My friends and I debated the best way to see Morocco’s oldest medina while planning our past weekend in Fez. While we were thankful to have had a guide for part of the time, there is certainly great value in exploring - and getting lost - on your own.
Rabat – While planning our weekend getaway to Fez, we read blogs and traveler’s tips for the city. Some claimed it was absolutely necessary to hire a tour guide in order to effectively see the city, and others warned of potential scams and emphasized the value of exploring on your own.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fez’s medina is over a thousand years old and is Morocco’s biggest and arguably most complicated medina. The narrow streets are lined with vendors selling leather shoes, lanterns, argan oil, spices, and food of all kinds – even camel meat.
Because of Fez’s size and complexity – and since we only had one full day in town – we ultimately decided to hire a guide for Saturday afternoon but explore on our own until then.
We arrived on Friday evening and wandered the streets before dinner. Without a guide, and often without a map – since even an online map can’t keep track of all Fez’s twists and turns – we made our way to and from dinner and took in the sites along the way.
On Saturday morning we continued exploring on our own. We wanted to check out an overlook of the city and knew this wouldn’t be part of a tour. While having a guide has benefits, going without one is a great way to see the city. If you go alone, you’re able to dictate what you see and when – and if you aren’t in a rush you can get lost along the way, likely finding some shops and streets off the beaten path.
Saturday afternoon we made our way to Bab Boujeloud and found a guide to accompany us – many of them gather around this main entrance to the medina and offer to lead groups of tourists. It’s possible to prearrange tours, but we felt we could better negotiate a price and dictate what we wanted to see if we met up with one at an entrance.
Our guide was friendly and outgoing. His English was excellent, and he told us he spoke six other languages. He was able to bring us from place to place and ensure we saw the top attractions – ancient schools, tanneries, the university – without wasting time getting lost. While walking from stop to stop he shared facts about Fez’s architecture and history that we wouldn’t have otherwise learned.
Some of the blogs we read while researching warned that tour guides are only in this business for the commission they receive from your purchases along the way.
While this was certainly part of the experience – we were brought to numerous stores where it was obvious our guide knew the owners – as long as you know what you’re getting into, this shouldn’t be a problem. We told our guide we weren’t so much interested in shopping as we were in seeing the city and, for the most part, he respected this request.
Following the end of our tour and feeling confident in our ability to navigate out of the medina, we let our guide leave us alone to walk around a little longer, only to end up walking in a large circle- instead of exiting the medina. But getting turned around just meant we got to see more.
Exploring Fez with or without a guide presents an opportunity to interact with Fez locals while you travel – either by talking with your guide or inevitably asking someone for directions. All of us felt people in Fez, compared to other Moroccan cities, were particularly willing to help tourists find their way.
On reflection, we were happy we found a guide but equally thankful to have had a chance to wander around by ourselves.