I’ve had the itch to go to Morocco for years now. I’d talk about Marrakesh with my mum, toyed with the idea of visiting for a weekend with friends while I studied abroad in Milan, watched Casablanca and poured over magically “exotic” Moroccan cities of yore in books like Tahir Shah’s The Caliph’s House (Casablanca) and The Saffron Gate by Linda Holeman (1930s Marrakech). Maybe this is what put Fez in the back of my mind, but when planning our trip to Morocco, party brunches in Marrakesh with horses painted like zebras didn’t seem like our speed. We wanted to experience true Moroccan culture, food, and yes, luxury and after a little research, we found Fez to be the perfect place for us. In the lowlands of Northern Morocco, the 1,200 yr old city of Fes has long been thought of Morocco’s cultural and spiritual center.
You haven’t really seen the real Morocco until you’ve been to Fez we heard. And this city of just over 1 million people is often skipped by the typical tourist, naturally Michele and I decided to start our trip to Morocco here.
The medina of Fez is the largest medina in the world and a designated UNESCO world heritage site. It contains two of the city’s 3 main areas.
Old Fez, el Bali is an ancient car-free area from the 9th century. New Fez, El Djedid, not so new, dates from the 13th century and Ville Nouvelle is the modern Fez created during the French occupation in the early 1900s. Spend an afternoon wandering around Fez’s medina — it has over 9,500 alleyways. Beware of “good samaritans” offering to “show you the way,” especially at night. They’re not dangerous but can really throw you for a loop on the way to your destination and definitely will ask you for a fee. They may be persistent, but a simple, “no, I’m fine” will do.
Be sure to visit the blue gate, The Bar Bou Jeloud gate (it’s green from the inside like many of the green tiled roofs).
Home to Al Karaween, the oldest university in the world, founded in the 9th century as a mosque and religious center by a woman I might add — Fez sees many spiritual tourists from the Islamic world. Al Karaween mosque can hold 20,000 praying Muslims. Most of the green tiled roofs you see are connected to the university. Do note that while the mosques are among the main attractions in town, they do restrict entry to Muslims only.
So Fez smells perhaps a bit different from other cities and that’s because of the famed Fez Tannery. The Chouara tannery in Fez has been around since the 11th c. The dyes used in the tannery pits are natural: Blue comes from indigo; red, from poppy or paprika; yellow, from saffron, pomegranate, or a mix of turmeric and mimosa flowers. There are a few roof terrace vantage points that a friend we made at breakfast showed us. How did she find La Belle Vue Tannerie? She said she just looked up and went to different places! We followed her. The goods at La Belle Vue de la Tannerie were also of amazing quality but they didn’t pressure us to buy anything just to see the view. You also can get things custom made; tailors can copy a motorcycle jacket for you in three or four hours from goat or lambskin, the softest of the hides…. The more I think about it the more I need another shopping trip to Fez!
Speaking of those leather goods…
Wander along the main thoroughfares like the Attarine souk on Rue Talaa Kebira and do some shopping. Lanterns, rugs, you’ll absolutely find some great home decor and remember to bargain, bargain, bargain. I wish I did it even more. Stop by a souk as the scent of jasmine, cardamom, roses and new spices waft through the air and imagine all the delicious tajine you’ll consume after.
Morocco is famed for its argan oil. There are many shops that will take you through the healing properties of these oils.
As you can see from my Perfect Stay post Dar 7 Louyat is really special to Michele and me. From the welcoming smiles of our hosts who bent over backwards to make our stay comfortable, to the cooking class, to feeling like we had the riad to ourselves, I would definitely recommend a stay here in the heart of the medina. While peaceful and relaxing with the birds chirping in the atrium, it is a swan dive into medina life right outside of your door in the best of ways.
Hotel Sahrai is a gorgeous luxury hotel in the new city with beautiful views of the old city. Catering to Western guests (many from New York) the hotel does indeed serve alcohol in it’s restaurants (two) as well as poolside and has a delicious wine list of Moroccan wines. The rooms are delicious fresh and clean and the decor is “zen Moroccan.” Colorful tilework is replaced by stone etchings and beautiful pieces from Moroccan artists decorate the minimalist lobby. Also, have a luxe hammam experience in the Sahrai’s Givenchy spa. For us, we had an extra night / day in Fez after driving to Chefchaouen and back for an overnight. Staying at Hotel Sahrai provided the a much needed relaxing retreat and escape. Here’s an IGTV showing our room.
The Riad Idrissy is a beautiful restored — but not too restored — riad. The decor evokes the wear and tear and casual luxury of boho chic in it’s 5 rooms.
Our favorite meal we had in Morocco was honestly one that we made ourselves. It was a delicious date and apricot beef tajine that has me craving my favorite Moroccan spot in Brooklyn as I’m writing this. Fassi cuisine is a melting pot of Morocco’s history, Arab, French, Moor and Ottoman Turk.
Our first meal was super local. Honestly we’re not even sure of the name of the place. Our hosts at Dar 7 Louyat recommended it as it was a good place, they eat, around the corner from the hotel. It was a quick snack of delicious mezze that we kind of ordered pointing at the menu and hoping for the best.
If you can’t stay at Riad Idrissy at least have a delicious meal at The Ruined Garden, the Riad’s leafy, relaxing restaurant. The beautiful garden space may entice you but the delicious Moroccan classics like the lamb pastilla is going to make you stay. A relaxed almost overgrown garden, The Ruined Garden is an oasis from what can be a hectic medina.
Café Clock is a Fez institution with a location in Marrakesh as well. The restaurant and cultural center (you can take cooking and music lessons) is famed for their camel burger.
Try Nur for modern new-age Moroccan cuisine like “deconstructed” tajines or Mexican flavors.
Fancy a drink? You’ll see plenty of advertisements for happy hour but do take note, many of the bars and restaurants in Fez are on the surface, alcohol free. Honestly it didn’t both Michele and I very much. We are fresh juice fiends but should you fancy a drink, the rooftop bar at Hotel Sahrai The Rooftop, is the place to be. Beautiful views of the old city, top DJs and definitely an international set will draw you to this space.
Tip: Always go for the breakfast in your riad. It’s sometimes a little extra but definitely well worth it. Think about it, it’s one less thing to worry about to start your day. You’re full, fresh and ready to explore! Our delicious breakfast at Dar 7 Louyat consisted of yummy omelettes, french toast, moroccan breads, and local fruits and fresh juices and coffee.
Morocco is a Muslim country with some cities (Marrakesh) being more Western than others. For Fez, a city with fewer tourists and still considered the spiritual center, it’s best to cover your shoulders and wear a long skirt or loose trousers for women, especially in the old medina. Men are find in a t-shirt and shorts. Yes, when traveling during the summer as we did in June it can be hot, but trust me, not as hot as the flush you’ll feel when attracting stares from your mini skirt. You’ll see most of the older men in loose trousers and shirts in light, breathable fabrics. Jeans, especially skinny jeans were primarily worn by young Moroccans. When staying at luxury hotels like Hotel Sahrai, the dress code is a little more lax and Western.
Let me know if you’re heading to Fez or if you’ve been. What are your favorite places? Do you have any questions?
ALL PHOTOS BY NNEYA RICHARDS & MICHELE SCAGLIONE
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