Mix the grandeur of an ancient imperial city with the hustle and bustle of a sleepy provincial town and combine with a hilly region to make most history buffs jealous. This is the recipe for Meknes. Despite its central location, strategically between Fes (70km) and Rabat (150km), the place is missed by most coastal day-trippers or by the one-week bottom-priced "tour Morocco" bus trips organized by several European and other tour operators that tend to bring you from one carpet shop to the next silver works. Only the Roman-era Volubilis nearby gets a fair share of them. If you do make it here, try to at least stay one night as the city gets something magical in the night lights.
Just like many other Moroccan towns, Meknes consists of a new town, dating mostly from last century, and a UNESCO World Heritage listed old town, with mostly older buildings. Unmistakably the centre of the old town is Place El-Hedim, a 0.5 ha rectangular square (around 1 acre). The local government is trying to transform the square in the evening in a Meknes version of the famous Jemaa El-Fna at Marrakesh, but so far the tiny attempts are not very successful. At one side of the square you can lose your way in the small streets of the ancient medina. It’s not as impressive as its counterpart in Marrakesh or as large as the one in Fes, but definitely the most quiet and relaxing of the three. Be prepared however for a small "donation" in case you lose your way and you have to ask the locals. The medina contains several beautiful historical buildings, like the green 11th century Great Mosque (off limits to non-Muslims), the wonderful 14th century Medersa (Islamic school) Bou Inania or the 19th century Dar Jamai Palace.
At the other side of El-Hedim is the massive 18th century town gate Bab El-Mansour, one of the greatest sites of the city. The blue-tiled gate changes colours throughout the day. Just behind the gate is the Dar Kebira quarter. It houses the beautiful mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, who made Meknes his capital and constructed several new buildings and quarters. He is sometimes viewed as the founder of the city, although there existed a city here already since long before him. Beyond the mausoleum, the road continues for about 1km between the Dar Kebira town walls and the walls of the non-visitable royal palace to a square with an entrance gate of the palace. Another km south of here you can visit the palace’s old granaries and horse stable (Dar el Ma).
There are a few sights close to Meknes. Most notably the ancient Roman sight of Volubilis, possibly the most visited place in the region, especially by Western tour groups. It’s located about 25km north of Meknes. This World Heritage site boosts one of the most interesting Roman sites of Africa. A few km away is the rarely visited village of Moulay Idriss, named after Idriss I, the founder of Fes, who has his mausoleum here. The picturesque town sits peacefully on two hills and only gets large gatherings of people during the yearly moussem (religious festival).