When you pass under the great blue gate of Bab Boujeloud into the old city of Fez, a city over a thousand years old, you are walking into the largest car-free urban area in the world, one of the largest UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and one of the most awesome immersive experiences in living history you could possibly have.
There is nowhere else in the world quite like Fez. For many travelers to Morocco, it is the highlight of their stay. There is something mythic about entering into the labyrinthine old city of Fez, walking its shadowy pedestrian paths, wandering the cool early mornings surrounding the souks of the Qaraouiyine Mosque, sipping on mint teas with the local shop keepers, haggling for prices, ducking into a quiet café for a break from the crowd and catching your breath as the muezzin’s call to the faithful seems to break the heat of the sudden afternoon. Most travelers will lose themselves at least a couple of times in this city. Though the positive traveler will remember that one must be lost in order to be found!
Though today’s Fez has been effected by tourism, with people speaking more English and bottles of Coca-Cola available at every turn, it retains much of its storied past within its mudbrick walls.
Fassis, the indigenous people of Fez, will be quick to tell you that they have the best food in Morocco, the most famous dish being their Bstilla, a paper-thin pastry that coddles a blend of pigeon, almonds and eggs spiced with saffron, cinnamon and fresh coriander.
If you’re looking for something more local, try Dar Lalla Kenza (5 Derb Sidi Hssayne Klaklieyener, tel. 0613/504 732, www.lallakenza-house.com, 80-120Dh mixed dorms, 155-250Dh private rooms). Tons of tasteful local flavor and free wifi. The friendly owner, Ben, is a Fez native who will gladly help you get oriented in the medina.
Riad Laayoun (47 Derb Thakharbicht, near Bab R’cif, tel. 0535/637 245 or tel. 0670/200 196, www.riadlocationfes.com, 550-800Dh) is a clean, calm respite from the hustle of the medina, with a beautiful courtyard fountain, rooms with private terraces, and plenty of nooks and crannies for you to explore. It’s one of the better mid-range options for the medina. The terrace opens up over the Place R’cif and the hillside where you can see the smoke from the pottery kilns. The owner, Jean-Claude, and his manager, Simo, are very welcoming and make you feel at home. The breakfast is not as elaborate as some other riads, but the service makes up for this. Book one of the suites or the rooms off the ground floor.
A stay at Riad Laaroussa (3 Derb Bechara, tel. 0674/187 639, www.riad-laaroussa.com, 1,200Dh) is a real highlight to any trip to Morocco. It took a few years to remodel this former palace to its glory, but it was well worth it. The refinished woodwork, intricate zellij tiles, palatial suites with roaring fireplaces for the winter, and fine attention to detail all help to make this riad one of the best in Fez. With a helpful staff, wonderful terrace views, delicious breakfast, great location and an on-site traditional hammam, Riad Laaroussa has it all. The owners, Fred and Cathy, are invested in the local community and it shows with their staff and the respect the Fez community has for them. Rooms are themed by color. If you can’t splurge for a suite, try the Blue Room, with a wonderful reading nook overlooking the courtyard. The Blue, Yellow and Brown rooms open on a shared salon with sofas and fireplace, perfect for larger families or groups. If you’re staying for a few days, make sure you take advantage of the free cooking course offered in their wonderful kitchen for guests.
Riad Zamane (12 Derb Skallia Douh, tel. 0535/740 440, www.riadzmane-fes.com, 900Dh) is conveniently located near the Batha Museum in a quieter part of the medina with easy access to the parking and to the driving routes, which is helpful for those roadtripping. Sakina, the proprietor, is a gracious hostess and will accommodate all your needs. If your budget allows, try to reserve the Green Suite with the private terrace or, if you’re saving a few bucks, inquire if the terrace room is free. Often a good deal can be had if you don’t mind sleeping in the cozy suite just off the terrace!
One of the more popular options for a quick lunch in the medina is to eat like many of the local workers at one of the bissara stands scattered throughout. There are a number of stalls around the Qaraouiyine complex in the middle of the medina. Head for Place Aachabine and look for Elminchaoui (69 Pl. Aachabine, tel. 0677/768 658, Sat.-Thurs., 8am-4pm, 8Dh), a clean, non-smoking, veritable hole-in-the-wall. You’ll probably have to wait a few minutes for a seat, but it will be well worth it for a thick bowl of bissara topped with a generous splash of olive oil, cumin and red chili pepper.
Dar Hatim (19 Derb Ezaouia Fandak Lihoud, tel. 0666/525 323, open daily for lunch and dinner, 150Dh) is a can’t-miss for foodies! This has become one of my absolute favorite restaurants in all of the country for real, down-home, delicious food, Moroccan style! The roast lamb tajine is fall-off-the bone wonderful and service, like most everywhere in Morocco, is with a genuine smile. The Moroccan-styled menu can be tailored to fit dietary needs, including gluten-free options—just be sure to tell them when you make your reservation.
CLOSED La Mamia (Pl. de Florence off Ave Hassan II). I was super-sad to see my favorite pizza joint in all of Fez close!!! I’m on the lookout for a new favorite pizza joint in Fez. Any ideas? Let me know!