Situated in the north of the country, Meknes sees fewer visitors than the iconic cities of Fez and Marrakesh. And yet, it is one of Morocco’s four imperial cities, and has the historic medina walls and beautiful Moorish architecture to match. Visitors can tour ruins and museums that allude to the city’s 11th-century foundation and to its years as the capital of the Moroccan sultanate in relative peace; while modern attractions include authentic riads and an excellent culinary scene.
Take a Walk Through the City’s Historic Medina
Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, Meknes’ medina dates back to the 11th century when the city was founded as a military settlement by members of the Almoravid dynasty. Today, it is a maze of magnificent architecture in various states of repair, most of which reflects the Spanish-Moorish style popular with the sultans of the 17th century. Step inside the medina’s high walls and discover historic mosques, mausoleums, towers and medersas interspersed with souks selling traditional Moroccan crafts.
Photograph Meknes’ Medina Gates
The medina walls incorporate more than 20 gates, many of which are architectural landmarks in their own right. Of these, the most famous is Bab Mansour, commissioned by Moulay Ismail and completed five years after his death in 1732. The gate, which stands 16 meters tall and eight meters wide, is splendidly decorated with green and white zellij tiles, three graceful arches and columns looted from Volubilis and El Badi Palace. 17th century Bab el Khemis gate is another photogenic highlight.
Explore the Museum of Moroccan Art
Also known as Dar Jamai, the museum is housed in a 19th-century palace complete with breathtaking Andalusian architecture and a tranquil courtyard garden. Inside, keep an eye out for exquisite examples of traditional carved plasterwork, tilework and carpentry. The museum’s displays are also dedicated to the artisan crafts of Morocco and feature fine objets d’art made from leather, ceramic, copper, silver and more. Opening hours are from 9:00am - midday and 3:00pm - 6:30pm, every day except Tuesday.
Admire Traditional Arts at Meknes Museum
Continue your appreciation of Moroccan art at Meknes Museum, located just 400 meters away from Dar Jamai in the heart of the medina. A small museum housed in an unassuming building, it is home to another treasure trove of clothing, jewelry, pottery and magnificent Moroccan carpets. A particular highlight is a decorative suit of armor studded with turquoise, coral and old coins. Entrance costs 10 dirham, and the museum is open from 9:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.
Get Your Pottery Fix at Borj Belkari Museum
If you’re particularly interested in ceramics, the museum housed within the Borj Belkari tower is a must visit. It specializes in pottery from the northern cultural region of the Rif, dating from prehistoric times to present day. Amongst the permanent collection are fine examples from the heyday of the Islamic sultans, while a modern workshop features pottery from across Morocco. The building itself was built in the 17th century as part of the city’s defensive walls. Admission costs 10 dirham.
Wander Through the Ruins of the Royal Stables
Despotic 17th century sultan Moulay Ismail commissioned many of Meknes’ iconic architectural landmarks. Of them, perhaps the most impressive is the Royal Stables. Built to house 12,000 horses in luxurious comfort, the now-ruined stables include a vast granary for storing equine fodder. Today, the sheer scale of the stables is almost as impressive as the ingenuity of their design. Entry costs 10 dirham and the site is open daily from 9:00 a.m.–midday, and from 3:00 p.m.– 6:30 p.m.
Visit the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail
Moulay Ismail’s mausoleum is an oasis of calm located in the center of the old town, and is one of the few Moroccan sacred sites open to non-Muslims. The interior is a collection of elaborately decorated courtyards that lead to the sanctuary where the sultan is buried. Although non-Muslims may not enter the tomb itself, it is visible from the anteroom with its beautiful carved plaster, enamelled woodwork and zellij mosaics. Entry is free, although donations are appreciated.
Discover Underground Prison Habs Qara
Moulay Ismail’s landmarks were built by slaves, who were kept in terrible conditions in an underground prison known as Habs Qara, or Cara Prison. The cells take their English name from a Portuguese architect who was a prisoner himself until he earned his freedom by masterminding their construction. More than 60,000 slaves were kept in the subterranean quarters, of which two thirds were thought to be Christian prisoners of war. Tours cost 10 dirham and are available every day except Monday.
