Photographer: Luis Davilla/Getty Images

Why You Need to Visit Fez in 20 Photos

An authentic concoction of eighth-century Fez el Bali (Old Fez), the 13th-century Fez el Jdid (New Fez), and the 20th-century Ville Nouvelle (built by the French), the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities has been playing second fiddle to jet-set Marrakesh for a while now. No more. A wave of luxury hotels and design-minded restorations of crumbling riads, as well as an innovative food scene, is enhancing its unique identity and putting it on the map even more. A new terminal at the Fes-Saïss Airport is due to increase visitor numbers five fold.

  1. Bab Boujloud
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    Bab Boujloud

    The Bab Boujloud (Blue Gate)—so named for the blue Fassi tiles on the outside—was constructed in 1913 by the French in a Mauresque-Andalusian style; the original 12th century entrance to the medieval medina sits beside it. The swirls-and-stars-patterned tiles switch to green on the inside, but from either direction it’s an impressive and bustling entry to the historic area’s 9,500 streets and alleys.

    Photographer: Sabino Parente (www.sabinoparente.com) via Bloomberg
  2. Tissa Horse Festival
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    Tissa Horse Festival

    In October the quiet market town of Tissa—a 30-mile, one-hour day trip from Fez—transforms into party central for the Tissa Horse Festival. There’s music, dancing, traditional eats, fancy tents, and copious quantities of mint tea, but the main event involves riders in colorful garb demonstrating their equestrian skills and the quality of their purebred Arab and barb stallions.

    Source: The View from Fez (riadzany.blogspot.com) via Bloomberg
  3. Zaouia Moulay Idriss II
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    Zaouia Moulay Idriss II

    Considered one of the medina’s most holy shrines, Zaouia Moulay Idriss II is dedicated to the founder of Fez and ruler of Morocco from 807 to 828. Completed in 1824, it was designed in a style that was prevalent during Moulay Idriss’s lifetime. For visiting Muslims it’s considered good luck to come to the shrine, and many women believe it will help their fertility. For everyone else, it’s possible to glimpse part of the beautiful interior and tomb from the entrance, and witness the burning of incense and candles.

    Photographer: Michele Falzone/Getty Images
  4. Weaver at Work
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    Weaver at Work

    “Artisanal” may be an overused word these days, but in Fez it actually means something. In the weaver's souk in the medina, a man works at a large wooden loom to create colorful bedspreads, robes, and scarves from silk and cactus threads. The medina is believed to be the world’s largest car-free urban area, so donkeys and mules are piled high with goods; shouts of “balak” will warn you to get out of the way.

    Photographer: Benoit Demers/Flicker via Bloomberg
  5. Kairouine Mosque
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    Kairouine Mosque

    Women gather outside the Kairouine Mosque, the second-largest and one of the oldest in Morocco. It was built in the ninth century by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy Tunisian. Non-Muslims can’t enter, but it’s possible to peek in at the amazing interior, which includes two chandeliers that were originally church bells from Andalusia. Its madrasa (Islamic college) is often referred to as one of the oldest continually functioning universities in the world.

    Photographer: Paolo Cordelli/Getty Images
  6. Restaurant Numéro 7
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    Restaurant Numéro 7

    Restaurant Numéro 7 (restaurantnumero7.com) heralds Fez’s contemporary ascendance to cool. Located in the medina, its monochrome interior is a modern take on traditional design, as is its approach to Moroccan cuisine, with a chefs-in-residence program organized by food writer Tara Stevens and restaurant owner and designer Stephen di Renza. The chefs, who have included Jérôme Waag (California’s Chez Panisse) and Analiese Gregory (Australia’s Quay), are encouraged to put their own spin on products and ingredients found in the medina markets or nearby farms.

    Source: Restaurant Numero 7 via Bloomberg
  7. Tanners’ Quarter
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    Tanners’ Quarter

    For a true olfactory experience of medieval Morocco, follow your nose to the Tanners’ Quarter, where barefoot workers tread skins in dyeing pits. Colors vary depending on the day, but hides are first dunked in vats filled with a mixture of cow urine and quicklime (to strip off remnants of hair), before soaking in a softening wash of acidic pigeon excrement. There are three in the city, but the 11th century Chouara Tannery is the largest, surrounded by leather goods stores where you’ll be handed a sprig of mint to sniff before being escorted to a terrace to view the pungent pits below. Be prepared to engage in some hardcore bargaining for any souvenirs.

    Photographer: Des/Getty Images
  8. Drying Hides
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    Drying Hides

    Dyed skins dot the surrounding hillsides as they dry in the sun. Many are destined to be crafted into the ever-popular babouches (colorful slippers) sold back at the medina.

    Photographer: Ry Tweedie-Cullen/Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/rytc/3178213060/) via Bloomberg
  9. Merenid Tombs
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    Merenid Tombs

    For a little effort, the crumbling ruins of the Merenid Tombs, on a hill above Fez, provide sweeping views of the city and countryside. Dating back to the Merenid dynasty that ruled Morocco through the 13th to 15th centuries, the tombs retain some detailed carvings, but most visitors are here for the quiet surroundings and outlook—which, contrary to the popular conception of Morocco as a desert, can be quite lush. If you’re visiting the Friday morning bird market at Bab Guissa, it also happens to be a good departure point for the climb.

