Sao Jorge Castle

View from Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal

As the “City of Seven Hills,” Lisbon has several miradouros, or viewpoints. The best, however, is from the Sao Jorge Castle, situated on a high point on top of the Alfama district. The castle was built by the Moors in the 11th century and then used as a royal residence for Portugese kings from the 12th-16th centuries.

Unlike the other miradouros, it costs 8 euros to enter the castle complex and see the view. It’s worth seeing at least once, though:

View from Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal

The ticket also includes the castle ruins. The castle itself isn’t open, so you can only walk along the top amongst the various towers. They each afford a slightly different view of Lisbon.

Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal

View from Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal

All of this is nice, but it probably wouldn’t have justified the ticket price if it weren’t for my favorite part of the San Jorge Castle: the Camera Obscura, located on the top of one of the towers:

Camera Obscura at the Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal

The Camera Obscura is essentially a large scale submarine periscope installed in one of the towers. It uses a system of lens and mirrors to project a close up view of the city onto a large convex table. Just the science involved is really cool – pulling the table up focuses the projection on buildings in the distance, while pushing it down focuses on buildings that are closer….or the other way around. One of the two.

Camera Obscura at the Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal

Unfortunately, you don’t get to personally operate the Camera Obscura. Only the guide is allowed to touch it, but s/he also gives about a 15 minute tour of Lisbon as s/he shows the 360 degree view of the city.

Even despite having gone on a detailed walking tour of Lisbon already, I still got a lot of great information from the tour. For instance, the red bridge that looks suspiciously like the Golden Gate Bridge was, in fact, built by the same company. It was named the Salazar bridge initially, but after the Carnation Revolution, it was rechristianed the April 25th bridge after the date of revolution.

The tours run every 20 minutes, and they cycle through English, Spanish, Portugese, and French (these are definitely some multilingual guides!). The area is also pretty small, so they only allow 20 people in at a time. This means that the line starts building as soon as the previous group enters, especially because if you miss the tour in your language, it’s a full hour and 20 minutes before they run another one.

So go to the San Jorge castle to see the view, and make sure you don’t miss the Camera Obscura! It needs ample sunlight to operate, so it closes at 5pm and also on rainy/overly cloudy days. Plan accordingly!

Day trip to Sintra

View of Pena Palace from the garden, Sintra, Portugal

Sintra is a an easy, recommended day trip from Lisbon. Located in nearby hills and surrounded by forest, Sintra has a cooler climate that made it a popular escape for royalty and nobility. Nowadays it’s accessible for all, via a commuter train that runs directly there every half hour.

Train to Sintra, Portugal

Once in Sintra, transportation is also fairly easy. The 434 bus goes in a loop from the train station to Pena Palace and the National Palace, two of the top destinations in Sintra. Designed expressly for the daytripper!

Pena Palace

The iconic Pena Palace is the most famous landmark of Sintra, and definitely the most recognizable. A 15th century monastery once stood in its location, but after lightning and damage and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, all that was left were ruins. In 1838, King consort Ferdinand II rebuilt the former monastery into a summer palace for the Portuguese royal family.

Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal

The palace’s primary draw is its exterior. It’s a hodgepodge of different architectural styles and bright colors, like a castle at a theme park.

Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal

You can go inside as well and walk through some of the old residential rooms. It is very narrow and crowded though, the palace definitely wasn’t built with the intention to entertain thousands of visitors.

Bedroom of in Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal

In addition to Pena Palace itself, the entry ticket grants you access to the large park that surrounds it. It’s worth a stroll through the gardens for a view of Pena Palace from the distance. The best view is from a point named “Saint Catherine’s Heights,” the favorite viewpoint of Queen Dona Amelia. I trust that she found the best viewpoint in the whole park!

View of Pena Palace from the garden, Sintra, Portugal

Moorish Castle

The old Moorish castle is also a popular destination along the 434 bus line, but I decided not to go because I saw many Moorish structures in Spain and Morocco.

