As our taxi drew to a stop, we gazed up at the tall white walls. We’d never been inside a medina before, and Essaouira seemed like a great place to start. Our guesthouse porter led us through the entrance towards our guesthouse, but we struggled to keep up with him; while he weaved through the crowd with ease, we dawdled along, taking in the crumbling-plaster walls and colourful souks. It’s a good thing that so many Essaouira hotels and guesthouses are located inside the medina, because it gave us a deep-dive into the heart of the town.
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 (and making) musical instruments and proud owners sat outside their small art galleries, all of which is served with an easy-going ambience. It’s long been a popular spot for creatives; Jimi Hendrix visited Essaouira in 1969 and today there’s an eponymous café named after the music legend.
So, whether you want to make the most of the waves, wander around local art galleries or navigate the medina for souk finds, there’s plenty of interesting things to see and do in Essaouira for first-time visitors.
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.
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.
The medina has the most accommodation options in Essaouira, where you can choose from cosy riads like Dar Azma and Riad O Gre du Vent to spacious guesthouses like Villa Maroc or Mama Souri Hotel. The other main cluster of hotels is located near the beach, which may suit larger groups and those requiring more accessibility options. Another option is to rent a self-catered apartment, which is worthwhile if you’re planning to stay for more than a few days.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Top image: Essaouira, Morocco © Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock