The Gyde & Seek Skinny: 10 Things to Know Before You Visit Fez
With fewer English-language menus and expat-helmed concept shops than Marrakech—and a resolute devotion to its own centuries-old routines—Fez has a way of confounding even the veteran urban explorer (just try Google-mapping your way from the riad to that rooftop breakfast spot with the date shakes). Of course, all this pride of place and tradition are also what make Fez such a compelling destination for travelers seeking direct access to Morocco’s cultural and historical riches. Getting a little lost is a small price to pay, so lean into the labyrinth, arm yourself with a few pieces of sage travel advice (ten to be exact!), and reach out to a local gyde who can help you get under the skin of this magnificent and uncompromising medieval city.
1. Balak! Sure, it's useful to be able to say "hello" (salaam alaikum) and "thank you" (shukran). But if you're only going to learn two syllables of the local dialect before taking on Fez's slender-arteried medina, they may as well be the ones that could spare you your new babouche slippers. The warning call of all hard-driving Fassi muleteers, balak means "watch out!" or "coming through!"—in other words: pin yourself to the wall and hold your breath until the caravan of quadruped garbage collectors (or grocery carriers—or mail couriers!) has shuffled by you.
2. Don your most conservative caftan. While cultural conventions have loosened in newer parts of town, modesty is still high fashion in the more traditional precincts of Fez el-Bali. Within the walled city, dressing respectfully (i.e. keeping your knees and shoulders covered) will help you to make a good impression and avoid unwanted attention.
3. Commute in good company. Leaving the riad each morning feels like a real adventure when you're stepping into a GPS-defying matrix of 9,500 medieval byways. Yes, Fez's medina is older, deeper, and even less forgiving than its counterpart in Marrakech. After dark, solo-wandering can be uncomfortable. When in doubt, tip your hotel doorman (or the restaurant's) to shepherd you safely to your destination.
4. Keep your coins close. Fez is definitely the kind of city where it's useful to have some change (or small notes) handy for tipping porters, attendants, and pushcart-drivers. And also because, street snacks! ATMs are scarce in the medina and unreliable on weekends, so plan ahead if you prefer not to spend your vacation on an extended cash mission.
5. Have soup for breakfast. Served from steaming cauldrons throughout the medina—with cumin, garlic, and a slick of chili oil—the protein-packed fava soup known as bisara is Fez's most popular power breakfast. Speaking of street food, you'll also want to track down maakouda (deep-fried mashed potato balls) and rriba (aniseed-scented sesame shortbread). Some of Fez’s most memorable eats are served from anonymous kiosks and counters; your gyde will gladly point you in the direction of the city’s choice vendors.
6. Save room for our dream-déjeuner. Need a cold glass of wine? Part of Le Jardin des Biehns, a small hotel with a palatial interior garden, Fez Café occupies a chic, antiques-studded patio with plenty of shade and a French-Moroccan chalkboard menu that nods to the owner's Provencal roots. Perfect for when you’re feeling any combination of peckish, dusty, and weary, this walled hideaway, formerly a pasha's residence, is delectably serene.
7. Make a date with the city’s culinary game-changer. TV host, women's rights activist, and visionary restaurateur Najat Kanaache is disarmingly down-to-earth for someone with a Michelin-starred pedigree. Though she has trained at the likes of Noma, the French Laundry, Per Se, and El Bulli, Chef Najat welcomes curious food pilgrims to her table with easygoing warmth and a seemingly boundless supply of good energy. Served in a riad restored by the creative director of the Majorelle Garden, her progressive ten-course tasting menu is like no other meal you'll experience in this fiercely traditionalist city. You did make your reservation at Nur, right?
8. Take Friday off. Friday is a holy day in Islam, and in a devout city such as Fez, you'll notice the energetic downshift. Many Fassi shopkeeps put commerce on hold to make time for midday prayers and family couscous feasts. Fridays are ideal for spa treatments and day trips—just choose another day for your souk shopping spree.
9. Don't miss North Africa's best-preserved Roman ruins. Founded in the 3rd century BC, Volubilis was once a prosperous olive-producing city on the Roman Empire's southwestern frontier. Just over an hour from Fez by car, the UNESCO-listed archaeological site is a must-see for its complex of temples, baths, and show-stopping mosaics commissioned by Rome-educated Berber kings. Shade is in short supply, so rise early to beat that searing midday heat.
10. Cultivate a daily tea ritual. If we lived in Fez, we'd end every afternoon with a visit to Abdullah's tiny tea salon near the Place Seffarine. The convivial master brewer, who's kept the neighborhood caffeinated for almost 50 years, infuses with lemon verbena, sage, silvery wormwood, and two different varieties of strong local mint. If your tea is served scalding hot, take it as a compliment from your host (the longer it takes to cool, the longer your visit!).