Things to Do in Northern Morocco
The historic core of Fez and the seat of the Moroccan government until 1912, Fez Medina (Fez el-Bali) remains the city’s biggest draw – a sprawling district of jumbled souks and snaking alleyways, dotted with grand mosques, palace and madrassas. The old medina is now a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, still surrounded by its 13th-century city walls and reached via a series of monumental gates, most notably the 20th-century Bab Boujeloud, celebrated for its striking blue tilework. With the medina largely pedestrianized, the best way to explore Fez Medina is on foot and there’s plenty to see, starting with the rambling souks, home to the famous Tanner’s Quarters, the soul of the city’s leather trade, where animal hides are soaked in gigantic pots of natural dye.
Bab (meaning ‘gate’ in English) Boujloud was built by the French during their occupation of Morocco in 1913. It serves as the gateway into the heart of the bustling streets of the Fez medina. Right next to it stands the original 12th-century gate, built with an indirect entrance on a slant to block battering rams from entering. Bab Boujloud is Mauresque-Andalusian in style. Its grand horseshoe arches are decorated with Fassi mosaic blue tiles on the outside and green ones within. From the main archway, two minarets are revealed in the distance: one is part of the crumbling 20th-century Sidi Lazzaz mosque, while the smaller one, topped by two golden orbs, belongs to the recently restored 14th-century Bou Inania Medersa. Throughout the day, the area around Bab Boujloud bustles with local life, and as such this is one of the best spots in the city to observe everyday life in Morocco, with mules, and mopeds filling the streets as much as the locals.
As Morocco’s second-largest mosque and the oldest Islamic building in Fez, it’s hardly surprising that the Kairaouine Mosque is one of the city’s most admired monuments. Founded in 857, the mosque adjoins the historic university of the same name, and is considered Morocco’s holiest mosque, making it an important spiritual center for Muslims. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the mosque, which can hold up to 20,000 people at prayer, but it’s still worth a visit to admire its exquisite façade, with its striking green roof and ornate minaret.
In the heart of the medina, close to the carpenters’ souk, Nejjarine Square is one of Fez’s most beautiful historic squares, best known for its distinctive centerpiece – the Nejjarine water fountain. Elaborately decorated with ornate carvings and zellij tilework, it’s the kind of drinking fountain normally seen fronting mosques or palaces. Also taking prize place on Nejjarine Square is the exquisite Fondouk el-Nejjarine, an impressively preserved 18th-century funduq (historic traveler’s inn), now home to a fascinating carpentry museum. Inside, the interiors are decked out with magnificent wood-carved balconies and sculpted pillars, while the permanent exhibition houses a remarkable collection of wooden arts, crafts and carpentry tools, dating back as early as the 14th century.
One of Fez’s most notable museums, home to a vibrant collection of Moroccan arts and crafts, the Dar Batha Museum (Museum of Moroccan Arts) makes a worthwhile additional to any sightseeing trip, offering a unique insight into Fez’s artistic heritage.
The vast permanent collection includes everything from hand-painted ceramics to antique Berber carpets to gold-plated astrolabes, alongside traditional jewelry, leatherwork, earthenware, woodwork and embroidery, with artifacts dating from the 14th century to modern-day. The surroundings are equally impressive, with the museum housed in a beautiful Hispano-Moorish palace built by Moulay el Hassan in the 19th-century and featuring a tranquil garden and café.
Carved into the sea cliffs looking out over the Atlantic, the Hercules Cave is one of Tangier’s most distinctive landmarks, located just down the coast from the Cape Spartel. The vast cave takes its name from Greek hero Hercules who allegedly slept in the cave while undertaking one of his twelve labors, and has been inhabited since prehistoric times, as well as being used more recently by the Berber people to carve millstones.
Today, the cave’s most interesting feature is the man-made entrance that looks out towards the sea – nicknamed the ‘Map of Africa’ for its striking shape, which appears like the outline of the African continent. Whether intentional or not, it’s a fitting tribute, considering the cave’s location, at the northernmost tip of Africa and just minutes from the Strait of Gibraltar.
Jutting out into the Strait of Gibraltar, just west of Tangier, Cape Spartel lies on the northwestern-most tip of Africa, at the meeting point of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Famous for its jaw-dropping views and dramatic coastal roads, the scenic cape is also a popular spot for walking and wildlife spotting, with its pine-covered headlands fringed by sandy beaches and laced with hiking trails. Highlights include the Spartel Lighthouse, which makes a striking landmark perched on the sea cliffs at the end of the cape, and the Hercules Cave, renowned for its magnificent views and rock face that resembles a map of Africa.
This well-restored former fondouk – a place where traders took lodgings and stored and sold their goods during the 18th century – is now home to the Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts. Opened in 1998, the museum allows visitors to marvel at such artefacts as craftsmen’s tools, prayer beads, ancient chests, and musical instruments. Much care has been taken with regards to the presentation of the displays, and the building is almost an attraction in itself, although photography is now allowed. Displays are presented within an attractive inner courtyard, in rooms through intricately-carved wooden archways, and beneath cedar ceilings. The Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts and Crafts is located in the picturesque setting of the Place el-Nejjarine (Carpenters' Square). Here you’ll find one of the medina’s best-known mosaic fountains, plus small alleys that lead off to the Nejjarine Souk, where carpenters still chisel, carve, and sell their cedar wood items.
Located at the entrance to Fez’s sprawling spice and perfume market, the exquisite Al-Attarine Madrasa (the ‘Madrasa of the Perfumers’) paints a striking picture against the ramshackle stalls and timeworn cobblestones of the surrounding souks.
Built by the Marinid Sultan Uthman II Abu Said in the early 14th century, the madrasa was once an important center for learning and spirituality. The show-stopping central courtyard is the main highlight of a visit - a sumptuous example of Islamic architecture, with ornate pillars, expertly carved stuccos and magnificent zellij fashioned from hand-cut glazed tiles. Visitors can also peek into the lavish prayer hall and the comparatively sparse student quarters that look out over the courtyard.
More Things to Do in Northern Morocco
Stretching along the high Jebel Zerhoun plateau in northern Morocco and blooming with wildflowers throughout the summer months, the Roman ruins of Volubilis are a striking sight. Renowned as the best-preserved ruins in Northern Africa, the archaeological site offers a unique glimpse into ancient Morocco and makes a popular day trip from nearby Meknes or Fez.
Initially founded as a Carthaginian settlement in the 3rd century B.C., Volubilis became an important Roman town from around 25 BC and later, the administrative center of the province of Mauretania Tingitana, producing and exporting commodities like grain and olive oil to Rome. Today, the ruins are conserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site and feature the ruins of a series of houses, temples, olive mills and public buildings, surrounded by the remnants of the city defense walls.
A sea of startling blue buildings set against a backdrop of the rugged Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen (pronounced “shef-sha-wen”) is one of the real gems of Morocco’s north, effortlessly retaining its authenticity amidst the influx of tourists. There’s no mistaking where the “Blue City” gets its nickname and with its bright blue-painted walls, doors and stairways, punctuated by red-tiled roofs, it’s a city begging to be photographed.
Chefchaouen might be notorious for its prevalent (but still illegal) hashish trade, but the real highlight is its UNESCO-listed Old Medina, where the lively cafés, cobbled souks and distinctive handicrafts stalls show off the town’s unique heritage—an intriguing blend of Spanish, Moroccan and Riffian cultures.
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