Located on the windy Atlantic coast, about three hours southwest of Marrakesh, is the small city of Essaouria (or “Swerah,” as locals call it), also known by some as “Mogador,” it’s old Portuguese nomenclature. In fact, this vibrant city has a long history of colonization with the Portuguese in particular being responsible for the construction of the massive stone walls that still surround the old medina of Essaouira. This, among other reasons, is why it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. With its long beach, calm harbor and friendly locals, Essaouria has developed into one of the more tranquil spots in Morocco. Windsurfers glide over the waves, the call of seagulls echo, and fishing boats pull into harbor. The salt air here is a crisp respite after a few days in Marrakeah or in the heat of the desert.
Essaouria has been a port town for quite some time. There is evidence of prehistoric settlements and, in the 5th century B.C.E., the first known settlement was established. It wasn’t until the Portuguese built the fortress, giving the town its ramparts and stone walls in 1506, that the Essaouria as we know it today really took its form.
Today, music and art are two of the biggest draws throughout the year to this tranquil hub of Morocco. Jimi Hendrix once sojourned here and some suggest that the song Castles Made of Sand was written while he was in Essaouria (although the album was released in 1967 and he traveled to Essaouira in 1969), so this is more of an ongoing fable. Every year there is a music festival held at the end of June, the Gnaoua Festival of World Music and throughout the year, musicians can be found on the ramparts, playing traditional Gnaoua music. Several painters and sculptors call Essaouria home with some of the more popular artists featured in several stores and galleries scattered throughout the medina. In 2013, the television show “Voyages” selected Essaouria as one of the “Ten Happiest Destinations” on Earth.
Fun Essaouira Fact: And if you are a “Game of Thrones” fan, you will recognize Essaouria as the backdrop from where Daenerys Targaryen purchased her army of Unsullied soldiers.
Map of Essaouira Medina
Here is a map of the Essaouira medina. We include a similar map in each itinerary packet that travelers receive before their tour takes place with us at Journey Beyond Travel.
What to Do
Relax – After the frenetic souks of Marrakesh or Fez where haggling is an art and a way of life, the relatively tranquil medina of Essaouria is a superb place to meander through an old Moroccan medina full of color and character with few encounters with pushy shop owners.
Go Fly a Kite – Well… go kite surfing, anyway. Essaouira is known as North Africa’s wind capital and rightly so. Days of wind are as common as grains of sand and just south of the medina are several locations to rent surf equipment or to set up surfing, kiteboarding, windsurfing, or kitesurfing lessons. The latter is the latest draw to this oceanside town as near-perfect conditions can be had every day of the year.
Take a Cruise – At the port is a sailing tour that takes place from 10:30am – 2:30pm. It is best to book the day before and the cruise is weather dependent. Sunset cruises also available. For both cruises, tea and Moroccan pastries are served.
Go Spice Shopping – Stop by Si Said’s shop in the spice market for spices, to get your hands on elusive saffron, and, if you’re lucky, “royal tea,” a special Moroccan tea made of a combination of 15 spices. You’ll find decent prices here as well. You can find Said behind the fish market in the medina at no.199 Marché aux épices +212 (0) 668 727 444.
Be a Beach Bum – Most people come to Essaouiria to enjoy its picturesque beach. A series of ruins about a 1.5 kilometers to the far end of the beach make a worthy stop (the supposed Castles in the Sand). You can walk, swim or ride a camel or horse to explore the ruins. On less windy days, Essaouira is one of the more relaxed beaches in the country. Beach chairs can be rented for 25dh per day, relax, watch kite surfers, soccer players, read a book and work hard on that tan (or windburned look).
Learn How to Cook – One of the best cooking schools, hands down, is l’Atelier Madada, which offers a workshop with Chef Mouna. Reserve well ahead of time and while forgiving the plug, this is one of many superb activities that you can tack on to your journey to Morocco arranged by our expert travel team! You’ll be able to chose from a variety of different dishes off a select menu. An expansive kitchen awaits the creativity of experienced cooks and non-cooks alike. Cooking classes run from 10am-2pm and Patisserie Class from 3:30-5:30pm, except Sundays.
Kite/Wind Surfing – Learn how to Kite Surf or Wind Surf (or just plain old-school Surf) with the experienced professionals at Club Mistral. Various gear is available for rent. In April 2013, surf prices were: 165dh for two hours, 300dh per day or an fair 1200dh per week. Wind surf: 480/720/2950. Kite surf: 480/720/2970. Lessons are also available and advisable. Kids under 12 get a 30% discount and kids from 13-18 receive a 20% discount. Lessons are from 825 dirhams on up. Contact ahead of time to prearrange lessons and perhaps better rates on gear. For those that are in decent shape (as well as coordination and balance), it will take an estimated six to sixteen hours to get pretty good at either kite surfing or wind surfing. Essaouira makes a top choice for a more sportive vacation with the high season being from the beginning of April to the end of September. Open from 10am – 5pm. Talk to Martin!