It is visible from the Wall Walk at Pena Palace though, so I didn’t miss it altogether:

View of the Moorish Castle from Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal

National Palace of Sintra

The other iconic building in Sintra is the National Palace, with its two conical chimneys. Originally, a second Moorish castle was in this location, but after the Portuguese conquered this area in the 12th century, they converted it into a royal palace.

National Palace of Sintra, Portugal

(Photo not mine)

Inside, the rooms are mostly themed. The Swan Room, so named because of the swans painted along the ceiling:

The Swan Room in the National Palace of Sintra, Portugal

The Heraldry Room, with a ceiling documenting the coat of arms of the top noble families of the early 1500s. In the center is the Portuguese royal arms, surrounded by the coat of arms of the 8 children of King Manuel I, and finally the coat of arms of the 72 most influential families of the kingdom.

The ceiling of the Heraldry Room in the National Palace of Sintra, Portugal

The ceiling of the Heraldry Room in the National Palace of Sintra, Portugal

The Palace also has a Chapel decorated with intricate Mudejar (Moorish Islamic) woodwork, the oldest in Portugal.

The chapel in the National Palace of Sintra, Portugal

And finally, the iconic chimneys of the kitchen, standing at 33 meters high, from the inside.

The kitchen in the National Palace of Sintra, Portugal

Quinta da Regaleira

Since I had some time left from skipping the Moorish Castle, I went to check out Quinta da Regaleira, a 19th century noble residence and garden. It’s owned by a different company than the one that operates the other top Sintra destinations and it’s not on the 434 bus line, but it’s easily walkable from the National Palace.

The main draw of the Quinta da Regaleira is the Initiatic Well, an inverted tower that goes 27 meters deep and is joined to other areas of the garden via tunnels.

The Initiatic Well at the Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra, Portugal

Tunnels to the Initiatic Well at the Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra, Portugal

Besides that, there are many other sights in the garden. You could easily wander around it for two hours and not see everything.

Fountain at the Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra, Portugal


Sintra is the ultimate day trip: it’s easy to get to, and it’s also easy to pack in a lot before heading back to Lisbon. It’s also a day trip that you would do more than once, because there’s a lot that I still did not see: the Palace of Monserrate, the Capuchos Convent, maybe even the Moorish Castle and the other half of the park around Pena Palace that I didn’t get a chance to explore. If I ever go back to Lisbon (which I’d say is extremely likely), then I will also be back to Sintra again as well!

Belem: the Discovery District of Lisbon

Monument of the discoveries in Belem, Lisbon, Portugal

Belem is a district to the West of the Lisbon’s city center, a key tourist destination with many monuments dedicated to the discovery period. It’s great for a half day trip, as it is only a 40 minute light rail ride away.

Pasteis de Belem

With so many monuments, where do you go first? A pastry shop, of course!

Pasteis de Belem is home to the mouthwatering pasteis de nata, the Portugese egg custard. I’ve had these egg custards in dim sum places and Chinese KFCs before, but my trip to Pasteis de Belem made me realize that I’d never had a TRUE egg custard.

Egg custards at Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon, Portugal

It looks like any other egg custard…

Egg custards at Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon, Portugal

…but it’s literally a bite of heaven. I haven’t described many (if any) foods as orgasmic before, but this would most certainly qualify.

Before you go, be warned! It’s ruined me. I’ll never be able to have another subpar egg custard again.

Another tip from the local friend who introduced me to this magic on earth: there’s usually always a long line outside, but just ignore it and walk inside. The inside is incredibly spacious (think Disney cafeteria) with all sorts of seating. And as a bonus, you can see part of the baking process – but nothing recipe revealing, of course.

Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon, Portugal

Jeronimo Monastery

The Jeronimo Monastery is an massive, intricate structure built in the 15th century. Too big to fit in a single photo!

Jeronimo Monastery in Lisbon, Portugal

Since 1604, it served as a royal burial place. But over the centuries, it has also become the final resting place for Portuguese legends like Vasco da Gama and Luís Vaz de Camões.

Tomb of Vasco de Gama in the Jeronimo Monastery in Lisbon, Portugal

Discovery Monuments

Towards the riverside, you’ll find massive monuments dedicated to the discovery age. It’s crazy to remember how far-reaching such a small country once was. There’s Brazil in the Americas, of course, but also many other Portuguese colonies that we don’t frequently think of: Macau, Goa, Madagascar, all colonies that broke off long ago.

