The Windy City: Top 9 Things to do in Essaouira
Visiting the city of Essaouira is a popular day trip from Marrakech. It’s a long day — it takes around three hours to get there, but it’s worth doing as there are a lot of things to do in the scenic and picturesque city of Essaouira.
I’m glad I was able to go, as it is a top place to visit in Morocco and was high on my list. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to go until my last day in the country, so I was exhausted and limited on time.
I could easily have stayed a few days exploring this charming city. If I return to Morocco, it will be one of the first places I go to visit. If you have the opportunity, you should definitely visit the windy city of Morocco. Here’s what to expect when you go.
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Essaouira is a city perched on the Atlantic Ocean formerly known by its Portuguese name, Mogador. It is partially sheltered from strong marine winds by the island of the same name.
It has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and there are stories going back as far as the 5th century B.C. There have also been Roman artifacts found.
Portuguese King Manuel I built a fortress in Essaouira in 1506 called Castelo Real of Mogador. It was abandoned by the Portuguese a few years later when it fell to a Berber tribe.
Many countries tried to conquer it unsuccessfully throughout the 16th century. This included England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. It flourished as an exporter of sugar and molasses and provided refuge to pirates.
The current city of Essaouira was built by Moroccan King Mohammed III in the mid-1700s. Eager to increase trade with Europe, he selected Mogador as a key harbor location, offering proximity to both Marrakech and Europe.
It took 12 years to build and was originally called Souira, meaning a small fortress. It was later called “Es-Saouira,” meaning the beautifully designed small fortress.
Essaouira remained the primary international trading seaport of Morocco until the end of the 1800s. Goods from sub-Saharan Africa were sold around the world through this city. It was important not only to Morocco but also to places all around the world.
The city continued to thrive until the caravan trade died when Europe began trading directly with sub-Saharan Africa.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Medina of Essaouira, formerly known as Mogador, is a UNESCO World Heritage site listed as an exceptional example of a late 18th-century fortified town. It is recognized as having a strong European influence translated to a North African context.
I have a passion for seeking out UNESCO World Heritage sites as they are always interesting and unique representations of their area. Essaouira was no different, and it was amazing to see this interesting fortified port town to see a different slice of Moroccan history and culture.
There is a restoration effort underway in the Mellah, or Jewish Quarter, which has suffered substantial deterioration.
Jewish Presence in Essaouira
Essaouira not only has an interesting history but was a place in Morocco with a large Jewish population. I was surprised by the number of Jewish people who once called the country home. Jewish presence in Morocco dates back over 2,500 years.
Though there were some periods of tension during various times, overall, they were able to thrive and prosper. At its peak, there were believed to be more than 300,000 Moroccan Jews, making it the largest Jewish population in a Muslim country.
There was a large influx during the Spanish Inquisition, where Morocco offered safety to Jews fleeing the Expulsion. Mohammed III encouraged Moroccan Jews to settle in the town of Essaouira to handle trade with Europe. At one time, Moroccan Jews comprised around 40% of the city.
Numbers decreased dramatically, and in 1948 when the State of Israel was established, numbers decreased further. There are now only a handful of Jewish inhabitants in Essaouira and less than 2,000 in the country.
Wander the Old City
When you get off the bus, it is a ten-minute walk to get to the old city. In fact, you can see the back of the old city walls, and if you walk towards them following the path, you will arrive at the main gate.
Enter the main gate and wander around the old city. There are a lot of shops and restaurants to tempt your interest, as well as many, many cats. It’s a sad fact that you will see many stray cats throughout Morocco, but I noticed even more in Essaouira.
There are a lot of interesting things to see in this striking white-washed city with a pop of color all around, both in the shops and on the doors. One thing you will notice about Essaouira is the people: it’s a blend of locals, tourists, and hippies!
Much of the city appears quite young though you’ll see some older people with time etched on their faces wandering around.
