On the surface, Fes seems to embody Morocco's past, with its ninth-century mosques and car-free streets. But behind the shutters, exciting changes are taking place

For more than a decade, Marrakesh has been the Moroccan destination on everyone’s list, with its ever-more-luxurious hotels and attainable whiff of the exotic. Fes, about 240 miles northeast of Marrakesh, was often an afterthought. Those who went there raved about the UNESCO World Heritage medieval medina—still totally inaccessible to cars, still genuinely Moroccan. But with few upscale places to stay, conservative Fez was never more than a quick stopover.

It is an ancient and noble city, established in a.d. 789 by Idriss I, an Arab chieftain fleeing from the caliph of Baghdad. A descendant of the prophet Mohammed through his daughter Fatima, Idriss I founded a dynasty that became the first Arab kingdom in Morocco. Fez quickly grew into a religious and civic center that embraced the tribes of the surrounding mountains; today, Arabic is used in both formal and everyday speech, while Berber is heard among the farmers in the market.

Times are changing. Slowly, quietly, a sophisticated scene is taking root in Fes, much as it did in Marrakesh 15 years ago. It started with expats and locals restoring riads, and continues as hotels, restaurants, and galleries pop up. So far, overdevelopment isn’t an issue. Whether this will last—especially with this year’s debut of an upgraded airport, set to accommodate 2.5 million passengers, five times the current volume—is anyone’s guess. Don’t wait to find out. For those who fell in love with Marrakesh before it became an international party hub, this is the moment to see Fes.