Right, you lovely people, I’ve put together an in-depth Essaouira travel guide: where to stay, what to do, where to eat, how to get there…
Essaouira Travel Guide
So, after reading my previous article you’ve gone and booked yourself a trip to Essaouira? Good work.
If you are asking yourself questions like “Where should I stay? What am I going to do? Where are the best places to eat? How do I get there?” have no fear. I got your back with this handy Essaouira travel guide…
~ Where to Stay ~
If you are headed to Essaouira, then you’re gonna need a place to stay! My advice: when in Morocco, do as the Moroccans do.
The riad is the traditional house used by Moroccans. The word ‘riad’ derives from the Arabian term for garden. Riads are noticeable for their inward-facing design. The building is centred around an interior, open-aired courtyard or garden.
In Essaouira, there are no shortage of roads to pick from. During my trip, I stayed in two different ones: Villa Garance and Les Matins Bleus. I had enjoyable experiences at both.
Les Matins Bleus
Both riads were reasonably priced and located in the heart of the Medina, which really is the perfect location in Essaouira: walk for a minute to the north and you’ll be immersed in the city’s souks, walk for a couple of minutes to the south and you’ll be at the square, looking out to the port. As with the rest of the city, they both possessed a rustic charm and an authentic feel.
What I particularly liked about the Villa Garance was being able to enjoy a traditional Moroccan breakfast on the roof terrace each morning. It was also bright and airy with large, comfortable rooms. My room also had a good shower (such a small but important detail when travelling!).
Similarly, at Les Matins Bleus, being able to enjoy breakfast each morning on the roof terrace was wonderful. The interior was cosy and the hotel had a very chilled out vibe.
~ What to Do ~
Next up on the Essaouira travel guide is the question of what to do? It isn’t one of these cities with a selection of show stopping buildings or sights to see (although the beach might disagree around sunset). Instead, it’s a place to soak in the atmosphere, explore and search for those smaller details; an interesting doorway, alley way or view point.
1. Step back in time with a stroll along the ramparts.
Essaouira’s fortified city walls date back to the 1700s. Neatly spaced canons face out to sea, waiting for a battle which finished long ago to recommence. Sadly, the main part of the ramparts which run atop of the western seawall were closed for maintenance works. It was a shame because I was looking forward to walking them. I had to make do with the smaller ramparts to the south, which run alongside Essaouira’s port and the small fort. Whilst the fort itself isn’t particularly impressive, make sure you climb to the top. From here you will be rewarded with some excellent views back across to the Medina.
It’s also on this part of the ramparts, next to the fort, where you will find the classic view of the medina framed by a circular viewing port.
2. Be spoiled at sunset
Morocco treated us to one spectacular sunset after another. I thought that things had reached a crescendo in Marrakech. I was wrong. Essaouira decided to flex its muscles and I was treated to some jaw droopingly beautiful evenings. The ramparts and fort, silhouetted against the pastel sky was a sight to behold. Another evening I found myself courtside, by the palm trees as the last remaining light faded.
However, the cherry atop of this particularly beautiful cake was found on the long curving beach, which lies to the south of the city. When I visited in December, the receding of the tide and sunset were perfectly aligned. This meant that the wet sand on the beach became a giant mirror, reflecting the vivid sky. Throw in the silhouettes of local horse riders and you’ve got the perfect sunset 🙂
3. Explore the Medina's maze of passageways
Unlike Marrakech, Essaouira’s Medina is fully pedestrianised. This is great for two reasons: there are no zooming mopeds to watch out for and the air is free from exhaust fumes. It’s certainly more laid back and shop owners are less likely to adopt the hard sell. The Medina is abound with shopping and souvenir pissibilities; are a lot of cool pieces of art, fabrics and ceramics to be bartered over. The main avenue of the soul runs southwest to northeast through the centre of the Medina. However, don’t neglect the little passageways which run off this. If you are looking for canvases and art works, check out the avenue which is furthest to the west (which runs along the sea wall).
Inside the medina bold blue shutters and doors ordain the white and honey-coloured houses. Additional splashes of colour are added by market stalls: multicoloured fabrics, colourful pottery and beautiful artworks.
4. Chat with the locals
As mentioned above, the locals are chilled out and definitely friendlier than their Marrakech counterparts. Maybe its the refreshing Atlantic air. Shopkeepers were approachable and often would just want to have a chat with me, telling me tales about Morocco or to discuss Premier League football (rather than trying to sell me things). It was a welcome change. As with talking to any local, they offered a great source of knowledge – whether it be a cool photo spot or a place to grab a bite to eat.
5. See the port in action
Essaouira’s port is one of the hubs of the city. A number of locals still make their livelihoods from the sea. When the day’s catch arrives, the port is alive with activity as local restaurants and residents head down to see, sample and select the day’s tastiest morsels. It makes for some great photography and people watching. I headed down for a spot of street photography, joined by the seagulls to watch as the fish, eels and crustaceans were unloaded from the boats.