It seems there are interesting things to see around every corner. Enjoy the ocean views over the city walls. People watch in the souks and really, anywhere you wander.
Look at the art galleries and boutiques. The people here are so interesting, and there is such a nice laid-back vibe.
Strike a Deal in the Medina
The souks and shops in Essaouira have some really beautiful things for sale, and the pace here isn’t quite as frenetic as it can be in Marrakech. It’s a good place to go for your souvenir shopping and to find some good deals.
There are many places with wood carvings, paintings, woven blankets, and tapestries. But these aren’t generally the mass-produced items you find in Marrakech, but smaller production items with more attention to detail.
The shopkeepers are different here from Marrakech, as well as their merchandise. They don’t seek you out as much and are a bit more laid back about you checking things out in their shop.
You can often look through things unhindered until you ask for the price. When you decide to ask, remember to bargain for a final price.
I did find I was approached a little bit more than in Marrakech, though I traveled to Essaouira and explored on my own. Since I wasn’t with others, people did approach me a bit more.
But they weren’t bothersome in any way, and the creative ways they approached me were entertaining. “I like your sandals. I have similar sandals here that were handmade…”
It is certainly a much more relaxing experience shopping in Essaouira, so I do recommend checking it out if you visit Marrakech. The two main streets in the medina are Avenue Mohamed Zerktouni and Avenue Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah.
They are lined with shops and have some carts and stands in the center as well. You can find shops throughout the old town as well, especially along the city wall.
Visit the Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah Museum
This history museum is located in the heart of the Essaouira medina. It was named for the city founder, Mohammed Ben Abdallah. It is located in an old 1800s mansion designed as a riad.
It’s a small museum that houses a collection of historical artifacts, old musical instruments, ancient pottery and coins, jewelry, and carpets.
The Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah Museum 161 Avenue Mohamed Zafzaf, Essaouira 44000, Morocco. It is open from Wednesday to Monday from 8:30 to 5:30. It’s closed on Tuesday.
Weave Through the Mellah
The Jewish Quarter, or Mellah, was once a thriving area of the city. It has fallen into disrepair with the exodus of the Jews, but you will see workers busily renovating it. Wandering around, you will see many old homes and some shops as well.
Additionally, you will see a synagogue, Synagogue Slat Lkahal Mogador, that has been recently restored. It is open to the public, and you can take a short self-guided tour through it. There was no one in there when I entered, although the door was open, so I took a look around.
As I was leaving, a vivacious group of men started pouring into the synagogue, so I made my exit.
Slat Lhahal Mogador Synagogue is located on Rue Mellah.
Take Pictures in the Harbor Fish Market
One of the most picturesque places in Essaouira is the Harbor. Here you will see cobalt blue fishing boats line up after the fishermen bring in their daily catch. See the fishermen in the early morning if you arrive early enough.
Or stroll through the market to see the fruits of their labor. If you get there before lunchtime, you may see some of the locals bargaining for their lunch or even for their restaurants.
This is a spectacular place for people-watching, and the boats are a photographer’s dream. You can also purchase fish to have a restaurant prepare it for you for a fee.
Tour the Harbor Scala
Some of the best views of the Essaouira harbor are from the Genoese-built citadel on the harbor. If you turn right just before heading to the harbor, right where the arched wall is, you can enter this area to explore.
The entrance costs 50 DH (around $4.75 USD). You climb to the top floor, where you have spectacular views of the blue ships in the harbor, the fish market, the ocean, and parts of the old city walls surrounding the fortress.
There are lots of amazing picture opportunities and it’s a photographer’s dream as it isn’t as crowded as the surrounding areas.
Catch a Wave
The coastal wind that earned Essaouira the nickname of the windy city blows so strongly here that relaxing on the beach can be challenging. As a result, it has enabled the city to retain its character as it is passed by tourists seeking beach time. Instead, people visit to wander the quaint old city and for watersports.
Essaouira is a popular place for windsurfing, especially in April and November. Watersports are popular here, including surfing.
