Note: all this information is current as of August, 2015.
The first thing that happens in Fez, Morroco is you are lost. Really though being lost is the best thing that can happen to a traveler, anywhere. Only here, Fez (or Fes) makes it easy for you. Speeds up the process of losing your bearings. No matter how sharp your geolocational instincts are, they’re torn apart as soon as you enter the Fez Medina.
Fes is of course one of the oldest cities not only in Morocco, and not only in Africa; it’s one of the longest continuously-inhabited cities in the world. The Medina itself has seen centuries pass. It’s a community and a time machine. As such, it seems only fitting that you should be so easily lost in among its labyrinth-like lanes.
Here I present a list of things to prepare for when visiting Fez, Morocco. Further down, information about how to find your way around Fez’ Medina:
- Many people will offer help to find your way, for a price, and regardless of whether or not you look confident
- The Medina has a peculiar smell that must be a mix between donkey shit, trapped heat, bread baking, mint tea and age
- Fez’ old city is crowded
- The souks, or markets, seem to sell everything
- Street food plates and juice cups are only rinsed in a common jug of water before being reused
- The Moroccans drink the tap water but warn you from it
- A 2 liter bottle of water should cost no more than 6-7 Dirhams
- It’s always best to have Dirhams coins over bills
- The Fez Medina is spread out over hills
- New Fez is gridlocked
- A taxi from the Fez Medina to Carrefour should not cost more than 12 Dirhams
- The cheapest room you will find will cost 20 dollars per night, hostel dorms are cheaper
- You can eat good street food for 10-20 dirhams
- To eat very good tangine or couscous, eat in a Riad for anywhere from 120-300 dirhams
- We would eat 1 meal between two to save money in Fez; there’s always enough for both
- Mint tea is offered free in your Riad
- A Riad is a guesthouse
- ‘Shokran’ is Arabic for Thank You
- If you accept an unofficial guide to help you find your Riad, do not tip more than 30 dirhams
Getting to and from the Fez airport and Medina
The airport at Fez is small. Our plane was the only plane, and we disembarked on the tarmac. I have been living in Barcelona, and had the Autorizacion de Regreso. Mayra had her NIE, so we could enter just fine.
To know before you travel to Fez:
- “Grand taxis” are the big white Mercedes taxis. They charge you for use of the car, not per seat. They are more expensive than petit taxis and they travel as far as you want.
- “Petit taxis” are small and red. They charge per seat and can pick up other passengers. They are cheaper than grand taxis. They do not travel to the airport, or anywhere outside Fes.
If you want to take a grand taxi from the airport, it will cost 120 dirhams to the train station, and 150 to the Medina.
These instructions are for getting to and from the Fez Medina from the airport the cheapest way possible, which apart from hitchhiking is by bus.
To get from the airport to the Medina in Fes by bus
Leave the airport terminal and walk down the road to the first roundabout. This is where the bus stops. It is bus #16. It costs 4 dirhams, and you will get off at the last stop, which is the train station: Gare de Fes in French.
This is the main train station in Fez, from which you can take trains to Meknes, Rabat, Marrakesh, Casablanca, Tangiers and anywhere else in Morocco.
See the map below to see the exact spot where bus #16 will leave you and where you will find bus #19 to Place Rcif, which is one of the main plazas in the Medina just inside the Bab Rcif gate. You may be trying to get to other parts of the Medina, so this information is only useful for those who want to start at Place Rcif. There are other city buses that can get you to where you want to go, and the Fez train station is not far from Avenue Hassan II, the main street through the city along which most buses find their way. With enough asking, you will find your bus.
This map shows Fez bus route #19 from the train station (the exact spot where you have to go) to Place Rcif.
To get the bus back to the airport from Place Rcif, take bus #19 to the same bus stop in front of the train station, then walk to the location marked on the map above as the spot to take bus #16 back to the airport. It is not the same bus stop as when you arrive FROM the airport. The bus ride to Fes’ airport takes 40 minutes.
