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Essaouira travel guide

Essaouira port blue fishing boats

Essaouira is a quaint little town that’s perfect for a relaxing vacation. The eighteenth-century whitewashed and blue-shuttered houses, colonnades, wood workshops, art galleries, boat-builders, sardine fishermen, and feathery Norfolk Island pines provide a beautiful and colorful backdrop for the beach. Many tourists are drawn to Essaouira by the wind, known locally as the Alizee, which creates perfect waves for windsurfing and kitesurfing. Unfortunately, the same winds make Essaouira terrible for surfing – but those in the know head down the coast to Point Imsouane and Taghazout.

Essaouira Medina ramparts
Essaouira Medina ramparts

Essaouira : Brief history

This town has been home to forts since the fifteenth century, but it was in the 1760s that the city was established and its current circuit of walls built. It was known as Mogador to the Europeans, possibly from the prominent Sidi Mgdoul koubba, and used for navigating entry to the bay. The legend that its patron saint was a Scotsman named McDougal, who was cast away here in the fourteenth century, is less likely. To Moroccans, it was known as Tassourt, from the Berber “little picture.” which served to direct ships into the harbor. A more dubious tale depicts Moroccans dubbing Seurah due to an alleged fourteenth-century Scotsman named McDougal, who perished on these shores after his boat capsized. The name comes from the Berber phrase “petite image,”.and blue shutters are beautiful, and the wood workshops and art galleries add to the charm. The beach here is also great for windsurfing or kitesurfing.

Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah commissioned the walls, which a French military architect, Theodore Cornut, carried out. This explains the town’s unique blend of Moroccan Medina and French grid layouts. The original intention was to provide a military port for Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdallah, as Agadir was in revolt then. However, soon commercial concerns became more important than military ones. Mogador was the only Moroccan port south of Tangier that allowed European trade during the nineteenth century. It prospered greatly from this privilege. Attracted by its customs-free status and sheltered harbor, British merchants settled in the kasbah quarter while a large Jewish community made their home in Mellah within northeast ramparts.

The decline of Essaouira began with the French Protectorate when Marshal Lyautey shifted focus to Casablanca. Anecdote has it that he arrived in Essaouira on a Saturday when the Jewish community was praying; he cast a glance at the deserted streets and decided to move further up the coast. The decline was accelerated after independence by the exodus of the Jewish community. These days, however, the town is very much back on its feet as a fishing port, market town, and ever-more-popular resort. Orson Welles’ 1952 film Othello was shot mainly in Essaouira and opened with a tremendous panning shot of the Essaouira ramparts where Welles placed a scene-setting “punishment” of Iago suspended above sea and rocks in a metal cage.

Essaouira art galleries

Essaouira has become quite a center for painting and sculpture, with many artists making a name for themselves in both Morocco and Europe. However, it’s worth checking that the artist whose works you’re looking at is really the one whose work you were interested in, as there should be in any of the galleries listed here.

Espace Othello

Owned by a Belgian, the gallery was originally an overflow for the artwork he was exhibiting in his nearby restaurant. It is now a standalone gallery with paintings and sculptures by local artists. The gallery is open daily from 9 am to 1 pm and 3 pm to 8 pm.

Association Tilal

A gallery showcasing the work of several local painters with very distinct styles. Most of the pieces exhibited here have been produced quickly to sell at low prices: to purchase some of the artists’ better work, you’ll need to speak to them directly and perhaps commission something. The association should be able to put you in touch. Open daily 8:30 am-12:30 pm, 2:30-7 pm.

LA Petite Galerie

Slimane Drissi is a local painter who has a small but well-chosen selection of his works on display. Daily from 9 am to 9 pm, you can come and take a look at what he’s done.

Galerie d’Art Frederic Damgaard 

Twenty locally based artists exhibit their paintings and sculptures at this gallery, run by a Danish furniture designer who uses traditional thuya techniques in a highly imaginative, modern context. You can also visit the atelier (workshop) at 2 Rue el Hijalli, just off Pl Chefchaouni. It’s open daily from 9 am to 1 pm and 3 to 7 pm.

Essaouira & the music

Today, music and art are two of the main reasons people visit this tranquil hub in Morocco. Jimi Hendrix once stayed here. Rumors circulated that the song “Castles Made of Sand” was written while he was in Essaouira. Of course, the album was released in 1967, and Jimi didn’t travel to Essaouira until 1969—two years after the fact! This proves that rumors are just that. However, blues, rock, and local Gnawa music first collided here in the tumultuous 60s, creating a fusion of incredible music unheard of anywhere else in the world.

Every June, the Gnaoua Festival of World Music attracts music aficionados from around the globe. During this time, musicians can be heard performing their unique and traditional tunes on Essaouria’s ramparts. Many painters and sculptors have chosen to call Essaouria home as well – some even displaying renowned works in galleries throughout the Medina! In 2013, the “Voyages” TV series declared it one of Earth’s happiest getaways; a place steeped with a joyfulness that must be experienced firsthand!

Watersports in Essaouira and its surroundings

If you’re looking for a prime wind- and kitesurfing destination in Morocco, look no further than Essaouira. The trade wind here blows year-round, making it a perfect spot for enthusiasts of all levels. Even beginners can enjoy the gently sloping sandy bottom and the wide shallow area along the shoreline. And although the water temperature only rises to 20°C maximum, there are plenty of surf shops and schools in Essaouira to help you make the most of your experience. Just be warned that the nonstop winds can be a bit much for board surfing. If that’s your thing, you might be better off down at Point Imsouane.

