Located about 2.5 hours west of Marrakech is the darling coastal town of Essaouira (pronounced sweera, essa-weera, or es-sweera depending on who you talk to). Expats from all over the world have flocked to this peaceful place to open colorful riads and lively restaurants. They tell stories of visiting once and falling in love with Essaouira and subsequently purchasing a one-way ticket. And once you visit, you’ll understand why.
While the old town is situated directly on the water, you wouldn’t even know it as it is enclosed by towering fort walls that once defended the city. But climb to the rooftop of one of the many terrace restaurants and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the sea and bright blue fishing boats docked at the port.
Essaouira is known as the ‘Windy City of Africa’ so don’t expect to have a relaxing time lounging on the beach while you’re here. The coastal wind – named alizee – makes this the perfect place to learn to kite surf, but you’re likely to get a mouthful of sand if you attempt to do any sunbathing. Instead, spend your days shopping in the souk, sipping tea on the rooftop terraces, and enjoying late evenings filled with wine and live music.
Preparing for your Trip
Know Before You Go
- The currency in Morocco is the Moroccan Dirham (Dhs). At the time of writing (February of 2018) the conversion rate was about 9.25 Dhs to $1 USD. We’ll be referring to costs in Dirhams so just keep in mind that if we say something costs 100 Dhs, that’s just about $11 USD.
- There are a number of languages spoken in Morocco but the two official languages are Modern Standard Arabic and Amazigh (Berber). The second (or third) language for most Moroccans is French. You’ll also find that many people speak at least a little English.
- Cash is king in Essaouira (and all of Morocco for that matter). Plan on paying for your food and accommodations in cash and keep small bills on hand if you choose to tip the many beggars and street performers in the square. There are several ATM’s conveniently located in the center square as well.
- In general, non-Muslims aren’t allowed to visit mosques around Morocco and Essaouira is no exception. Admire them from afar but don’t try to enter.
- Read about all my tips for visiting Morocco here.
Best Time to Visit
Essaouira experiences a very mild year-round climate. It sits on the West Coast and a cold current flows through the Atlantic keeping temperatures around 73°F, even in the summer months. A cool breeze blows all year, making it an ideal place for kite surfers and for anyone looking to escape the intense heat in Marrakech.
Summer is an ideal time to visit Essaouira but it will be crowded with foreigners and Moroccans attempting to find respite from farther inland. While temperatures are warmer, the beach is not ideal for sunbathing or swimming due to the large waves and windy conditions.
Temperatures are mild in the winter as well, with average highs around 66°F although the constant wind will make it feel colder. Many riads are quite lovely to visit in the summer as they have gorgeous rooftop areas, perfect for lounging. But due to their open-air design, they can be quite cold in the winter.
Morocco is an incredibly safe country and the crime rate is quite low but the winding maze of alleyways can definitely make you feel uneasy at times. Compared to larger cities like Marrakech and Fes, Essaouira feels quite a bit safer. The alleyways are wider, there is less frequent motorbike traffic through the medina, and people just seem friendlier.
You’re also less likely to find the scammers of Marrakech who often give foreigners misinformation. The medina in Essaouira is easy to navigate and you can generally trust people to point you in the right direction if you get turned around.
Getting to Essaouira
- Essaouira-Mogador Airport (ESU) is the small international airport serving Essaouira. Royal Air Maroc, Transavia, and easyJet are the airlines that operate flights to and from ESU.
- There is no railway running through Essaouira but plenty of buses run to and from cities all over Morocco throughout the day. CTM is the largest and most reliable bus company and Supratours also runs regular trips. The bus from Casablanca takes about 6 hours and the bus from Marrakech takes about 2.5 hours.
- Many people choose to see Essaouira as a day trip and hire a driver for the day. We would not recommend that option as it’s worth spending 3 or 4 days exploring this amazing city.
- Grand taxis make trips to Essaouira from the airport in Marrakech during daylight hours only for a price of about 500 Dhs per person.
The Top 10 Things to See and Do in Essaouira
Make Yourself at Home at the Gorgeous Villa Anouk
Located about 15 minutes outside of the old city of Essaouira, surrounded by beautiful lush gardens, you’ll find your own little paradise at the Villa Anouk. When you arrive you will be greeted by the hilarious and outgoing owner, Anouk, and an amazing and attentive crew. Anouk has brought her amazing New York sense of style to Morocco to create an Instagrammer’s dream!
Lush carpets, drapery, and cushions create an inviting living area while the stone walls and crosshatched ceiling give it a rustic feel. Guests will absolutely love the vast outdoor areas for practicing morning yoga or simply lounging in the sun while reading a book. The indoor pool is perfect for a dip when the afternoon sun is at it’s height.
Each room is uniquely decorated with ornate woodwork, brass fixtures, traditional bedding, and every amenity you could wish for. Some rooms offer private balconies with outdoor showers and others have a gorgeous clawfoot bathtub surrounded by candles for the perfect relaxing evening. Every room is stunningly beautiful in it’s own way.
The chefs at Villa Anouk whip up the most amazing Moroccan food which can be served either family-style in the lavish dining room or in your own little corner of the villa. You’ll enjoy a huge breakfast spread of fresh squeezed juice, warm pastries, organic fruit, yogurt, and piping hot coffee. At dinner you’ll love sipping on delectable local wine while chatting with the other guests from far and wide and savoring Anouk’s take on classic Moroccan dishes.
Try Camel Milk Cheese
Just outside of the city, located along the road to Villa Anouk is a small restaurant and cheese farm called La Fromagerie. It’s the perfect place to sit outside in the sunshine while enjoying different cheeses made from the milk of a variety of animals.
