Don’t overlook Fes on your tour of Morocco – this beautiful city of gates and leather has a lot to offer! Read on for my top 12 things to do in Fes!
Fes was the stop in our Morocco itinerary that almost wasn’t. We changed around our plans just a couple weeks before arriving in Morocco to add a day and a half in Fes, and I’m so glad we did.
In some respects, Fes was very similar to Marrakech – there was the medina and the souks, historical buildings with gorgeous arches and mosaics, donkeys pulling carts, and tagine… always tagine.
However, Fes had a very distinct vibe to it, separate from Marrakech. For one, while almost every building in Marrakech is red, almost every building in Fes was a more “normal” tan color. Most of the souks were covered with mats or cloths above, creating a passage-like feel to the streets.
Even the food offered seemed just a little different, with many restaurants offering more middle eastern type fare. And while in Marrakech there were a lot of people, men and women, wearing traditional clothing, there were a lot more people in Fes wearing more western-style clothes, such as jeans and t-shirts.
Basically, Fes felt like the slightly hipper younger sister to Marrakech: definitely still related and with a lot of similarities, but both stand out as their own person.
With that introduction, let’s get into our best things to do in Fes! I think 1 to 2 days is enough time for Fes. You certainly could stay longer and take a more relaxed approach, but the city is smaller, the sites are closer together, and you aren’t going to spend as long at most attractions.
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1. Visit the Tanneries
Fes is well-known for its leather making tanneries – it’s one of the most iconic things to do in Fes!
A visit to the tanneries is really a visit to the terrace that overlooks the tanneries. And a visit to the terrace actually means walking through a maze of a leather shop to get to the terrace.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, you need to get to the tanneries themselves.
Getting to the Tanneries
There are two terraces that overlook the Chouara tannery (the main tannery) and the access points for them are very close to each other.
As you approach the area of the city where the tanneries are found, you will encounter *so* many men on the streets trying to be your guide, who will start walking with you (to be your guide and get money), people asking if you need directions, or just randomly giving directions, or saying that “that way is closed, go this way.”
Don’t listen to or go with any of them!
Almost everyone who tried to give us directions in Morocco or told us that “it’s closed” or “only houses that way” or “go this way to ____” was lying to us! Almost every time!
You do not need a guide to visit or find the tanneries — it was actually pretty easy to find.
We read a lot of articles before coming to Fes saying that your navigation and maps won’t be accurate in the medina or that you will still get lost or that it’s really hard to find the tanneries. We did not find it difficult at all and our Google maps were pretty dang accurate. If you can follow a map, you can find the tanneries. It is helpful to have GPS turned on, though, so your blue dot actively moves on the map and you can quickly see if you take a wrong turn.
This is where the terrace to view the tanneries are. Plug this into your phone and it’ll take you right there.
Act confident, check your map on your phone when needed, shoo anyone away (if needed, say forcefully, “We do not need a guide. We are not going with you.”)
You’ll know when you’re there because you’ll see this sign:
There is no cost to visit the terrace themselves (if they ask for money, push back. It’s definitely free.)
There will be a worker out in front ushering you in and offering you a sprig of mint to hold under your nose to ward off the smell.
To be honest, I didn’t find the tannery smell all that bad – I mean, it wasn’t great by any means, but walking past the horse drawn carriages in Marrakech was way worse (I think because they had little nets that caught the horse’s poop and those got saturated with horse poop smell and STUNK). But apparently the smell in the tanneries is pretty bad in the summer, which I believe. And the sprig of mint actually did help a ton!
So the deal with the tanneries is you can go watch the production from a terrace for free, but you will have to go through a very expansive shop to get to the terrace. It was this insane maze of rooms, where you go up and down and over several times, with large rooms filled with leather goods of all shapes, sizes, and colors.
Of course, the angle from the shop owners is that you will hopefully buy on your way out from the terraces, but surprisingly, the salespeople were not really that pushy. I was expecting super pushy, hard sells all through the shop, but it was surprisingly chill.
