10 best things to do in Meknes
10 best things to do in Meknes: It may not be as well known as nearby Fes, but Meknes is still a valuable addition to any Moroccan wish list. Located near the Middle Atlas Mountains in northern Morocco and nicknamed the “Imperial City”, Meknes boasts a fascinating centuries-old past with a vibrant city full of souks, bustling mosques and madrasas, thousand-year-old Roman ruins and other historic tourist attractions.
Meknes offers a pleasant mix of old and new, divided between the old medina with its authentic riads and the new Ville Nouvelle with its spacious properties and modern cars. No matter where you go in this city, you’ll find that there’s always plenty to do in Meknes.
Dar Jamaï Museum:
Built in 1882 as the Jamaï family mansion, the Dar Jamaï Museum served as a military hospital and courthouse in 1912. But since 1920, it has housed an impressive exhibition of ceramics, jewelry, textiles, traditional costumes and impressive 14th-century cedar wood crafts.
The museum also features the personal belongings of Sultan Moulay Ismail, the second ruler of the Alaouite Dynasty – infamously known as ‘the Warrior King’. Items include his period clothing, a kitchen set and a traditional sauna.
It may be more than a century old, but the Dar Jamaï Museum still boasts most of its original features, including painted windows, wood carvings, Moroccan mosaics and an Andalusian garden with cypress trees and fountains.
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail:
The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is the final resting place of the Warrior King of Morocco. Built during his reign in the 18th century, the site was chosen by the sultan himself because it previously housed the city’s courthouse and he wished to be judged by his own people.
Admittedly, the mausoleum doesn’t look like much from the outside; in fact, many visitors don’t even notice it. But step inside and you’ll be enchanted by the various interconnected courtyards with their elaborate mosaics, marble columns, sculpted stuccoes and a tinkling fountain.
Except for the tomb itself, the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is one of the few sites of its kind in Morocco accessible to non-Muslims.
Visiting the mausoleum is said to bring good luck.
10 best things to do in Meknes: The enormous lake known as Sahrij Swani, or “Basin of the Norias,” is located in Meknes. Built by Moulay Ismail during the 17th century, it was believed to have been built exclusively for entertainment purposes. Later reports suggest that it was more likely to be a reliable source of water for the city.
The lake was filled with ten wells dug near the Sahrij and the Wadi Bufekrane, which flows down from the Middle Atlas Mountains. But now, all that’s left are the crumbling foundations—the aftermath of an earthquake in the eighteenth century.
Other highlights include the Royal Stables and a bronze statue of a man holding a jug of water (which was once stolen). Today, the lake is a popular meeting place for swimming and boating, especially in the summer months.
One of Morocco’s best-preserved Roman ruins is Volubilis. These ruins can be found about an hour from Meknes and offer an impressive display of columns, mosaics and abandoned buildings.
Founded in the 3rd century BC, Volubilis was once the capital of the Kingdom of Mauritania. Taken by local tribes around 285, it was never claimed by the Romans due to its remote and exposed location. Instead, it served as the seat of Idris ibn Abdallah in the 8th century before being abandoned in the 11th century.
Volubilis remained practically intact until an earthquake brought it to ruins in the mid-18th century. As excavations and restorations began in the 19th century, today much of the capital’s history can be uncovered. Landmarks include a basilica, triumphal arch, a series of bath houses and an ancient aqueduct. But it’s the terraced houses with mosaic floors that are the real highlight here – particularly the House of Orpheus.
Moulay Idriss Zerhoun:
10 best things to do in Meknes: Spread over two scenic hills, Moulay Idriss Zerhoun is a famous pilgrimage site for Islamic followers. This attractive town was built on the slopes of Mount Zerhoun in the 8th century by Moulay Idriss I, who founded Morocco’s first dynasty.
