A lot of people warned me against Fes, despite it being one of the cities I was most looking forward to in Morocco. They said it was overrated and commercially-driven, in addition to being a hellhole for tourists. I quickly understood why: in just 24 hours I had my crossbody bag grabbed at more than once, and I was chased down the maze-like streets of the medina by some man who just wouldn’t accept me not buying his leather wallet.
But the thing is, I hated Casablanca so, so much, that anything after that terrible city felt like pure bliss to me. And in all honesty, I kind of enjoyed Fes, in spite of everything. It wasn’t nearly as bad as people made it out to be, and you should absolutely not skip the city on your first visit to Morocco.
The pottery factories
Fes is often regarded as the pottery capital of Morocco, with reason – there are several factories scattered around the medina, each with its own specialty. Some sell fountains, others tilework, others only have pottery, and others, I suspect the touristy ones, have a little bit of everything.
Regardless, watching the artisans live at work is engrossing, more so knowing that this knowledge has been passed from generation to generation for centuries. No two designs are ever the same because the artisans don’t work with templates – each piece is completely unique.
Naturally, Morocco being what it is, you can also buy pretty much anything that is remotely related to pottery in the gigantic stores. But don’t hesitate to haggle hard! The prices in the factories are a gazillion time more expensive than in the medina, so make sure you get the price you had in mind before you commit to buy anything.
Call to prayer at Palais Jamaï
This is one of the most spiritual things I have ever done – and trust me when I say that I am NOT a spiritual or religious person.
Islam fascinates me in more ways than one, and the adhan – call to prayer – is perhaps what I find the most intriguing. The sheer dedication, the non-negotiable “time-out” from real life, every day at sunset, when the melody softly hums from seemingly everywhere around you until a loud Allahu Akbar blares from the nearest minaret.
The best place to fully enjoy this magical moment? The Palais Sofitel Jamaï, on the northern edge of the medina. The terrace overlooks the entire area of Fes El-Bali, and from there you can hear the thunderous call to prayer coming in from every direction. Even though you can’t actually see the people below due to the very high building density, you can very well imagine the frantic anthill below, with people on their way to their mosque. Absolutely magical.
Whatever you do in Fes, do not even think of skipping this attraction!
The Al-Attarine Madrasa is in the very heart of the medina, right next to the famous al-Karaouine University. The Madrasa was founded all the way back in 1323 by Sultan Uthman II Abu Said and served as a scientific school. While our guide only led us to the main courtyard, the entire building is composed of 30 rooms, all more decadently styled than the other. This is a pure jewel in terms of Islamic architecture, and the courtyard alone had my undivided attention for a solid hour. And I’m not exaggerating when I say I could’ve stayed a lot longer.
Also good to know? It only costs 10 dirhams to visit.
The 7 gates of the Royal Palace
Before you engulf yourself in the maze and chaos of the medina, make sure to stop by Fes’ opulent Royal Palace.
While the Palace isn’t open to visitors (it still serves as official residence to the King of Morocco whenever he visits Fes), you can still enjoy the architectural masterpieces that are the front gates – all 7 of them. Take some time to marvel at the dozen different textures, colors, materials and patterns that adorn this huge structure.
Just be careful not to take any photos of the guards – unless you want to be chastised in Arab, of course.
If there is one tip I can give for this attraction, it would be this: do not, under any circumstances, refuse the mint bouquet that’s given to you when entering the leather shop. The smell gets only gets stronger as you make your way through the bazaar of bags, wallets, and belts, and get closer to the true spectacle of the area – the tanneries.
That’s when you’ll be thankful for the heaven-sent mint. Because the main ingredients of the dyes, outside chemicals, and natural pigments, is essentially bird crap and cow pee.
But do not let the overpowering smell get to you and keep you from enjoying this unique and peculiar sight: the Fes tanneries are amongst the oldest ones in the world still in function. It is truly puzzling to watch the workers jump swiftly from one vat to another without a care in the world.