Map of Portugal's conquests in Belem, Lisbon, Portugal

This large sail-shaped statue is the Monument of the Discoveries, built to commemorate the discovery period.

Monument of the discoveries in Belem, Lisbon, Portugal

Along the sides, it features all of the people who made discovery possible: the sailors, the missionaries, the artists who captured the period, and the nobility and royalty that funded it.

Further down the river is the Belem Tower, a tower built at the mouth of the Tagus River to defend Lisbon. For explorers, the tower also had great significance, because the sight of it told them that they were finally home.

Belem Tower in Lisbon, Portugal

While in Lisbon, make the trip down to Belem to celebrate Portugal’s rich and far-flung history of discovery. But if you only have enough time to see one thing, you won’t regret it if it’s Pasteis de Belem!

Festival of Santo Antonio in Lisbon

Lisbon decked out for San Antonio, Portugal

June is the month to go to Portugal, because the entire country is lively with festivals and celebrations. In Lisbon, the biggest holiday is the celebration of Saint Antonio on June 13th. I was lucky enough to not only be in town for the event (by a total happy accident), but also to have a local friend to celebrate the holiday with!

Celebrating Sao Antonio with a local friend in Lisbon, Portugal

Saint Antonio is one of the patron saints of Lisbon (Saint Vincent is too, but for some reason people don’t seem to care as much). The story goes that he once collected money to help a poor woman get married, so on this day, a certain number of couples can get married for free with their weddings paid for by the state. It’s said to be lucky, as – allegedly – none of the couples married this way have gotten divorced yet.

Another story goes that a girl once got mad and threw a statue of Saint Antonio. It hit a passing soldier on the head, and he fell in love with her. This seems like a form of blasphemy that probably shouldn’t be rewarded…but regardless, as a result, girls also pray to an upside down statue of Saint Antonio for a husband.

One hallmark of the holiday, and also the season overall, is basil. Little flower pots of basil are readily available on the streets. Boys traditionally gave basil to girls that they liked, so the basil also comes with little love poems. Apparently, if you lean down to smell basil with your nose, it will die. So instead, pat the basil with your hand and smell it rather than the basil.

Basil for sale in Lisbon, Portugal

Aside from basil, sardines are also extremely common. Similar to basil, this may just be a coincidence because sardines are readily available around this time of year.

The celebration of Saint Antonio is essentially a massive street party that lasts until the following morning. All throughout the city, people set up colorful streamers and little food stalls selling sardines, chorizo, pork sandwiches, and, of course, beer and sangria. The prices are extremely cheap, around 2-4 euros for a plate of food and 1 euro for a drink.

The streets of Lisbon during San Antonio, Portugal

Lisbon decked out for San Antonio, Portugal

Around evening, the locals start to pour out onto the streets. They order food and drinks at one food stall, sit a bit to eat, and then move on to the next neighborhood. In between food stalls, there are also always places to stop for a 1 euro drink. Shops set up beer taps outside, and you can even find some homemade sangria – from what I can tell, this woman just opened up her window and started selling drinks:

The streets of Lisbon at night during San Antonio, Portugal

We went to the Alfama area, where it seemed like the entire city was out wandering on the streets. There were young children who probably haven’t yet started school, and older people who conceivably could be their grandparents. All mingled together, out enjoying themselves into the wee hours of the morning. It truly is a festival for the whole city!

The streets of Lisbon at night during San Antonio, Portugal

The streets of Lisbon at night during San Antonio, Portugal

Even by 4am (when this photo below was taken), the streets were still as busy as ever.

The streets of Lisbon at night during San Antonio, Portugal

The festival of Saint Antonio was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. Thanks so much to my local Portuguese friends for allowing me to tag along with them and for speaking English on my behalf!

