An Exotic Escape That’s Closer Than You Think
As tourists and builders flood Marrakesh, travelers with an appetite for Morocco’s multi- cultural richesse are giving Fez, North Africa’s oldest imperial city, a second glance. A direct flight to Casablanca and a 45-minute hop to Fez makes it as easy to get to as Europe. And in Fez el-Bali, the old medina, Europeans and Americans in search of historic houses are snapping up still-affordable dars and riads and transforming them into elaborate bed-and-breakfasts, with extravagant tile work, lacy iron grilles, and courtyard fountains.
WHERE TO STAY The most atmospheric inn to open recently is Dar Seffarine (14 Derb Sbaa Louyate; 212-71/113-528; www.darseffarine.com; doubles from $76), a 16th-century palace restored and operated by Alaa Said, an Iraqi-born architect, and his Norwegian wife, Kate Kvalvik. The venerable La Maison Bleue (2 Place de l’Istiqlal; 212-35/636-052; www.maisonbleue.com; doubles from $220), a 1915 astrologer’s palace with an aristocratic look and a romantic garden, pulls in an old-guard crowd. Riad Fès (5 Derb Ben Slimane; 212-35/947-610; www.riadfes.com; doubles from about $190) has hauntingly beautiful Moorish interiors and Alhambra-like patios.
WHERE TO EAT You’ll have to call a day in advance to order tender mechoui (roast lamb) at the regal Dar Saada (2 Souk el Attarine; 212-35/637-370; dinner for two $51), but the dish is worth the effort. In a low-lit alcove of La Maison Bleue (dinner for two $141), dine on quail pastilla and tagine while musicians serenade you, or head to Restaurant Zagora (5 Boulevard Mohammed V; 212-35/940-686; lunch for two about $35), where French-Moroccan fare is served on rose petal–strewn tables.
WHAT TO DO Visit the Dar Batha Museum (Place de l’Istiqlal; 212-35/634-116) to see its impressive collection of pottery, antique instruments, and Fassi embroidery. Nestled deep into the medina, you’ll find the Belghazi Museum (19 Derb Elgorba), a former 17th-century riad full of carpets, weapons, and wedding chests, some of which are for sale.
WHAT TO BUY Look for traditional cobalt pottery, spices, Berber carpets, and handcrafted leather goods at the cacophonous souk—just be prepared to bargain. A short walk from the Bab Boujeloud (the medina’s western gate), pop into Les Mystères de Fès (53 Derb bin Lemssari; 212-35/636-148), a store brimming with everything from jewelry to furniture.
WHAT TO READ Paul Bowles’s The Spider’s House, a portrait of Fez at the end of French colonial rule in the 1950’s, still resonates today. —Mitchell Owens
INSIDER TIP The best time to tour the city’s ancient tanneries is in the morning, when the mud-brick vats are filled with colorful dyes.