Where does one even begin with Fes? Wandering through its labyrinthine ancient medina with its historic and architectural marvels hidden at every corner is an experience unlike any other. Fes, or Fez, up to you, is pure sensory overload. Pungent smells and raucous sounds overwhelm you, as colorful ceramics and glistening leather goods duel for your eyes’ attention. For travelers who love to get lost in the mayhem, Fes is a premier destination. It is teeming with culture, history, and life. Home to the largest medieval old town in the world, visiting Fes is like stepping back in time.
As a backpacker, Fes truly can’t be missed. It is cultural immersion at its best, as well as a great destination for backpackers looking for a unique experience while sticking to a tight budget. Morocco is a destination unlike any other, and Fes is a quintessential stop on any Morocco backpacking trip.
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Table of Contents
- How To Get To Fes
- Where To Stay in Fes
- How To Get Around Fes
- The Best Things To Do In Fes
- Safety Tips for Fes
- More on Morocco
How To Get to Fes
Flying Into Fes
The Fes Sais International Airport is located about 12 miles south of the city, and regularly receives domestic and international flights from Europe and North Africa. If you’re a backpacker looking to stick to your budget, use Skiplagged to find the cheapest flights possible. It’s free to use and I’ve saved thousands of dollars on flights since I started using it religiously.
Taking the Train Into Fes
There are daily rail connections between Fes and other major Moroccan cities such as Marrakech, Casablanca, and Rabat. I took the train from Marrakech to Fes, and then from Fes to Rabat. The journey from Marrakech takes a little over six hours, but stops in Casablanca, Rabat, and Meknes if you’d like to break up the journey by visiting one of those cities along the way. Rabat was a personal favorite of mine.
There are first-class and second-class options for the train. I took second-class, which I endured, but not necessarily enjoyed. You’ll be cramped in an 8-person compartment, with each person having their own luggage, often lots of it. I couldn’t feel my legs after hour two, and it wasn’t until a few hours later after we passed Rabat that the cabin emptied out enough for me to be able to manspread. For long journeys, I’d recommend paying up for a first-class cabin. For shorter journeys, second-class will be just fine.
Traveling to Fes by Bus
Fes is also well connected by a network of long-distance buses that run between major cities in Morocco. The most reliable bus with a widespread system throughout the country would be CTM. Buses in Morocco are affordable and comfortable enough for a journey of a few hours. They usually break the journey up with stops for food, so you’re never cramped in your seat for too long.
Travel Insurance for Morocco
And of course, before you go, it’s always a good idea to have travel insurance handy. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels for as low as $45 a month, and their coverage includes Morocco among the 190+ countries that they cover. It’s handy to have travel insurance in Morocco, especially if you plan on hiking in remote areas, high altitudes, or taking to those crazy winding roads with even crazier drivers.
Where To Stay in Fes
Fes is home to dozens of hostels, but a few stand out above the rest. The best neighborhood to stay in would be the medina, specifically Fes El Bali. It’ll put you right in the heart of the chaos, so choosing the right accommodation is a must. I could only handle Fes in short bursts, so having a peaceful oasis to return to in between stints of exploring was crucial.
I stayed at Medina Social Club and loved everything about it. It is one of the most modern and beautiful properties in the medina. Seriously, the hostel is a work of art in itself. Boasting a peaceful rooftop overlooking the city, it is the perfect oasis to escape from the chaos for a little bit. The $14 a night price includes breakfast, and the dorm beds have curtains, plugs, and lockers. All in all, you couldn’t ask for a better hostel than Medina Social Club.
How To Get Around Fes
Exploring Fes by foot is how I’d recommend exploring the city. If you plan on staying mostly in the medina, you won’t need much more than your own two feet to see what Fes has to offer. Just be sure to have an offline map downloaded otherwise you are guaranteed to get lost in the labyrinth of the old city.
