With Fez’s labyrinth streets, traditional shops and cultural history, it’s a must visit for any Moroccan traveler. Here’s how to experience Fez in one day.
A winding maze of more than 9,000 streets. Competitive shopkeepers looking to barter. Handmade local goods, designed with that quintessential Moroccan touch.
Fez, Morocco, sounds like an adventure that could go way awry (and get way expensive) for the Wanderlost traveler like me – and it did. But sometimes the wrong way is the best way. And even when it’s not the best way (like, um, buying a rug from a sleazy salesman without one attempt at bartering and getting totally scammed – cough, Stephanie, cough), you live to tell the hilarious tale. Not that I would know…
Fez is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the former capital of Morocco. It’s known for the medina of Fes el-Bali, made up of an old maze of streets, crowds and shops decked in jewelry, lamps, carpets, spices and all sorts of Moroccan goods.
While Fez is often overshadowed by its big brother and tourist hot spot Marrakesh, the city has its own draws. You won’t find snake charmers in Fez (thank God), but you will find remnants of ancient Morocco on each and every medina turn.
When a city has thousands upon thousands of tiny, winding streets — most of which are unmarked — it’s best to get a tour guide for your first day. That way you can get a much-needed lay of the land and experience all the “Fez must-dos” at once.
My friend Stephanie and I visited Fez during a weekend break while volunteering in Rabat, and opted for a private guide instead of a larger group tour. While I’m quite certain our guide made a good commission on any products we purchased, it was still a quick, efficient and simple way to check out some of the most popular spice markets, homegrown beauty supplies, rug stores, tanneries and ceramics shops.
Now, I alluded to a certain “sleazy rug salesman” earlier, and I’d be remiss not to share the full story — not only so you can laugh at my mistakes (please do), but also to help you avoid making the same ones.
When we went to our first Fez rug store, I immediately fell in love with a gold, decorative Berber rug with silky, traditional Moroccan designs stitched throughout. The salesman picked up on my interest immediately (mistake one), and quickly made the sale before I even realized I was handing over my credit card for the full price, without even an attempt at bargaining (mistake two).
My advice? Put on your poker face and always, always barter with the shopkeepers.
Of course, the best way to experience the Fez medina is in the streets, but the second best way to experience it involves lounging on a rooftop with incredible, expansive city views and exhilarating cultural exchanges. For us, this happened on the rooftop of our riad (read: traditional Moroccan house converted into a boutique, two-room hotel).
On the first day of Fez rooftopping, we spent upwards of three hours drinking tea and chatting with one of the hotel employees, Houda, about all things Morocco — and I’m not talking tourist must-sees. We learned about her family, her friends and — as girl talk always goes — her boyfriend. It turned out Houda’s boyfriend was actually a former guest at the riad, and they stayed in touch via email. We ended the conversation with an invite to her wedding!
Day two was yet another memorable Fez rooftop experience. We took the afternoon off from medina shopping to write, read and relax under the sun, but quickly noticed a cute little pup getting a bath one roof over.
We exchanged knowing “Oh, your pup is so cute!” smiles with the dog’s owner, which led to him inviting us over for tea on his rooftop, which led to him inviting us down to family tea time in his dining room with three generations of Moroccan women. Sure, the conversation was a mix of English, French, point and smile, but we were able to connect over the simple joys of tea time, pastries, family and new friends.
Where will your Fez rooftop take you? Who knows! But trust me when I say an afternoon outside of the medina is well worth the memories you can make with new, Moroccan friends.
Know before you go:
I mentioned this briefly before, but definitely look into staying in a riad (basically, a trendy house) during your trip to Fez. We stayed at the Dar El Ma, located right in the middle of the main medina. Quality-wise, our riad was in between a hotel and hostel, making it friendly on the old budget while still having those traditional Moroccan touches like cushioned poufs for sitting and local tea and treats.
If you do choose to stay at a riad in Fez (smart choice!), swallow your pride and get a cab from the train station. Sure, it’s more expensive than walking or just figuring it out, but trust me — it’s a long walk for a first time Fez-er, and you’ll have no idea where you’re going. Also, don’t pull my signature move, and make sure you have the address written down somewhere before you get in the cab.