Moulay Idriss Zerhoun is a holy place for Muslims, and the town itself with its narrow streets is worth a visit. There is the Mausoleum of Idriss I (no entry for non-Muslims) and another mosque which has the only round minaret in Morocco. Visitors come here to enjoy the incredible views of the ruined city of Volubilis and the Saiss Valley, as well as to walk through the landscape full of olive trees.
The Royal Stables, one of Meknes’ most striking historical sites, is a must-see. Built by Moulay Ismail to house his 12,000 royal horses, its architecture is truly remarkable. You may recognize it from the films Jewel of the Nile and Ishtar.
The building itself was designed with the horses’ well-being in mind, mainly to keep them warm in winter and cool in summer. An intelligent system of water chambers fed by a canal kept them well watered. Each horse had a dedicated stableman and slave, and a huge barn – Heri Es-Souani – was erected next door to store their food – so big that it could hold enough grain for 20 years!
Visitors can explore this incredible dedication to Moulay Ismail’s horses. As the 1755 Lisbon earthquake left them almost completely in ruins, they are believed to have been seven times larger in their heyday.
Bou Inania Medersa:
10 best things to do in Meknes: The Bou Inania Madrasa is a center of Islamic learning opposite the Grand Mosque in Meknes. Established in 1341 by Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman, the building served as both a congregational mosque and a theological college.
Although the Madrasa Bou Inania is somewhat overshadowed by the madrasa of the same name in Fez, it remains one of the best examples of Merinid architecture in Morocco. It has some spectacular zellige tiles, geometrically patterned stucco and ceilings carved from cedar wood.
Tourists (even non-Muslims) can explore the students’ rooms, the school’s hammam and enjoy the panoramic view from the Grande Mosquée minaret.
El Hedim Square:
El Hedim Square, also known as Place El Hedim, is a famous square that forms the heart of the Medina of Meknes. It was built between 1672 and 1674 by Moulay Ismail, who demolished much of the old town for this square and his palace, marked by the glamorous Mansour Gate.
Throughout history, the square has served as a location for storage, royal announcements, and public executions. Today, it’s the perfect place for people-watching. It’s very lively in the evenings when locals gather to stroll around, have a meal in one of the cafés, play soccer and listen to Arab musicians and storytellers.
Bab Mansour Gate:
10 best things to do in Meknes: Meknes has more than 20 gates around its medina, but the Bab Mansour Gate is the most iconic. An outstanding example of Almohad architecture, the gate is carved with Arabic calligraphy that translates as ‘I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I am like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written in front of me. ‘
And the beautiful Bab Mansour certainly is. The last important monument to be built during the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismail, who had it built as a tribute to himself, it is covered with green and white zellige tiles and carved with Koranic panels. In order to remove all evidence of the dynasty before him, the gate was built with materials stolen from other Moroccan monuments (the two marble columns came from the ruins of Volubilis while the two Corinthian columns were in Marrakech’s El Badi Palace).
The Bab Mansour Gate was designed by Mansour Laalej, a Christian architect who converted to Islam, and was partly named after him (Mansour means “victorious” in Arabic). Although this wooden gate is not really in use today, visitors can use a smaller side door to enter the medina.
You can’t miss the narrow, gloriously traffic-free streets of the old Medina of Meknes. It is lined with 17th century gates, mosques, colorful buildings, an abundance of souks with everything from spices to clothes, and landmarks depicting impressive Islamic architecture.
In fact, many of the must-see landmarks listed above can be found in the labyrinthine streets of the Meknes medina. Admire the architecture of the Bab Mansour Gate, explore the Madrasa Bou Inania and discover the tranquil courtyards of the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail.
10 best things to do in Meknes
Visit the Royal Stables with its huge adjoining barn, admire local arts and crafts at the Museum of Moroccan Art and soak up the charming bustle of El Hedim Square. But best of all, the medina is perfect for people-watching! So find a rooftop café, pour yourself a steaming cup of Moroccan mint tea and enjoy the show.