One of the four Imperial Cities of Morocco, Meknès is perched high on a hilltop and is often overlooked on a trip to this fascinating country.
Don’t get me wrong, although these cities are wonderful, sometimes you need a little time away from the crowds when on the road in Morocco. If you feel that you do, then Meknès is your city.
With a much more relaxed and friendly atmosphere, Meknès offers a unique experience to its illustrious bustling neighbours.
Where is Meknès?
An easy thirty-minute train journey from Fes and you arrive in Meknès.
Tip: If travelling from Fes, just take a Petite Taxi from outside of the medina to the Fes Railway station.
A little on Meknès
Founded in the 11th century, Meknès retains a lovely and easy feel in which to lose yourself.
Not too much hassling, a dazzling Medina which is easy to navigate, history, stunning architecture, and many more sights to explore in the city but also within easy reach of the city.
Take your time, stay a few days, and get to know a little about Meknès and why it is so special.
Surrounded by commanding fifteen-metre high defensive walls with nine towering doors, step inside this ancient medieval world for an introduction to key monuments. A world that boasts twenty-five mosques, ten Hammams (Turkish baths), palaces, large Granaries, private houses, and Fondouks (merchant inns).
If all this isn’t yet making your head swirl with anticipation to visit, then a quick trip to the surrounding area, which boasts Morocco’s most famous Roman site, Volubilis, should entice you to add Meknès as a definite stopover.
Things to do in Meknès
I would start with exploring the city’s medina as this is the most intriguing part of Meknès and there is so much to explore.
Built at the beginning of the 18th century and completed in 1732 by Moulay Abdallah – quite new in Meknès terms – this grand main entrance to the imperial city is impressive and divides the medina and Imperial city districts.
Adorned with marble columns, original white and green Zellij tiles, and along the top, a display of inscriptions from the Quran, this gate is stunning in its ostentatious adornment and splendour, reflecting the glamour of Sultan Moulay’s rule.
In the heart of the medina, Place El-Hedime is a fusion of gatherings, performing musicians and fire-eaters, children playing games, trinket sellers, and snake charmers. Be aware, you may see the occasional shackled performing monkey, which for me, isn’t pleasant.
Especially at dusk, a hype of energy and activity abounds in the medina – a captivating and alluring rival to Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fnaa Square.
A wonderful space to just sit, people-watch, and take photos – my favourite pastime.
Strangely enough, you may see a lone local sitting on a little stool waiting in the middle of the medina.
Although still bustling, relaxed smiles from medina vendors paint a much more tranquil ambience than larger Moroccan cities.
Visit the medina for some shopping, which is cheaper than in Fes. Although this medina does not offer the array of items as in other cities, it is renown for its artisanal specialty of iron-made goods. Traditional clothing, popular items such as the Bilgha (moroccan shoe), and rugs are abundant in this medina.
Heri es-Souani – Royal Granaries
Ingeniously designed, the King’s Granaries and stables stored enormous amounts of grain for the 12,000 horses that could be stabled here at one time.
Whilst cooling down and walking around this expansive site, look up at the tiny almost porthole ceiling windows. Together with underfloor water channels and thick heavy walls, this innovative system kept air circulating and inside temperatures cool.
Although part of the stable’s roof collapsed as a result of an 18th-century earthquake, stroll around the remaining thick-walled stone arches for some excellent angles for your photos.
Admire the endless rows of arches cleverly positioned to provide stable masters with maximum visibility across this expansive area. Can you envisage 12,000 horses here?
The on-going restoration has seen the Royal Granaries used in Martin Scorcese’s 1998 film: The Last Temptation of Christ. Surprising for a highly Muslim country.
An entry fee is charged (MAD$10). Extra is also charged for a guided tour.
Moulay Ismail Mausoleum
The stunning 17th century Mausoleum is breathtaking.
Despite his extreme brutality, Moulay Ismail is highly revered by Moroccans and so, this mausoleum is ranked as an Islamic sight.
