Wondering what to do in Essaouira?
Essaouira has long been a favourite destination for travellers. Some come searching for their inner hippie, others simply want to escape heat and hassle for a few days, and then there are those whose own stories become woven into the very fabric that is Essaouira. From Orson Welles (who made his film ‘Othello’ there) to Jimmy Hendrix (who didn’t write ‘Castles Made of Sand’ there!), these are footsteps that have been almost religiously followed ever since.
It’s easy to see why.
We were at the end of our tour with Wild Morocco, and exhausted after a couple of weeks of being constantly on the move, needed somewhere to unwind before heading back home (and braving the queues at Marrakech airport!). Having ogled many travel blogs telling me what to do in Essaouira over the past few years, I was determined that we would finally make an appearance in the ‘windy city’.
The Windy City
Morocco is hot. Keeping cool usually involves head-scarves, riad dipping pools, air conditioning and an obscene amount of chilled fizzy drinks (sans ice of course!). Yet it’s a totally different and refreshing story in Essaouira. If you want to blow away some cobwebs and not spend the entire day sweating, then this endearing Atlantic city is the place to be. The strong north-easterly trade winds make for great surfing, that’s if you can’t get your kicks from plodding along the beach on an uninterested camel.
Essaouira has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, with 18th Century fortifications and a rich cultural heritage ranging from the Romans and Africans to French and Arabs. Also known by it’s Portuguese name Mogador, Essaouira has a very different vibe to other Moroccan beach resorts. Instead of sun-loungers and bikinis, it’s red cheeks and surf shorts, with a bit more sand in between your teeth than usual.
I loved it!
So just what is there to see?
Whilst there aren’t many major sights, with almost year-round sunshine and constant summer temperatures, Essaouira is the perfect mellow place to relax for a couple of days.
Explore the Medina
Wandering around the old city in the bright afternoon sun, the colours are dazzling. Glowing orange city walls, white-washed dwellings and the distinctive blue of doors, djellabas and boats. Strolling these alleyways is relaxing in a way that Marrakech could never be. In Essaouira there is no hassle, no fear of getting run over by carts or bikes in the souks, and everyone seems genuinely happy to meet you.
Entry to the medina is through one of the old babs (gates), where you’ll notice at once the absence of motor vehicles. This pedestrianised part of the city has changed very little over the years, in a world where mule carts are still the main mode of transport. After getting lost countless times in Marrakech (one of our favourite past-times), it feels surprisingly easy to navigate around Essaouira. Alleys are often linear, and never being far from the city wall you will always be able to make your way back to the main square.
We were almost disappointed that it was so simple.
Walk the ramparts
You can’t visit Essaouira and not climb the ramparts. Constructed in the 1760s, the walls were originally built as city defences, but before long the military port became instead a commercial centre for trade with Europe. Start by climbing up the Bastion Nord to admire the views out across both the Atlantic and the medina, then pop down to the famous rampart cubbyholes. Once used to store ammunition, and then to house goats and donkeys, today this is where you’ll find the famous marquetry artist workshops. Wood carving is Essaouira’s main craft, and the woodworkers souk is crammed full of the intricate work of cabinet makers and master craftsmen. The scent of the speciality thuya hardwood lingers in the air and is a smell that will forever remind me of my new favourite seaside town. A great place to buy those souvenirs you don’t really need.
Next wander along the top of the ramparts, past the old canons pointing out to sea, and along the Skala de la Kasbah (the artillery platform) towards Place Moulay Hassan, the main square.
Place Moulay Hassan
Slightly disappointing by Marrakech standards, the tree-lined square of Essaouira is nonetheless a great place to grab a drink at one of the several restaurants and cafés, and do a spot of people watching. There’s also a great patisserie shop just around the corner as you walk back into the medina, not that we tried it or anything…
Each day there was a musician busking in the square, serenading the coffee-sippers to either their delight or dismay. Being a bit of an amateur musician in my other life I love buskers (especially in London tube stations!), but really, the thought of strangled cats came to mind when one opportunistic bloke clearly thought the punters would enjoy a tune played over and over again using just 2 notes of his guembri (stringed instrument). Had I not been sitting up on the lovely breezy rooftop of Taros Cafe I would’ve paid the guy to go away!
But don’t expect to haggle.
We were quite frankly astonished that none of the stall holders in the souks or along the streets were interested in bartering with us. Each vendor has clearly marked prices (usually this is simply used as a starting point for bargaining) and many laughed at us, saying ‘this isn’t Marrakech’. True, the marked prices were pretty reasonable, but where’s the fun in purchasing things in Morocco without a bit of friendly banter? We did eventually persuade one guy to knock off a few dirhams, since we were buying several items from him, and I like to think I detected a tiny hint of admiration (or was it amusement?) at our persistence.
But boy was that hard work!
It’s also fun poking your nose into the arcades of the central market area where you’ll see merchants haggling with locals (so they do it here!) over meat, fish, vegetables and spices. Yet not needing sheep’s heads or viagra we didn’t make a purchase here.
Scale the fort
At the opposite end of the square is the Skala du Port, and this is where you’ll find the small fort, the harbour and those famous blue fishing boats.
And since everyone always wants to know where to go to take a photo of that iconic view (the post header image!), I can let you into a secret…it’s from the fort! This is what it looks like on the other side of the wall just after you pay your 10 dirham entrance fee.
The fort itself isn’t that impressive as it’s really just a tower, but it’s the views you’ve come to see!
Watch the fishermen bring in their catch
Although the port is always busy, it’s still delightfully laid back, with fishermen companionably mending nets whilst catching up on the latest gossip, or working on their traditional blue wooden fishing boats. Colour seems to be as important as structure, and we saw several boats receiving a lick of paint to keep them looking ship-shape.
Most of the animation happens when the fishermen auction their daily catch in the afternoons. It’s not uncommon to see a djellaba clad gentleman cycling home with a couple of mackeral slung over his shoulder, or a young girl struggling with the weight of an enormous plaice as she hurries home through the narrow medina alleyways. One of the best and freshest meals in Essaouira is a simple plate of grilled fish from the stalls lining the square. Just check out the price board, choose your fish (try the sardines!) and watch as it sizzles away over hot coals. Delicious!
Of course all this fish attracts a certain type of visitor…
Tip: bring some wet-wipes in case of low flying poop!
Get active on the beach
If sunbathing is your thing, you’re probably in the wrong place, but if you fancy a spot of kite- or wind-surfing (or just plain surfing before it got all complicated) then the sweeping long beach at Essaouira is just the ticket. For us land-lubbers the water sports are an impressive spectacle, but if it’s all a bit too overwhelming you can instead lounge around in the sun at Ocean Vagabond, not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Or if you really must the camels can be found at the far end of the beach.
The best night out in town?
Probably the most enjoyable evening of our entire Moroccan trip was at the quirky Caravane Café just off Avenue de L’Istiqlal (the main thoroughfare) in the medina. It’s owned by well travelled artist Didier Spindler, and each room of the former riad is a miniature Ali Baba’s cave, the walls covered with his flamboyant colourful work. I’m not into modern art, but here amongst the pot plants, candles, and mix n match furniture, it looked stunning.
We tentatively stuck our heads through the door one afternoon to check out the menu, and barely got past the starters before enthusiastic manager Daniel invited us in for a good look around. Twenty minutes later after chatting about everything from London house prices to the world art market, and exploring from top to bottom, we’d seen enough. They’re generally pretty full in the evenings (do book ahead!) but Daniel promised to squeeze us in on one of the best tables in the restaurant! He even offered hubbie some bread to munch on to tide him over until dinner!
A bit of charm goes a long way.
Service in most Moroccan restaurants is nothing short of dire. Yet here it was friendly and efficient, if a little rushed as the evening got busy. Daniel treated us like honoured guests even though we’d only met that afternoon, and later Didier himself appeared, stopping for a natter with the regulars and sharing a glass of wine at their tables. We were surprised that he even came for a quick chat with us too. Refreshingly excellent customer service all round!
The food wasn’t bad either, especially accompanied by some excellent local musicians who serenaded us as dusk fell! Have you ever tried chicken in toffee sauce?
Gnaoua World Music Festival
Rather more impressive than the chap strangling cats in Place Moulay Hassan, the famous annual Gnaoua Festival in May/June attracts visitors from all over the world. The music first came to Morocco via African slaves, and involves rhythmic percussion and stringed instruments playing for dancers who jiggle around wildly with their castanets as if hypnotised by the sounds. If it’s good enough for the Wailers (yes, of Bob Marley fame) then it’s good enough for us, right?
Still want more?
We stayed at the delightful Dar Liouba guest house…check out my review here.
For more ideas of what to do in Essaouira, places to eat and things to see, check out the new e-book from maroc-o-phile. I found it invaluable during our stay as it was written by ex-pat Lynn Sheppard who actually lives there, and who has shown me that the city has so much more to offer than just a stroll on the beach.