Essaouira is situated on Morocco’s Atlantic west coast and feels a world away from its frenetic neighbour, Marrakech. There’s a bohemian feel to this walled town, its souks selling musical instruments and proud owners sitting outside their small art galleries. Whether you want to make the most of the waves, wander around local art galleries or navigate the medina, there are plenty of interesting things to do in Essaouira, Morocco.
What to do in Essaouira
We took left and right turns past cats and carts, down lanes where wicker baskets were pinned against the half-white, -blue and -pink walls. Simply wandering around the UNESCO-listed medina made up the bulk of our visit, where we lingered at souks selling terracotta tagine pots, baskets of small woodcrafts, cones of colourful spices and punnets of fat, waxy-red strawberries.
A few women sat outside the souks and churned argan oil from horizontal wheels; while it isn’t cheap, it’s certainly an interesting way to watch an authentic souvenir made before your eyes.
But just as we thought we’d seen it all, we heard a commotion coming from one of the courtyards. Towards the heart of the medina was a lively fish market, where huge tuna and smaller fish were displayed on great chunks of ice and decorated with colourful bell peppers, with shoppers (and a few cats) surrounding the courtyard. The adjacent restaurant made for a well-timed lunch break.
Skala de la Ville
Urged on by the sound of the waves, we dwindled down one of the lanes which led onto an uphill slope, at the top of which was Skala de la Ville. This sand-coloured bastion once protected the city from both invasion and the elements, but thankfully today it’s just the latter. Walking along the ramparts, we caught glimpses of the sea between the square-set crenels where a few old bronze cannons were positioned.
At one end was the North Bastion, a sort of open-plan turret, which offered more sweeping views of the sea. Heads rested on shoulders, feet stood on tiptoes and necks craned to get the best view of the waves pulling back, before catapulting into white curls that broke against the rocks.
On every corner we turned, there was an art to be found: Hokusai-style waves and fishermen painted on the walls, local galleries brimming with distinctive art styles and stalls spread out with local paintings of local scenes. Before dinner one evening, we stumbled down Rue Tetouan and into Galerie la Kasbah, an art gallery housed in a building which is a treasure in itself.
The converted riad is spread over three floors (including the rooftop), its spacious rooms filled with paintings, frames, sculptures, models; our imaginations could only run wild when we saw the stacks of unopened boxes. Our attentive shop assistant patiently accompanied us as we explored each room, and provided tidbits of commentary as we took in a particular item.
Eventually, we reached the third floor, essentially the rooftop that had a couple of rooms spanning one side. We gazed ahead at the sunset bobbing on the horizon sealine, and peering over the edge gave us a birds-eye view into the medina below.
It is truly galleries galore in Essaouira, offering a wide range of art styles, from surrealism and impressionism to calligraphy. Other art galleries worth checking out include Espace Othello (named after Orson Welles’ Othello, which was filmed here), and Galerie d’Art Frederic Damagaard, which also houses a nearby atelier workshop.
The sky was purple, the cats sauntered along the low stone walls and gulls squawked overhead: we knew we were getting close to Essaouira’s port. Once we walked through the high stone arch entrance, we could see (and smell) the evening fish market in all its frenzied glory.
As we zigzagged between the clumped fishing tackle, the wind thrashing our hair across our faces, shoppers made their selections to take home or to have grilled on the spot and enjoy as a late-night snack.
The bustling fishing port is another of Essaouira’s accolades, with rows of small blue boats clacking in the harbour and fresh fish stalls jostling for space on the harbourside. You can also make the most of the port during the daytime, where visitors can climb the Skala du Port ramparts for impressive views.
In the northeast corner of the Medina, the Mellah is the former Jewish quarter. The Jewish community in the last quarter of the nineteenth century may have comprised as much as half of the town’s population. Largely businessmen, traders and jewellers, Essaouira’s Jewish population built large mansions within their quarter, some with up to twenty rooms.
Alas, most of these residences are now derelict, many have been flattened with bland new buildings in their place, and the whole quarter lacks the vibe and energy of other parts of the Medina, reflecting the general trend in most of the country’s Mellahs.
Bab Doukkala is a city gate at the northern end of the city, easily distinguishable by its large horseshoe-shaped arch and its ornate roof shingle. It was constructed in the late 18th century as part of the city's fortifications and is one of several gates that offer access to the city. The gate takes you into the old medina, or walled city, which has a lively marketplace, narrow alleyways and historic buildings.
At the far northeast corner of the Medina, Bab Doukkala leads to a small Christian cemetery dating from colonial times (100m on the left), which is not currently open to the public. Some 400m beyond Bab Doukkala there is further evidence of the former Jewish community in the extensive Jewish cemetery – two vast grey lanes of tombstones, carefully tended and well-ordered, in a site on both sides of the road.
Essaouira and its nearby beaches are Morocco’s prime wind- and kitesurfing destinations, drawing enthusiasts throughout the year. The trade wind at Essaouira is northwesterly and blows year-round; it’s stronger in summer – if you’re inexperienced, try to get out early in the morning – but the swell is bigger in winter.
The winds can be quite strong but the curved shape of Essaouira’s bay, along with a gently sloping sandy bottom that creates a wide shallow area along the shoreline, makes it ideal for novices. Even during summer, the water temperature rises only to 20ºC maximum, so a wet suit is required all year.
There are numerous surf shops and schools in Essaouira, as well as one or two further south in Sidi Kaouiki and Imsouane. Essaouira’s nonstop winds, though great for wind- and kitesurfing, can be a disappointment for board surfing, for which you’re better off down at Imsouane with its easterly facing bay.