Enjoy Rooftop Views at Bou Inania Medersa
Although Meknes’ Bou Inania Medersa is a smaller and less ornate affair than Fez’s medersa of the same name, it remains a fine example of a traditional school of Islamic worship. It was completed in 1358 to house students and teachers affiliated with the Grande Mosquée, located opposite. Admire the carved cedar ceilings, stucco arches and zellij floors of the medersa’s communal spaces, or climb up to the roof for spectacular views of the mosque’s minaret and historic Meknes beyond.
Ride Through the City in a Caleche
A scenic tour in a horse-drawn caleche or carriage is a great way to explore the city for those that share Moulay Ismail’s love of horses (or simply don’t have the energy to walk). The carriages are fairytale works of art complete with elaborate canopies and drapes. Routes typically take you through the city gates and past several of Meknes’ most recognizable landmarks. Caleches take up to five passengers and can be hired for around 100 dirham per hour.
Catch a Performance at the Institut Français
At the center of modern culture in Meknes is the Institut Français, located halfway between the ancient medina and the Ville Nouvelle on Rue Ferhat Hachad. This contemporary building hosts an eclectic calendar of plays, films and art exhibitions—though be warned, all of them are in French. If you’re planning on spending some time in Meknes and want to improve your grasp of Morocco’s colonial language, the institute also offers French classes.
Join the Crowds in El Hedim Square
El Hedim Square is Meknes’ answer to Djemma el Fna in Marrakesh. Located at the heart of the medina, it’s a natural gathering place for locals and visitors alike, and a great place to soak up the ambience. Street performers (ranging from musicians to snake charmers) keep the crowds entertained, and one side is occupied by cafés, restaurants and a covered produce market. Stop for a cup of mint tea, or to sample authentic Moroccan street food as dusk descends.
Sample the Meknes Culinary Scene
Authentic Moroccan cuisine and African interpretations of traditional French fare dominate the culinary scene in Meknes. Head to local spot Restaurant Ya Hala for delicious Moroccan favorites including tagine, couscous and pastilla cooked fresh to order; or rub shoulders with the locals over mint tea and patisserie at Café Opera. For a more refined dining experience, try Bistrot Art & Le Wine Bar, where the fusion menu is complemented by an impressive wine list and floor-to-ceiling views across Meknes.
Master the Art of Moroccan Cooking
Learn how to recreate your favorite Moroccan dishes at home by attending a local cooking class. In Meknes, one of the best places to master the country’s culinary arts is Riad Lahboul, which offers workshops for guests and non-guests alike. Opt for a half or full day course or a in-depth week-long extravaganza complete with trips to the city’s communal bread ovens and produce markets. At the end of the day, sample your creations with your classmates.
Experience the Luxury of a Traditional Riad
The most authentic accommodation option in Meknes is a riad (or traditional Moroccan house) that has been converted into a luxurious boutique hotel. There are plenty to choose from, with our favorite being Riad Palais Didi, whose namesake is related to the present owners and directly descended from sultan Moulay Sulaiman. In addition to five suites and seven sumptuous double rooms, the hotel boasts a rooftop terrace with views across the medina. Riad Yacout and Ryad Bahia are worthy alternatives.
Plan a Day Trip to the Ruins at Volubilis
To the north of Meknes lie the ruins of Volubilis. One of Morocco’s best preserved ancient sites, the city was once the capital of the kingdom of Mauretania, and later the southernmost outpost of the Roman Empire. The excavated ruins that can be explored today include a triumphal arch, a Roman forum complete with its original columns and a series of private houses with stunning mosaic floors. The ruins are open daily from sunrise to sunset and admission costs 20 dirham.
Spend a Night in Nearby Moulay Idriss
For an overnight outing, consider combining your visit to Volubilis with a stay in Moulay Idriss, the whitewashed mountain town located five kilometers southeast of the ruins. Considered a sacred site by Muslim pilgrims, the town has only been open to non-Muslim overnight visitors since 2005, and retains a sleepy, off-the-beaten track vibe. Expect stunning mountain scenery, authentic cafés and restaurants and a choice of charming guesthouses including top-rated B&B Dar Zerhoune.
Book a Tour of Nearby Fez
After Meknes’ laid-back introduction to life in a Moroccan imperial city, you may find yourself ready for the hustle and bustle of nearby Fez. Reachable by car in just one hour, Fez is the oldest of the imperial cities and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Top attractions include the chaotic ancient medina, the traditional leather tanneries and the Kairaouine Mosque. The latter is the second-largest mosque in the country and home to one of the world’s most important libraries.