Fes vs. Marrakesh: 8 Differences to Know About

Fes and Marrakesh are two of four imperial cities in Morocco, making them rich in history and culture. Because of this, many tourists-to-be waffle between which to choose if time isn’t on their side.

To make things more challenging, people who’ve visited both cities often have strong feelings about which one is the “best.”

There’s no doubt about it—Fes and Marrakesh offer different experiences. And, yes, like most travelers, I have my favorite.

But since what’s a good fit for one traveler isn’t necessarily the right fit for another, I’ll present the information here in the most factual way possible. I’ll then let you in on my favorite city at the end of this article based on my 1-week stay in each city.

A Quick Vocab Sesh

When comparing Fes vs. Marrakech, Fes' paths are narrower.
A street in Fes’ medina.

Before we compare Fes vs. Marrakesh, below are a couple of must-know vocabulary words so I don’t lose you with Moroccan lingo.

Medina: The word for “town” in Arabic. In Morocco, “medina” refers to the historical quarter of an Arab city, usually surrounded by walls.

Souk: An Arab market. It’s equivalent to a bazaar in the Middle East.

An Overview of Fes vs. Marrakesh

Before we get into the details about the differences between Marrakesh and Fes, below is a run-down of the points we’ll be covering.

FeatureFesMarrakesh
Touristy feelModerateYes
TerrainHillyFlat
Modern amenitiesFewLots
Day trip optionsYesYes
Easy to navigateNoModerate
Restaurant choicesModerateExcellent
Train stationYesYes
International airportYesYes

1. Tourist Vibe

One of the most notable differences when comparing Marrakesh vs. Fes is that Marrakesh has a more touristy feel than Fes.

Its massive souk around the main square (Djemma el Fna) is packed with souvenirs, and activities like snake charming are abundant. The main plaza even has a KFC, and the city has a more cosmopolitan-like feel.

Souvenirs at main plaza in Marrakech.

In contrast, Fes feels like stepping back in time and is more laid-back. Cars can’t access the medina, so locals still use donkeys and carts to move goods.*

Although Marrakesh receives more tourists, Fes still receives a significant number of visitors. So, you’ll encounter many vendors selling souvenirs. The difference is that local shops in Fes equal or outnumber the amount of souvenir stands.

Despite having a more historical feel, Fes has a modern area called Ville Nouvelle.

Ville Nouvelle sits outside of the medina and offers modern shopping malls and chain restaurants. However, unlike Marrakesh where modern buildings are at the footsteps of the medina, making tourists frequent them, locals from Fes primarily frequent Ville Nouvelle.

One area where you can count on seeing tourists in Fes is the tanneries. Tanning animal hides is one of Fes’ biggest tourist attractions, and you can watch employees go about their work from tannery stores with balconies, which sit deep within the medina.

An areal view of a tannery in Fes.

In contrast, Marrakesh has tanneries but they’re located outside of the medina. So, its tourist attractions in Marrakech revolve around the Djemma el Fna, Bahia Palace, and Jardin Majorelle (gardens).

*Do your research before partaking in a tourist activity that involves animals. SPANA is an organization that spreads animal care education and fights against animal abuse in Morocco, which is sadly prevalent.

2. Terrain

Ruins outside of Fes' medina.
Ruins outside of Fes’ medina.

If you’re a wheelchair user or someone with limited mobility, Marrakesh is hands-down a better option than Fes.

The area around Marrakesh’s main plaza is flat, and well-maintained sidewalks are abundant.

In contrast, the city of Fes swoops down along a hill. I’m not talking about mountain-sized proportions here.

However, your calves will feel the burn if you spend much of the day exploring the medina’s winding alleys.

Another difference between Fes and Marrakesh is that Fes has more cobblestone or uneven terrain. So, it’s not the type of city to rock your newest pair of high heels.

On the other hand, most of Marrakesh’s sidewalks and plazas have a smooth surface. They’re also much wider than much of Fes’ pedestrian areas.

A wide, empty highway in Marrakesh.

Getting around Marrakesh and Fes also differ, as you can drive up to Fes’ medina but not within it. In fact, Fes is one of the largest—if not the largest—car-free urban pedestrian areas in the world.

There’s no way you can drive inside Marrakesh’s massive souks. However, you can get around different sites within the city by vehicle.

3. Amenities

A traditional Moroccan table with mint tea and dessert.

As you might have guessed, Marrakech has more modern amenities than Fes. You’ll encounter countless shops and stores with high-end, international brand products, bars, nightclubs, spas, and tons of parks and gardens.

In contrast, Fes has maintained more of its historical vibe. It has little nightlife and delicious but lesser-known restaurants, unlike Marrakech.

Regardless of whether you visit Fes or Marrakech, purchasing a SIM card is a cheap and effective way for communicating in both cities.

You can check out my guide on SIM cards in Morocco for details about the various SIM card companies, along with the quality of WiFi in Fes and Marrakech.

4. Day Trips

Camels on a beach in Essaouria.
Camels on a beach in Essaouria.

Both Fes and Marrakech offer excellent, but distinct, day trips.

From Fes, some popular day trips include:

  • Meknes
  • Middle Atlas Mountains
  • Volubilis
  • Chefchauoen (Note: This involves a 3+ hour drive each way)

In contrast, below are some day trips that you can take from Marrakech:

  • Agafay Desert
  • Three Valleys in the Atlas Mountains
  • Essaouria (a city on the ocean)

You might be wondering—can you take a day trip from Fes to visit Marrakech or vice versa?