How to get around the Fez Medina
It’s a maze. Google maps will not help you. What I said before about getting around Fez might have worried the confident navigators among you readers, but it should not. Yes, you will get lost if you try to navigate the Medina alone. But the catch is that you walk in any general direction to eventually arrive at the edge of the Medina, from where you can find your way.
If you are staying in one of Fez’ riads, then they will probably offer to come find you at one of the Medina’s gates, or babs. Otherwise, ask anyone how to get to your riad, and chances are that they’ll take you themselves, or find someone who will. You can walk across the full length of the Medina in 30 minutes, without stopping.
Here’s a short story of what happened to us on the first day, when we found an unofficial guide:
When we arrived in Fez I asked a shoe salesmen just inside the Medina about the address of the Riad Doha. He immediately called for a boy of 16 to guide us. I asked and he said I could pay him whatever I wanted. When we’d taken enough turns, he started to say that the ‘official’ guides charge 500 dirhams for what he’s doing for us (that’s over 50 dollars); he said he’d only charge around 250. I stopped and said that I would give him 20 dirhams, no more. He was very insistent that 100 is a good price, and I said no. He insisted. We turned to go back, or to get lost on our own. He finally caved and said alright, indignant about it all the same. I was nervous, being guided by a frustrated adolescent. But sure enough he showed us to the Riad Doha. He argued with me for a time about receiving more than 20 but I insisted, and he left in a fit of frustration. The man in our riad confirmed that one shouldn’t give more than 20 dirhams for such a service.
So the lesson here is to set a price before you accept. This goes for absolutely everything in Morocco in general. People are very friendly, but tourists are commonly taken advantage of. Make sure you find out the price of what you want before starting to haggle.
So to find your way around the Medina, you need to just let yourself get lost. The Fez Medina is surrounded by walls and gates, so eventually you’ll make it out!
Once you’re out, you can start to make use of your bearings. For this, it’s a good idea to carry a compass when navigating the Fez Medina, and to remember 4 reference points that correlate with the prime directions.
To the east is is Place Rcif. Place Rcif is actually in the middle of the Medina, but I used it mostly as a reference to return from outings to the west, hence why I call it an eastern reference point.
To the west is Bab Boujloud, shown here on this map. As you can see, the extension of the main city road Hassan II ends at this gate:
Remember to try and ignore the roads on Google Maps that appear within the Medina. Here is a picture of Bab Boujloud:
So you have bearings for the west and east. Now, the southern bearing will be the main road that links Place Rcif with the New City.
Your northern bearing will be one of the highest points in old Fes, which sits just outside the Medina. It is called the Merinide Necropole. Here it is on the map of Fez:
And here is the Merinide Necropole of Fes with yours truly:
Now that you have the four cardinal directions covered with reference points, it’s time to give you the Fez tourism map of the Medina.
These maps are dotted throughout the Medina and just outside it. The colors represent different walking paths. These paths are not well-marked in the Medina. They are described by a series of overhead signs that you have to be on the lookout for. These signs are color-coded, and point you in the direction of the final destination on that walk.
These maps I’ve uploaded in high resolution so that you can see them up close. A printable map of Fez is hard to come by, so I hope these help. Click on each map of Fez to see it full-size:
Notice that the long red circuit through Fez’ Medina is a continuous market street. It serves as another point of reference, because from many parts of the Medina, either you walk uphill or downhill in order to reach it, and it is the artery that beats and carries you through the Medina:
You cannot visit the Royal Palace in Fez, but you can walk around it. The purple circuit below takes you through the Jewish quarter, which is a great place to haggle for clothes and carpets:
The southeast portion of Fez’ Medina is represented in the below map. I did not walk much here, but the same theory applies: get lost, and find a Bab.
Once you’re in the Fez Medina, you’ll notice that it’s all foot traffic. Well, almost all foot traffic. The Moroccans use donkeys to haul supplies.
They also use motorized, mini trucks that have front-load mechanisms. You’ll see plenty of these:
This is the first in a short series of articles about visiting Fez, Morocco. Other articles in this series include: