Essaouira means ‘little picture’, and the picturesque port town on the Atlantic coast never ceases to attract a growing number of tourists falling under its spell. With its honey-coloured stone battlements, neat whitewashed streets, colorful and roiling medina and wonderful beaches, Essaouira is the perfect respite from the craziness of Marrakech.
Check out our top tips for travel in Essaouira.
Essaouira Travel Tip: Where to Stay
Essaouira has evolved from hippy haven to aspiring surfers to a a chic and sophisticated destination. There are now scores of riads, villas and boutique hotels to choose from. You also have the option of staying outside Essaouira. About 25 km south of the city lies Sidi Kaouki Beach, where you can stay in less expensive but truly fun and charming little retreats.
For a homely stay in the Medina, head to Riad Imik Imik. Imik Imik means “slowly, slowly” in Berber and this charming riad is just the type to value peace and tranquility with a range of areas to relax as a large group or solo reader. The charming German owner, Britta, who lives in the premises will host you in true Essaouira laid-back style with a wealth of information on what to see and do and put your feet in between. Each morning breakfast is served on the riad’s large terrace overlooking the Medina. From £55 for a double.
For a more luxurious stay with that extra bit of class, the elegant and colonial l’Heure Bleue Palais is the most glamorous address in town. Rooms are cavernous, sumptuous and luxurious but it’s the suave common rooms – bar, library, billiard room – that make this elegant hideaway seem like a colonial home from home.. The extensive lounger-lined terrace and rooftop pool really wows, with breath-taking views over the medina and the endless, white sweep of the beach. From £260 for a double.
Another alternative to staying in Essaouira is the nearby Sidi Kaouki, a laid-back surfers’ hangout. The delightful Rebali Riads complex offers the privacy and space of a villa with the services of a boutique hotel, including restaurant, hammam, spa and tennis court. Slap-bang on the beach with plenty of activities to indulge in, Rebali Riads is ideal for a family or group of friends. From £95, Essaouira is a 25-minute (£8) taxi ride away.
Essaouira Travel Tip: What to Do
Relax: The easy-going spirit lives on in Essaouira’s Medina. Get lost in the labyrinth of narrow whitewashed lanes and discover tranquil squares, quirky riads, sunny cafés, spice markets and artisans in tiny workshops.
Take in the View from the Skala: Join the locals and catch the sunset behind the picturesque stone ramparts of the historic port “The Skala de la Ville”.
Surf’s Up: Essaouira has carved out a reputation as a surfing, windsurfing and kite-surfing hotspot. Océan Vagabond is one of the better surfer hang-outs, with a beachfront café. You can rent surfing, windsurfing and body-board equipment and be taught how to use them. Wetsuits are recommended year-around.
Attend a Festival: The town hosts an array of music festivals – a classically based Alizés festival every April, an exuberant jazz and world music festival Gnaoua in late June, and a gypsy and flamenco-based Festival of the Atlantic Andalusias in October.
Take a Cookery Course: Take a cookery class at the excellent l’Atelier Madada cookery school, attached to the swanky Madada Mogador Hotel. Start with a guided tour of the souks and make your way to mastering the art of tagine, couscous and briouates.
Enjoy a Hammam: Head to Hammam Lalla Mira, the oldest traditional public bath in Essaouira for a session of a good-value gommage followed by argan oil massage.
Around Essaouira: Essaouira has a lot more to offer than just the town itself. Take a day trip down south to Sidi Kaouki or up north to Moulay Berzektoun to enjoy the wild beach and blustery winds of Morocco’s top surfing spots. The sleepy Berber village of Diabat, just south of Essaouira, was made popular by Jimmy Hendrix in the 70’s. You can take a horse-riding lesson, ride along the beach or join a trekking tour at Ranch de Diabat.
Essaouira Travel Tip: Where to Eat
The outdoor fish grills at the port is one of the best food experiences in Essaouira. Just pick from the fresh catch of the day, agree on a price and then watch as it’s grilled. Eat with simple salad and plenty of baguette.
The newly opened Umia restaurant in the Medina is proving to be a popular haunt. Fantastic fusion of French and Moroccan flavours in a relaxed atmosphere. Book in advance to get a table. 26 rue Squala, +(212)5 24 78 33 95.
Elizir is another favourite. The decor is Seventies retro, with design classics and an array of souvenirs and memorabilia dotted around. The cuisine is a fusion of Moroccan classics with an Italian twist, a legacy of the 9 years the Moroccan owner spent in Italy. About £25 for two.
The most sophisticated dining in town is at l’Heure Bleue Palaix. Talented young head chef Ahmed Handour conjures up perfectly cooked French cuisine with distinctive local flavours, served in a Moorish-baronial dining room or outside on the patio.
Essaouira Travel Tip: Where to Drink
Despite its popularity with tourists, Essaouira isn’t the hottest place for watering holes. However, there are a few select places (most doubling as restaurants) where you can enjoy a drink.
One of the most atmospheric bars in town is the Taros Café, a meeting place as much as a café. Live music plays in the evening to a mostly surfer and hippy crowd and the rooftop is the place to be seen. Cocktails from £3.
For something more sultry, try the hip Le Patio, a candle-lit restaurant with a great bar. You’ll need to buy some tapas to sit and drink.
Essaouira Travel Tip: Where to Shop
Start with the souks which provide for a terrific, small range of shopping experience. Tuesday nights are busiest with the locals and you’ll find everything from vibrant rugs hung on every wall or to buy silver jewellery and patterned metal lanterns. Look out for ceramics and rugs, which are particularly beautiful.
Essaouira is well known for its wood products. You can visit the woodcarving workshops at the Skala de la Ville for a great selection of bowls, boxes, knick-knacks and furniture. You can even custom order items.
Another star product of Essaouira is its raffia products, woven from the fibres of the doum palm. Rafia Craft (82 rue d’Agadir, Bab Marrakech +212 524 78 36 32) has some of the best, designed by an Italian and exported to Europe.
Essaouira is also an artists’ hub and there are several galleries dotted around town selling works by local painters. Our pick is the long-established Galerie d’Art Damgaard (Avenue Oqba Ibn Nafia +212 524 78 44 46) with well-curated displays of work by the best artists in town. The gallery also sells books on regional art and culture and has an annex studio.
Essaouira Travel Tip: Getting There
There are no direct flights to Essaouira from the UK. The best way is to fly to Marrakech, the nearest airport.
There are regular, direct flights from London, Manchester and Birmingham Airports operated by British Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Easyjet, Ryanair and Thomsonfly.
Essaouira is 110 miles from Marrakech and takes about two and half hours by “Grand Taxi” (around £50 one way).
Another popular alternative is flying from Paris. There are four weekly direct flights to Essaouira, operated by Royal Air Maroc and Transavia.