Intricate carvings, soaring ceilings, subdued water fountains, colourful Zellij in painstaking geometric designs, and colossal marble columns, are a feast to one’s eyes.
The peaceful and cool atmosphere around every corner makes you just want to lay down and nap for a while.
The Grand Mosque
Founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids, the Grand Mosque includes 143 arcades and 11 gates, but sadly, the mosque is not open to non-Muslims. The entrance gate is another striking example of the extravagant Arab Dynasty era.
Day trips from Meknès
After experiencing the delights of Meknès, why not take a day trip or two to savour sites close by, if time permits?
Take a Collective taxi, which usually transports six people plus the driver to the pilgrimage town of Moulay Idriss.
Similar to a small village, Moulay Idriss opened up to non-Muslims only in the 1950s and as the site of the first Arab Dynasty, is important to Moroccans.
This pretty town is perched high on a hill so everywhere you walk, is steeply up.
Compete for a spot along a narrow path or cobbled street with the many donkeys hauling loads up and down for their owners.
Tip: From Moulay Idriss, you can take a collective taxi to Volubilis, although it is a lot to fit in for one day.
A day in the Roman city of Volubilis
Visible from Moulay Idriss, most travellers visiting Meknès, tie in a day to Volubilis – the most famous Roman site in Morocco. This site is also known as the ‘Roman-Berber kingdom of Mauretania’ as it was a Berber settlement before the Romans arrived.
This partially excavated, ancient archaeological site with loads of Roman ruins dating back to the 3rd Century BC, is a world UNESCO site. I find it incredulous how everyone can wander all over these ruins and touch everything, which only deteriorates the ruins faster.
Over the ten centuries of occupation from prehistory to the Islamic period, are represented here as several civilisations have left their mark on the archaeological traces. An array of columns, inscriptions, and buildings portraying different faiths are a legacy of the past.
Volubilis was a centre for olive production and so, its wealthier class built extravagant courtyard houses with complex mosaic floors.
Whilst wandering around these timeless stones, imagine around 20,000 people living in this settlement, becoming affluent whilst producing olive oil in the fifty-eight oil presses discovered at the site. The oil was exported to Rome together with wheat and olives.
Start your visit to Volubilis early as there is a lot of walking and much to explore amongst this forty-two-hectare site.
Tips on getting to and from Meknès to Volubilis:
- Once outside of the Meknès medina, take the next Collective Taxi to Volubilis.
- At the end of your day, you need to bargain hard for the return Collective Taxi to Moulay Idriss. The driver will try his hardest to persuade you that his taxi is the only way back. This is his good enough reason to rip you off and charge six times the price for the return trip.
As I wasn’t feeling too generous today and did not want to alleviate my pockets of any spare Dirhams, decided to try our luck with the local bus back to Meknès.
I don’t believe there is a set schedule as the bus waits until it is completely full before leaving. Today, the wait is over half an hour and the old bus coughed all the way back to Meknès. A slow trip but not so bad and we arrived for a fraction of the taxi cost.
Where to stay in Meknès
The Riad Amazigh Meknès is a wonderful homely 1880s Riad and Fatima (owner), a kind accommodating host. The location is only a short walk to everything.
Take your leisurely breakfast on the roof-top terrace whilst surveying panoramic views of the Meknès medina – very special. Await your huge homemade sumptuous breakfast of Moroccan delights that we can never finish; especially on a Sunday, with even more food.
With such amazing hospitality and exceptional service, we doubled the length of stay as Fatima’s Moroccan warmth is so welcoming and inviting – you never want to leave.
Meknès is a hard city to leave, especially with such warm, friendly, and helpful locals.
The city’s history and beauty, sights in an easy close proximity, always makes saying goodbye difficult.
Move on we must and onto the lazy seaside town of Moulay Bousselham, for some seafood indulgence and an escape to the sea. Nothing like eating your way around Morocco.