There is public transportation available in Fes. The city has a network of buses that operate throughout the city and its surrounding areas. In addition to buses, there are also plenty of taxis available throughout the city. You should always negotiate the fare with the driver before getting into the taxi, as some drivers might try to overcharge tourists. In general, 20 dirham ($2 USD) should get you almost anywhere in the city, although taxi drivers will never admit that and insist that you pay 5x that price.
Regardless, walking is the best way to soak up the unique, medieval atmosphere and palpable mayhem of the city.
The Best Things To Do in Fes
I spent five days in Fes and spent most of my time roaming through the medina. Despite walking the same streets day in and day out, the experience never grew old. The streets of Fes are ever-changing. New faces, new smells, new sounds, new people yelling at you to buy their stuff… they truly have a life of their own. While most of your time in Fes will be spent in and around the medina, you truly will never find yourself bored. Here are some of the best things to do in Fes.
Aimlessly Wander the Labyrinthine Streets of Fes El Bali, the Medieval Medina
This is where the heart of the city lies. Take a stroll through the densely packed alleyways while feasting your eyes on ancient buildings and old walled fortresses. A budget-friendly activity is simply exploring the old city on foot and soaking up the atmosphere. You can wander through the narrow alleys and bustling markets, or souks, of the Medina and see traditional artisans at work, making everything from pottery to textiles.
Take A Walking Tour To Get Your Bearings
I’m not usually a fan of walking tours, but the one I took in Fes was one of the best I’ve ever taken. It’s almost a necessity in Fes, otherwise you’ll struggle to get your bearings. I went on the Funky Fes Walking Tour and absolutely loved it. The walking tour lasted over three hours and was such an in-depth and informational look into the way of life in Fes. Our guide took us to beautiful mosques, mausoleums, and viewpoints, but more importantly, he introduced us to many locals. This experience gave us a glimpse into their daily life living in Fes. We spoke with artists, alchemists, teachers, bakers, and many more artisans from all walks of life. Seriously, as someone with ADHD, I find it hard to follow walking tours for hours at a time, and was fully immersed by this tour for the entirety of the three hours.
If you plan on exploring the city on your own, here are some highlights to visit. Check out the Bou Inania Madrasa, a beautiful 14th century madrasa with intricate mosaics, carpentry, and stucco detail. Another stunning historic building to visit would be the Al-Attarine Madrasa. The Andalusian Mosque, Kairaouine University, and Moulay Idriss II Mausoleum are other magnificent places to visit. Keep in mind that non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the mosques and mausoleums. Even seeing them from the outside is a treat, though.
Get Lost in the Colorful Souks of the Medina
The medina of Fes has hundreds of winding, mazelike streets. Local vendors and salesmen take advantage of every square inch of those streets. While some focus on souvenirs and other tourist items, there are many different neighborhoods of the medina, each home to their own type of artisan. There’ll be some streets dedicated to copper-makers, some to tailors, artists, and so on. Visiting each of these different districts is one of the best things to do in Fes.
Be sure to check out Seffarine Square. This bustling square is known for being lined with shops selling Moroccan wares such as ceramics, cast iron teapots, traditional caftans, and jewelry. The Nejjarine Museum is a rebuilt foundouk, a term for an old market-hotel hybrid back in the days of the desert caravans. It’s another place worth visiting along your wander through the city.
Feast on Traditional Moroccan Cuisine at the Food Streets
My favorite parts of the medina were the streets lined with food markets and sweet vendors. For cheap local eats, Fes was among my favorite cities in Morocco, along with Rabat and Marrakech. I had no idea what I was eating most of the time, but it was usually delicious. I didn’t get food poisoning until a few days later in Chefchaouen, so for the most part, I think street food in Fes is generally safe to eat.
Of course, there are plenty of restaurants in Fes, as well. Tagine and couscous are the typical Moroccan fare offered at tourist-friendly restaurants, along with some traditional soups and desserts.
