The maze of 9,400 winding alleyways in Fes el-Bali, a district in the city of Fes, Morocco, are far too narrow for cars, and too crowded for just about anything but foot traffic. This labyrinthine landscape has earned Fes el-Bali the distinction of being what’s believed to be the world’s largest car-free urban zone.
Fes also happens to be the world’s largest surviving medieval city. Its streets are crowded with shops and stalls, mosques and madrasas (Islamic schools), and merchants selling dates, spices and fresh cuts of meat. Wandering the alleyways of Fes el-Bali, one of the city’s three main districts, you’ll happen upon scores of leather tanneries and sites of prayer, as well as stalls selling fresh fruit and tourist gimmicks.
Fes el-Bali traces its history back to the Idrisid dynasty, where it served as the capital from 789 to 808 AD. To keep the superlatives coming, it’s home to the world’s oldest university, the University of Al-Karaouine, which you can stop by and visit (if you’re able to find it, tucked in the heart of the medina).
It’s easy to get lost here, as the medina is truly huge, and it can be challenging to get your bearings and find the right signage. But that’s part of the fun; you never know where you might end up. There are small home stays and bed and breakfasts hidden in the alleyways themselves: What seems like a dark, dusty corner may open up into a grand, tiled space with towering ceilings and ornate wood carvings — and of course some very sweet, freshly made mint tea.
Fes el-Bali was designated a World Heritage site in 1981. One of its most distinctive icons is the “The Blue Gate,” also known as Bab Bou Jeloud, that leads into the pedestrian-only part of the city. Wander outside of Fes-el Bali and you’ll find a very different side of the city, with cars and bus stations and fast food. But wander a bit further and you can walk along the crumbling walls that once encircled the entire city. Staring from above and afar into the heart of Fes el-Bali, you’ll see from a new angle how truly dense and colorful the ancient city is.
Know Before You Go
Only the medina, the old section of the city, has the iconic winding alleys, so ensure your accommodations are in the medina. "Riads" tend to be the fancier guesthouses. The word "riad" comes from the Arabic word for "garden." They are typically larger and grander than other accommodations. Guides are highly recommended for navigating the medina.