Celebrating Sao Antonio with a local friend in Lisbon, Portugal

Celebrating Sao Antonio with a local friend in Lisbon, Portugal

Word of caution: there are plenty of places to get drinks, but very few bathrooms. This poses less of a problem for boys, but I had to hold it for a good three hours before I was able to get back to a proper toilet.

Free walking tour of Lisbon

View of Lisbon from the Santa Justa Lift, Portugal

Back once again in the continent of free walking tours, I sought out Sandeman’s again as soon as I got to Lisbon. It didn’t disappoint – I got a guide who worked as a film maker and loved storytelling, and his history of Lisbon and Portugal was so detailed that I couldn’t include it all in a single post.

Long story short: Portugal is a small but proud country with a glorious past during the discovery period. However, it fell from its position at the top of the world, even losing its sovereignty to Spain for a brief period. It did eventually regain its independence, but never its former riches and glory. In 1755, an earthquake devastated Lisbon and the city was rebuilt. Later, in the early 20th century, a dictator named Salazar economically devastated and socially repressed the country. The Carnation Revolution in 1974 eventually marked the end of Salazar’s government, but Portugal still hasn’t caught up to the rest of Western Europe economically. That said, it’s definitely rich with culture and home to some wonderfully friendly people!

Statue of Luís Vaz de Camões

The tour started by this statue of Luís Vaz de Camões, the great Portuguese poet who wrote epic poems about Portugal and the discovery period. In the statue, he holds his famous book.

Statue of Luis de Camoes in Lisbon, Portugal

(Photo not mine)

There are two legends regarding this book: one is that a ship that he was on sank one day, and he swam to safety with only one hand – because the other was occupied with holding the book out of the water. Another legend is that, at one point, he supposedly had to choose between saving the book or saving his girlfriend…and, as our guide put it, what do you see on the statue? The girlfriend or the book?

Camões believed that Portugal was dying in 1580 during the Spanish invasion. Coincidentally, that was the same year that he died, and his death day, June 10th, is still celebrated. However, Portugal didn’t die – it eventually regained independence 60 years later.

Bairro Alto

Bairro Alto is what our guide called “the world’s largest bar.” In just a 1km area, there are over 200 bars.

It is legal to drink and be drunk in public, so people often grab beers at one place and drink in the streets. So really, it’s not a neighborhood with 200 bars, it’s a bar with 200 counters!

Carmo Convent

Allegedly, when Portugal fought a very unbalanced war (of about 5 to 1) against Spain in 1385, the Portuguese general asked for God’s help and promised to build a convent if they won. They did win, against all odds. So, as promised, the Carmo Convent was built in 1389.

Carmo Convent in Lisbon, Portugal

The earthquake of 1755 brought down the roof of the convent but did not completely destroy it. In the ensuing centuries, the convent was never fully rebuilt, but it was used by the army in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Santa Justa Lift

Lisbon is hilly city, and the Santa Justa lift was built in 1902 to save people from climbing the steep hill from Baixa to Largo do Carmo (the square with the Carmo Convent). It was built by a student of Eiffel, and uses the same materials as the Eiffel tower.

Santa Justa Lift in Lisbon, Portugal

The lift costs 5 euros, but you can walk up to the viewpoint for free from Largo do Carmo. There is an even higher viewpoint from there, though, that you can pay 1.5 euros to see.

Santa Justa Lift in Lisbon, Portugal

The viewpoint looks down on Rossio square below.

View of Lisbon from the Santa Justa Lift, Portugal

In the center of the square is a statue that is supposed to be Pedro IV king of Brazil. However, it might not actually be him… the story goes that an emperor of Mexico that nobody liked ordered a statue to be made of himself in Europe. The statue was sent to Lisbon to ship to the Americas, but by the time it was ready to ship, the emperor had already been killed and replaced. So Lisbon just kept the statue. Eventually they needed a statue of Pedro IV, so they might have reused it. Maybe, they figured, if they put it up high, nobody would notice!

Statue of Pedro IV in Rossio Square in Lisbon, Portugal

From the viewpoint, you can also look across to see Alfama. It’s a windy neighborhood that is very easy to get lost in because in the old days, you could build a house wherever you wanted to.

