Travellers to Morocco often flock straight to Marrakech, or into the Sahara Desert, but the coastal port city of Essaouira shouldn’t be neglected. It’s a laid-back destination, an antidote to the hustle and bustle of the better-known cities. There’s plenty to see and do. You can go horse-riding on the beach, or tuck into the freshest fish you’re going to find anywhere in Morocco. To give you a feel for the city, we’ve put together a guide to the best things to do in Essaouira.
1. Walk the city ramparts
Essaouira’s ramparts were built in the 1760s to protect the port from invaders. And a walk along these historic walls is a must for anybody visiting the region. There are still intact cannons on top of the walls. And visitors can enjoy stunning views out to sea and down to the medina. You’ll normally find local traders up here too, selling hand-painted artwork and other items.
2. Shop the souks
Exploring Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech is incredible, an assault on the senses. It’s a whirlwind of market stalls, musicians, and snake charmers. It’s a must-visit, but for some, it can be a little much. The souks of Essaouira are much more laid back and relaxed. Traders are a bit less persistent; prices are lower and there’s all manner of items to shop for. From spices to silver, leather to traditional Berber carpets. Bartering is acceptable as in the majority of Morocco’s markets. If you’re new to the culture and customs of Moroccan shopping, then Essaouira may be the best place in the country to ease yourself in!
3. Stay active on the beach
Essaouira is nicknamed “the windy city” and its beaches aren’t known for sunbathing. However, they have a great reputation for water sports. The constant Atlantic breeze makes it the perfect destination to try your hand at windsurfing and kitesurfing, and there are plenty of surf schools on the beachfront. You can also go horse riding, camel riding, or quad biking further along the beach. If you are committed to sunbathing then you’ll want to bring along an umbrella or something else to stop the winds from blowing sand into your face. But when the rest of Morocco is sweltering in the summer heat, the breeze will become your best friend!
4. Delve into the medina
Essaouira’s medina was formerly known as Mogador, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 for its rich history and cultural importance. Unlike places such as Fes and Marrakech, the medina is laid out in a grid system, with a beautiful central square, Place Moulay-Hassan. This makes it much harder to get lost and means streets are wider and generally more accessible. The medina is full of shops, independent restaurants, cafes, and all manner of other outlets. Enjoying a coffee, a spot of people-watching, or a light lunch in Place Moulay-Hassan is a wonderful way to spend a few hours in the city.
5. Go quad biking
The vast, untamed desert just outside Essaouira is a popular quad-biking spot with travellers to this part of Morocco. The small village of Diabat is the base for this exhilarating activity. It is easily reached by taxi, just 4 kilometres from Essaouira. Tackling rolling sand dunes and riding along the shoreline where the desert meets the sea is sure to be a memorable experience. Various fully licensed operators offer quad biking excursions varying in length from 1 hour to a full day. Full safety equipment including a helmet is provided and a guide will show you how to use the quad before you set off. After your tour, there are a couple of other places in Diabat that are worth visiting. Cafe Jimi Hendrix is dedicated to the celebrated guitarist and the abandoned Dar Sultan Palace is now exposed to the elements of the Moroccan desert.
6. Watch the boats in the harbour
Historically nicknamed the “Port of Timbuktu”, Essaouira was once Morocco’s biggest port. And although those glory days may be behind the city, plenty of ships and fishing boats are still coming and going. Get yourself down to the harbour to see shipbuilders at work, or watch the local fishermen return to shore with their catch every day in the mid-afternoon. Perfect if you’re in the market for a fresh fish dinner…
7. … and stuff yourself with seafood
Fishermen in Essaouira auction off their catch the second they get to port. And some of them will even grill it for you at stalls along the harbour. It doesn’t get much fresher than that! The majority of restaurants in the area will also offer the daily catch, so you really are spoilt for choice.
Essaouira can be thought of in many ways as “Morocco Lite”. This is because it has a much more relaxed atmosphere and lower intensity when compared to the bustle of Marrakech and other cities. However, this doesn’t mean you’re going to be bored, as there is plenty to see and do in the city. Whether you like to shop, relax or keep active, you’ll find something to enjoy in Essaouira. You can visit the coastal city on many of our Morocco tours, including Casablanca & Coast (7 days), Casablanca to Essaouira (13 days), and Best of Morocco (13 days).