What is believed to be the largest pedestrian zone in the world is an indecipherable maze of more than 9,000 mostly nameless alleys.
This is held by many as the greatest walled city in the Arab world, where the intertwining streets are so dark and narrow that you can’t even see them from the lookouts atop the valley.
No map can make sense of this place, and you’re sure to get lost, but that’s part of the fun.
When people talk about the Medina, they normally mean both Old Fez (Fes el-Bali) and the newer Fes el-Jdid, founded in the 13th century during the Marinid Dynasty.
It was in this period that Fez reached its cultural peak, becoming a capital and giving rise to madrasas, mosques and some of the city defences that stand today.
BOU INANIA MADRASA
Founded in the middle of the 14th century by the Marinid ruler Abu Inan Faris, the Bou Inania Madrasa is a feast for the eyes, with every inch of the courtyard filled with exquisite craftsmanship.
This is also the only religious school in Fez to have its own minaret, also a work of art and hailed as the finest in the city.
The ablution fountain in the courtyard continues to flow after more than 750 years, and standing here it’s hard not to be dumbfounded by the geometrical tilework topped with bands of Arabic calligraphy, the feather-light stuccowork, and the carved cedar screens.
The skill and man-hours in this space boggles the mind.
BAB BOU JELOUD
The elegant minaret of the Bou Inania Madrasa can be seen through the horseshoe arch of Fes el-Bali’s great western gateway.
What may take you by surprise is how young this monument is compared to the religious schools and shrines in Fez.
The Bab Bou Jeloud dates to 1913 from the time of the French Protectorate, and is in a neo-Moorish style known as Mauresque.
What has earned the gate so much affection is its fassi tilework, in a vivid blue on the outer wall and green on the interior.
Car traffic is not permitted beyond this point, and dawn to dusk the artery behind it is a parade of pedestrians, mules, donkeys and mopeds.
Some of the best places to dine in Fez are just inside the gateway, affording a front row view of the day-to-day in a Medieval city.
This 14th-century madrasa by the spice and perfume market at Souk al-Attarine is a masterpiece of the Marinid Dynasty, commissioned by the Sultan Abu Sa’id Uthman II.
In the same vein as other Marinid religious schools in Fez, the Al-Attarine Madrasa has sophisticated decoration on its rectangular courtyard.
There you can stare in awe at the technical accomplishment of the cedar carving and stuccowork.
Most impressive though is the tile-cutting decoration, using a technique called “taqshir” where the tile glaze has been carefully scraped off to create a shiny pattern.
A tile frieze above the zellige patterns on the wall to the prayer room on the courtyard has the word “Allah” in green calligraphy, painstakingly inlaid on a white background.
JARDIN JNAN SBIL
Between Fes el-Jdid and Fes el-Bali is the oldest park in the city, landscaped in the 18th century on the orders of Sultan Moulay Abdallah.
A rare patch of green space where you can flee the crowds in the Medina for a few minutes, Jardin Jnan Sbil was allowed to fall into decline until the 2000s when it was replanted.
Now meticulously tended, the park has a large pond and water gardens where geometric fountains are festooned with zellige tiles, all bordered by geometric beds of roses, cactuses and low boxwood hedges.
For shade there are palms, orange trees, pines and an avenue of skyscraping cypresses.
Drawing attention at one end of the Najjariyyin Square in the Old Medina is the magnificent five-metre gateway to this 17th-century khan (inn), crowned with an intricate cedar canopy.
Over the portal are gossamer geometric and floral patterns, and incredibly detailed tilework. To the side is a 19th-century saqayya, a fountain for caravans, with astonishing zellige tiles and honeycomb plasterwork.
The Funduq, commissioned by the Alaouite Sultan Ismail Ibn Sharif, is preserved as a museum for woodwork. You can go in to look up at the three storeys of galleries, and peruse a showcase of artful wood-carving from the city’s past.
On display are furniture, doors, musical instruments, canopies and other architectural elements, as well as traditional woodworking tools.
There’s a cafe on the roof, for a glass of mint tea high above the chaos of the Medina.
A stirring panorama of Old Fez awaits you at the ruins of a royal necropolis from the Marinid Dynasty (13th to 15th centuries). Ousting the Almohad Dynasty, the Marinids took over the city in 1250 and soon established the new fortified palace city of Fes el-Jdid beside the old city, Fes el-Bali.
Still standing from this time are the vestiges of two mausoleums with monumental horseshoe arches and faint remnants of stucco decoration.
Their occupants are unknown but the quality of the scraps of ornamentation point to high status.
You can make the climb at sunset, pausing to pick out the city’s landmarks, like the lofty minaret of the Mosque of al-Qarawiyyin and the royal palace, fringed by the Mellah (Jewish quarter). Wait for the call to prayer and you’ll hear the voices of muezzins from all corners of the city, all at the same time.
Near the Andalusian Mosque is a Madrasa ordered in 1321 by the Marinid Sultan Abu al-Hassan.
Over time this complex became known by its sahrij, the ornamented ablution pool in its courtyard, which is where the name comes from.