If watersports aren’t your thing, you can also go on a horse ride on the beach, quad tours, or a camel ride.
Sip Mint Tea
Just like anywhere in Morocco, mint tea is the drink of choice for locals and tourists. Take a break to watch life in this beautiful city with a pot of mint tea. There are restaurants and cafes throughout the old city. Take the time to stop to just absorb the amazing scenery.
Explore the Ramparts
Walk along the top of the old city walls and enjoy the ocean views. Parts are lined with some nice shops filled with all sorts of creative goods. At the top, you’ll see some old cannons pointing out to the sea, where they used to protect the city from invasion.
There is a man selling treats made from peanuts and honey that are worth trying. He claims they have argan oil in them as well, and you will know it’s him as he will be shouting, “argan oil!” He will you a small taste and you can, of course, buy some. These treats are really good and worth trying.
There are several areas with open cutouts overlooking the ocean where you can sit and enjoy the sun and wind on your face to take in the scene before you.
Where to Eat in Essaouira
I decided to go to Restaurant Khmissa due to the high reviews on TripAdvisor, and what a great call that was! This restaurant is tiny—there are only a few tables inside, and they have a few outside as well.
It is well situated right off the main road but tucked on a small side street with much less traffic. I chose to sit outside.
The menu is short and simple, with a handful of dishes. I got a tagine, my last in Morocco, and by far the best. It had beef with fruits, including dates, figs, plums, and apricot, as well as nuts. Yum. It was amazing as was the mint tea that I got.
Restaurant Khmissa is located on Rue Mehdi Ibn Toumert, Essaouira, Morocco. It is open from 12 to 4 and 6:30 to 10 daily, except for Sunday, when it is open from 3:30 to 10.
Day Trip from Marrakech
Essaouira is a popular day trip from Marrakech, and it’s a nice change of pace. I loved Marrakech, but Essaouira has more of a quaint and historic feel. And even in the market areas, the bustle is a bit less frenetic than in Marrakech.
There are a number of ways to get to Essaouira from Marrakech. You can take a group tour there. However, there is a really easy and inexpensive bus option that I recommend.
Supratours runs trips to and from Essaouira several times a day, and you can purchase tickets online or at the bus station. Check the schedule for Tourism Transport on the Supratour website for the date(s) you are looking at, and make sure to get there a few minutes early.
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I decided to buy tickets at the station, and a round-trip ticket cost 108 DH (around $10.25 USD). One-way tickets cost 80 DH each way (around $7.60 USD). You are best purchasing a round-trip ticket and can change your return time for no fee if there is availability on the bus.
There is a small cafe there where you can get a coffee and a chocolate croissant or water and some other snacks for the ride. Seats are assigned, so check the number on your ticket.
Around halfway to Essaouira, there is a short stop for you to get out to stretch your legs, or you can use the toilet or purchase a drink or a snack.
You can also rent a car to go. However, I have read that renting a car can be a challenging prospect in Morocco though if you know some tips before you plan it, it’s doable.
There is a small international airport serving Essaouira called Essaouira-Mogador Airport (ESU). Royal Air Maroc, Transavia, and EasyJet are the airlines that operate flights to and from ESU. If you are traveling from within Morocco, a bus or car is likely an easier way to go.
Essaouira tends to be mild and cool for much of the year, making it a popular weekend getaway during the summer. Winds blow year-round, and the summer mornings tend to be foggy, but it burns off with the afternoon sun. The most popular times to visit are from May to October.
Winters are mild, with average temperatures from 45 degrees Fahrenheit to 66 degrees (18 Celcius to 8). There may be heatwaves in the summer, though they are less common than in other coastal cities. Temperatures typically are only a few degrees warmer on average in the summer.
Essaouira is a charming fortified sea town rich with history. Be prepared to fall in love with its laid-back vibe and explore the twists and turns of the citadel. It’s a refreshing change from the rest of Morocco and a place you are bound to enjoy.
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