View of Lisbon from the Santa Justa Lift, Portugal

Towards the riverside lies downtown Lisbon. This area of the city is very orderly because just about everything was destroyed in the earthquake and rebuilt from scratch. The buildings are all the same height, as the earthquake ushered in a humanist shift – all the buildings were created equal, with no building of God higher than the buildings of man. The downtown neighborhood was almost destroyed again when a fire broke out in 1988, but the crisis was thankfully averted.

Regicide Plaque

This plaque marks the assassination of King Carlos and his heir Prince Luis Filipe on February 1st, 1908. They were almost the last royalty of Portugal. After the assassination, Prince Luis Filipe’s younger brother Manuel ascended to the throne, but his reign only lasted 2.5 years before he was overthrown by the Republic and exiled.

Regicide plaque in Lisbon, Portugal

Statue of King Joseph I

At the Praca do Comercio is a statue of King Joseph I, the reigning monarch at the time of the 1755 earthquake. He isn’t the most well-loved king in history, as he fell victim to claustrophobia and paranoia after the earthquake and fled Lisbon. He spent the rest of his life away from the city, living in a tent. That left the practical clean up and rebuilding to other leaders, like the Marquis of Bombal.

Statue of King Joseph I in Lisbon, Portugal

So why is there a statue of him? Well, the statue looks regal at first glance, but as our guide explained, it’s not really a tribute.

First, the king is leaning back on the horse, as if he is afraid. He is wearing feathers, which were reserved for buffoons, and he is holding a dainty scepter. The horse doesn’t have any armor, meaning it’s not a warhorse – instead, its tail is braided, so it’s a show/princess horse. At its feet are snakes representing the king’s fear. And last but most importantly, the king’s statue is turning its back on the city, just as he did in real life. BURN.


It was great to be back in the land of walking tours. This tour gave me more information than I’d ever received in the span of 3 hours – but it was the perfect introduction not just to Lisbon, but to Portugal overall. More importantly, it got me excited to explore the country!

Lessons from Morocco

1. Conquered fears can resurface

Going from Spain to Morocco, I felt a little nervous. I was leaving the western comforts to go to a place with a completely different culture, where I had to be cautious of the food and dress more conservatively. Walking down the street, I was ultra conscious of the fact that I was different, and super paranoid about wearing my camera out around my neck.

Wait a minute, didn’t I already go to India? And survive? When I reminded myself of that fact, the hesitation went away. But I was surprised that it resurfaced again in the first place. I guess it goes to show that you have to constantly push your bubble, because any advancements made can shrink back and disappear with time. I was only in Spain for 3 weeks and I was already use to the comfort. But thankfully, expanding my bubble back out was a lot easier this time. It’s a constant push and you’re never done, but you do get better and better!

2. Don’t blindly trust TripAdvisor

Going to a hammam (turkish bath) is one of the popular things to do in Morocco, and there are many hammam places that offer similar services. Most places charge about 25 euros for a hammam, a full body scrub, a brief massage, and maybe a face mask.

After some extensive online research, I still couldn’t pick a hammam place to go to. Finally, I decided to just check out the top rated hammam place on TripAdvisor. It was more pricey, at 30 euros for just the hammam, a full body scrub, and a body mask (so no massage), but it was #1, so maybe it had a better experience that justified the price.

Yeah, it didn’t. The hammam room itself was barely warm enough to classify as a sauna, and the scrubs didn’t last very long. I left feeling that there was no reason to pay a higher price at all. So I’ve finally learned, top-rated on TripAdvisor doesn’t necessarily mean the best!

3. Allow room to stumble upon things

As soon as I arrived in Marrakech, I made a list of the top places that I wanted to visit and marked them all down on a map on my phone. I created a plan for which sites to visit on which days and was proud of hitting them all and not missing anything.

However, one evening, I listened to the adventures of some friends from the hostel who hadn’t done any research at all but had just gone out to explore for the day. Without much of a plan, they had stumbled upon almost everything I had on my list for the next day.

From that day on, I dumped the detailed list and made more room to explore. I got some great advice from a fellow traveler: pick two must-see sites for each location and leave the rest open for your adventure.

