Meknes is one of the four imperial cities of Morocco, and while not as glamourous or well known as some of the other Moroccan cities we visited, it is well worth an exploration. There are a few key things to do in Meknes, along with two must-see side-trips: Volubilis and Moulay Idriss.
Colourful, intricately tiled remnants of the city’s imperial past define the old city.
They begin as we pass through the Bab Mansour, the huge mosaic-covered gate leading to the former imperial city.
Meknes served as Morocco’s capital in the 17th century under the rule of Sultan Moulay Ismail. Visiting his mausoleum is one of the key things to do in Meknes today.
We arrived in the city via train from Fes and continued on the train to Rabat afterwards.
While many people treat Meknes as a day trip from Fes (60km away), we enjoyed it enough to stay for several days. And if you are continuing on to Rabat (or anywhere on the train line), it makes sense to spend at least one night here.
While there are plenty of things to do in Meknes, we discuss the most impressive sites below, intermixed with a few travel anecdotes, as there often are when we travel in culturally unfamiliar surroundings.
Top things to do in Meknes
- Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail
- Bab Mansour (gate)
- Bou Inania Madrasa
- Lahdim Square and the rest of the medina
- Volubilis (day trip)
- Moulay Idriss (same day trip)
- Shop and discover the souks
- Buy a carpet
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail
One of the few holy places in Meknes that non-Muslims can visit, the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, is a stunning example of Islamic architecture. It’s a respectful and serene atmosphere from the moment we entered and passed through a series of amber archways and tranquil hallways.
This is the final resting place of the sultan who ruled Meknes during its imperial status.
We removed our shoes before entering the opulent room leading to the tomb.
Walking up to the gate at the red carpet, we could see the tomb, but as non-Muslims, this was as far as we could go.
While there is no entrance fee, it is customary to give a small tip to the man reminding us to remove our shoes.
Bab Mansour (gate)
Many of our Meknes memories and photos include huge and beautiful gates (gate=Bab in Arabic). The most famous of these, Bab Mansour, is often referred to as Morocco’s most beautiful gate.
From the intricate mosaic patterns to the marble columns that once stood in Volubilis and the inscriptions from the Quran along the top, this huge gate is a site to soak in and marvel.
Legend tells us a sad tale of a disappointed sultan who questioned the gate’s architect as to whether he could have done better. Stumped, the architect replied yes, and was then executed.
Bou Inania Madrasa
Another stunning example of Islamic architecture, the Bou Inania Madrasa, is a former boarding school and mosque founded in 1350.
It’s another place that caught me off guard by the intricate detail in both the mosaic and the moulded/carved stucco on the walls.
Don’t forget to head up the stairs to see the tiny dormitory rooms and some of the classrooms.
The madrasa is near the centre of the medina. Its original name, Madrasa, Al Jadida, remains in occasional use.
Explore Lahdim Square and the rest of the medina
Exploring the medina in the daytime and evening are two completely different experiences, and we recommend both.
Explore the medina during the day
We opted for a private guide during the daytime for a short tour. We took a chance and went with someone we met on the streets, despite the guidebooks recommending against this.
He turned out to be fantastic, offering us insights into things we would never have discovered on our own, and he pointed out unexpected spots of impressive mosaics.
His English was good (but we knew this before we agreed), he was friendly, and he always answered our questions. The downside was that, as a non-certified guide, he couldn’t take us inside certain sites.
More typically, we hire vetted and highly rated guides. Had we realized in advance that we wanted a guide in Meknes, we would have gone on a private walking tour from our trusted favourite company. Reserve your private guide here.
Explore the medina in the evening
At night, Lahdim Square, the centre square in the medina, was a lively food court and storytelling area. It’s a bit like a smaller version of Jemma el Fna in Marrakesh.
While we couldn’t understand the stories, we were absorbed in the atmosphere.
Volubilis (day trip)
The ancient city of Volubilis is only 32km from Meknes and is a must-see if you are in the area. In fact, if you don’t have time to do it all, we would visit Volubilis over Meknes. (Don’t get us wrong here, we are still recommending both.)
A UNESCO site, and part of the vast Roman empire, Volubilis is often considered to be the best-preserved archeological site in Morocco.
