Essaouira: what to see and do. Morocco’s hip coastal town has windswept beaches and historic souks
December 1, 2015 | By: High50
Essaouira (pic from SofitelWhy go

Medieval architecture, an oceanfront medina and a laidback vibe makes Essaouira an unforgettable seaside holiday. This windy little port town, just a bus ride from Marrakech, is a welcome break from the madness of the city, and European hippies have been flocking here, like its famous gulls, since the 60s.

Legend tells us Cat Stevens, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix visited (there’s a hotel named after the latter) and it’s no wonder. Romantic, mystical and surprising, Essaouira is a joy.

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What to do

Take it all in. Walk the fortified walls, visit the UNESCO world heritage site’s historic gems, drink mint tea in your own private riad and explore the Game of Thrones set – much of the series was filmed against Essaouira’s ramparts. Looking for something more active? Essaouira and its nearby beaches are Morocco’s prime wind and kitesurfing destinations, attracting enthusiasts throughout the year.

Where to stay
ssaouira sofitel hotel

The new Sofitel Essaouira Mogador Golf & Spa

Whether within the ancient medina, or nestled in the rocks just a window from the waves, this beautiful town isn’t short on wow locations to lay your head. Most are in easy walking distance to the sea and medina. The vibe is more Malibu than Marbella and there are a range of options to suit most budgets.

The new Sofitel Essaouira Mogador Golf & Spa is becoming one of the most popular in a clutch of spa hotels, with two swimming pools, private beach and shuttle. Heure Bleue Palais Relais & Châteaux has a heated outdoor pool, a cinema room, hammam and massage room and is 450 yards from the beach.

Dar Al Bahar, on the sea wall, boasts a rooftop terrace with spectacular views of the Atlantic. Riad Lalla Mogador is a great budget option. Cosy and unpretentious, it’s right in the heart of the medina. Guests also get access to Riad Zahra’s pool on the beach, a short walk away.

Where to eat
Essaouira Sofitel Mogador spa

Lie by the pool at the Sofitel Essaouira Mogador Golf & Spa

A trip here wouldn’t be complete without trying your luck at the fishermen’s huts at the bustling port. Watch the blue boats bring in the day’s catch and have fresh fish prepared while you wait.

If you prefer a more refined option, Il Mare, over four floors, has some of the best views and is a great spot for lunch. L’Atlantic sits at the edge of the infinity pool of the Sofitel Essaouira Mogador Golf & Spa and serves everything from sushi to grilled lobster with Espelette pepper and olive oil.

Quirky Elizir, with 1970s curiosity shop décor and Moroccan-Italian-fused menu, is tiny and fills up fast – so book ahead. Romantics will love a candle-lit table at La Licorne, right inside the medina, where you can enjoy some of the best tagine in town. Les Remparts is atmospheric and great value for money – try the chicken pastilla and couscous.

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Getting around

If you want to truly relax, you won’t be bored spending a few days wandering the medina, but if you did want to explore further, rent a car and take a trip into the surrounding countryside. There are five bus journeys to Marrakech with Supratours each day, taking less than three hours.

When to go

Early spring for blue, cloudless skies and gentle breezes, while July and August are the windiest months and when the water is cooler.

Don’t miss
Essaouira The Gnaoua World Music Festival Toumani Diabate band flickr Vince Millett

The Toumani Diabate band playing a the Gnaoua World Music Festival

Essaouira’s souk – easy to navigate, it’s laid out on the grid system by a French architect. (Es-Saouira means the beautifully/well designed.)

Orson Welles’ bust – in a small square just outside the medina walls. He stayed at Hotel des Iles while directing Othello, and several scenes are shot in the medina’s alleys.

Spending a few hours in Place Moulay Hassan – while musicians play and locals in earthy djellabas stroll the sea walls.

The Gnaoua World Music Festival – it’s been happening here every May since 1998. Celebrating the music and arts of the Gnaoua people, it attracts 500,000 visitors over four days. Expect jazz, blues, reggae and hip hop, too, and if you’re lucky, catch a lila ritual, performed only at night. You can also learn more about Gnaoua traditions and customs with a free class.

 Three things we like
essaouira street (sofitel site)

Colourful pots on a street in Essaouira

  1. The people are ultra-friendly. If you’re shopping, don’t be surprised if you’re invited to share a mint tea as you browse – it’s impolite to refuse.
  2. Its romance – a walk around the port and its breathtaking views and the call of the gulls never fails to stir the soul.
  3. Its size. Less overwhelming than Fez or Marrakech, you can walk the main town easily at your own pace.
 Something we don’t like

Sun worshippers might find the wind irritating. In the summer, the northerly wind is especially strong.

Book here for some winter sun

High50 insider tips
  • The main supermarket in Essaouria doesn’t sell alcohol, but some bars and restaurants, where it’s freely available, may sell you a bottle of wine to take home.
  • Taros Café, a surfie haunt, is hard to beat for laid-back cocktails at sunset.
  •  Staying at Dar Al Bahar? Ask for the Malika room, with bedroom window facing to the sea.
Need to know
  • Flight time is under four hours.
  • During daylight saving it is +1 GMT
  • The currency is the Moroccan Dirham (MAD)
  • Politely saying ‘la shukran’ (Arabic for ‘no thank you’) in the souk, rather than the French used by many tourists, will gain the vendor’s respect.
  • The usual rules of respect when travelling in a Muslim country should be followed in Essaouira.