Shop at Mashi Mushki – Named for the phrase in Moroccan Arabic that is the equivalent to the Australian (Aussie) “no worries,” 10% of the profits from this small shop/gallery – located in the north of the medina on Rue Chbanate – go to Project 91 (www.p-91.com), a charity that works with kids in the area. And, across the street is the Project 91 charity shop, which sells second-hand clothes and other goods: here, 100% of profits go to the local community. Mashi Mushki is open from 11am to 6pm; the Project 91 shop opens most afternoons.
Check Out Some Art – Essaouria is known as an artist’s town. Art Plastique features work by female Moroccan artist Najia Kerairate and other artists. Free entry. Art Plastique is Sponsored by l’association des arts plastiques d’essaouira and is recognized by UNICEF for their contribution to disadvantaged youth.
See Recycled Art Statues – Made of junk you might find in a garage, the artist who goes by his first name, Rachid, creates some funky statues. These make a great gift or centerpiece for your house. Rachid’s workshop and store is about a hundred yards after Bab Marrakesh in the west side of the medina. Some of his recycled sculptures include snails, fish and ants playing violin. Your guaranteed to find something that will make your smile.
Walk the Ramparts – Before dinner, take a stroll on the old Portuguese ramparts as the sun sets over the Atlantic Ocean. Listen to the waves crash and watch as the world transforms into hues of orange, pink and red. Make sure to bring your camera! Many old (not functioning) cannons line the walk over the cobbled stone and make for a great photo opportunity. The best viewpoint may be on the north side of the ramparts. Vvarious artisan shops and locally made crafts located in the stores beneath the ramparts are also worth a look-see.
Where to Eat
La Mama: Sicilian Restaurant. Italian style. Gluten-free options. A nice change of pace or for those looking for something a bit more familiar without having to give in to McDonald’s or KFC. Pane Cunzato, Eoliana, Salina, pastas and pizzas starting at 45dh.
Dar Kenavo: The fine establishment of Dar Kenavo serves lunch and dinner in an all organic mix spiced with a seasonal menu. It’s a bit more upscale with a three-course lunch and dinner. Located about 12 kilometers from the medina with a wonderful garden and a heated pool, which makes a nice break from the beach crowds for those looking to spend an afternoon poolside.
Chez Sam: Open for lunch and dinner (though closed from 3pm-7:30pm), Chez Sam serves the freshest fish from the nearby dock. Served in ample portions, the mean is both filling and delicious. A rustic, port restaurant with a nice terrace. Smoking is allowed. Expect to shell out 200-300dh per person for a filling repast. Lunch is served from noon to 3pm and dinner from 7:30pm until 11pm. Located right at port.
Triskala Cafe: A nice stop for some great vegetarian options or just a quick tea or coffee. Funky vibe complete with pictures of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix (among others) line the walls. They strive to be eco-friendly and only serve local products. Open for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.
Caravane Cafe Art: Recommended by some past travelers as a superb little spot to grab a bite, the Caravane Cafe Art offers a variety of menu options; even Indonesian and supposedly vegan! Located at 2 bis, Rue du Qadi Ayad in the medina, you can give them a ring at +212 5247-83111. They are open each day from 11am, but closed Mondays.
Elizir: Our top-pick restaurant in Essaouria! Abdellatif Rharbaoui is the owner and chef. He spent eleven years in Bologna, Italy learning how to cook. There is fun, hippy-chic-frumpy atmosphere. You are as likely to see a couple dressed up as dressed down. The menu is seasonal and generally has only three or four options for dinner, including a vegetarian option. Italian-Moroccan fusion. Plan on about 600dh for two for dinner (which they serve exclusively).
Port Grills: Great for seafood lovers (though you’ll have to deal with vendors from every stall), this place has food stalls of the fish variety that might be compared to that of the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, in Marrakesh (although admittedly cleaner). The creativity and variety is lacking, but it’s a great place to grab local, fresh grub. Located just before the port on the rampart thoroughfare. In January, expect to pay 130dh to purchase a massive plate of sardines, one medium sole, one medium rouget, a small pageut, a handful of shrimp, a few langoustine and a giant crab (to be exact). Seagulls fly overhead, so watch out from above! Everything is grilled BBQ style with few, if any, tasty sauces.
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