4. Don’t let bad encounters sour your impression of a place

The second day I got to Fez, I signed up for a tour of the Medina from the hostel because the owner seemed sincere and some fellow travelers staying at the hostel recommended it. It turned out to be an awful tour with a guide who was supremely annoyed whenever I asked for information and whose tour consisted mostly of shops. After the tour, I said I would make my way back, but he insisted on getting a taxi becuase I would “get lost” and made me pay the fare.

The terrible experience left a bad taste in my mouth that I couldn’t get rid of the entire time I was in Fez. I knew not everyone in the city was rude and out to scam me (although the prevalence of touts in the Medina really didn’t help), but it was difficult not to let my dislike of the tour transform into a general dislike of the city.

In truth, though, in the short time that we are in a city, we only have so many interactions and luck largely determines whether they are pleasant or not. Despite the horrible guide and the touts everywhere, plenty of locals invited me to share in iftar, including a man I encountered in the residential portion of the Medina who invited me into his home and introduced me to his sister and mother after just chatting for a few blocks down the street. Try to seek the positive people and encounters, and let the negative ones go.

5. Let go of injustices

Letting go is easier said than done, of course. For a few days after the bad tour – essentially, the entire time I was in Fez – I quietly seethed about just how terrible it was and how it was completely not worth the $25 the guide charged (pretty steep for a tour, especially in Morocco). One could make a reasonable argument that I’m still just a liiiiiittle bitter about it.

But all of the time that I spent resenting the $25 that I wasted cost me far more than that in the end. It got in the way of my enjoyment of the city, clouded some of my interactions with other locals, and also spawned a lot of unnecessary negative thoughts and emotions.

Therefore, even if something may not have been right, let it go. Forgive the other parties involved, and, of course, forgive yourself for being part of it. Then move on and focus on making new, better memories!

Scenes from Chefchaouen

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Chefchaouen is the famous “blue city” of Morocco. It’s a small town tucked in the mountains, and its main draw is that it’s doors, walls, stairs – almost everything – are in shades of blue.

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

There are a few theories as to why the city is blue: one is that the blue color drives away mosquitos – – if this is really true, I will readily paint everything I own blue. Another is that Jewish refugees introduced the blue color when they migrated here. But whatever the reason, it spread throughout the city, and it is probably the best thing they could have done for tourism!

The best way to explore is to just wander through the narrow streets and go wherever seems to be the most blue. Around just about every corner, there is an instagram-perfect scene!

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Even if the road dead ends, you’re still rewarded with some phenomenal sights.

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

And the beautiful doors:

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Door in Chefchaouen, Morocco

There is also a short and very worthwhile hike up to a mosque on an opposite hill to get a view of the entire city:

Chefchaouen from a distance, Morocco

Chefchaouen from a distance, Morocco

Whatever the reason for the color, it’s a beautiful, calming town!

Sunset Viewpoint over the Fez Medina

Fez medina after dark, Morocco

The best place to watch the sunset in Fez is from the hills to the Northeast of the Medina. From there, you can see almost the entire sprawling Medina below.

Sunset viewpoint over the Fez medina, Morocco

Many people go to the Marinid tombs to see the view, but they are in the far side of the road, meaning that there is a highway and a few ruins in your way. If you stay on the Medina side of the road instead, you can easily climb on top of one of the ruins for an unobstructed view!

The ruin from which the photo above was taken:

Sunset viewpoint over the Fez medina, Morocco

Sunset at Ramadan is an even more special affair. Just as the sun goes down, cannon blasts from mosques around the Medina are fired before the call to break the fast sounds from loudspeakers. It’s a little alarming, to be honest, if you don’t know what’s going on. You wouldn’t be blamed for briefly wondering if the city was under attack.

As the sun goes down, the lights turn on:

Fez medina at sunset, Morocco

Fez medina after dark, Morocco

It’s a very peaceful place to be, but even here there are touts. Either those self-assigned guides who “lead” you here and then demand money for their efforts, or the lurkers who ask for money in exchange for nothing at all. Given the darkness and the fact that you’re on top of a ruin without railings, I don’t recommend going alone.

