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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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