48 Hours In: Fès

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This medieval Moroccan city offers the charm of Marrakech without the fuss, says Sarah Khan

Travel essentials

Why go now?

Time seems to have stopped in Fès. Life plays out in the ancient medina – the "new" part of which dates back to the 13th century – much as it has since medieval times, barring a profusion of satellite dishes and mobile phones. And therein lies its charm. It seems unlikely, for now at least, that Fès will become saturated with ostentatious riads and see-and-be-seen night spots as has Marrakech.

However, the relaunch of direct flights from the UK earlier this year is bringing more visitors to Morocco's third-largest city. So, go now while temperatures are still pleasant (in the mid-teens) and the enchanting alleys are relatively crowd-free.

Touch down

Fès-Saïss Airport is 13km south of the city centre. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted.

A shuttle bus (onda.ma) runs every 35 minutes between 6am and 11pm from the airport to the main train station (1), stopping at several points en route. A single ticket costs 3 dirhams (MAD3/23p).

The fixed price for a grand taxi (vehicles that can carry up to six people) from the airport to the medina is MAD120 (£9), but if you book a car through your accommodation provider, expect to pay closer to MAD200 (£14.50).

Get your bearings

Fès sits in north-central Morocco. From this prime perch it became the first of the country's imperial cities, dating back to the 9th century. Today, the city is split into two main districts: the ancient medina (which itself is comprised of an old and newer section, El Bali and El Jedid), and the Ville Nouvelle, or modern city. This was built by the French in the 1920s, complete with broad, palm-shaded boulevards and roundabouts anchored by soaring fountains.

Within the medina, the only way to get around is on foot or by bike; to get between gates or beyond the old city, flag a "petit taxi" and insist on paying by the metre (a ride to many parts of the Ville Nouvelle from the medina should only cost about MAD10-20 (75p-£1.50).

The Syndicat d'Initiative or main tourist office (2) is in the Ville Nouvelle, on Place Mohammed V (00 212 535 62 34 60; visitmorocco.com; 8.30am-noon and 2.30-6.30pm Monday-Thursday; 8.30-11.30am and 3-6.30pm Friday; 8.30am-noon Saturday).

Check in

Perhaps the medina's most plush hotel is Palais Amani (3) at 12 Derb el Miter, Oued Zhoune (00 212 535 63 32 09; palaisamani.com), an opulent reimagining of a sprawling, historic palace complete with multi-hued zellij tiling and modern, Art Deco touches. Doubles start at €160 (£134), including breakfast.

A chic, artsy retreat in the medina is Riad Laaroussa (4) at 3 Derb Bechara (00 212 674 18 76 39; riad-laaroussa.com), lovingly restored with the owner's personal, global art collection – look out for quirky details such as a chandelier fashioned out of Moroccan teapots. Doubles start at €110, including breakfast.

For an inexpensive option close to the train station (1) in the the Ville Nouvelle, the Hotel Ibis (5) at Place de la Gare (00 212 532 11 02 82; ibis.com) offers no-frills value. Doubles start from MAD413 (£31), room only.

Day One

Take a hike

With 9,000 distinct streets and innumerable dead ends, the medina seems built to confound the first-time visitor. Hiring a guide to help navigate the maze is your best bet – Blue Parallel (020 8819 3904; blueparallel.com) has a team of professors and intellectuals who double as expert guides (£375pp per day).

Otherwise, start at the south-eastern Bab Ftouh entrance (6) to explore the mostly residential Andalucian Quarter – dating back to the 9th century. Once you've taken in the vignettes of daily Fassi life, head north-west towards the covered Rcif Market (7), the more bustling part of the medina. Walk north to the tree-shaded Seffarine Square (8), which is home to copper artisans.

The library of the 9th-century al-Karaouine University – the oldest in the world – borders the square; follow the wood-panelled wall along the street on the plaza's north-west corner to the rest of the university. Veer right and follow your nose until you reach the 11th-century Chouara Tannery (9), where leather-making processes remain unchanged for a millennium, right down to the pigeon excrement used to soften the material.