That rectangular courtyard is enriched with carved cedar, sculpted marble, multicoloured zellige tiles and stucco, all intended to evoke Granada’s fabled Alhambra palace complex.
To the sides are accommodation for students and a guesthouse.
ZAOUIA MOULAY IDRISS II
This shrine at Place de Marche Verte is considered one of the holiest sites in Morocco, holding the mausoleum of Idris II (791-828). Founder of the 200-year Idrisid Dynasty, Idris II is credited with establishing the first Islamic state of Morocco.
The shrine, sitting below the tallest minaret in Old Fez, was built between 1717 and 1824, and is mainly for Fez residents, although visiting practising Muslims can also enter the mausoleum.
The two-metre wooden bars indicated that the space was off limits for Christians and Jews, but also helped keep donkeys at bay.
Now non-Muslims can enter the complex and admire the courtyard’s 18th-century white marble fountain, although the mausoleum at the south end is out of bounds.
Pilgrims continue to visit the shrine for good luck, and Idris II has long been associated with fertility among women.
From the mausoleum’s entrance, non-Muslims will be able to spot the tomb to the right through the doorway, draped in silk brocade.
Note the cedar wood doors, which have been smoothed by pilgrims kissing and stroking their surface over the centuries.
One of the most striking defensive features on the Medina’s walls is this 16th-century Saaid dynasty fortress towering over the city from the north and visible for miles.
The Borj Nord is designed after the Portuguese gun forts of the period, and had the dual purpose of defending Fes el-Bali, but also keeping the unruly population of the city under control.
The powerful corner bastions are new, Alaouite-period additions.
Since 1963 Borj Nord has housed the Museum of Arms, with a collection running to more than 5,000 pieces from Morocco, Africa, Europe and Asia, and dating from prehistory to the 1900s.
Don’t leave without seeing the 12-ton Saadian cannon that saw action in the Battle of Three Kings (1578)
Borj Nord’s sister fort is perched on a hilltop across the valley, with a wonderful panorama of Fez from the south.
Borj Sud was constructed in the same period, but unlike its sibling it retains its simple square silhouette, without corner bastions.
You can get there in a few minutes from Bab Jdid, crossing the river and then Boulevard Allal El Fassi (N6). The route winds up the hill through an olive grove and standing at the base of the fort’s walls you can see the entire Medina of Fez bedded in the valley, with the mountain, Jebel Zalagh, rearing up behind.
This square is walled on one side by the grand, horseshoe-arched entrance to the al-Qarawiyyin Library, and centres on a gnarled plane tree.
But it’s the sounds, as much as the sights, that make Place Seffarine special, as the rest of square is given over to copperware, a craft that goes back many centuries in Fez.
You’ll hear the clang of craftsmen shaping and polishing their wares long before set foot on Place Saffarine. This handmade copperware hangs, glinting in the shopfronts, where you can haggle for buckets, pots, pans, tagines, trays, incense burners, couscous steamers, sieves, kettles, sugar boxes and a lot more besides.
On the north side, next to the library entrance is Cremerie la Place, for a robust cup of coffee or mint tea.
EL GLAOUI PALACE
This semi-ruinous early-20th-century palace is a former residence of politician Thami El Glaoui (1879-1956) notorious for collaborating with the French and helping to overthrow Mohammed V.
This negative association might be why the complex has been allowed to go into decline, but decades of wear and tear take little away from the palace’s beauty.
In 2019 it was occupied by a self-taught artist, who charges a small fee for entrance. Within there’s radiant zellige decoration, painted woodcarving, stained glass and stucco work. Standout rooms are the harem and the outsized kitchen.
UNIVERSITY OF AL-QARAWIYYIN (MOSQUE)
Fez grew up around the oldest continually operating institution of higher education in the world, founded in 859. University of al-Qarawiyyin is still highly regarded in the Muslim world, and while the modern university has been relocated to a newer part of the city, the library and mosque are still couched in the Medina.
The 9th century mosque went through two expansions in the 12th century and the 18th century and is stunning for its endless arcades, marble fountains, blue and white zellige and delicate stucco work.
This is a pre-eminent site for Moroccan Islam, so unfortunately non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. You can take a peek through the gates, or head to the 14th-century Al-Attarine Madrasa for another vantage point.
This is beautiful on its own terms, but also gives you a better view of the mosque’s courtyard and stone minarets.
Not far northeast of the Mosque of al-Qarawiyyin is the largest of the city’s three tanneries going about its business in almost the same way for more than 800 years.
Here sheepskin, goatskin and cow and camel hides are cured and cleaned in a pungent mix of cow urine, pigeon droppings, salt, quicklime and water.
Once soft they are then soaked in big colourful earthen pits to be dyed.
Traditionally these would contain turmeric (yellow), indigo (blue), mint (green), henna (orange) and crushed poppy (red), although chemical dyes tend to be used today.
This part of the process is mesmerising, and the vats look like a giant painter’s palette from the terraces above.