    Photographer: Anne Eriksson Agger/Flickr via Bloomberg
  10. Camel Butcher
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    Camel Butcher

    Hanging camel heads should leave you with no doubt about the provenance of the meat at this medina butcher. Often the camels’ mouths are decorated with fresh parsley, as if they met their end while enjoying a snack. The fatty hump is considered the best cut. Try some at Café Clock (owned by Mike Richardson, former maitre d’ of London’s Wolseley and The Ivy; fez.cafeclock.com), where the camel burger is a popular choice.

    Photographer: James Merhebi/Flickr via Bloomberg
  11. Karawan Riad
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    Karawan Riad

    Riads are traditional Moroccan mansions built around an interior garden or courtyard, and much like in Marrakesh 15 years ago, riads-turned-luxury boutique hotels are driving much of Fez’s resurgence. The 17th-century Karawan (karawanriad.com), in the regenerating Andalous Quarter, offers seven suites around a contemporary courtyard. The interiors are sumptuous yet subdued (as far as riads go) in the individually designed guest rooms, such as the rich damask furnishings, oak floors, and traditional bejmat tiles inset with ocher and pearl-gray glazes in the Chergui suite.

    Source: Karawan Riad via Bloomberg
  12. Baker in the Medina
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    Baker in the Medina

    There are hundreds of bakers in the labyrinthine medina shoveling the round, flat loaves known as khobz in and out of their huge open ovens, providing bread for local restaurants and stalls. Keep a lookout for women in the neighborhood taking their homemade dough, covered with a cloth, to be oven-baked as well.

    Photographer: Benoit Demers/Flicker via Bloomberg
  13. The Royal Palace of Fez (Dar el Makhzen)
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    The Royal Palace of Fez (Dar el Makhzen)

    The 17th century palace in Fez el Jdid, home to Mohammed VI of Morocco when he’s in the city, can be appreciated only from the outside—a shame, because behind those beautiful (locked) doors are extensive landscaped grounds, painted ceilings, intricate mosaics, small mosques, and a madrasa.

    Photographer: Larry Williams/LWA via Getty
  14. Golden Doors
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    Golden Doors

    If you’re lucky, you’ll get a glimpse of the interior of the Dar el Makhzen through an open gate, but its ornate exterior—especially these gold doors—is worth a visit regardless.

    Photographer: Tim Gerard Barker/Getty Images
  15. Jnan Sbil Gardens
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    Jnan Sbil Gardens

    Connecting Fez el Jdid and Fez el Bali, the Bou Jeloud Gardens (now Jnan Sbil) opened to the public by order of the Sultan Moulay Hassan in the 19th century. After you’ve spent a day experiencing the clamor of the medina, the 18.5 acres of symmetrical flowerbeds, weeping willows, palms, and citrus trees provide some much-needed breathing space. A four-year restoration, which included a water wheel once powered by the Oued Fes River, was completed in 2010.

    Photographer: Cait Johnson/Flickr via Bloomberg
  16. Hotel Sahrai
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    Hotel Sahrai

    The newly opened Hotel Sahrai (hotelsahrai.com) is well-placed on a hillside in the Ville Nouvelle overlooking the medina. It functions like a riad in reverse: rather than surrounding an internal courtyard, expansive windows look out over the city and the Middle Atlas Mountains beyond. The 50-room property—with infinity pool, Givenchy spa, French and Moroccan restaurants, and a chic rooftop bar—is contemporary but has echoes of more traditional architecture in arched pavilions and Arabesque patterns carved into the Taza limestone walls.

    Source: Hotel Sahrai via Bloomberg
  17. Rug Buying
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    Rug Buying

    Along Talaa Kebira in the medina you’ll see craftsmen making plenty of souvenirs—embossed, colorful leather goods; decorated brass and copper products; handmade ceramics in Fez’s signature cobalt blue—and undoubtedly will stumble into a rug shop. Here a heady mix of rich colors and patterns (around 45 designs relating to tribal group), and steady supply of sweet mint tea could go to your head— and your wallet—if you’re not prepared for some sophisticated bargaining.

    Photographer: Doug Pearson/Getty Images
  18. Volubilis
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    Volubilis

    Any day trip from Fez to Meknes, another imperial city, 44 miles away, should include a detour to the impressive Roman ruins of Volubilis. A walk through the site reveals well-preserved mosaics and a main promenade. Initially settled in the first century A.D. but greatly expanded under Roman rule, it eventually fell to local tribes before becoming the seat of Idris ibn Abdallah, founder of the state of Morocco, in the eighth century. After he relocated to Fez, much of the beautiful marble and stone was looted by the opportunistic Sultan Moulay Ismail to help build Meknes.

    Photographer: Clémence Liu/Getty Images
  19. View Over Fez
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    View Over Fez

    The second-largest city in Morocco sits in a valley between the Rif and the Middle Atlas Mountains. Whether you’re on a rooftop or a surrounding hillside, the view of minarets among a sea of satellite dishes, the verdant Jnan Sbil Gardens, more than 13,000 white tombs in the Jewish quarter, and the open, Paris-influenced streets of the Ville Nouvelle illustrate how the passing of time has made its mark on Fez without diminishing its medieval heart.

    Photographer: Simon Greenwood/Getty Images
  20. Madrasa Bou Inania
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    Madrasa Bou Inania

    The Madrasa Bou Inania is one of the few religious buildings non-Muslims can enter in Morocco. The Islamic school, founded in the 14th century by Sultan Abu Inan Faris, is beautifully decorated with intricate carvings and tile work all the way up to the top of its minaret. Directly across from the madrasa is the Dar al-Magana, a weight-powered water clock house also built by Sultan Abu Inan Faris.

    Photographer: Sergej Osipov/Flickr via Bloomberg