WiFi for starters), it really is like entering a little corner of paradise.
A bathroom in the Palais Amani
The birdsong, which you completely miss while burrowing your way through the medina, is so loud it almost feels like it can't be real (except of course you see the birds swooping down to enjoy the citrus trees which offer shade and fragrance to the internal courtyard). With just 15 rooms, you can opt for a basic bedroom, a two-storey suite with doors onto the courtyard, or, for the ultimate indulgence (perfect for a special romantic getaway), the 'special' suite with its own private terrace - no better place to sip a cup of Moroccan mint tea and look out across the roof tops.
Views from Palais Amani's private terrace
The staff at the Amani deserve special mention, no request is too much trouble; if you wonder where the nearest ATM machine is, they will escort you there and back. If you enquire about the content of their ramadam-breaking evening meal, be prepared to be invited to join in.
How to get there:
Royal Air Maroc flies in and out of Fez from Gatwick on Saturdays in the early part of the year, upping their service to twice weekly as the season peaks. We returned from Fez on this flight and found it incredibly peaceful - no constant sales up and down the aisle and a prayer before your flying extends the delights of your cultural exploration.
RyanAir also fly to Fez, on a Wednesday and a Saturday from London Stansted. The trip to and from central London is easy and comfortable on the Stansted Express, which runs to and fro every 15 minutes during the day and costs from just £7.