Fès is a fascinating city. It’s a spectacular place, but not as immediately attractive as its historical rival, Marrakech. With its highly strategic location, astride the traditional trade route from the Sahara to the Mediterranean, it became a centre of immense power and for centuries the dominant axis within Morocco was between Fès and Marrakech. Even today, Fès continues to fascinate, for it has another characteristic, perhaps its dominant feature: Fès is a religious place, and is felt to be the spiritual capital of Morocco.
Unlike the capital of the south, a crossroads for caravans and peoples, Fès is more secretive, its old ways hidden behind the cliff-like walls of its alleyways. Its sights are not easily discovered and several days are really necessary to take in the city’s atmosphere. Essentially, there are three main areas to visit: Fès el Bali, the oldest part of the city, a médina divided by the river into Adwa al Andalusiyin (the Andalucían quarter on the east bank) and Adwa al Qaraouiyine (the Qaraouiyine quarter on the west bank); Fès el Jedid, containing the royal palace and the mellah and founded under the Merinids, you need half a day; and the ville nouvelle, the city built by the French which has taken over many of the political, administrative and commercial functions of old Fès.
You’d be well advised to save some energy to get up to the Borj Nord/Merinid tombs for views across Fès el Bali at sundown. While Fès el Jedid is fairly flat, Fès el Bali has long sloping streets. In the winter it can rain heavily, turning Talaâ Sghira and Talaâ Kbira into minor torrents. Many of the main sites are decayed and maintenance works to the monuments of Fès seem to last forever.
Besides the numerous historic buildings and memorable souks, Fès is also a base from which to explore nearby regions, Bhalil and Sefrou to the south and the spa towns of Sidi Harazem and Moulay Yacoub, as well as sites further afield, the Middle Atlas resorts of Azrou and Ifrane. Also nearby is the other central Moroccan imperial city of Meknès, with Volubilis and Moulay Idriss close by.