June 4 marks the start of the 16th annual Sacred Music Festival, fesfestival.com, in Fez Morocco's culinary and artistic HQ. This year's headliners include everyone from American indie luminary Ben Harper to jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp to poets from Afghanistan, Mongolia and Iran, who'll perform along with whirling dervishes and Sufi transcendentals within and beyond Fez's ancient Medina. Of course music is hardly the only allure of this city in the Atlas Mountains. The old walled city of Fez has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its thousands of labyrinth-like alleyways are a cultural and architectural trove. Here are five of the city's must-sees and must-dos.
1. RIAD NUMERO 9
Under the direction of Stephen Di Renza, a fashion historian and the former design director of Dunhill, this late 18th century courtyard home was converted by a team of 75 workers (including a restorer from the Louvre) into a tiny three-suite hotel and restaurant, riad9.com. Guests typically reserve the entire property, though nonresidents can book custom-designed Franco-Moroccan feasts served in a sunken dining room whose mod-Japanese interiors are a favorite of Di Renza's fashion-industry friends.
2. VOLUBILIS MUSEUM
Located between Fez and the royal city of Meknes is Volubilis, one of the most important Roman antiquities sites in the Maghreb and home to a new historical museum designed by Moroccan-American firm Kilo Architecture. Perched within sighting distance of the ruins themselves, Kilo's slim, angular galleries display artifacts from Volubilis and other important sites. While the museum is certainly stunning, Volubilis' 2,000-year-old ruins are obviously the real draw a fascinating assemblage of granaries, villas, colorful mosaics and a monumental basilica. See sitedevolubilis.com.
3. CAFE CLOCK
Since its debut in the heart of the Medina, Café Clock, cafeclock.com, has emerged as a center of Fez's cosmopolitan social swirl. Opened by Briton Michael Richardson former maître d' at London's posh Ivy the café takes its name from the nearby Dar al-Magana a house containing an elaborate 14th century water clock. Café Clock's terraces, sitting rooms and rooftop perch are the setting for weekly film screenings, beginner Arabic classes, cooking classes and traditional music recitals. Its Moroccan inspired fare, from almond and chicken couscous to a camel burger with fries, is equally enticing.
4. ATTARINE MADRASAH
Fez has been a major site of Islamic culture since its founding by Idris I in A.D. 789. At one time, its mosques and madrasahs were unrivaled in the Arab world. One of its most dazzling madrasahs, the Attarine Madrasah, or Medersa el-Attarine, has reopened its doors after a four-year restoration. Dating back to 1325, and anchored by a central courtyard fountain fed by an underground stream, this complex of marble floors, onyx columns and hand-carved, filigreed mashrabiyah (window) panels is considered the best example of its kind in Fez, if not all of North Africa.
5. THE MELLAH
Fez's once vibrant Jewish community may be long gone, but their legacy lives on in their former ghetto. Established in the 15th century, the Mellah is a warren of wooden-balconied homes around the now restored Ibn Danan Synagogue one of Judaism's most intriguing monuments. Visit the Mellah to shop at tiny antiques boutiques (close to the Jewish cemetery) for the city's best collection of vintage furniture, decorative pieces and other objets d'art.