Welcome to Essaouira, a captivating city nestled along the windswept Atlantic coast, just a couple of hours southwest of Marrakesh. Known locally as “Swerah” or by its old Portuguese name “Mogador,” Essaouira offers an enchanting travel experience. This vibrant seaside town seamlessly combines the best of Morocco, boasting stunning beaches, delectable cuisine, and a lively cultural scene, all while exuding a laid-back atmosphere rarely found elsewhere in the country.
Steeped in a rich history of colonization, Essaouira owes its unique charm to the Portuguese. They constructed the imposing stone walls that still embrace the old Medina today. These historical walls, along with other factors, have earned Essaouira the prestigious status of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
With its expansive beach, tranquil harbour, and warm-hearted locals, Essaouira has emerged as a peaceful haven in Morocco. Here, you can witness windsurfers gliding over the waves, hear the echoing call of seagulls, and witness the graceful arrival of fishing boats in the harbour. The refreshing sea breeze provides a welcome respite after exploring the bustling streets of Marrakesh or enduring the scorching heat of the Sahara desert.
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Fun Fact about Essaouira:
If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you’ll recognize Essaouira as the backdrop where Daenerys Targaryen acquired her army of unsullied soldiers.
Unraveling the History of Essaouira has long served as a bustling port town.
Evidence of prehistoric settlements dates back to the 5th century BC, and the first known settlement was established. Like much of Morocco’s coastline, the region witnessed the dominance of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans. After the Romans left, Juba II, a tribal king, established a factory that processed a highly prized purple dye obtained from the murex, a sea snail found near the Purples Islands just off the coast of Essaouira.
The settlement was locally known as Sidi Megdoul, named after a revered religious leader buried there in the 11th century. However, it was not until the Portuguese constructed the fortress in 1506, complete with ramparts and sturdy stonewalls, that Essaouira took on its present form. The Portuguese named the city Mogador, likely derived from “Megdoul.” Alongside other Moroccan cities like Asilah and El-Jedida, Essaouira served as a fortified Portuguese stronghold before eventually transforming into a haven for pirates until the 18th century.
The Melody of Essaouira
Today, music and art are among the biggest draws for visitors to this serene Moroccan hub. Essaouira once welcomed the legendary Jimi Hendrix, with rumors suggesting that he composed the song “Castles Made of Sand” during his time here. However, these rumors are merely conjecture, as the album featuring the song was released in 1967, while Jimi Hendrix did not visit Essaouira until 1969. Nonetheless, the tumultuous 60s brought together blues, rock, and local Gnawa music, resulting in a unique fusion of incredible sounds that remain unparalleled anywhere else in the world. The city hosts the Gnaoua Festival of World Music at the end of June every year.
Throughout the year, musicians play traditional Gnaoua music on the ramparts. Additionally, numerous painters and sculptors have made Essaouira their home, showcasing their works in various stores and galleries scattered throughout the Medina.
Essaouira Travel Guide: What to Experience
Fly High with Kite Surfing:
Essaouira is known as North Africa’s wind capital and offers exceptional kite surfing opportunities.
Take advantage of the natural geography and rent surf equipment from locations just south of the Medina. You can also enroll in lessons for kiteboarding, windsurfing, or kitesurfing. Near-perfect conditions prevail year-round, making Essaouira an ideal destination for water sports enthusiasts. The high season spans from April to September.
Set Sail on a Cruise:
Experience the allure of the sea by embarking on a sailing tour from the port. These tours, available from 10:30 am to 2:30 pm, can be booked in advance (preferably a day before) and are subject to weather conditions. Sunset cruises are also offered, providing a magical experience on the water. Both cruises include tea and Moroccan pastries for your enjoyment.
Indulge in Spice Shopping:
Explore Si Said’s shop in the spice market and discover an array of exotic spices. Don’t miss the chance to acquire elusive saffron and, if you’re fortunate, a taste of “royal tea,” a unique Moroccan blend infused with 15 spices. Si Said’s shop, located behind the fish market in the Medina at no. 199 Marché aux épices offers excellent prices and a memorable shopping experience.