No, unfortunately you can’t.

By car, the drive from Fes to Marrakech takes 5.5 hours on a good day. By train, you’re looking at an over 7-hour ride.

5. Your Confidence in Directional Skills

A steep staircase in Fes, Morocco.
A staircase in Fes.

If you’ve never stepped foot inside of a medina and Marrakech is your first stop, you might think I’m pulling the camel fur over your eyes when I say that Marrakech is easier to navigate than Fes.

So let me offer this piece of advice—begin by exploring Marrakech’s medina outside of its souk. Once you get a feel for the area, head into its market where the chances of getting lost are higher.

On the other hand, Fes is like a never-ending souk. The medina contains countless narrow pedestrian streets that twist and turn and split off in seemingly a million directions.

You will get lost.

Go into it counting on that.

But losing yourself in Fes’ medina is part of what makes the experience so unique and beautiful.

During my 2017 visit, map apps didn’t have a good grasp on Fes’ medina. I imagine the situation is improving, although to me, part of the fun is getting lost in its labyrinth.

6. Restaurants

A clay pot with vegetarian tagine.

If you’re a foodie, Marrakech has your name on it since it has restaurants with world-renown chefs. La Grande Table Marocaine, Al Fassia, and Crystal are all excellent options for a high-end dining experience.

Should street food be more your style, over 100 food stalls adorn Marrakech’s plaza in the evening. You’ll have countless choices of relatively inexpensive Moroccan food.

Make sure to try tangia at least once (which is different from the country’s beloved tagine). This dish contains meat cooked in ceramic pots and flavored with lemon, garlic, and saffron.

Fes doesn’t have as many upscale sit-down restaurant options as Marrakech, although L’Amandier and Nur Restaurant are notable exceptions.

That’s not to say there isn’t good eating in Fes, though. On the contrary, Fes’ medina is packed with local restaurants serving up cheap and traditional Moroccan cuisine.

Don’t miss the opportunity to try bessara soup and b’stilla. Pastry stands are bound to entice even those without sweet tooths, with their alluring display of (often sticky) Moroccan sweets.

7. History

An entrance to Fes' medina with mules eating.
An entrance to Fes’ medina.

Fes sits in northern Morocco and was founded by the Idrisids in the 8th to 9th centuries.

Throughout its history, Fes went through periods of being known as being the capital of religion, trading, and politics. Much of the architecture you’ll find in Fes today is from the 13th century and after, especially in regards to its madrasas (schools), mosques, and Jewish quarter.

Although Fes feels like a single, sprawling pedestrian city, it’s actually composed of two medinas—Fes el-Bali and Fes Jdid. They’re both protected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Marrakech also has its history rooted in Arab culture, although it didn’t get its start until 1070 (the 11th century).

That start ended up being short-lived, for the Marinids decided to change Marrakech’s capital to Fes in 1269. Needless to say, people rebelled. By the 16th century, the Saadians gained control and worked on rebuilding Marrakech.

Unfortunately for the locals, that wasn’t the end of the invasions on Marrakech. In 1912, the French conquered it (and the entire country), so Marrakech didn’t gain true independence until 1956.

8. Getting There

When comparing Fes vs. Marrakech, both have train stations.

When comparing Fes vs. Marrakech, arriving in these cities is quite similar. Both offer international airports—Fes Sais International Airport and Marrakesh Menara Airport.

The Marrakech airport supports flights from many countries, including Italy, Turkey, and Spain. Flights to Fes are similar, with flights running from countries like Germany and France.

You can also fly between Marrakech and Fes, with a flight time of one hour.

Another popular way to travel to Fes and Marrakech is by train. The train ride between these two cities is about 7 hours, 10 minutes.

However, you can break up this ride by staying in other destinations along the Moroccan train route, including:

  • Meknes
  • Rabat
  • Casablanca

As a solo female traveler, I felt safe taking the train by myself in Morocco (and exploring Fes and Marrakech during the day alone, for that matter).

Don’t Forget About Ramadan

Ramadan is an important month-long Muslim holiday in Morocco. It follows the lunar calendar, meaning that its dates vary each year.

If you haven’t booked your trip yet, I recommend checking the Ramadan calendar to arrange your dates around—or within—this holiday, per your preference.

Have you already booked your trip and discovered that your travel dates fall during Ramadan?

You’re in good company; I did too. My post about Ramadan in Morocco will walk you through my experience of unknowingly booking my month-long trip in 2017 for the exact dates of Ramadan.

Fes vs. Marrakech: Which Will You Choose?

Desserts at a food stand in Fes.
Desserts at a food stand.

I promised you that I’d share my favorite city, so here it is…

Fes.

Being in Fes felt like going back hundreds of years in time. Although the labyrinth of its medina intimidated me at times, I ended up having fun getting lost as I explored its twists and turns.

That said, had I not visited Fes, I believe that Marrakech would have felt like an alluring and historical destination even with its touristy vibe.

The bottom line is that both destinations have their benefits, and it’s hard to go wrong with visiting either of them. Of course, if time allows, visiting Fes and Marrakech is worth it.

Do you still have questions about visiting Fes or Marrakech? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to help.