Leather Curing Process
To cure leather, workers dip the pieces into a series of different “washes,” which includes pigeon poop and limestone. The ammonia in the pigeon poop helps make the leather soft. Workers scrape the leather, and then the pieces are dyed different colors, using natural colorants e.g. poppy for red, saffron for yellow, cedarwood for brown, etc.
The pieces are taken outside the city and dried for several days, and then brought back in where the leather is scraped from the back to soften it, and then sewn into jackets, shoes, poofs, wallets, purses, etc.
The whole process takes two weeks, and National Geographic called this the 2nd hardest job in the world.
I had mixed feelings about the terrace. On the one hand, it was super interesting to watch and definitely an “iconic” viewpoint in Fes.
On the other hand, the conditions down in the “factory” area looked awful. Men were standing in the wells of liquid that held pigeon poop and limestone in the hot sun, while a bunch of tourists holding mint up to their noses looked down on them. It just felt voyeuristic and a little bit icky, and exploitive.
On the other OTHER hand, the terrace overlooks certainly drive sales (I mean, we definitely bought) and having good sales does provide job security. And the man showing us around did say they were paid well (roughly 3 x the average Moroccan wage from our calculations).
Anyway, I’m not saying don’t go, I just had mixed feelings about the experience on the terrace.
Buying Leather Products
No mixed feelings about the leather itself though: the quality of leather in Fes is fantastic.
If you want to buy leather goods in Morocco, Fes is the place to do it, and the shops around the tanneries have some amazing wares. Rooms upon rooms upon rooms of all sorts of leather goods. It was really impressive!
We bought a buttery soft leather jacket for Matthew made of lamb skin, a very soft leather wallet, and a leather purse, but I was also super tempted by the leather poufs (you buy them unstuffed so they fit easily in your suitcase).
2. Stay at a Palace-like Riad
The costs for accommodations in Fes were incredibly reasonable, so much so that our budget traveler instincts felt totally okay with staying in the most beautiful guesthouse I’ve ever seen.
This riad had mosaics and tiles and arches and high ceilings and sumptuous fabrics and a grand four poster bed! I mean, it was like something out of a dream.
Best part – it was only $50 a night! I could hardly believe it. (Read more about our Morocco travel budget here! )
The quality of this riad was so top notch that it really felt like it’s own experience, which is why it’s its own separate item on our things to do in Fes list!
A riad is a traditional Moroccan guesthouse. It generally has a courtyard in the middle and is pretty small, usually with just 5-8 rooms. Breakfast is included and served in the courtyard and there are options to pay for additional meals.
You absolutely have to stay in a riad in Morocco!
3. Visit the Blue Gate
Our beautiful riad was located very close to the Blue Gate, so you will definitely pass through the Blue Gate many times as you enter into the souks and main attraction area of the medina.
Fes is known for its gates, and the Blue Gate is the most prominent and well-known. It’s blue on the side you’ll see when entering the medina – representing the color of Fes. The other side is green – representing the color of Islam. Both sides are beautiful, but I had a slight preference for the green side!
If you want a picture without many people, get here first thing in the morning!
4. Madrasa Al-Attarine
A madrasa is an old school (this one dates back to the 1300’s!) and for 20 dirhams ($2), you can tour parts of it. Enter in the main courtyard, with tall ceilings, intricate mosaics, and stunningly gorgeous arches! The 2nd room, just beyond the main courtyard, is the prayer hall.
You can also climb up into the individual students’ dorms and classrooms above – some of them have little peepholes where you can look down on the atrium. It was a really cool look at an old piece of history.
This madrasa is right next door to the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque. Attached to the mosque is the Al-Qarawiyyin library, which is the oldest library in the world! Articles online made it seem like you could visit a part of the library, even though most of it is connected to a mosque. Unfortunately, the library is no longer available to the non-Muslim public.
5. Madrasa Bou Inania
This madrasa is unique because not only was it a school, it also functioned as a mosque! Considering the only currently functioning mosque you can visit in Morocco is in Casablanca, this is a unique chance to visit the inside of a mosque, even if this one isn’t currently in use.
Off the main courtyard are two classrooms you can step into, and upstairs are student dormitories.
Although the two madrassas in Fes have some similarities, I would still recommend visiting both! They aren’t too far from each other, the cost to visit is cheap, and the visit is pretty quick. And they each have a distinct feel making it worth the stop!
6. Buy spices
Spices are incredibly cheap in Morocco and there are some uniquely Moroccan blends you can get here!
Ras El Hanout
The name means “top of the shop” and is a mixture of 10-12 (though it can have even more) different spices, including dried roses! The spice shop owner can mix up a batch fresh for you – collecting the spices fresh and whole in a basket, and then putting it through a grinding machine to create it fresh off the press for you.
It’s very aromatic and goes well with any type of protein or vegetable! A fair price is about 10-20 dirham per 50 grams (that’s without saffron added in. If you add the saffron to the mixture, it’ll be more expensive).
Let’s face it – buying a jar of saffron for a couple bucks just feels good! Moroccans use it in cooking quite a bit, so it’s easy to find in the markets.
How to tell if you have real saffron? Real saffron is multi-colored – the base is more orange/yellow, whereas the tip is deep red. The shorter the yellow section at the base, the better – but it should still be there. Pure red is often a sign it is fake or colored artificially.
Second, if you look at a piece of saffron, it should have a flared tip – like a super small paint brush – sometimes splitting into 2 or 3 distinct strands. It’s like a little flower.
Lastly, it should have a distinctive smell, sort of like musky honey or hay, and if you get a piece wet, it should smear yellow on paper, while still retaining its own color.
A fair price is less than 30 dirhams per gram of saffron.
You can get a variety of other spices from the markets, and the cost is incredibly cheap – around 10 dirham for 50 grams for most of them!
7. Eat in a Cute Rooftop Café
There were a lot more “hip” cafes in Fes compared to Marrakech, and we really enjoyed all of our meals in Fes.
These cafes all had nice rooftop terraces (you could eat in the lower levels, but why would you when you could eat on the roof??)
8. Admire Other Gates and Doors in the City
While gorgeous doors and gates are common throughout Morocco, Fes really took it NEXT LEVEL!
There were gates everywhere, and the doors and arches of just any old building on the street were just insanely intricate and beautiful. One of the best things to do in Fes is just walk the streets and admire the doors -it was so visually stimulating!
If you’re into stunning architecture or cool doors, you will love Fes.
9. Hit the Souks
The souks in Fes had a decidedly different feel than the souks in Marrakech.
Generally speaking, the souks in both cities sold similar types of wares, but I would almost say Fes’s souks felt a little more organic, a little more local. More of the city had covered passages, even if they were sometimes just covered with fabrics. Shopping – even just browsing – is so interesting and is a great thing to do in Fes!
You can find leather goods and spices (as discussed above), but also wooden boxes, teapots, other metal goods like lamps, purses, kaftans and other clothing items, scarves, bags, ceramic plates, bowls, and platters, woven baskets, and rugs.
There are, of course, other goods, but those were some of the most common things we saw!
Whenever you are purchasing goods (or taxis!), always, always haggle!
A good rule of thumb is to aim for 1/3 to 1/2 their first price being the final price you pay. Act mildly interested and be willing to walk away (in fact, saying something like “I don’t know, I’ll think about it, I’ll come back later” is a great bargaining tactic – they will almost always come farther down when you start walking out.)
Comparisons to Marrakech
We found that the shop owners were significantly less aggressive in Fes than Marrakech – less people called out to us, and sometimes we even walked in, looked around, and walked back out without the owner saying anything to us – absolutely unheard of in Marrakech.
However, this did come with a trade-off.
We found that the guys trying to be “guides” in the streets were much, much more aggressive in Fes. We regularly had to tell people that we were not going with them and to leave us alone on the streets of Fes (and one guy called me a rude name after I told him that we didn’t want his services).
A Note About Ceramics
One thing I want to point out here is that the ceramics we looked at in Fes were a little different than ones we looked at in other places.
First, while there were ceramics made of different colors, overwhelmingly, we saw pieces in blue and white. If you are wanting pieces in warmer colors, I would shop more in Marrakech and other southern regions, where the selection is bigger!
Fes also had these large platters that had metal accents on them. I thought they were really pretty! We didn’t see ceramics with metal on them anywhere except for Fes, so if that’s of interest to you, you’ll want to buy those here.
The metal-accented platters were, unsurprisingly, much more expensive than the other ceramics. We ended up paying about $34 for one of them, which is about as low as I think you could get it, as an American. Most places were giving us their opening offer at $75 or $80, and were trying to call it “silver.” (It’s not, it’s a type of solder)
10. Jnan Sbil Gardens
Just outside of the medina is the beautiful public gardens of Jnan Sbil. This area is quiet, clean, and peaceful, with water features, paths, green space, lots of plants both native and exotic to Morocco, and is definitely worth an hour or two of your time in Fes.
11. Place Bou Jeloud
This was a happy little discovery! Between the gardens and the Blue Gate is this little plaza. We walked through here in the evening and found this spot that the locals use as a place to congregate and hang out.
Families, couples, and groups of friends were all enjoying a time to relax at the end of the day, children ran around and played, and there was a distinct fair-like air as food vendors and toy vendors moved among the crowd.
If you want to find “local” things to do in Fes, and enjoy seeing the people of Fes living their normal lives, you should walk through here in the evening.
12. Take a Cooking Class
Ok, we did a cooking class in Morocco that was one of our absolute favorite experiences of our entire trip! You get to choose ingredients from the local market with an instructor, cook with a local, and create the most delicious meal you will eat in Morocco.
A Few Travel Essentials for Fes
These are some of the things we wore, used, and loved on our trip to Fes:
Sandals: This is THE perfect pair of travel sandals – they have great arch support, are nice and cushy, and feel amazing straight out of the box.
Skirts: I wore long, flowy, skirts all over Morocco and truly loved them so much. They looked great in photos, and with the locals often wearing long dresses or skirts, I didn’t feel out of place at all. This is the nude pink one and this is the red one.
Sneakers: These are my favorite faux leather white sneakers. While you should break them in before your trip (ask me how I know that…), once broken in, they are a great walking shoe for long travel days – shop here.
Red Dress: A beautiful, breezy, striking red dress, which I loved wearing around Morocco. Heads up though – this one does get wrinkly in your suitcase.
Flowery Dress: I have this dress in a couple different patterns and it is a great warm weather option – it flows and breaths well. Highly recommend.
Athletic Shirts: A great price on a set of heathered, wicking athletic shirts – perfect for a day of hiking or playing in the Sahara.
Biker Shorts: I finally jumped on the biker short bandwagon and this pair is not too short, not too long, and stays up really well.
Sunscreen: I have very sensitive, acne-prone skin, and so I use this facial sunscreen designed to not cause breakouts. I love this one so much that I actually use it every day, whether I’m in the sun or not! It’s lightweight and rubs into my skin smoothly.
Travel Adaptors: Morocco uses type C and E electric plugs, so you’ll need travel adapters to charge your devices. This set is inexpensive and comes in a set of three.
Packing cubes: I held out on buying these packing cubes for so long, which was silly because they have been so. dang. useful. These help keep your clothes and personal items grouped, sorted, and organized. I can actually find things without digging through my entire suitcase now!
Power Bank: We love this portable power bank to charge our phones as we spend a long day sightseeing (and using up all our battery on pictures!). This bank can charge our phones at least four times, is affordable, and has a digital display of how much charge is left.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Securing some travel insurance is an important part of prepping for any international trip – you never know when something might happen, and your regular insurance generally won’t cover you overseas. Costs for a medical emergency on vacation can add up extremely fast, so it’s just better to be safe than sorry. (If covid has taught me anything, it’s that you never know what could happen!)
I like booking insurance at Insure My Trip, as they offer a variety of plans with different coverages to choose from, so you can find the right option for you. Plus, they have great customer support if you need help before, during, or after your trip.
So many of these things to do in Fes ended up being highlights from our trip to Morocco. Plus, with a different feel than any of the other cities we visited, it made for an interesting, fun, and unique experience.
Moral of the story, make sure to include Fes in your Morocco itinerary, and add some of these great things to do in Fes to your bucket list!
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