Would you choose snake charmers, sparkling Souks and mouth-watering market food or a labyrinth of alleyways – home to donkeys, ancient customs and hidden palaces? In other words, Marrakech or Fes?
To many Marrakech locals, Fes is unfriendly, boring and dirty. Some Fes inhabitants believe Marrakech is a hive of commercial superficiality with no sense of community or culture left. Hop on any travel forum and opinions vary outrageously, with expats and regular visitors taking staunch sides.
For time-poor travellers, visiting both famous cities can be tricky. If you do find yourself lucky enough to be off on a Moroccan adventure, both justify at least 3 days of exploration. But, if you must choose between Marrakech or Fes…
Marrakech or Fes for Accommodation
What both cities have in common are very spacious, actually rather glamorous, ‘new towns’ only 20 minutes or so from the ‘old towns’. So, if you’re not keen on staying within medieval walls with the donkeys, the associated smells and chaos, you can easily settle into a five-star hotel in the midst of McDonalds, H&M and Starbucks.
Both medieval Medinas also offer Riads that sing with opulence – even the backpacker ones. Guest rooms surround inner courtyards brimming with fountains, mosaics and succulent foliage. On-site staff offer home-style cooking, like tasty chicken tagine with preserved lemon and saffron. Rooftop balconies are strewn with sequined floor cushions and blessed with sunset views of sandy mountains.
Therefore, take accommodation out of the equation, because you can’t go wrong either way. With that settled, both old towns offer completely different experiences and I can see why travellers have such strong views on one or the other. Through my eyes, both are full of intense travel flavour with experiences you don’t want to miss.
Marrakech glitters with lanterns, sequins, purples, greens, blues and reds. The Souks seduce, cajole and draw you in until you fear there’s no escape from shopping nirvana. Jemaa El Fna Square lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s most fascinating, lively and unique open-air markets.
The Medina’s rooftop restaurants beckon with mint tea-infused air. Monkeys, dancers and acrobatics compete for tourist crowds and luxurious Riads hide behind non-assuming walls, waiting in cool serenity for tired feet. It’s surprisingly easy to get around on foot in the Marrakech medina, and, after a few wrong turns, very possible to navigate on your own, without a guide.
It is tourist-heavy. It probably has lost some of the exotic appeal it had 20 years ago, to the demands of commercialism. You do have to peer behind the layers to find the underlying culture. But, beyond the touts and tacky baubles, Marrakech is friendly, chaotic, endearingly creative and highly addictive.
Fes, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is cobblestoned medieval magnificence that transports you back in time the moment you’re enclosed in the medina’s walls. Hardly surprising, considering it was founded in the ninth century and has retained its reputation as the spiritual and cultural giant of Morocco.
It’s the very definition of a rabbit warren. Contained within the labyrinth you’ll find markets, mosques, thousands of kittens, screaming children running between the legs of donkeys, artisans, bakers, dressmakers and deli displays of headless chooks and shark heads.
Attempting to explore without a guide can be endless fun or a stressful disaster. The locals are not as friendly and willing to help tourists as those of Marrakech. But, that’s only because they’re just going about their daily lives, which generally doesn’t include knowing where your luxury Riad is. Tourism isn’t so much their business, as it is in Marrakech.
And that’s the beauty of it.
A guide is the go, at least for a day, so you can learn the customs, know which doors you should and should not enter and understand the history of this proud, community-based, Aladdin’s Cave city.
In a sentence, if they were both cakes made with culture instead of flour, Marrakech’s other main ingredients are fun, color and exuberance, while Fes is flavored with history, mystery and its own serious brand of medieval mayhem.
Hmm… I probably didn’t make the choice much easier, did I?