Meknes: Morocco’s Forgotten Jewel

Former Moroccan Imperial Capital: Worth the Trip

Travelers to Morocco take heed: While the tour books may skip over Morocco’s least known imperial capital, Meknes is worth the trip.

Going to Morocco? Tour books and local guides alike tend to hit the same well-trodden path: a few days in Fez, a weekend in Marrakesh, and the occasional side trip to the coast or the Sahara. But for the tourist who desires a more “authentic” Morocco, these touristy cities can get old quickly, and the price markup on everything from hotels to souvenirs can be rough on the wallet.

But don’t fret! There are other easily accessible cities on the map. Meknes, a city of nearly 650,000 and a former imperial capital, is developing quickly. Less than an hour drive from Fez, a city famous for its labyrinthine medina (Islamic walled city), Meknes is more compact and less crowded, but certainly deserving of tourism. In recent years, the local government has worked hard to promote the city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Meknes is also home to a group of world-class museums and, for vinophiles, Morocco’s best vineyards. And the ville nouvelle is home to some of the coziest cafes you’ll find east of Rabat.

But while Meknes shouldn’t be missed, unless the traveler is blessed with months in Morocco, he can only dedicate a day or two to the walled city. So what is worth seeing and what is worth skipping?

Worth the trip:

Take a stroll through the calm ville nouvelle, visiting some of the city’s finest cafés; Alpha 56 has the best pastries in town, while Sharm El Sheikh is just right for shisha smokers.

Everyone ought to visit a hammam while staying in Morocco, but for some, the baths of the medinas are overwhelming. Take this opportunity to visit a modern hammam like Souqaya, located near McDonald’s.

After your refreshing bath, head toward Place Hedim, the main square of Meknes’ old city. Visit the Dar Jamai Museum of Moroccan Arts, enjoy a kefta sandwich, or simply relax with a glass-bottle Coca-Cola and watch people stroll by.

After your museum visit, it’s time to venture into the medina. Don’t be scared – not only is Meknes’ medina 10 times smaller than those of Fez or Marrakech, it’s also quieter and less dangerous. Inside the labyrinthine walls, shop for souvenirs, artisan products and jewelry.

With your arms overflowing with bags, hop in a taxi and head to Heri Es-Souani, the granaries where 17h century ruler Moulay Ismail kept the feed for his thousands of horses. Relax under the palm trees and enjoy the Agdal Basin, a giant manmade pool of water Ismail allegedly built for his wife, who wanted to live near the sea.

Don’t bother:

Eating a proper meal in Meknes isn’t necessary; there are precious few decent restaurants, and the best ones aren’t serving up Moroccan food anyway (though if Moroccan isn’t what you crave, try Le Pub on Rue Allal ben Abdellah). If you’re dying for one more tajine, however, try Mille Et Une Nuits near Place Hedim, or Les Colliers de Colombe, a Meknes tourist institution.

Don’t try to do too much. The medina is small and manageable, but if you’re stuck to your guidebook, you’ll feel like you’re missing out. If you must choose just one site, visit the Madrassa Bou Inania (however, if you’re visiting Fez, don’t bother – it’s nowhere near as glorious as its cousins there)

Carpet-buying is, or so they say, an integral part of a trip to Morocco. That said, Meknes is not the center of the carpet universe. Wait until you’re in a larger city where you’ll have more bargaining room.

If you can help it, don’t stay overnight. There are a few decent hotels in the ville nouvelle, and some nice boutique ones in the medina, but the city closes down around 10 p.m. anyway.

Most of all, don’t miss Meknes. Just because the masses aren’t heading there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

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