If you’ve never tried camel cheese you absolutely must! It’s similar to goat cheese in texture and flavor and served in several different ways so you can get the most out of your tasting experience.
Be sure to try the cheese and kofta tajine with a glass of local red wine. Plan on spending a few hours in the beautiful outdoor seating area, basking in the sun and savoring every course. And if you’re lucky, you may get to see a few brand new baby camels!
Walk Along the City Walls
The thick walls surrounding the medina of Essaouira were constructed in the late 18th century to defend this coastal town from invasion. But commercial trade soon became what this area was most known for as it linked Morocco and the Sahara with Europe and the rest of the world. The walls have remained and have been well-preserved as the medina was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
Climb the walkway to the top of the ramparts to admire views of the sea while soaking in the history of this massive fort. It’s amazing that they have withstood the test of time even with the continual pounding of the ocean waves.
Find the Best City Views
For an entrance fee of just 10 Dhs you can get one of the best views of the old city in all of Essaouira from the Skala du Port.
The small circular portal in the wall is picture perfect and even has steps to help you to get into position. After snapping a few photos, climb the stairs to watch the bustling port from above. The views of the blue fishing boats below while birds fly overhead are truly stunning.
Afterward head to the seafood stalls located nearby where you can see the daily catches and choose which one you’d like thrown on the grill. Ali at stall #33 is super friendly and not as pushy as some of the other vendors.
Befriend a Camel on the Beach
While the beach in Essaouira isn’t exactly ideal for sunbathing, it is great for taking long walks, watching the kite surfers, befriending the local horses and camels, and taking a ride on an ATV. When you exit the medina near the port, you’ll see the beach stretching out for miles in front of you. Far in the distance you’ll likely see several kites skirting across the ocean – head that way. There you’ll find a plethora of activities to keep you occupied.
Moroccan men offering rides on camels, horses, and ATVs will descend on you once you get close. We prefer to stick to riding ATVs over cute animals, but that’s up to your personal preference. You can opt for a short ride along the beach or a longer one through the small sand dunes. Be sure to negotiate the price before hopping on.
Marvel at the Performers in the Central Square
Sit at one of the many outdoor restaurants that line the main square or enjoy a glass of wine on the terrace at Taros to watch the action from above. Throughout the day you’ll see live music, acrobatics, clowns, and other talented people trying to make a few dirhams. Taros is also the perfect spot to watch the sunset but be sure to bring a jacket!
Shop Till You Drop
The shops that line the alleyways of the old city of Essaouira carry (almost) everything that you’ll find in Fes and Marrakech. However the store owners tend to be far less aggressive in their techniques to coerce you into buying.
Leather bags, shoes, and cushions spill out into the alleyways and plush Berber carpets hang from the walls. Spices delight your senses and blankets in every size and color make the perfect gift for your friends back home. The shop directly across the alley from the Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah Museum has a large selection of quality leather goods and they are happy to bargain with you. Plan on spending about 300 Dhs for a large leather “poof” like this one:
If you’d rather wait to buy a leather poof until you get home, Amazon has options that can be shipped directly to your home.
Learn to Kite Surf
The strong wind coupled with the sandy shore of Essaouira create the perfect conditions to learn a new sport – kite surfing! Explora Watersports offers lessons in a private, semi-private, or group setting depending on your comfort level. You can customize the length of your lesson as well. Their trained experts will teach you the basics so you feel confident getting in the water and giving it a try.
If kite surfing isn’t your thing, you can also rent regular surf boards and stand-up paddle boards with wetsuits for alternative water adventures. You’ll probably want a wetsuit no matter what time of year you visit.
After you’re done surfing make sure to check out Ocean Vagabond for some true surfer vibes while drinking a beer and watching the sunset over the Atlantic.
Eat all the Sweets
Moroccans have one hell of a sweet tooth. Ending most every meal with a delicious pastry and a few cups of sugary sweet mint tea, it’s impossible not to develop one as well while you’re here. Wander around the streets of the medina and you’ll find countless stalls selling typical Moroccan sweets, creamy gelato, chocolaty crepes, and everything in-between.
Right off of the central square you can’t help but stop at the window of Patisserie Driss as it showcases the most decadent looking little goodies. Pick out a few “petits fours aux choix” to enjoy with a cup of coffee to satisfy that sweet craving!
And don’t leave Essaouira without making a stop at Boulangerie Pâtisserie Patachou in the New City to try their mouthwatering desserts and freshly baked bread. Enjoy one while you’re there and take a few to go to enjoy later.
Eat Delicious Food While Listening to Live Music
Essaouira is quite the popular hangout for up-and-coming musicians and you’ll find live music, not only in the central square, but also in many bars and restaurants around the medina. In fact, Jimi Hendrix himself fell in love with Essaouira when he visited in the summer of 1969.
Be sure to enjoy a delicious meal at Le Sirocco which offers both Moroccan and French cuisine while a talented man with a guitar and a microphone serenades you. It’s the perfect relaxing ambiance for a wonderful night out in this darling little town.
And no visit to Essaouira is complete without a night of dinner and entertainment at the Caravane Cafe!
It’s wildly entertaining and will make for an unforgettable evening. Book a reservation for dinner at 8:30pm to ensure you get a table.
Accommodations in the Medina of Essaouira
Interested in spending a few nights in the medina? These riads are our favorites!
Looking for more details on things to see and do in Morocco? Check out our favorite guidebooks!
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