Retrace your steps back past the elaborately tiled and intricately carved doors of the 18th-century mosque of Sidi Ahmed Tijani (10) and turn right on Rue Tala'a Kbira, walking in the direction of the imposing, horseshoe-shaped Bab Boujloud arch (11).

Lunch on the run

A cluster of fez hats on one wall, a gargantuan chandelier crafted from brass horns and vintage clocks, are only a fraction of what gives Café Clock (12) 7 Derb Magana, Tala'a Kbira (00 212 35 637 855; cafeclock.com), its quirky vibe. The eclectic menu features camel burgers and quinoa.

Window shopping

Even a short stroll in the medina yields visions of vendors hawking everything from argan oil to spools of colourful thread. For a calmer experience, visit the Centre de Formation et de Qualification dans les Métiers de l'Artisanat (13) at 674 Avenue Allal el Fassi (00 212 661 73 15 75; forartisanat.ma). It trains apprentices in age-old crafts and has showrooms to buy their work.

An aperitif

The magnificent Sofitel Fès Palais Jamaï (14) at Bab Guissa (00 212 535 63 43 31; sofitel.com) is the former palace of a grand vizier and a symphony of Moorish architecture. Sip on a mojito (MAD110/£8) on the rooftop terrace.

Dining with the locals

Dar Hatim (15) at 19 Derb Ezaouia Fandak Lihoudi (00 212 666 52 53 23) is as close as you can get to an authentic, home-cooked experience. Karima and Fouad Bouaa open their lavish ancestral home as an intimate dinner setting each night. Fouad will collect you while Karima cooks up an elaborate spread of mezze followed by steamed lamb, turkey skewers and chicken pastilla, her speciality. Set menu MAD200 (£15).

The Barcelona Café (16) at 248 Tala'a Kbira (00 212 674 08 09 82), is big with the younger Fassis, who tuck into pasta (MAD40/£3) and pastries (MAD12/90p) while belting out karaoke.

Day Two

Sunday morning: out to brunch

Englishman Robert Johnstone moved to Fès three years ago to run Riad Idrissy. When a crumbling house adjacent to the property went on the market, he saw opportunity where others might have just seen a derelict dump.

This summer, he opened the Ruined Garden (17) at Sidi Ahmed Chaoui (00 212 649 19 14 10; ruinedgarden.com; closed Wednesday), where he serves his take on modern Moroccan cuisine. The brunch speciality is svenge, a double-fried doughnut stuffed with salmon smoked over almond and olive logs and served with eggs and cooked salads (MAD120/£9). Call a day ahead and order his signature lamb mechoui, wrapped in banana leaves and slow-cooked for seven hours with olives, apricots and the North African spices (MAD400/£30 for two people).

A walk in the park

An oasis in the medina, Jnan Sbil (18) is a lush pleasure garden surrounded by towering stone walls, that transports you far from the hubbub. The 18th-century grounds flecked with palm, bamboo and citrus trees, were reopened after an extensive restoration in 2011 (open Tuesday-Sunday 9am–8pm; free).

Cultural afternoon

For a closer inspection of Morocco's ornate wood craftsmanship, visit the Unesco World Heritage Site Fondouk el-Nejjarine, the Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts (19) on Place Nejjarine (Carpenters' Square), set in a historic 17th-century caravanserai that once housed itinerant traders (00 212 535 74 05 80; www.nejjarine.co.ma; MAD20/£1.50; daily 10am-5pm).

Take a ride

Sidi Harazem is a hot spring 15km south-east of the city. This is where much of the population of Fès – but hardly any tourists – go on a Sunday. You can get here by bus for MAD5 (40p) or in a taxi for about MAD100 (£7.60). The location is in the lip of a broad valley, filled with a bathing complex. Besides seeing the denizens of Fès at play, you can gaze at the folds of the foothills of the Middle Atlas.

Icing on the cake

For more bathing bliss, end your weekend by relaxing at one of the many hammams located within the city walls. Each one of the several hundred quarters has one. Prepare to shed around MAD15 (£1.20) – as well as your clothes and inhibitions. If you're unsure about the authentic experience, many riads offer spa-like alternatives for around MAD400 (£30).

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