This mosque, up steps from the tanneries, goes back to the very birth of the city in the 9th century, which puts it among the oldest mosques in the world.
It was erected in 859-860 during the days of the Irissid dynasty for Andalusian refugees from Cordoba, who settled in this part of the Medina.
The work was sponsored by Maryam bint Mohammed bin Abdullah, the sister of Fatima al-Fihri, famed for establishing the University of al-Qarawiyyin – and the two mosques have historically been rivals.
Originally a modest construction, the mosque was enlarged and refined over the centuries.
The square minaret dates from the 10th century, and was designed to resemble the minaret at the Mosque of al-Qarawiyyin.
The gate on the north facade is from the beginning of the 13th century and has two arches, one adorned with moulded plasterwork and the other cedar, and both rich with zellige decoration.
For non-Muslims, this is a monument to enjoy from the outside, but there’s enough to see to make a detour worthwhile.
Close to Bab Bou Jeloud and just beyond the western wall of Old Fez is a former royal palace constructed in the late-19th century for Sultan Hassan I and his successor Abdelaziz, as a place for their guests to stay.
More than half of the complex is taken up by an Andalusian-style garden, still used for cultural and religious events in summer.
Dar Batha has been a museum for more than a century now, and is a repository for artefacts from Old Fez’s ruined buildings.
All aspects of traditional craftsmanship are on show, in the form of jewellery, zellige mosaics, embroidery, wrought iron, coins and carpets.
There’s a sumptuous collection of local cobalt blue ceramics, a signature of the city for more than a millennium, and astrolabes, a technology adapted by Arab scholars in the 10th century to set prayer times.
FEZ MEDINA GUIDED TOUR
We’ve mentioned that the labyrinthine Fez of Medina has 9,000 alleys and 40,000 dead ends, as well as a history that is just as tangled.
So if you want to make sure you leave no stone unturned in the largest walled city in the world you could call on the services of a professional guide.
The Fez Medina Guided Tour is up to six hours long and can be given in English, French, Spanish or Italian.
As well as showing you to all the hallmarks, like the tanneries, the Nejjarine Museum (skip the line), the madrasas, the Andalusian and the kaleidoscope of market stalls, your guide will share anecdotes, historical facts and haggling tips.
This functioning royal palace in the Fes Jdid quarter is on more than 80 hectares and has been here since the 13th century.
Within there’s a 14th-century mosque, a madrasa, a lavish courtyard and expansive gardens.
Now, although the palace is closed to the public, you can scoot over to Place des Alaouites to appreciate the artistry of its entranceway, which was renovated in the 1970s.
This has fabulous carved cedar and zellige tiles, but is treasured for its daintily patterned brass doors that shimmer in the low sun at twilight.
PALAIS EL MOKRI
This palace was commissioned by Mohammed El Mokri (d. 1957), finance minister for a succession of Sultans during the French Protectorate.
El Mokri was cultured and well-travelled, staying at various courts around Europe and becoming the first Moroccan to import a grand piano. His descendants continue to live at the palace, welcoming visitors for tours, but also renting out rooms to guests.
You’ll find out a bit more about El Mokri as you look around, marvelling at painted wooden ceilings, masterfully sculpted stucco work, chandeliers, Murano glass windows and a spectacular inner courtyard framed by two long horseshoe arcades with stunning zellige pillars and working fountains.
SOUK EL HENNA
In the middle of the Medina you’ll happen upon a tight passageway beckoning you onto a square in the shade of large old plane trees and the high minaret of the Zaouia Moulay Idriss II.
It’s thrilling to think that henna has been sold at this very place for centuries. You’ll see it traded here as leaves, which are dried and ground into a paste. Traditionally this is applied to women’s hands during wedding ceremonies.
Stalls here are also laden with antimony (kohl), as well as other traditional cosmetics like rosewater, rhassoul, musk and lavender essence.
BAB MAKINA PLAZA
Towards the end of the 19th century Sultan Hassan I reinforced the Fes Jdid quarter with a series of fortifications.
One of these, Bab Makina, has become the backdrop for the Festival of World Sacred Music every June and now well into its third decade.
The 2019 edition had performers from Spain, Lebanon, Azerbaijan, France, Oman, Venezuela, Armenia and Ireland. If you find yourself here while poking around the city you’ll be confronted by a row of three heavy wooden doors in horseshoe arches and flanked by high square towers topped with pointed merlons.
IBN DANAN SYNAGOGUE
For a glimpse of the city’s Jewish history in the Mellah there’s a non-functioning but preserved synagogue dating back to the 17th century. This was set up by the merchant Mimoun Ben Sidan following the arrival of thousands of Jewish families recently expelled from Spain.
Inside, what will catch your eye is the large Torah Ark with carved wooden panels and framed by delicate painted honeycomb plasterwork. Opposite is the bimah (raised orator’s platform) and has a wrought iron openwork canopy with horseshoe arches and floral motifs.
Downstairs is a mikvah (bath) for women, still with water, and you can head up to a terrace with a view of the cemetery next door