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Medina Madness in Morocco

A shop sign in Tangier

A shop sign in Tangier

A donkey clomps past the cooking-meat smoke of a food stall, a television set tied to its back. Teenage boys on motor scooters zoom and honk, as veiled women fill water jugs at an exquisitely tiled fountain alcove. The sound of the adhan booms through loudspeakers, echoing off crumbling buildings and down narrow, cat-slinking alleyways.

And you are hopelessly lost amid it all.

As quintessential as couscous, medinas are the walled, crowded, mazing aortas of any Moroccan travel experience. While modern development and orderly urban planning have sprung up around them, medinas are the ancient heart of any city in Morocco, where East meet West, past meets modernity, tourist meets local. Some are reconstructed, some are touristy, some are pure snake-charming insanity. But none are alike.

Here are my rankings for the most memorable medinas visited on my recent Moroccan adventure:

Seediest: Tangier

American expats Paul Bowles and William Burroughs may no longer be on the prowl, but the narrow alleys of the Tangier medina feel just as gloriously grimy and hopelessly hash-laced. Glue-sniffing kids lurk past pushy medina touts, while fresh-off-the-ferry tourists sip mint tea at the old cruising spots of literary giants. Tangier's proximity to Europe has long left it open to all sorts of Western influence””much of it nefarious. I didn't feel unsafe anywhere in Morocco””except the dark backalleys of the Tangier medina.

Street scene in Meknes medina

Street scene in Meknes medina

Most Like an Outdoor Mall/Disneyland: Casablanca

From the wide, evenly paved lanes to the lackadaisical shopkeepers, Casablanca's medina feels more like a recreated theme park””or worse, an outdoor mall””than a relic of ancient urbanity. Even the stray cats are missing.

The medina itself is only a little over 100 years old, which accounts for the fresh facades and lack of historical ambiance. Swap the trinkets at the kiosks for cell phones and add some piped-in music, and it'd be an American mall. But if you've been battling hustlers for a couple of weeks, the peace is a welcome break””even if it feels Disney-ized.

Most Downright Insane: Marrakesh

The Marrakesh medina is cracked up to be a steaming, honking, pulsing mess of humanity””and it doesn't disappoint. The famed open square Djemaa el-Fna is ground zero for witch doctors, meat stalls, buzzing gas lamps and elbowing crowds. Spontaneous street theater erupts, motorbikes nearly run tourists over, and multilingual boys offer guide you through it all. Hassles, pushy shopkeepers and plenty of tourists come along with territory, adding to the chaotic energy that's become legendary.

Least Likely to See Another Traveler: Tiznit

The Tiznit medina has nothing to draw tourists; it's a functional urban area with no glitz or particular allure. Which is why you won't see another foreign face””or pay hotel rates or get baited into any carpet shops. Folks go about their daily business, meaning you get to explore a little deeper, let your guard down a little more, and spy on unself-conscious, daily Moroccan life. Most likely, Tiznit will be a stop-off on your way either down the Atlantic Coast or into the Ameln Valley, its low-keyness your first clue that you're headed off the beaten path.

Best Local Vibe, and Most Like a Flea Market: Meknes

Due to its proximity to Fez, imperial city Meknes doesn't get as many visitors as it should. Which means you don't get as much hassle as you should. You won't be the only foreigner around, but you will be immersed in a sea of locals. Inside the medina, there's plenty of jewelry and textile souqs (squares), but the thoroughfares that wrap around the medina like a boa constrictor are the real draw. Shoulder-to-shoulder throngs push past haphazard stalls selling cheap clothes, toiletries, bootleg DVDs and other non-exotic, everyday goods. Hawkers shout, buyers dig through piles, and you get a pretty killer authentic experience.

The Fez medina

The Fez medina

Mazingest, Crumblingest and All-Around-Coolest: Fez

The largest car-free urban zone in the world, the Fez medina is 9,000 tangling alleyways of Fassi history and Moroccan modernity. Continually inhabited for 1200 years, falling-down buildings are studded with satellite dishes. Narrow lanes veer, turn and dead-end; people step into doorways to make room for passing donkeys; and little boys offer to led your lost self back into daylight (for a couple dirhams), Home to the oldest mosque in Africa and one of the oldest universities on earth, Fez's appeal lies both in its rootedness and in its embrace of the present. And in its food. Nothing like a little lamb tangine to fuel you through a day of medina meandering.


Lauren QuinnLauren Quinn is a travel-addicted freelance writer based in Oakland, California. She's traveled independently (and once illegally) to over twenty countries across four continents.  Her work has appeared on Matador, BootsnAll, Girl's Getaway and

Catch up with her at

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Tuesday 2nd of February 2010

Dommage! You missed the medina of Azemmour, on the banks of the Oum er Rbia, south of Casa. Hurry, le Maroc Profond is changing faster than you get say: Yallah! Let's Go. The Meknes medina is somewhat underrated, many, like Marrakech and Essaouira, have turned into tourist traps. Sample some of Morocco's delicious cuisine before you go! visit my website:

Kitty M., author, Cooking at the Kasbah.


Saturday 16th of January 2010

How will I have time to fit all of these in my 10 days in Morocco?! I feel like I could stay there forever.... maybe I will!

And great photos, too!


Tuesday 12th of January 2010

I felt like I was right there with Lauren, walking through the medinas.


Monday 11th of January 2010

Great post! Now I'm upset I didn't have time to go to Meknes when I was in Morocco. Had no idea the Fez medina was the largest no car zone in the world, though it sorta makes sense I guess.


Monday 11th of January 2010

Now I'm trying to figure out how I can add Morocco to my trip...

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