Traditional Houses in Fez – Riads, Dars, Palaces, and Caravanserai

The Fez Medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is filled with more than 3000 traditional houses. Many of these are available for rent or can be viewed by visitors to the Medina.

Here is a full list of hotels and guest houses in Fez, Morocco. The list includes dars, riads, hotels and guesthouses in the medina and in the ville nouvelle.

There are several types of house that visitors typically see and within those styles there is a wide range of architecture that is both beautiful and architecturally interesting.

Fez medina riad, dar

Over the next few months, I will be showcasing several of these incredible houses and introducing readers to this beautiful city that I am fortunate enough to call home. If you would like your property featured, please contact me with the details and I will arrange a time for us to meet so you can show me (and my readers) one more reason why Fez is one of the most interesting tourist spots in the world.




Interiror courtyard in a Fez Riad

The houses in the medina are of several different types. The most well known of these is the Riad. A Riad (also spelled Riyad) is a classic example of the kind of houses that the wealthy once and still do call home. Generally, Riads are composed of several levels with at least two salons surrounding a central courtyard. Fountains made of either plaster or zellij (ornate Moroccan tile work) usually sit centrally in the courtyard and are faced by a central salon for gatherings and visitors.

A large front door containing a smaller door which is used on most occasions leads visitors from often austere exteriors to lavishly ornate interiors that will often overwhelm your senses. These doors are carved and painted on some of the better preserved or restored riads and usually have at least one heavy iron knocker on them.

Inside, fruit trees, decorative plants, carved plaster, and ornate zellij combine to form a decadent and luxurious living or entertaining space designed to awe guests.

On the ground floor, the salons are filled with woven cushions, thick rugs, and comfortable low rise couches which line the walls. At the street level all attention is focused inwards and it’s not until you climb the narrow staircases that you usually find windows. This was for the security of the family since women usually didn’t leave the house without veils but inside would often wear more comfortable clothing to manage the house and relax at home. So the security was for both safety and to protect the harem from prying eyes.

Geometric artwork in compliance with Muslim beliefs which forbid the depiction of anything that might be mistaken for an idol often adorn every surface and the high ceilings and timbered cedar ceilings are often painted in bright reds, greens, blues, and yellows.

In addition to the salons, the kitchen and toilet are usually on the ground floor, though this has been changed in many renovations. The public fountains in Fez exist mainly because running water was not common inside houses of the Medina. Today, most do have water though in the past it was only the wealthiest who could afford the terra cotta plumbing which would bring water indoors.

A very narrow staircase (or sometimes two) would often lead to the second floor. This level was primarily used for storage or entertaining of the women when male visitors from outside of the family were visiting.

The top floors were used for sleeping during the winter months when the natural rise of heat would keep them warmer than those below. The obverse was true in summer.

Fes Rooftop Riad, Dar, Medina, Fez
The roof level, traditionally the domain of women and children offers stunning views from wherever you might be in the Medina. Some rooftops also have a final beautiful salon and a terrace area for eating meals, entertaining, or these days, letting guests be filled with a sense of awe and wonder at the massiveness of the Fes Medina and its architecture. In olden times, it was common to surround the roof with high walls to protect the privacy of those who were there, primarily women engaged in washing, cooking, and preparing the food stuffs of the house.

While Riads are the most well known style of house in Fez, there are several others that visitors should be aware of.




Fes, Dar Fez, Riad, tradtional Moroccan architecture

Dars are often smaller versions of Riads, though this is not always true. Typically they contain neither the garden nor the fountain though they do have a central courtyard, albeit oftentimes smaller than that of a Riad, but again, there are always exceptions to the rules. The architecture and layout is similar though usually scaled down to a less palatial magnitude.




Fes,Massreiya, Riad, Dar, Medina, Fez
When you step into a massreiya, you are often met by stunningly hand carved plaster panels, huge amounts of zellij, ornately decorated cedar architectural pieces, and other sumptuous ornamentation. These houses differ from Dars and Riads in that they usually have neither a ground floor living quarter, nor a courtyard, though as with all medina dwellings there are exceptions.

Most of the massreiya in the Fez Medina were built as either guesthouses for visitors who didn’t get the privilidge of access to the family quarters or to the eldest sons. This is one of the reasons why massreiya are usually attached to dars and riads.

Often the ground floor is composed of a medina shop along one of the many derbs and alleys. An often unnoticeable and unassuming doorway will lead to narrow stairs which lead up to some of the most highly decorated living quarters in the medina.

In times past it was rare for a massreiya to have a kitchen, but today most of them do, though in those that have not been renovated or restored there is frequently still no running water.



Caravanserai, Dar, Fez, House in Fes, Riad in Fes
Caravanserai were used by travelers, often those who were traveling the great Sahara caravan routes to Timbuktu and back to Fes. Since these were not family dwellings and women didn’t travel unaccompanied, these houses were built with men in mind. Often for men with camels, horses, and large amounts of goods that needed storage and protection. Because of the mercantile nature of these dwellings they were sometimes the most ornately decorated in the Medina, though as a place that housed camels and sweaty traders this wasn’t usually the case. These days, medina dwellers often refer to them with the standard arabic term for hotel “fondouk” or even “fundook” depending on who you choose to transliterate the arabic script, though when the caravans still tread through the Sahara sands, they were called the more regionally appropriate caravanserai.



Dar, Riad, Palace, Caravanserai, Fes, Fez, House in Fes, Royal Palace Fez, Sultan's palace Fes
Finally, for those who were of the ruling classes, of course there were true palaces which were constructed on the same general plan as a Riad but on a far larger scale. These palaces are called Ksar (think ‘castle’) and usually are made up of extensive grounds, several houses, and a level of opulence that literally stunned visiting European royals. One example that is easily visited is the Batha Museum which once belonged to a Moroccan Sultan.

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Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook

4 thoughts on “Traditional Houses in Fez – Riads, Dars, Palaces, and Caravanserai

  1. Hi V – interesting post – question about rental and purchasing. If renting, is there the usual first and last payment? What about utilities (power,water…cable?).
    Lastly, can a non-citizen purchase property? We had a heck of a time figuring out the rules of Mexico and decided it wasn’t worth buying a villa. Just wondering about citizenship and the ability to purchase land and/or homes in that area.

  2. It is definitely possible to buy and restore homes in the Fez Medina. Non citizens can own them, and quite a few of them do which raises issues of Morocco’s heritage being preserved and bought by non-Moroccans, but we’ll leave that aside for now. Utilities are extremely reasonable in Morocco as are taxes. Of course if you are running water all the time and leaving the refrigerator open 24/7 you’ll pay more. Renting depends on the owner…my last place in the casbah of Sefrou required first and last for the deposit, my current one required a handshake. Moroccans tend to trust their instincts about you…depeding on who you are, this can be either good or bad. If you decide to purchase or just want to come and rent a place, let me know and I can steer you in the right direction.

  3. I’m surprised by your descriptions of riads always being bigger than dars – there are lots of small riads (for example Riad Charqi, Riad Rmila, Riad Lune et Soleil) and lots of large dars (Dar Bensouda, Dar Seffarine, Dar Mokri, La Maison Bleue, for example); by your description of the Batha Museum as a Kasr (the correct spelling is ksar) – the old sultan would have a fit to hear you describe his summer palace as a fort!; and by your assertion that ‘caravanserais’ (commonly known here as fondouks) are ornately decorated. They are not – as a visit to Kaat Smen or Fondouk Tazi or any around the Qarawiyine will show you. The photo you have here is of the Palais Mokri – hardly a ‘caravanserai’!

  4. Wow. Helen, you sound as offended as the old sultan himself, though I imagine that’s just the way the print comes out. I read that piece on the donkey market you wrote recently, so I know that any vitriol is just one of those oddities of the medium. Thanks for the great information. I’m certainly not an aficionado yet when it comes to medina housing, but I do find it fascinating to share the things I learn with my readers. I guess your comments are a great example of why it’s important to not trust everything you are told by guides. In Hawaii when I worked as a tour guide, my favorite joke was always “How do you know when a tour guide is lying? – His lips are moving!” Oh, well, I suppose it’s just as true here as it is there, when someone is out to make a profit, they’ll usually say or do whatever works. I don’t remember using the term fort, but I’m sure the old sultan would forgive me. Thanks for pointing out my mistake with posting a palace instead of a caravanserai, I meant to put the much less grand picture of the ‘fondouk’ Nejjarine but must have crossed my wires. It’s replaced now and I’ll fix the post now to reflect the things you were kind enough to point out. Take care. ~v

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