City of a hundred Minarets
Next along this busy tour, right after visiting the city of Fez; and I say briefly since there is so much to see and do that less than a full day was definitely not enough, but we did not really have the time as we wanted to pack as much as we could in this trip; we made the move to Meknes. Another of the four Imperial Cities of Morocco, and the last one for us to visit after having been to Marrakesh 3 years ago, and Rabat and Fez in this trip. And what can I say! I cannot find any other words than another beautiful city, packed with history on every corner, yet again inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
Coming from Fez was straightforward. Not only both cities are very near each other, they are extremely well connected by frequent buses and trains. For us getting the train was the easiest option, as we’ve been doing everywhere in this trip to Morocco between the other cities we’ve visited, and furthermore knowing that the hotels we’ve selected in this trip were all really near the train stations.
Once there we knew this would be a quite rushy visit, even though we stayed for the night. Lucky for us the day light was extremely long. With summer time and so much south, it was great to count with that extra hours that came very handy. In any case, the city can easily be visited in less than a day. After all, what we really wanted at this point is covering as many of the important sights through the Medina and main squares, not the ones off-the-path. And after two large Medinas back in Fez and long walk, here in Meknes the Medina is very small in comparison, with only 20 minutes from the south to the north gates (if not stopping along the way).
What this city is famous for in terms of accommodation are the hundreds of riads scattered inside the Medina. You can get marvelous palatial architecture for the night, with beautiful patios with fountains inside where you can really feel you truly are in Morocco.
And what a best way to enjoy the perfect couscous than at Place Hedim. You will see at one of the sides many restaurants, all offering pretty much the same (for even the same price). They are just having competition each other in getting you to get to one or the other, but do not worry, all are good. A couscous dish (any variant, if vegetarian, chicken, pork or mixed) cost 50 Dirham, but if you have a little juggle, they will lower it to just 40, or give you the drink for free. Every waiter here was very nice to be honest. Totally opposite experience to the horrible “bombardment on mass of waiters” trying to get you in Marrakech.
For more information about Meknes check the Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Morocco’s currency is the Dirham. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Meknes
- Medina The walled old town all the historic sights are, all of which inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is divided in 2 sections, with the Place Lalla Aouda in the middle of both.
-Kara Prison This former old prison is entirely underground, and was built to retain captured Christians from Spain and Portugal. It is located right outside the city walls.
-Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail Built in 1703 by Ahmed Eddahbi in superb Almohad architecture, is a sight not to be missed. Just across from the eastern walls of the prison.
-Bab Mansour This is the most spectacular gates from the 27 the city has. Built in 1732, just behind the Kara Prison.
-Place Hedim The largest and most important square in the city, right by the southern edge and heart of the Medina.
-Place Lalla Aouda The second most popular square, at the southeastern side of the Medina. Completely surrounded by walls it is extremely picturesque.
-Dar Jamai Palace Where the Museum of Moroccan Arts is now housed. It’s a beautiful old palace at the northern edge of the Place Hedim.
-Al Masjid Al Adan The largest and oldest mosque in Meknes right in the centre of the Medina, not far northeast from the Place Hedim.
-Bou Inania Madrasa This school was built by Abu Inan Faris father Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman in 1341 and it’s the most impressive example of Marinid Islamic Architecture in the city. Across the road from the Al Masjid Al Adan.
-Bab Lakhmis Marks the westernmost entrance to the Medina. Built in the 17th century, richly decorated.
-Bab Berdaïne The northernmost gate to the Medina, built by Moulay Ismaïl in the 17th century.
-Koubat Al Khayatin Translated as the Ambassador’s Hall. Built in late 17th century under the rule of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl as a pavilion to meet with foreign ambassadors. It has a very rich decoration on the floors and lower walls with Iznik tiles.
- Dar El Makhzen The Royal Palace of Meknes, although not accessible to the public, it is still a great architectural treat on the impressive walls and gates. Located outside the Medina, on the southeast corner of the city.
The nearest international airport is Fez, just 40 minutes away from Meknes, and one of the best choices for visiting this region of Morocco. We found a great deal with Iberia from London to Casablanca via Madrid, and on the return a direct flight from Rabat to London with Ryanair. In between all the cities we visited in this trip we moved by train.
Overland transportation, once again as we’ve experienced with all other destinations we’ve been, it is very good. With modern infrastructure in this part of the country, it is fast, reliable and cheap to travel by train or by bus, with several daily connections to Casablanca, Rabat, Fez, Marrakesh or Tangier to name a few. Hourly trains do connect the centre of Fez with downtown Meknes is just 35 minutes for 20 Dirhams.
The city, although the 6th largest in the country, is way smaller than the larger ones we’ve just been those days before coming to Meknes, (Casablanca, Rabat and Fez), with a historic old town smaller than any of the others, which came very handy knowing the very limited time we had for visiting. Walking through the Medina is your only option, where majority of the sights are next to each other, and as usual, my tip here is very clear, to have a good map with you or navigation in your phone since the small labyrinthine streets can lead you to get lost easily.
Although the city of Meknes if off the usual path of tourists that bypass it on behalf of Fez on the east and Rabat and Casablanca to the west, it does have a great choice of accommodation, specially in the form of riads, the typical Islamic guest houses, most of which beautifully restored and nowadays offering a boutique hotel experience. Hotels in the other hand are very limed, so don’t worry on getting a riad in the city.
We stayed at the Riad Ritaj, at 13 Sidi Amer Bouaouada, right in the centre of the Medina near all the tourist attractions. While location could not be any better, the place itself was very nice. Absolutely spotless and beautifully restored and decorated, this felt more like a real palace than a riad, and the reviews of this place also speak for themselves with very high rankings on everything. The staff was great, helpful and professional, the room very beautiful and large, with comfortable bed (yet very hard) and all the amenities, and surprisingly extremely quiet even though you are next door to the main mosque, but you will almost not hear the call to pray over the loud speakers that is normal in any Muslim country. Definitely highly recommended to anyone.