At first glance, it would seem that Fes and Marrakech have much in common. As two of the oldest cities in Morocco, both are imperial capitals and both boast UNESCO-listed medinas. However, there is much more to these Moroccan cities than first meets the eye. So if you’re struggling to choose between Fes or Marrakech, take a look at our handy comparison guide.
Founded in 789 AD, Fes is the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities. It’s also regarded as the country’s spiritual, cultural and intellectual centre, particularly as it houses the oldest university in the world.
The city is divided into two parts. Known as Fez el-Bali, the medina offers a labyrinth of narrow streets and winding alleys dotted with mosques, market stalls and tanneries. Thought to be the world’s largest car-free zone, it feels world’s apart from 21st century life.
In contrast, Ville Nouvelle is the newest part of Fes and built by the French. Found outside the medina, this part of the city offers wide boulevards and modern shops, as well as busy traffic.
What are the highlights of Fes?
Chaouwara Tanneries: Arguably the most iconic and colourful sight in Fes, the Chaouwara Tanneries reveal the pungent process of making leather that has changed little since the Middle Ages.
Kairaouine Mosque: One of the largest mosques in Africa, Kairaouine Mosque is considered by Guinness World Records to be the world’s oldest continually operating university.
Bou Inania Madrasa: The largest and grandest of Fes’ medersas (colleges), Bou Inania Madrasa was built by the Merenid sultan Bou Inan. Its elaborate tilework and intricate carvings are particularly impressive.
How do I get around Fes?
As the medina of Fez is pedestrianized, the best way to get around is on foot. Outside of the medina, you can take small, red cars known as petit-taxis. These are cheap and there’s plenty of them – but be sure to agree on the fare before starting your journey. Note that only grand taxis go to the airport, so you may wish to arrange a transfer with your accommodation.
Where should I stay?
If you’re looking for authentic accommodation, the best place to stay in Fes is a riad. These traditional Moroccan homes have been converted into boutique hotels and feature a small number of rooms set around an inner courtyard. You’ll find many different variations, with some even featuring swimming pools or hammam-style spas for their guests.
What’s the food like?
Morocco is known for its delicious cuisine – and Fes is no exception. This city is one of the best places in the country to try street food, with plenty of restaurants and eateries to check out too. Popular dishes include brochettes, which are kebab-style meat skewers cooked over a charcoal fire, and meat pies known as pastillas. With Arabic, Berber and Mediterranean influences, Fes is a culinary melting pot.
The most famous of Morocco’s imperial cities, Marrakech boasts the beautiful Atlas Mountains as a backdrop. Founded in 1062, this city has been a popular tourist destination since the 1960s – and with very good reason.
Although there are many historic attractions, Marrakech’s medieval medina is its biggest drawcard. Here, visitors can shop in bustling souks, watch tireless artisans and marvel at exotic street performances. Encapsulating all that travellers find so alluring about Morocco, this city is a feast for the senses.
What are the highlights of Marrakech?
Djemma el Fna: The square at the heart of Marrakech’s medina, Djemma el Fna is the best spot in the city for people watching and trying authentic Moroccan street food.
Jardin Majorelle: One of the most visited sites in Morocco, this enchanting, landscape garden was originally created by the French artist Jacques Majorelle and took 40 years to complete.
Bahia Palace: This 19th century palace is one of the masterpieces of Moroccan architecture and still occasionally hosts the Moroccan royal family today.
How do I get around Marrakech?
If you’re looking to explore the medina, the best way to get around is on foot or by bike. As the city is quite large, you’ll find taxis are readily available and the quickest way to reach the main attractions. Buses are a cheaper option, however these can be crowded.
Where should I stay?
Marrakech has plenty of options when it comes to accommodation, from hostels and hotels to riads. In fact, there are over 1,000 traditional riads in Marrakech’s ancient medina. Similarly to Fes, these are some of the best places to stay to experience true Moroccan hospitality. You’ll find riads ranging from luxurious and pricey to great value, budget stays.
What’s the food like?
One of the highlights of Marrakech is eating out, with Djemaa el-Fna square being the best place to start. Up to 100 food stalls set up here each night, so you can eat your way through a selection of Morocco’s most famous dishes. Not to be confused with tagine, the Marrakech specialty is tangia. Consisting of beef, chicken or lamb slow-cooked in an earthenware pot with garlic, safron and lemon, this dish is served with traditional flatbread rather than potatoes or rice.
So which one should I visit?
In an ideal world, you would be able to visit both Moroccan cities. However, if you do have to choose between them, it’s worth considering what type of travel experience you’d like to have.
After decades of tourism, Marrakech is well-equipped to deal with visitors and offers the amenities, accommodation choice and eateries to match. Its hectic nature can be overwhelming to some travellers. However, it’s arguably what is so captivating and unique about this destination. It’s also home to some of Morocco’s biggest highlights, such as the bustling Djemma el Fna.
In comparison, Fes sees fewer visitors and is thought to offer a more authentic experience. The lack of cars in the medina makes it seem less chaotic and so the city is a great choice for a more relaxed getaway. Unique sights such as the Chaouwara Tanneries also provide a fascinating insight into Morocco’s culture.