But if you’re looking for a place to enjoy a birds eye view of the Medina without the craziness, this is it!

The Medina of Fez

Nejjarine Fountain and museum in Fes, Morocco

The Medina of Fez is reportedly the largest Medina in the world, with a population of around 150,000 and a total of 9,500 streets (this number is repeated a lot, but did someone actually go and count all the individual streets? And if they did, shouldn’t they have maybe drawn up a map in the process?). Because the Medina is so large and the owner of my hostel repeatedly emphasized how easy it is to get lost, I signed up for a tour through the hostel. At 25 euros, it was pricey, but if I could learn a lot from a local, then it’d be worth it.

Sadly, I did not. The guide barely explained anything and led me to shops to “learn about the traditional handicrafts of Fez” (*cough* buy). In the end I still had to turn to Wikipedia, which was much more friendly and informative. So, some information courtesy of the guide and most of it thanks to Wikipedia:

History and Culture of Fez

Fez served as the capital of major Moroccan kingdoms from about the 13th century to 1912, when the French moved the capital of Morocco to Rabat. The Medina is the old city center of Fez, founded by the Idrisid dynasty in the 8th century. Altogether, there is currently a population of 600,000 in the Medina.

The ancient city is most known for 6 traditional handicrafts: carpet, camel blankets, embroidery, artists that restored the king’s palace, cactus work, and the tannery.

The Blue Gate

There are 14 gates total to the Medina of Fez, and the most popular one is the blue gate. Even though it’s called the “blue gate,” it’s actually only blue on one side – the side facing outward. This is because blue is the color of Fez, welcoming visitors into the city. On the inside, the gate is green, the color of Islam.

The Blue Gate in Fez, Morocco

Right inside the blue gate is the more modern side of the Medina. It’s where the bulk of the restaurants are, and while the old Medina center shuts down on Fridays, this area typically remains open.

Nejjarine Fountain

A beautiful fountain from the 14th century – that’s about all the information that I could find about it both from the guide and online.

Nejjarine Fountain and museum in Fes, Morocco

Except I did find a translation: “Nejjarine” means “carpenter,” which makes sense because the building to the left is the carpentry museum.

Nejjarine Museum

The Nejjarine (or carpentry) museum used to be an old fondouk from the 18th century. Merchants used to leave their goods and their donkeys on the bottom floor and stay in the rooms above. Over the years, it converted into a repository, and then a police station in the 1940s. Now, fully restored, it serves as a museum of wood arts and crafts (or, alternatively, carpentry).

Nejjarine carpentry museum in Fes, Morocco

It costs 20 dirham ($2) to enter the museum, which – surprise, surprise! – wasn’t included in the tour fee. The museum wasn’t the most exciting one I’ve ever been in, due in large part to the fact that my guide simply sat outside while I wandered through it and most of the signage was only in Arabic and French. However, just the building itself is quite magnificent!

On top of the museum there is a rooftop cafe. I heard that it’s free to enter if you say you are going to the cafe, which is what I would recommend doing. The bulk of the experience is walking up through the building anyway, and you catch a few exhibits on your way up.

Kairaouine Mosque

This mosque and university is the oldest university in the world, founded in Fez in 859 and still in operation to this day. It was started by a woman, too, no less – Fatima Al-Fihri, the daughter of a rich merchant. However, as it is also a mosque and mosques are off-limits to non-Muslims, all that we can do as tourists is peer in through the entryway.

Entryway to Kairaouine Mosque in Fez, Morocco

Madrasa al-Attarine

Though I wasn’t able to enter the Kairaouine Mosque, I WAS able to go into the Madrasa al-Attarine across the street. It is also a school, but built in 1323 by the sultan and open to tourists.

Madrasa al-attarine in Fez, Morocco

Madrasa al-attarine in Fez, Morocco

One tidbit that I did get from the guide (though I can’t confirm its validity): the fountain in the center is made of marble from Italy. Allegedly, they traded 1kg of sugar for each 1kg of marble for the fountain.