Camel riding & quad biking
Camel riding and quad biking are some of the most popular activities for visitors travelling to Morocco and especially Essaouira. Camel riding is a traditional form of desert exploration. Venture out into the dunes on camelback and explore the surroundings whilst enjoying the peaceful surroundings and spectacular views.
Quad biking is a more active and exciting way to explore the surrounding area of Essaouira. Quad bikes are a great way to explore off-road tracks and provide the thrill of riding over sand dunes and rocky environments.
Morocco is full of wonders and highlights. On this tailor-made iconic trip of Moroccan cities and deserts, you will experience the real Berber nomadic life in the desert, as well as the cosmopolitan lifestyle many younger Moroccans now enjoy in the cities, from Marrakech to Rabat. Get your dose of culture, history and desert in one trip.
How to get there (and how to get around)
We flew direct from London Stansted to Essaouira (RyanAir; flight time 3hr40min). Flights run on Tuesdays and Saturdays, which provides the perfect amount of time to take in this likeable portside town.
From the airport, there’s either an airport shuttle bus or taxi (both take around 30mins to the medina), while some accommodation providers can arrange transportation. For those staying inside the medina, like us, a porter will meet you outside to guide you to your accommodation.
Simply walking around was one of the best things to do in Essaouira – and gives a viable excuse for getting suitably lost, with something unexpected at every turn, from creative souks to our next favourite café. If you’re looking to take a camel ride along the beach, it’s roughly a 20min walk to the centre, or jump in a taxi.
Where to stay in Essaouira
As we reached our guesthouse, which was at the far side of the medina (we could hear the ocean waves crashing behind us), we greeted salam to our next-door neighbour and bent our heads to enter. The guesthouse was a converted riad, with natural light gushing into the central courtyard, pastel-coloured walls adorned with handmade decor and tall, green potted plants covering each of the three floors.
Once we’d checked out the dinky kitchen, cushion-clad roof terrace and our own room, we dumped our bags and headed back into the medina: we were already starting to feel its allure.
- For tranquil stays: Dar Liouba Hotel
- For couples: Chems Bleu
- For stylish stays: Riad Baladin
- For stunning views: Riad Lyon-Mogador
Some of the best options to stay in Essaouira, Morocco
What to eat in Essaouira
Surrounding the medina fish market was a restaurant, where we were seated at the very top, overlooking the rest of the medina. The chef emerged from the narrow stairwell with a tray of fresh fish for us to choose from: our grilled sole, prawns, langoustines and sardines were served with round loaves of bread, tomato and cucumber salad, and a spicy, harissa-like sauce.
Aside from seafood, tagine is another delicious meal, as is bastila, a thin pastry usually filled with meat such as chicken. The rest of the medina has plenty of eating options, from souk-side restaurants like Restaurant Keltoum and walk-ups with live music such as Restaurant café des Artes to spots like Restaurant Tassaout overlooking Moulay Hassan Square.
Wherever you choose, wash it all down with a pot of mint tea and dunk a sugar cube in for an ever sweeter experience.
The main town beach, south of the Medina, extends for miles, often backed by dunes, out towards Cap Sim. In its early reaches, the main activity, as ever in Morocco, is football. There’s virtually always a game in progress and at weekends a full-scale local league takes place here, with a dozen matches side-by-side and kick-offs timed by the tides.
The southern end of the beach also has a dozen or so camel men, offering rides up and down the sands, or out to the dunes. If you fancy a ride, watch the scene for a while and be sure to pick someone you feel confident about – it’s a long way to fall. You’ll need to bargain for rates but expect to pay around 30dh for a ten-minute ride.
The north beach, known as the Plage de Safi, is good in hot weather and with a calm sea, but the water can be dangerous if the wind is up. It’s reached from the north end of town by skirting left along scruffy side streets for 100m once outside Bab Doukkala, the reward being miles of often delightfully empty sand.
Best Time to Visit Essaouira
Spring is perhaps the best overall time to visit Essaouira, Morocco, with a summer climate in the south and in the mountains, as well as on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts.
Winter can be perfect by day in the south, though desert nights can get very cold – a major consideration if you’re staying in the cheaper hotels, which rarely have heating. If you’re planning to hike in the mountains, it’s best to keep to the months from April to October unless you have some experience with snow conditions.
Weather apart, the Islamic religious calendar and its related festivals will have the most seasonal effect on your travel. The most important factor is Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting; this can be a problem for transport, and especially hiking, though the festive evenings do much to compensate.
- Currency: Moroccan dirham.
- Language: Arabic and French; English is also spoken.
- Payment: It’s fine to haggle at the markets, but pay the set rate at restaurants (tipping is encouraged). Check if they take cash and/or card.
- Clothing: Cover your shoulders and knees. This is a windy place, so a scarf, sunglasses and even a hair tie will also go a long way!
- Photography: Respect any signs restricting photography, and always ask permission before you take a photograph of someone.
Tips for making the most of your time in Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira is an ideal place for a short getaway, especially if you’re after something suitably laid-back. Enjoy mint tea and people watch, look out to the coast and tuck into grilled fish fresh from the blue boats.
On our final night, we wandered along another lane and listened to the Mosque call out to prayer, something like a beating heart as life continued around it. Creatives and slow travellers will rejoice; Essaouira still marches to the beat of its own drum.
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Top image: Essaouira, Morocco © Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock