When thinking of Morocco, most people picture the Sahara desert and a bunch of camels… This is true but Morocco is incredibly diverse and the Atlantic Coast is part of the adventure. Essaouira, the “Windy City of Africa” is a romantic and lively stopover in your Moroccan itinerary. With its history as a commercial hub and a hippy hangout, Essaouira is a place to be, for enjoyment and experience. Here are 12 things to do in super cool Essaouira, Morocco.
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Whilst it doesn’t have as many stand-out historical features as other places, Essaouira is easily worth a couple of days. If you don’t have as much time, it’s also a great day trip out of Marrakech. The drive from Marrakech to Essaouira is three hours each way and the road is pretty flat and straightforward so you will have enough time to wander around and see the main sights. Check out the additional information and current tour prices.
I love the chilled vibe of Essaouira and it’s one of my favourite places in Morocco. The Atlantic Ocean is a powerful force and offers a lovely respite from the heat of Marrakech.
First, a Little History…
Like many cities in Morocco, Essaouira has been under various foreign influences, especially Portuguese and French. Formerly known as Mogador, the coastal city as we know it today, was built by French architect Theodore Cornut, on orders of the sultan. The old medina is an interesting combination of European and Moroccan architecture. The medina is a succession of reasonably wide alleys and narrow streets, however, it also has several Mediterranean-style courtyards, perfect to enjoy a fruit juice or mint tea…
Mogador was a major commercial route to the rest of Africa. During the French Protectorate, however, commerce was diverted to Casablanca, Agadir and Tangier. The coastal town became a sleepy backwater and was only revived after the independence of Morocco in 1956. In 1951, Orson Welles filmed “Othello” in Mogador and later on, Essaouira became a hippy hangout.
Escaping The Heat
Essaouira is less than 3 hours’ drive from Marrakech, on a good quality road. If you wish to escape the dry heat of Marrakech, Essaouira is ideal for a few days. The wind and coastal conditions will heal you from the dry air of the Sahara desert and the atmosphere is more relaxed. Due to strong winds and currents, swimming is not always safe in Essaouira, however, it’s a popular spot for surfers between the months of April and November. The summer months can overwhelm with their crowds of local tourists, and winter is great for wild winds. I really like spring and autumn in Morocco, when the weather is not too extreme. And if you are looking for a more challenging drive, you can take an itinerary further south through the High Atlas. Indeed, the Tizi n’Test is a beautiful yet dangerous road.
Walking the Old Medina
The 18th Century walled medina is a gem, added to the UNESCO Heritage List in 2001. I find that it has a good balance of shops, art galleries, restaurants and artisans workshops. Whilst Essaouira has been a tourist destination for a long time, it is still full of local life. I especially love the Mediterranean-style courtyards where you can enjoy a meal or a cool drink. Some areas of the medina, such as the Mellah (Jewish quarter) are fairly run down but I love taking notice of the ornate doors. The medina has this relaxed feel, with fewer tourists and friendly people. And you are less likely to get lost…
Observing the Fishing Port
Essaouira has a very busy fishing port, which makes for great photography. Also, there is a lot of activity and hard work happening, it’s worth catching the atmosphere there, watching the fishing vessels being unloaded and the fishnets being repaired… The blue boats are incredibly photogenic but you have to be able to handle the noise, strong fish smells and the seagulls flying everywhere…
I don’t recommend eating at the fish shacks along the harbour. It’s certainly picturesque but I don’t think food hygiene is high on their list.
Climbing the Remparts
The 18th Century Remparts make a beautiful evening walk, however, they were under renovation on my last trip.
Skala du Port
For a small fee, you can visit this bastion south of the medina and catch some gorgeous views over the fishing port and the walled city. It also offers some great views over the Purple Isles (Iles Purpuraires), also known as Mogador Island. These islands are inhabited, aside from a bird sanctuary for Eleanora’s falcons, however, there are some built structures visible from the coast. My father once met a man who had been banished there for several years with his whole family, as a punishment. His father had slapped the local French governor…
Discovering the Art Galleries
Art is an important aspect of life in Morocco and Essaouira has a broad community of artists and makers. You will find many art galleries, selling local work. Essaouira is especially popular for its calligraphy and woodworking. For paintings, the colours are bright and the style is naive, and you can easily pick up a small frame in the medina…
Relaxing at a Hammam
Essaouira is a great place to relax, I love its gentle feel, in spite of the strong winds and angry ocean… Whether you are escaping from the Marrakech heat or arrive there after the coastal drive from Casablanca, you probably need some self-care. And because locals quite happily live their life alongside the tourists, it’s easy to find a hammam where to spend a few hours.
Shopping in the Mechouar
The people of Essaouira have the reputation of being really nice, and I can vouch for that! I find that all my dealings with local people were humorous and full of kindness. Of course, the shopping in Essaouira is not as plentiful as it is in Marrakech but it is less intense. Most things in my shopping guide are available in Essaouira, however, you will also find some interesting herbal shops and argan oil products. And as always, you will need to haggle! A great place to shop for clothes and non-touristy wares is the Mechouar, this wide thoroughfare just outside the medina walls. The Mechouar also houses some beautiful 18th Century houses, built by rich merchants, and now transformed into hotels and restaurants.
You may also need to add some extra luggage to your Morocco packing list in order to carry your shopping home!
Exploring Artisans Workshops
Handmade artistry is still very dominant in Morocco. Of course, the markets are polluted by cheap fakes from China but these are relatively easy to spot. For me, buying something handmade by an identifiable artisan has a greater value than cheap souvenirs. In Essaouira, you can find woodwork and calligraphy workshops where to observe those handmade arts.
Learning about Argan Oil Cooperatives
The argan shrub grows wildly in the region around Essaouira and there are plenty of products on offer. Traditionally, argan is transformed and commercialised by women’s cooperatives. It’s hard to make the difference between genuine cooperatives that really benefit local communities and much more commercial operations with low paid staff… However, there are a few genuine cooperatives south of Essaouira and I recommend a drive through the countryside to explore this interesting aspect of Morocco’s economy and culture. If anything, the spectacle of goats climbing trees to eat the argan fruit is quite intriguing…
Listening to Live Music
Even after the hippies have gone, Essaouira remains hip… The Gnawa World Music Festival is one of the most important cultural events of Essaouira’s calendar.
Trying New Food & Drink
Whilst a lot of places in Morocco only offer basic food choices, Essaouira’s food and drink scene are a lot more elaborate. There are plenty of quality and reasonable restaurants who offer a modern take on Moroccan and European gastronomy. I especially recommend Restaurant El Minzah, in the gorgeous Hotel Desdemona.
The Windy City of Africa
Morocco by the ocean is a great experience. Just like Tangier, the presence of the sea is a relief and brings a freshness to the air. The Atlantic Coast of Morocco is also a great place to learn to surf. You can even do a day trip from Marrakech and attend a 2- hour surf lesson in Essaouira. Check out the additional information and current tour prices.
Just like Chefchaouen, Essaouira should be on your Atlantic Coast itinerary as it will bring a point of difference and sense of calmness to your travels. In my opinion, Essaouira ranks well as a reason to visit Morocco.
If this is your first time visiting this beautiful country, don’t forget to read my list of things to know before travelling to Morocco.
Did you get a chance to visit Essaouira? Tell me about your experience in the comments below! And if you are looking for more beautiful coastal views, the Spanish Enclaves and the Controversial Spanish Islands on the Mediterranean Coast won’t disappoint.