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, all jostling with tourists and a very healthy contingent of locals. It's a gritty city and the only transport is mules and trolleys, so you'll be dodging mule dung and impatient porters, all while the whiff of tanneries and street butchers fill the air. All in all, it's more evocative, authentic and medieval than Marrakech, as well as tougher to penetrate. Expect to get lost several times walking to/from your hotel. It's all part of the fun.
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 administrative district in the southwest.
Fès el-Bali is a warren of lanes. Only mules and horses are allowed here (unlike Marrakech which is clogged with moped drivers), so it's very atmospheric. There are millions of interesting little shops, with craftsmen making their wares (different areas have different skill-sets). 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).
Haggle for crafts in the souks. If you want to see exactly how your leather satchel was made, a tannery tour 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. Hire a good guide through your hotel to get the most out of your day – it's quite a secretive world, so they can show you the best hidden spots and provide a deeper understanding of how things work.
Avoid the faux guides who attempt to tour you through the medina, taking you back to your hotel via this wonderful carpet maker they know...
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.
The medina can get a bit claustrophobic, but the Jardin Jnan Sbil gardens, just outside the walls, are really nice for a breather. The layout is all Moroccan symmetry with water features, palms and birds.
Fes is a great base from which to visit the old royal city of Meknes. Sometimes called ‘Fes-lite’, it is smaller and more manageable than Fes, but also less impressive. The 25-mile-long city walls and monumental babs (gates) are a highlight.
Spend a morning in the ruined Roman city of Volubilis to see its beautiful mosaics. A must if you’re interested in Roman history, the town survived into the 18th century, so you can still see residential quarters as well as public monuments.