Moulay Idriss II Mausoleum

Moulay Idriss II was the son of Idriss I, the founder of the Idrisid dynasty. He refounded the city of Fez in 810 (not sure why it needed refounding), and became the city’s patron saint. His mausoleum sits at the heart of the Fez Medina. It also houses a mosque, so only Muslims are allowed inside. Just the entrance itself is beautiful, though:

Moulay Idriss II Mausoleum in Fez, Morocco

The mausoleum is also an auspicious place for women with fertility issues. On one side of the mausoleum lies this grille. Women who want to get pregnant leave a lock on the grille, and once they become pregnant, they come back to remove the lock. There are only two locks on the grille now, so I guess the women of Fez aren’t having many issues in that area!

Locks on the side of the Moulay Idriss II Mausoleum in Fez, Morocco

Carpet Cooperative

I definitely wouldn’t have found this carpet cooperative without the guide, because it was tucked in a passage that looked like it led to someone’s house. In fact, it DID used to be someone’s house – allegedly, it belonged to the teacher who used to teach at the very Madrasa al-Attarine above. When he died, he donated his house to be used as a carpet cooperative that is funded by the government and benefits the 1,300 women who make the carpets by setting fixed prices and making sure that the women get the appropriate cut.

…Allegedly.

When I looked it up online, a place that looked the same in the photos got a slew of 1-star ratings. People claimed that the salespeople pressured them into buying, never shipped the carpets as promised, and even added an extra “0” to the final credit card charge.

So, even though I sat through the sales presentation where they rolled out carpet after carpet and served me mint tea, I’m glad I didn’t actually buy anything. The visit wasn’t a complete waste, though, since I at least got some knowledge from the carpet salesman who showed me around. Who knows if it’s true at this point, but it sure was more information than I got from my guide, from the entire tour combined.

Carpet cooperative in Fez, Morocco

Things I learned from the carpet salesman:

  • Traditional Moroccan houses are designed with two levels and an inner courtyard. In the winter, the family lives upstairs, and in the summer, the family lives downstairs where it’s cooler.
  • You should flip the carpet over and use the backside for 3-4 months out of the year. This allows you to see the design clearer on the frontside, and also helps to beat out the dust.
  • There are three types of Moroccan carpets: Berber, Arab, and nomadic. Berber carpets have the tattoos of the tribe and the family within the tribe on them. Nomadic carpets have no color, as they are made using undyed sheep’s wool.

Tanneries

Fez is famous for its tanneries, but they are not very easy to get to. The best view of the tanneries is from the rooftops, and the only way to get to the rooftops is through leather shops, which are hidden in obscure alleyways. So the only way to find the leather shops is to be guided by a generous local who will turn around and ask for a little something as a token of thanks.

I was saved the trouble of all that because I had a guide. Who I was paying way too much for a subpar experience, but hey…at least this portion of the tour would have been a subpar experience with or without him.

Upon entering the leather shop that the guide took me to, a salesman handed me a sprig of mint. The mint, he explained, was for the smell, and as soon as I got to the rooftop, I understood. The tanning process involves a healthy amount of ammonium (which they soak the skins in to make them soft enough to dye) and a fair number of other chemicals, so the fresh mint is definitely nice to have.

To the left are vats of ammonium, and to the right are vats of dye.

Tanneries of Fez, Morocco

Tanneries of Fez, Morocco


That concluded my tour of the Medina. After asking if I “wasn’t going to buy ANYTHING? Anything at all?” the guide unhappily took me back to my hostel — and made me pay for a taxi to take us both there.

I learned that there most definitely are terrible tour guides. More importantly, I learned that a single bad encounter can weigh heavily on your view of an entire city. When I think of Fez and look at the pictures that I took of these beautiful locations, I can’t help but feel a bit of residual bitterness. Of all the memories I have of the city, this unfortunately is one of the top ones.

But, determined to make some good memories of the city, I went out afterwards to explore the Medina on my own. As predicted, I did get lost – well and horribly lost – but it was a great adventure. This is what I hope to remember!

Streets of Fez, Morocco

Streets of Fez, Morocco

Street shop in Fez, Morocco