Embrace Beach Bliss:
Most visitors flock to Essaouira to relish its picturesque beach. On your beach excursion, take a detour to the ruins situated approximately 1.5 kilometers along the beach. Explore the ruins on foot, swim in the inviting waters, or enjoy a camel or horse ride to enhance your adventure. Essaouira’s beach stands out as one of the most serene and laid-back in the country. Rent a beach chair, unwind, observe kite surfers and soccer players, lose yourself in a good book, and work on your tan.
Unleash Your Inner Chef:
For Moroccan cuisine enthusiasts, l’Atelier Madada offers one of the finest cooking schools in Morocco. Led by Chef Mouna, these workshops provide a hands-on experience in creating delicious Moroccan dishes. It is advisable to reserve your spot well in advance to ensure availability. The cooking classes run from 10 am to 2 pm, and if you’re interested in pastries, a Patisserie Class is offered from 3:30 pm to 5:30 pm (except on Sundays). Don’t miss this exceptional opportunity to master the art of Moroccan cuisine.
Shop at Mashi Mushkil:
Discover unique treasures at Mashi Mushki, a small shop/gallery named after the Moroccan Arabic phrase “no worries.” This charming store, located on Rue Chbanate in the northern part of the Medina, donates 10% of its profits to Project 91, a local charity dedicated to supporting children in the area. Additionally, across the street, you’ll find the Project 91 charity shop, selling second-hand clothes and goods, with 100% of the profits going directly to the local community. Mashi Mushkil operates from 11 am to 6 pm, while the Project 91 shop opens most afternoons.
Admire Upcycled Art:
Stroll to Rachid’s workshop and store, situated around a hundred yards after Bab Marrakesh on the western side of the Medina. Rachid, an artist, crafts fascinating sculptures from recycled materials typically found in garages. His imaginative creations, including snails, fish, and ants playing violin, make for delightful gifts or eye-catching centerpieces. Rachid’s workshop offers a wide selection that will surely make you smile.
Essaouira Travel Guide: Must-See Attractions
As the sun descends over the Atlantic Ocean, take a leisurely stroll along the old Portuguese ramparts. Immerse yourself in the rhythmic crashing of waves and witness the world transform into a mesmerizing palette of orange, pink, and red hues. Capture the moment with your camera as you pass by the iconic, non-functioning cannons that line the cobblestone walkway. Alongside the ramparts, you’ll find artisan shops offering locally crafted treasures worth exploring for unique trinkets and souvenirs.
Delve into Essaouira’s history by visiting the Mellah, once home to a significant Jewish population that accounted for nearly half of the city’s inhabitants in the 18th century. Discover the extensive Jewish cemetery, explore the well-preserved synagogues, and take note of the Stars of David engraved above many doorways in this neighborhood, offering a glimpse into Essaouira’s multicultural heritage.
Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah Museum:
Step into the past at the Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah Museum, housed in a repurposed 19th-century riad. This cultural gem showcases a diverse collection of pottery, jewelry, weapons, and tools, providing insights into the region’s history. Architecture enthusiasts will appreciate the photography exhibit tracing the evolution of Essaouira. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit this captivating museum on Rue Laâlouj, open daily from 10 am to 6 pm.
Essaouira Travel Guide: Gastronomic Delights
La Table Madada:
Indulge in an upscale dining experience combining French and Moroccan influences at La Table Madada. This culinary gem presents a menu featuring classic dishes such as spider crab and avocado tartare infused with hints of argan oil. Delight your taste buds with perfectly grilled tiger prawns accompanied by Moroccan Charmoula and Taliouine saffron rice. Additionally, tapas options are available, making it an ideal spot for a pre-night-out appetizer. Located at 7 Rue Youssef el Fassi, La Table Madada is open from Wednesday to Monday, from 7 pm to 11 pm. Reservations are highly recommended.