The isle of Mogador

The isles dotting the coast beyond Essaouira are called the Îles Purpuraires, so named for the purple imperial cloth dyes produced from murex shellfish by Roman settlers long ago. These islands were also where Sir Francis Drake enjoyed his Christmas lunch in 1577, famously remarking on the “very ugly fish” served there. The largest of these islands, known as Île de Mogador, is flanked on each side by a fortification which – together with the fort situated on an islet just offshore from town and Bord el Berod beachfront – covers all possible approaches to this bay area. Additionally, Île de Mogador has its own small harbor, mosque, and a few rusty cannons left over from some past era. There’s also a 19th-century prison that was once used to house political exiles but has since been abandoned and left to crumble. Interestingly enough, evidence suggests that there may have been a Phoenician settlement on the landward side of this island back in the late 7th century BC.

Today, the island is a nature reserve and the only non-Mediterranean breeding site of Eleonora’s falcon, Morocco’s most dramatic bird. The falcons are summer visitors to Morocco, staying between May and October before heading south to Madagascar for the winter. They are often seen hunting over the dunes south of Oued Ksob. The nearby river course also has many waders and egrets and occasional rarities such as gull-billed tern and Mediterranean gull.

What to do in Essaouira?

Wheter you are taking a day trip from Marrakech to Essaouira, or you are based in the city for a couple of days, there is plenty of great things to do in this charming town:

Kite surfing

Essaouira is the perfect destination for anyone looking to experience some of the best wind and waves in North Africa. The strong winds make it ideal for activities like surfing, kiteboarding, and windsurfing, while the warm water temperatures mean you can enjoy these sports all year round. If you’re new to these activities, there are plenty of clubs in town that offers lessons and equipment rental. And with near-perfect conditions prevailing every day, there’s no excuse not to give it a try!

Camel caravan in Essaouira beach with kitesurfers and Mogador isle in the background
Camel caravan in Essaouira beach with kitesurfers and Mogador isle in the background.

Spice shopping

Stop by Si Said’s shop in the spice market for spices and stuff your pockets with elusive saffron. If you’re lucky, you’ll find “royal tea.” This is a unique Moroccan tea made of a combination of 15 spices. You’ll find great prices here as well. You can find Said behind the fish market in the medina at no.199 Marché aux épices.

Take a cooking class.

If you’re looking for an amazing cooking experience in Morocco, you have to check out l’Atelier Madada. Chef Mouna offers a fantastic workshop that you’ll definitely want to reserve ahead of time. And this is just one of the many great activities our team can help you plan when you visit Essaouira! You’ll be able to choose from a variety of different dishes, and the expansive kitchen is perfect for experienced cooks and non-cooks alike. Classes run from 10 am-2 pm, and there’s also a Patisserie Class offered from 3:30-5:30 pm (except Sundays).

Essaouira Medina street
Essaouira Medina street.

Sunbathe at the beach

The beautiful beach at Essaouira is perfect for relaxation and enjoying the stunning views. The ruins located a short distance away are definitely worth exploring, and you can choose to walk, swim or ride a camel or horse to get there. If the wind isn’t too strong, Essaouira is one of the more relaxed beaches in Morocco – perfect for renting a sun lounger, soaking up some rays, and watching the kite surfers and soccer players.

Take a sailing tour

Sail away on a magical journey aboard our traditional Moroccan sailing vessel. Experience the beauty of the coast as you glide past towering cliffs and secluded coves. The daytime tour takes place from 10:30 am – 2:30 pm. Sunset cruise rides are also available. Tea and delicious Moroccan pastries are served onboard.

Horse riding 

If you’re a horse rider who dreams of amazing beaches, sunsets into the ocean, long canters, and gallops, riding on the beach of Essaouira is the perfect place for you. There are several rides available, from 1 hour to a full day and from sunset rides to multi-day treks.

Quad biking 

Discover the untamed beauty of Essaouira’s desert scape and embark on a thrilling quad-biking tour. Just 4 kilometers from the city, Diabat serves as an ideal base for this activity, where fully licensed operators will provide you with all necessary gear, including helmets, to ensure your safety. Let yourself be captivated by rolling sand dunes whilst riding along coastlines that merge into the sea – these moments are sure to become unforgettable memories! Tours come in different lengths ranging from one hour up until a full day, and skilled guides will teach you how to operate quads before departure. After completing your ride, take some time off exploring other sites near Diabat, like Café Jimi Hendrix, devoted to honoring celebrated guitarists, or Dar Sultan Palace, left abandoned amidst Moroccan desert elements…

Quad biking in Essaouira beach
Quad biking in Essaouira beach.

Watch the fishing boats.

Essaouira was once known as the “Port of Timbuktu” and was once Morocco’s biggest port city. Although those glory days may be in the past, there are still plenty of ships and fishing boats coming in and out of the harbor. If you’re interested in seeing shipbuilders at work or watching the local fishermen return to shore with their catch every day, head down to the harbor. You might even be able to find a fresh fish dinner for dinner…

Essaouira port blue fishing boats
Essaouira blue fishing boats.

Treat yourself to delicious seafood.

If you’re looking for fresh seafood, Essaouira is the place to be! Fishermen auction off their catch as soon as they get to port, and there are stalls along the harbor where you can get it grilled. You won’t find anything, fresher! Most of the restaurants in the area serve the day’s catch, so you have plenty of options.