Is Meknes worth Visiting? A Moroccan Imperial City

Is Meknes worth visiting

The Northern Moroccan city of Meknes is swiftly making its way onto most backpacker routes and travel itineraries. It is one of four historical imperial cities of Morocco, namely: Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes and Rabat. Meknès became the Moroccan capital in 1673 under Mawlāy Ismāʿīl, who built city walls with nine gates, as well as various mosques and palaces. Meknes boasts some amazing sites including Bab Mansour, Dar Jamai Museum and the Mausoleum of Sultan Moulay Ismail. So, is Meknes worth visiting? Absolutely! If you can spare even just one day of your Morocco itinerary to visit Meknes, you should totally do it!

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In order to understand why Meknes is such a great place to visit, let’s start by looking at the history of this imperial city of Morocco.

Handicrafts Meknes Morocco
A handicraft shop in Meknes, Morocco

A Brief History of Meknes

Meknes has a rich history that dates back centuries. The surrounding areas have a history dating back to ancient times, including Volubilis – once a thriving Roman city. The Arab-Muslim conquest in the 7th century brought Islam to the region. Meknes, like many other cities in North Africa, became part of various Islamic dynasties over the centuries.

One of the most significant periods in Meknes’ history was during the 17th Century, when Moulay Ismail made it the capital of Morocco. Moulay Ismail was a powerful ruler of the ‘Alaouite dynasty’ and aimed to create a grand capital comparable to Versailles in France. He undertook massive construction projects, including the construction of walls, gates, and impressive structures like the granaries and stables.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Morocco experienced European colonial pressures. Meknes, like other Moroccan cities, was influenced by French and Spanish colonial powers. Morocco gained its independence from French and Spanish protectorates in 1956. Meknes, as part of an independent Morocco, underwent various changes as the country embarked on a path of self-governance.

Today, Meknes is known for its historical significance, well-preserved architecture, and cultural heritage. The city’s medina, with its narrow winding streets, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Such a rich and interesting history makes Meknes a fantastic place to visit.

Bab Moulay Ismail Meknes Morocco
Bab Moulay Ismail – Meknes, Morocco

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How long should I spend in Meknes?

The great thing about Meknes is that it is relatively small and can be seen in just one day, making it a perfect add-on day trip for anyone staying in Rabat or Fez. However, if you want to stay in Meknes for a couple of days, you will be able to take it easy during your sightseeing and also add on a day to visit Volubilis – the nearby Roman ruins that you can get to from Meknes in about an hour.

I spent just one afternoon in Meknes, and wish I had actually stayed overnight and had a full day there to explore deeper and go in the musuems.

Carpets Meknes Morocco
Moroccan Carpets in Meknes, Morocco

How to get to Meknes

There are two options for getting to Meknes. If you would like to visit Meknes independently and stay overnight, then you would be best arriving to Meknes by train. It’s on the same line as the Marrakech to Fez train. The trains in Morocco are efficient and comfortable and can be booked online (ONCF) or at the station. If you can spare the extra few pounds or dollars to get a first class upgrade then you should. In first class, you get a cabin shared with just 6 people and extra overhead luggage storage. People in second class often report being cramped and having their luggage in a separate carriage (not ideal as things may get stolen).

Lot’s of people do a day trip from Fez to Volubilis, Moulay Idris and Meknes. I have to say that I would advise against this. I took this day trip, which I booked through Get Your Guide, but it felt very rushed and tiring. I would have much preferred to split Volubilis and Moulay Idris as one day and Meknes as another. However, saying that, if you are OK with a fast pace and seeing three destinations in one day then this trip is worth it if you are pushed for time.

Is Meknes worth Visiting?

I would say that Meknes is definitely worth visiting. Being quite a small Moroccan city, it is easily walkable in a day, making it popular with day trippers and backpackers. As Meknes is one of the imperial cities and a previous capital, this means that it has a great deal of historical sightseeing to offer. Don’t miss Bab Mansour, Dar Jamai Museum and the Mausoleum of Sultan Moulay Ismail. There is a great market in and around the Meknes Medina and a vibrant atmosphere on Lahdim Square (Place el Hedim). Meknes feels to me much like a calmer than Marrakech and a slightly different vibe. If you can fit Meknes into your Morocco itinerary, I certainly would recommend it!

Horse and Carriage ride Lahdim Square Meknes
Horse and Carriage ride – Lahdim Square, Meknes, Morocco

Pros of Meknes

As I’ve mentioned, Meknes really feels like a smaller and calmer version of Marrakech in many ways. But it’s history and sightseeing is impressive, with buildings steeped in history from the time when Meknes was the capital. The weather in Meknes is often slightly cooler than Marrakech, even just one or two degrees makes a difference. There are several popular handicrafts in Meknes including carpet weaving and damascening (applying different layers of metal for decoration). The city of Meknes boasts great restaurants, historical sightseeing, shopping in the Medina and interesting museums. I really liked Meknes, and wish I had spent more time there.

Meknes is Cooler and Calmer than Marrakech

In Meknes, the weather is usually one or two degrees cooler than Marrakech as it is a Northern Moroccan city. This makes a slight difference and feels a bit more comfortable to walk around – for example, today it’s 22 degrees here in Meknes and 24 degrees in Marrakech.