For an organic dining experience, visit Dar Kenavo, renowned for its seasonal menu and commitment to using all-organic ingredients. Located approximately 12 kilometers from the Medina, Dar Kenavo offers a serene ambiance with a beautiful garden and a heated pool. It serves three-course lunches and dinners, providing a refreshing escape from the bustling beach crowds. Discover this culinary haven at Douar Bouzama – BP344, Ghazoua. Reservations are required.
Whether you’re seeking vegetarian options or a quick tea or coffee break, Triskala Cafe is an excellent choice. The cafe exudes a funky vibe reminiscent of the 60s, adorned with pictures of renowned musicians like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. It prides itself on serving only local products and strives to be eco-friendly. Located on Rue Touahen, Triskala Cafe welcomes visitors from Monday to Saturday, 10 am to 10 pm, and Sundays from 1 pm to 10 pm. No reservations are needed.
Caravane Cafe Art:
Recommended by previous travelers, Caravane Cafe Art is a hidden gem, offering a diverse menu that includes Indonesian and vegan options. Located at 2 Rue du Qadi Ayad in Medina, this cozy establishment provides a welcoming atmosphere. Enjoy a delightful meal while appreciating the art surrounding you. Caravane Cafe Art is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 11 am to 11 pm, and reservations are recommended.
Beach & Friends:
Located off the beach south of the Medina, Beach & Friends offers a perfect setting to relax and unwind. Indulge in outdoor beverages, including beer, wine, and cocktails, as you recline in lounge chairs, listening to the soothing sound of the surf. This spot is an excellent choice for a refreshing drink during the day or to witness breathtaking sunsets. While food is optional, Beach and Friends is one of the best places to start your evening with an aperitif. Find this delightful oasis at 5 Boulevard Mohamed, La Corniche, open daily from 11 am to 11 pm, with no reservations needed.
The Port Grills:
For seafood lovers seeking a local dining experience, The Port Grills offers a unique culinary adventure. Located on the rampart just before the port, this food stall area may remind you of Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakesh but with a cleaner atmosphere. While the variety and creativity may be limited, the freshness and quality of the seafood are exceptional. Engage in friendly negotiation as you savor a plate filled with sardines, Sole, Rouget, shrimp, langoustine, and crab, grilled BBQ-style with minimal sauces or spices.
Keep an eye out for seagulls above as you enjoy your feast
Remember the seagulls soaring overhead as you savor your delectable seafood at the Port Grills. While these majestic birds add to the coastal ambiance, their aerial presence may lead to unexpected encounters. Keep an eye out for the occasional droppings from above, ensuring your dining experience remains free from unwanted surprises.
The lively atmosphere of Port Grills is reminiscent of Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech but with a cleaner and more relaxed setting. As you navigate through the food stalls, you’ll discover an array of local, fresh seafood options. The choices are abundant, from mouthwatering sardines to the medium sole, Rouget, shrimp, langoustine, and even a giant crab. Engage in friendly negotiation with the vendors to secure a satisfying plate filled with an assortment of grilled delicacies. The simplicity of the grilled BBQ-style preparation allows the seafood’s natural flavors to shine, offering an authentic taste of Essaouira’s coastal bounty.
Essaouira Travel Guide: Unveiling Hidden Gems
While this travel guide provides a comprehensive overview of Essaouira’s highlights, many hidden gems are still waiting to be discovered in this captivating coastal town. Whether you explore the city’s charming alleyways, engage with local artisans, or stumble upon quaint cafes tucked away in the Medina, the magic of Essaouira reveals itself in unexpected ways.
For an immersive experience, venture beyond Essaouira and explore other remarkable destinations in Morocco. Our Casablanca travel guide offers insights into the vibrant cosmopolitan city, while the Chefchaouen travel guide unveils the picturesque “Blue City” nestled in the mountains, influenced by its Spanish heritage.
As you embark on your journey day trip from Marrakech to Essaouira, may you uncover its hidden treasures, immerse yourself in its vibrant culture, and create unforgettable memories that will forever hold a special place in your heart.