With the title of Imperial City and a UNESCO-stamped ancient medina, Meknes can rival the likes of Marrakesh, Rabat, and Fez, yet it struggles to attract the same loyal following of travellers. But this scenic hilltop city has plenty to offer the curious visitor, from intricate gates to marvellous museums and mausoleums.
Meknes is made up of the old (medina) and the new (ville nouvelle); two distinct centres less than three miles apart but harnessing quite different vibes. The medina holds the city’s historic sights and sought-after romantic flavour, while in the ville nouvelle you'll find big houses, modern cars and branded takeaways.
What are the highlights of the medina?
You’ll find everything from specialist souks selling crafts and swathes of textiles, to knock-off trainers, souvenirs and carpets in the medina. At its heart is the twelfth-century Grand Mosque (although this is closed to non-Muslims), while teahouses in secret courtyards, ornate riads, and the odd hard-working donkey add to the atmosphere.
Look up to see sections of roofs that have recently been renovated with carved cedar wood panels, offering dappled shade along some of the covered alleyways.
If you’re in the mood for more shopping, head to the market sandwiched between the medina and old Mellah (the old Jewish quarter, worth a peek for its distinctive architecture). Juicy oranges, cart-loads of red chillies, dried grains and precariously stacked bowls of olives sit alongside everyday items such as kids’ toys, kitchen appliances and piles of underwear.
Sounds fascinating, where should I start?
Most people begin exploring the medina from the Place el-Hedim – think of a smaller-scale Jemaa el Fna in Marrakesh, and you’ve got the idea. Grab a mint tea and watch the world go by to the soundtrack of Moroccan pop music blaring from competing vendors, then head into the medina via the entrance next to the Dar Jamai Museum.
What are the other main attractions?
Bab el-Mansour is a big hit with visitors, and for good reason. Completed in 1732, the gate is impressive not only for its size but its original green and white zellij tiles, marble columns and inscriptions from the Quran along the top.
The Dar Jamai Museum is worth the few dirhams’ entry for the interiors alone. What was once a palace built in the late nineteenth-century now displays not only dazzling rooms and doorways but also traditional crafts, including ceramics, jewellery, costumes and brass work. The eclectic collection is dotted around the building; just don’t miss the incredible tile work (not that you could) or the decorated dome ceiling on the first floor.
Elsewhere, you’ll find one of the city's busiest spots, the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail – the ornate tomb of the man who gave Meknes its imperial status. The mausoleum is open to non-Muslims (ladies, take a headscarf) keen to admire the architecture, although non-Muslims can’t approach the tomb directly, and it does get very busy, so go early.
Heri es-Souani and Agdal Basin, both located a mile or so southeast of the medina, make a great double act.
Heri es-Souani – or the Royal Granaries – was designed to not only store excessive amounts of grain but to also stable a whopping 12,000 horses at a time. Although an earthquake caused the roof to collapse in the eighteenth-century, it’s still possible to get an idea of the sheer scale of this place, which was a feat of engineering for Moulay Ismail.
Once you've been suitably impressed by the granaries, make your way to Agdal Basin, a large reservoir-cum-lake lined in part with remnants of the walls.
Are there any good day-trips?
No guide to Meknes would be complete without a nod to the UNESCO site at Volubilis – the ruins of a Roman city dating back to the third century BC, no more than 40 minutes’ drive from Meknes. The city marked the western edge of the Roman Empire, and would undoubtedly have felt like the edge of the world. Take a wander through the paved streets, zigzag among the buildings, spot olive presses and hunt for the detailed mosaics, which remain open to elements yet clear as day.
A trip to Volubilis is typically paired with a stop at the scenic white washed town of Moulay Idriss, home to the mausoleum of the eponymous Arab ruler and terrific views across the valley and surrounding countryside.
Is it easy to get around?
In short, yes. Naturally, the medina is best explored on foot. As the old town remains encircled by imposing city walls, a good way of getting your bearings is to get to know the different gates (or, bab in Arabic) that cut through the walls at various intervals. There are also petits and grands taxis for short and long journeys respectively, and plenty of local, if crowded, buses.
How long should I spend in Meknes?
You can certainly get a flavour of Meknes – including a trip to Volubilis – in a day, but for a richer experience, consider including Meknes as a base from which to explore the area for longer. It’s widely accessible by bus and train from the major cities of Fez, Marrakesh, Tangier, Casablanca, Rabat, and more.
Top image © Luca Brianza/Shutterstock