I also felt that I got less ‘hassle’ than in Marrakech. Of course, people ask you if you want a taxi or a horse and cart ride, but it doesn’t feel as overwhelming as Marrakech in regards to touts and scammers. Just remember to barter in the markets – this is usual all over Morocco!

Meknes Handicrafts

Meknes is a great place for souvenir shopping – in fact, Meknes is one of the largest handicraft producers in the whole of Morocco! There are some handicrafts that you will see all over Morocco including wood carving and carpet weaving. However, there is one craft that is unique to Meknes, and that is damascening. Damascening is the decorative process in which a soft metal, often gold or silver, is mechanically inlaid into a harder metal. They use this technique to make numerous products such as jewellery, bowls and ornaments.

Damascening in Meknes Morocco
Artesan demonstrating the process of Damascening in Meknes

Meknes has Great Restaurants

Meknes has some great restaurants where you can try to local dishes including Meknes couscous and tagine. I had Kefta (Moroccan meatballs) with the set menu at Restaurant Palais Ismailia for just 150 Dirham including starter, main and desert. It’s quite a touristy restaurant, but it has a lovely roof terrace and beautifully tiled floors.

Kefta Palais Ismailia Meknes
Kefta at Restaurant Palais Ismailia Meknes

Historical Sightseeing

As one of Morocco’s imperial cities, Meknes offers a great deal of historical sightseeing. Here are the most important sites that you should not miss…

  • Bab Mansour: Bab Mansour is an impressive monumental gate that leads to the city’s imperial city, and is one of the most famous gates in Morocco.
  • Moulay Ismail Mausoleum: Visit the final resting place of Moulay Ismail, the ruler who made Meknes his capital in the 17th century. The mausoleum is a beautiful example of Moroccan architecture and is an important religious site. This was my favourite thing to do in Meknes, and it’s a great spot for photography.
  • Heri es-Souani Granaries and Stables: Explore the massive granaries and stables that were built to store food and house horses during Moulay Ismail’s reign.
  • Lahdim Square: Lahdim Square is a central gathering place in Meknes, surrounded by cafes and restaurants, making it a great spot to relax and observe daily life. From Lahdim square, you can get a horse and cart ride here to see the city. Be aware that there may be some parts of the square covered for renovations (this was the case in January 2024).
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail Meknes Morocco
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail – Meknes, Morocco

Museums of Meknes

The most impressive museum in Meknes is the Dar Jamai Museum. This museum is housed in a former palace and showcases a collection of Moroccan art, textiles, instruments and historical artifacts. It provides an excellent insight into the region’s culture and history. The building itself is a work of art, with beautifully carved ceilings and Moroccan mosaic tiles.

Another interesting museum in Meknes is the ‘Meknes museum’, next to Bab Mansour, which houses a variety of artefacts like pottery, tools and carpets. You can see traditional costumes as well as regional arts and crafts.

Dar Jamai museum Meknes
Dar Jamai Museum, Meknes, Morocco

Meknes Royal Golf course

If you enjoy golf, consider spending some time at the Meknes Royal Golf Course. It’s a beautiful course surrounded by greenery and offers a relaxing escape.

Cons of Meknes

Although Meknes is a delightful historical city to explore, like any city, it has it’s down sides. The language barrier can be tough (especially off the beaten track) and it might serve you to learn a little French (brush up on Duolingo!)

The Historical Centre of Meknes is not walkable from the train Station

Although you can access Meknes by taking the train, Meknes train station is not walkable from the historical centre. If you arrive by train, plan to jump in a petit taxi for 10 minutes (the petit taxis in Meknes are light blue like in Tangier). Make sure that you negotiate the price beforehand or insist that he uses the meter. Don’t use the ‘touts’ who are standing around or calling you into their cabs right by the station. Cross over the road and flag one down – you will most likely get a more honest driver and a better rate.

Meknes train station
Meknes Train Station, Morocco

Language Barrier

While many people in tourist areas of Meknes may speak some English or other languages, there can still be a language barrier, particularly in the more remote or traditional areas. Learning a few basic phrases in Arabic or French can be helpful. I found that English was spoken in some Meknes restaurants and bars, but was not as widely spoken as in Marrakech.

Weather Extremes

Depending on the time of year, Meknes can experience weather extremes. Summers can be hot, and winters can be cool, so it’s essential to plan your visit according to your comfort level with temperature variations. I visted Meknes in January and it was a comfortable 19°C, but in the summer, temperatures can reach 34°C. It’s a good idea to plan your visit around the time of year – the best months to visit Meknes are May and September.

Crowded Medina

The Medina (old town) of Meknes, like many in Morocco, can be bustling and crowded, especially during peak tourist seasons. Navigating through narrow streets filled with people and vendors might be overwhelming for some visitors. It can be easy to lose people in the crowds if you are travelling with children or in a group.

Is Meknes worth visiting? Overall Verdict

So, what’s the overall verdict? Is Meknes worth visiting? Yes absolutely, especially if you are interested in historical sites ad looking for an new city to explore beyond Marrakech. Meknes is great value and very authentic, and makes a unique addition to any Morocco itinerary. Spend at least one night and one full day in Meknes to experience it’s chilled out vibe.

Is Meknes worth visiting Moulay Ismail Mausoleum
Is Meknes worth visiting? Entering the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail

Further Reading

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