The Romans left Volubilis in the third century. An earthquake destroyed much of it in later years, leaving the ruins filled with hidden surprises.
Volubilis is best seen with a guide who can highlight the details and historical significance and, in our case, include us in nearly all our photos, a rare event when we travel.
Following recommendations, we took a taxi from Meknes, negotiating first the price to include the return trip, the waiting time, and a stop in Moulay Idriss on the way back. Once at Volubilis, we hired a guide at the entrance.
Moulay Idriss (same day trip)
Spanning two hills at the base of Mount Zerhoun, Moulay Idriss is one of the holiest towns in Morocco. It is on the same road from Meknes to Volubilis and an easy stop.
Its name honours Moulay Idriss I, who brought the religion of Islam to Morocco in 789 AD.
His tomb rests in the town but is only open to Muslim visitors. In fact, it wasn’t until 2005 that non-Muslims were even permitted to spend a night in the town.
Moulay Idriss is also known for its round minaret and white-washed village standing tall on the hillside.
An anecdotal story:
I was ready to head back to Meknes, but the taxi engine wouldn’t start. As if this is a common occurrence, which I am guessing it was, our driver hopped out and started pushing us backwards, lining us up to go downhill. A few of his mates joined the pushing, and we began coasting downhill. The driver hopped in, and eventually, he popped the clutch, and the engine turned over.
Shop and discover the souks
We find shopping where the locals shop to be one of the best windows into a culture.
Here we found food souks with open food. Colourful displays of produce, olives and spices caught my camera’s attention. In contrast, the displayed meat attracted more flies than we were comfortable with.
Buy a carpet – not on everyone’s things to do in Meknes list, but it was on ours
As they often do, especially non-certified guides, our tour of the medina ended up at a carpet store. However, in this case, we had planned to buy our daughter a handmade rug somewhere in Morocco and were already familiar with the basic process.
We were greeted with a glass of mint tea (a Moroccan tradition and a new favourite flavour until I learnt how many sugar cubes are in each tiny cup).
Honestly, we were a bit cautious after our carpet store experience in Istanbul.
Our Meknes carpet shopping story:
We drank tea, and chatted as if we were old friends, and slowly the owner transitioned the conversation to be about the different kinds of rugs, how they are handmade and what many of the symbols mean.
He talked about Morocco and the equality of men and women in the home. How, like in New Zealand, families make decisions together. He became a “friend”, and we all laughed together as he referred to me as the “Minister of the Interior” and Jeff as the “Minister of Finance.” He didn’t mention the cost of any rug until we picked out a favourite.
We were told to start our negotiation by offering only 10% of the starting price, and while this felt really uncomfortable, this is what we did. He didn’t seem offended but naturally countered. In the end, we felt the deal was fair.
More things to do in Meknes
A few more things to do in Meknes:
- Take a walk along Agdal pond.
- Visit the old prison of Habs Qara (an underground prison used during the rule of Sultan Moulay Ismail).
- Walk along the Heri es-Souani granary.
- Explore the Dar Jamai Museum (a former palace built in 1882).
- Visit the royal stables.
- Leave the old city and explore the modern sections of town.
Where to stay in Meknes
In Morocco, we stay in riads, and our top recommendation in Meknes is Dar Meknes Tresor. If you take a look at the reviews, you will see we are not alone.
Located in the medina, it’s the stunning decor, attention to detail, and rooftop views that keep guests happy. Note that the rooms are small, but the service more than makes up for it. Every room contains air conditioning and a private bathroom. Reserve your stay at Dar Meknes Tresor here.
Meknes travel tips
- Meknes is between Fes and Rabat on the train line and therefore easy to visit from either city. (The additional cost of first-class tickets is well worth the money!)
- Don’t drink the tap water, don’t drink anything with ice and be sure you are given unopened bottles of water when you purchase them.
- Carry toilet paper with you. Carry lots of toilet paper if you accidentally drink the water.
- Ask at your riad or hotel for a typical rate for a taxi for your destination. Negotiate with the driver for this rate before you get into the cab.
- Like Volubilis, Meknes is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
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Which are your favourite things to do in Meknes, Volubilis, or Moulay Idriss?
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