In a young nation like the United States, history is not always defined by old age. Harvard, our oldest university, was founded less than four centuries ago in 1636. We ratified our Constitution in 1788, ended our Civil War in 1865, and welcomed our 49th and 50th states just decades ago in 1959.
So imagine the wonder of visiting Fes, the oldest imperial city in Morocco founded by Idriss II in 807. Long regarded as the country’s intellectual capital, this tangled medina in the Fes River basin is home to scholars, artisans, eager shopkeepers, and the oldest continually operating university in the world. Where its sister Marrakech has a luxurious and exotic sheen, Fes is a spiritual and cultural center with just the right balance of beauty and bite. It’s a place to wander aimlessly, get a bit lost, and watch craftsmen weave, fire, and hammer handmade masterpieces.
So leave plenty of space in your carry-on for these newly found treasures—we’re off to Fes for the next three days.
Three Girls Walk Into A Dar
I’ve always been a bit wary of making my accommodations the main event of a trip. I usually work under the assumption that I’ll meet the most interesting people, enjoy the most delicious meals, and learn the most fascinating history outside of my hotel. But that was before Dar Seffarine, the unforgettable (and absurdly affordable) realm of Norwegian graphic designer Kate Kvalvik and her husband, Iraqi architect Alaa Said.
With six rooms and a rooftop terrace that overlooks Fes, this intimate riad has been lovingly restored by Kate and Alaa to reflect 700 years of history and a blend of Scandinavian and Moroccan design. The rooms are grand, welcoming, and filled with local workmanship, from the carved cedar doors to the metal light fixtures. But best of all? You’ll feel like part of the family as you share breakfast each morning, sip wine on the rooftop, and enjoy dinners of flavorful harissa and pastilla kindly prepared by the next-door neighbors.
Do I Smell Something? What Am I, Hard Of Smelling?
In a city with nearly 1.1 million people and more than a thousand dead-end alleys, finding your bearings in old Fes (Fes el-Bali) is no easy task. But one of the many attractions of Dar Seffarine is its close proximity to craftsmen, artisans, and bazaars in the heart of the old medina.
You’d be wise to accept the sprigs of mint that are gifted by shopkeepers outside the Terrasse des Tanneurs, where you’ll have a commanding view of the medieval tanneries and dye vats that produce Morocco’s most famous leather. That little piece of mint will help you escape the smell of decaying goat, lamb, cow, and camel flesh, and give you the fortitude to peruse the surrounding leather goods co-op.
Follow the sound of hammers to Place Seffarine, the nearby metalworkers’ square that offers an open-air respite from the medina’s narrow passageways. This is the place for lanterns, lamps, and ornate copper and brass goods—many of which are hammered and soldered right before your eyes.
My Life In Ruins
The walls are crumbling, the flowers are in bloom, and the vines are beautifully overgrown at The Ruined Garden, a former riad-turned-restaurant that makes for a tranquil afternoon retreat. The menu highlights seasonal vegetables, bold spices, and specialties that include savory potato cakes in a flavor-packed tomato sauce. An added bonus? The surrounding alleys are extensively signed, so you’ll have no trouble finding your way.
They Tumble Blindly As They Make Their Way Across The University
For centuries, the 10,760-square-foot Kairaouine Mosque was the largest mosque in all of Morocco, a distinction it held until Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque was completed in 1993. But this spiritual center, which dates back to 857, remains the site of the oldest continuously operating university in the world—and one that once housed the most celebrated collection of Islamic literature.
Although the mosque and university are open only to Muslims, you can steal a glimpse of the magnificent courtyard as you begin a day-long stroll across the medina. The trick to finding your way? Simply follow the signs toward Bab Boujloud, the intricately tiled Moorish-style gate that guards the west entrance to Fes el-Bali. Along the way, you’ll maneuver through souks, food stalls, and open-air markets—not to mention the crush of human traffic that the medina is known for.
The Secret Of The Old Clock
Just a few hundred feet from Bab Boujloud is Café Clock, a centuries-old home that has been transformed into a community gathering space. With a library, several terraces, courtyards, art installations, and even a movie theater, this café strives to promote an international exchange of culture, music, and ideas—and it also happens to serve one of the best camel burgers in Morocco.
A Few Notes
The fact that this post doesn’t include dining options for dinner is intentional. I cannot emphasize enough (1) how delicious the dinners are at Dar Seffarine, and (2) how likely you are to get lost while searching for restaurants in the medina. It’s not fun when you’re hungry.
Like its red sister Marrakech, Fes is home to a healthy population of overly eager shopkeepers and pesky street hustlers. If they’re bothering you, just ignore them and keep moving—or opt for a forceful “No, thank you!” in Arabic (“La shukraan”).
TITLE: Fes el-Bali | FRIDAY: The entrance to a suite at Dar Seffarine; the garden courtyard at Dar Seffarine; the interior courtyard; the roof of the interior courtyard; another suite at Dar Seffarine; the roof terrace at Dar Seffarine; the view from the roof terrace; sunset on the roof terrace | SATURDAY: Breakfast at Dar Seffarine; overlooking the dye pits on the Terrasse des Tanneurs; Place Seffarine; The Ruined Garden; vines at The Ruined Garden | SUNDAY: Morning at Dar Seffarine; Bab Boujloud.
What a great, exotic and beautiful destination. The narrative and photos took me back to my own amazing visit to Fes several years ago. Thank you, Maura!
Thank you so much Diana! Isn’t it just the neatest place? I’m glad you had such a wonderful experience there too 🙂