The oldest imperial city in Morocco, Fès (or Fez) is the spiritual core of this country. It is home to some of north Africa's finest mosques and medersas (Islamic schools), and its largest intact medina - 10,000 labyrinthine alleys lined with leather and carpet stalls, apothecaries and barbers, spice merchants and grocers, tinkers and tailors, and jostling with mules, trolleys, tourists and a very healthy contingent of locals.
Once the power base of the intellectual and wealthy elite, "greater Fes" now has more than a million citizens, and some parts have begun to fray around the edges. In the late 90s, the World Bank loaned a large amount to the city to improve public facilities and restore the medina. The city is divided into 3 main sections: Fès el-Bali (old Fes), the amazing, almost bewildering array of alleyways in the walled medina, Fès el-Jdid, home to the Royal Palace and Jewish quarter, and the Ville Nouvelle, the smart modern section in the southwest.
Fès el-Bali is clustered with souks where you can haggle for crafts, especially leather goods. If you want to see exactly how your leather satchel was made, a tour of a tannery is a real eye-opener (and nose-closer) – half of Morocco’s total leather production comes from the raw materials produced in Fès's tanneries. Besides the thousands of alleys, there are also hundreds of intriguing buildings: abandoned palaces, still vibrant medersas, unexpectedly intricate townhouses, and the immense Kairaouine Mosque that can hold more than 20,000 people (closed to non-Muslims). All in all, it's more medieval than Marrakech, more evocative and authentic, tougher to penetrate, and totally undisneyfied.
Less complicated to explore, Fès el-Jdid (new Fès) is home to the mellah, the Jewish neighbourhood, with its contrasting construction style of windows and balconies facing the street. Here also is the Dar el-Makhzen (Royal Palace), wonderfully restored, although unfortunately its 80 hectares of gardens are closed to the public. Tours of palaces like Dar el Glaoui that do open their doors to tourists, and even some that don’t can be arranged via some hotels.
Make sure you visit the newly re-opened Bou Jeloud public gardens which are laid out in typical Islamic symmetry with cooling water features and grand avenues of palm. Conveniently sandwiched between Fes el-Bali and Fes el-Jdid, it makes for a perfect restbite from the hustle and bustle.
Built in the French colonial style, the Ville Nouvelle is not so secretive, with green squares, parks and tree-lined boulevards lined with chic cafés. This is the administrative district, where you’ll find the post office, banks, train station and most major restaurants.
Fès has a lively cultural scene, one of whose highlights is the Festival of Sacred Music in June.
Be aware that the medina is a gritty, almost medieval city whose only transport is mules and trolleys - which means dodging mule dung and impatient porters, not being put off by the whiff of tanneries or a street butcher decapitating chickens, walking to/from your hotel and expecting to get lost several times.
Some public buildings are closed for restoration, and many mosques are closed to non-Muslims - though you can usually poke your nose through the door without offending anyone.