6. Enjoy the arts
Essaouira and the performing arts very much intertwined. Indeed, musicians such as Jimi Hendrix descended upon the city in the 1960s. Throughout the day you’ll see buskers and bands performing, especially around the main square. Each year in June, the city hosts the Gnaoua festival. The festival is rooted in traditional North African music and styles. Over the course of 4 days performers and festival-goers descend upon the city, bringing it to life with sound and colour.
7. Photograph the blue boats
No self respecting Essaouira travel guide would be complete without a mention of the blue fishing boats. They are iconic and instantly recognisable. They also make for some great photographs.
8. Catch some waves
Whilst the strong Atlantic winds keep your run of the mill beach tourists away, the large swells attract all manner of surfer. Whether they are of the traditional, wind or kite variety, the common interest of riding the waves draws them. I had great fun when I first attempted to surf in Portugal a few years earlier. Unfortunately, after the hike in the Atlas Mountains, my knee was in a dodgy state and I had to skip any ideas of surfing.
~ Where to Eat ~
If you’ve read some of my other articles, you’ll know that one of my primary reasons for travelling is to try out local cuisines. I’m pleased to sat that the quality of food on offer in Essaouira was tremendous. Read on for a taste of what you can expect (pun very much intended)…
Fresh seafood alert
Whenever I visit a coastal location, one of my aims is to dig in and try all of the local, fresh seafood. Essaouira was no different. Just before you reach the port you’ll find Essaouira’s fish market, set up under a series of blue and white canopies. The food is simple and delicious – seafood of your choice, freshly grilled and served with a salad of tomatoes, onions and green peppers. I went to ‘No. 14’ for lunch on a few different occasions. A generous plate of sardines and calamari (with salad and bread) cost approximately £7. On other days I tried the sole and sword fish. Given that I kept going back I ended up getting a fair few freebies thrown in.
When you walk past the market, the sellers will approach you and try to entice you into their particular stall. Make sure you agree a price before they start cooking.
Cafe Restaurant Chez Ben Mustafa: found down towards the port, this is a great spot for people watching. The seats are set looking out (reminded me of France in that respect). The radio plays a mix of jazz and Mississippi blues music and there’s an undercurrent of chatter. It was pretty lively with tourists and locals alike. Grilled sole fillets will set you back 60 dirhams.
Ocean Vagabond: If you are inspired to hit up the beach for sunset, down towards the runs of the Borja El-Berod is Ocean Vagabond. I killed a couple of hours writing, drinking coffee and eating copious amounts of caramel ice cream until sunset happened. They also offer water sports so if you want to try your hand at surfing, kite surfing, wind surfing or paddle boarding be sure to look them up.
Restaurant du Coer: a very small restaurant which seats around 24 people in a cosy downstairs area. The kitchen is upstairs and blues is on the radio. The menu is simple, but be sure to check out their specials board, which features the day’s catch. I opted for the lotte (monkfish) tagine, which contained a generous helping of fish and was bloody delicious.
Les 3 Portes: another small restaurant located in the medina. You’ll see a pattern emerging: I had the calamari tagine. If you are by the sea then you have to go with the fresh seafood, don’t you? It was very good.
Mega Loft: I went for the live music, but have to say the the food was fabulous. It was my last night, so I went into full 3 course mode. I demolished a goats cheese and aubergine stack for starters. For the main it was another tagine, this time of the lamb and caramelised pear variety. The lamb was especially tender and slipped straight off the bone. Sweet pear compliments the more salty lamb. Would have liked more pear though. I had dessert on my way home – there was a fabulous crepe place on a corner in the medina near my hotel.
Satisfy your sweet tooth
If you are like me and have a sweet tooth which is in constant need of satisfaction, head to Pâtisserie Chez Driss. Here you will find a wide selection of fresh cream cakes. My mid-morning treat – coffee and a cake. Mid-afternoon treat – more cake. After dinner treat? A cheeky cake. Thankfully all the walking kept my waistline in check!
~ How to get to Essaouira ~
Essaouira offered a welcome calm after the madness of Marrakech. Its a perfect place to unwind at the end of a trip and its incredibly easy to get from Marrakech to Essaouira. A number of buses make the journey every day. A ticket will set you back 80 dirhams (or 110 if you opt for the comfort option). Supra tours buses depart from the bus stop just outside the main train station. Details of the timetable and ticket information can be found here.
When you arrive at Essaouira, you’ll be dropped off just outside the medina. No doubt you’ll be approached by taxi drivers and people offering to take your luggage. Unless you have a bag full of rocks you probably won’t need their services; its a really short walk into the heart of the medina.
Alternatively, you can now fly direct to Essaouira from from the UK with Easyjet. As i said in my previous article, its a great place to catch a bit of winter sun and super cheap to visit out of season.
As it was, I stayed in Essaouira for 4 nights. I would have happily stayed for another 4 nights and fully intend visiting again in the future…