Explore Fes El Jdid
Fes’ medina is broken up into many different neighborhoods. The one most tourists are familiar with is Fes-El-Bali. Outside of the Blue Gate, you’ll find Fes El Jdid. Despite being a short walk from Fes-El-Bali, the tourists here are few and far between. There is a huge market street called Grand Rue de Fes el Jdid that provides a much more local look at the souk culture of Fes. Other highlights include the Jewish Quarter, several peaceful gardens, and the Royal Palace of Fes.
Hike Up To The Marinid Tombs For Sunset
If Fes’s steep and narrow alleyways haven’t given you enough of a workout, a short hike from the medina will take you up to the Marinid Tombs. These ruins offer a gorgeous panoramic view of the city. You’ll pass by an Islamic cemetery as well as some castle walls that are also a good spot to sit and watch the sunset. Be warned, there might be locals guarding the walls claiming that it is private property and you have to pay to enter. I just walked away and they stopped bothering me.
See the Process of Creating Leather by Visiting a Tannery
Perhaps the most famous thing to do in Fes is a visit a tannery. If you’ve seen photos of Fes, you’ve likely seen the iconic circular pools filled with dyes of every color. It looks cool but smells terrible. The Chouara Tannery is the oldest leather tannery in the world, and a visit here is a must. Here, you can see every step of turning animal hides into the famed leather goods from Fes. A visit is usually free, but you will be expected to tip the guide at the end. This is Morocco, get used to it.
Take a Day Trip to Meknes, Volubilis, and Moulay Idriss
Fes is one of the four imperial cities of Morocco. A thirty-minute journey by train will find you in one of the other three, Meknes. I spent two nights in Meknes and found it comparable to a smaller, more local version of Fes. If you’d like to see what a medina is like that isn’t centered mostly around souvenirs and tourist fare, then Meknes is a must-visit. It was a unique experience, although I don’t think you’d need more than a day to see the highlights of the city.
From Meknes or Fes, one can also take a day trip to the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis and the sacred town of Moulay Idriss. The site of Volubilis is one of the best-preserved Roman archaeological sites in North Africa and well worth checking out. A short drive from Volubilis is the town of Moulay Idriss. I spent a night here, and although there isn’t much to do besides visit Volubilis, it is a very authentic local experience. Definitely hike up to the viewpoint for sunset, although you’re almost guaranteed to get lost. I ended up tipping two young girls $2 for showing me the way. It’s a beautiful view of this quaint small town.
Roam Through the City’s Many Gardens
One of my favorite things about Fes was the abundance of green areas that served as relaxing oases from the general hustle and bustle of the city. Just outside of the Blue Gate, you’ll find the beautiful Jnan Sbil. A bit further out, you’ll find Alaouites Garden past the Jewish Quarter. This area is worth visiting as well, offering a much more local and authentic look at Fes.
Is Fes Safe to Visit?
Fes is generally a safe destination for travelers, but it pays to be aware of your surroundings and keep your wits about you. I didn’t find Fes to be any more prone to pickpocketing or theft, but petty crime can occur in any city. The main concern one should have in Fes is getting scammed, because boy, do these scammers get creative.
You will be expected to pay a tourist tax for everything. I usually don’t mind, but sometimes, the prices will be absurd and insulting. Always have an idea of what the price of something is before buying it. Ask a local what they would pay for a taxi or a meal or a certain souvenir, and they’ll give you a fair price range. Agree on a price with a taxi driver before hopping in, otherwise you’ll find yourself at their mercy.
Haggling for souvenirs is the same. They’ll often start with an absurd price that is double or triple the actual price. They will eventually meet you at less than half that price if you’re stubborn enough. It’s not a good vibe, because I feel like haggling often leads to animosity and leaves both of you with a bad taste in your mouth. In general, I walk away if I know I’m getting scammed.
In Fes, it’s also important to adhere to local customs. Fes is more conservative than other cities of Morocco, despite having a big tourist presence. Do your best to respect the local and religious customs of Morocco at all times.
Overall, I found Fes to be a generally welcoming and friendly city. Sure, you’ll have the typical scammers circling tourists like vultures. However, most people were extremely friendly, hospitable, and always met me with a smile.
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