Essaouira, previously known as Mogador, is a lovely city along Morocco’s Atlantic coast. Regular bus and minivan services connect it to Marrakech, with a one-way journey time of around three hours. It is also possible to take a day trip from Marrakech, but the city’s laid-back nature and abundance of things to do and see mean that it would be well worth staying for at least a couple of days.
Used as a filming site for the popular TV show Game of Thrones, featuring as Astapor, one of the three cities along the fictional Slaver’s Bay and home of the notorious Unsullied, Essaouira attracts many tourists. Here’s why you should add Essaouira to your Morocco bucket list:
Long beaches with varied activities
Essaouira has several sandy beaches, some punctuated by patches of rocky shoreline. The cool trade winds prevent the area from ever feeling too hot, even at the height of summer. Whilst sunbathing and swimming are possible on many of the city’s beaches, some people may actually find the conditions a bit too chilly to strip off down to their bathing suits!
The winds do, however, provide great conditions for windsurfing and kitesurfing. Even if you don’t want to participate yourself, it’s really quite nice to watch the colourful kites and sails over the waters as you appreciate the skill of the professionals. Jet skiing, boating, and fishing are also available.
Bustling fishing harbour
Wander through the fishing harbour and you’ll see a number of fishing vessels in all shapes and sizes, including those that are undergoing maintenance and repairs, as well as large nets that emit a strong fishy smell. One of the country’s main fishing harbours, it is a hive of activity, with sailors and fishermen mingling with dockhands who help to offload the catch of the day, curious tourists, and vendors. Watch out for thick ropes strewn across the concrete!
Abundance of fish and seafood
With a thriving harbour, it will come as no surprise to find that Essaouira is home to plentiful restaurants and cafes that serve an array of fresh seafood and fish dishes. You can also purchase snacks from the ocean at a number of small hole-in-the-wall establishments and street carts, or head to the fish market to purchase fresh items that you can have cooked up on the spot.
Sardines are especially common, along with lobsters, mussels, shrimps, rays, sea urchins, mackerel, red snapper, squid, and eel.
Relaxed medina and souks
Essaouira’s medina (walled heart of the city) is pretty tranquil compared to those in larger tourist hotspots, like Marrakech and Fes, and you can take your time to leisurely explore the narrow alleyways and wider thoroughfares. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though technically meant to be a vehicle-free area, scooters and bicycles sometimes whizz along the streets, and you might have to dodge a tired-looking donkey pulling a heavily laden cart.
The souks (markets) sell a typical assortment of Moroccan souvenirs, clothing, spices, handicrafts, rugs, and household goods. Whilst you will still need to haggle to get the best prices, shopping here is a lot less frenetic than in other larger cities and souks. Essaouira is known for its high-quality woodwork and lacquerware, and you may spot craftsmen working away on various items.
Atmospheric sea fortress with great views
A historic sea fortress was built by the Portuguese in the early 1500s. Although this original fortress was subsequently destroyed, another fortress and high walls, known as the Scala, were built to defend the city and provide sweeping views over the ocean. The walkways are lined with old cannons, and you can climb the towers and ramparts for just 10 MAD (approximately 1 USD). The chatter of seagulls fills the air and the salty scents of the ocean fill your nostrils.
Decrepit old Jewish Quarter
In the past, Essaouira’s population was roughly half Muslim and half Jewish. The Jews came during the 18th-century period of high trade with Europe, building homes and synagogues. As trade slowed, the Jews left, with the Jewish Quarter today in a sad state of disrepair, neglect, and decay. The crumbling buildings and dingy alleyways are now largely the domain of local prostitutes and stray cats. You can almost hear the ghosts from the past as you gaze upon the ramshackle and graffiti-covered buildings.
Other interesting attractions and activities in and around Essaouira
If you like horses and horse riding, head to Zouina-Cheval where you can explore Essaouira’s dunes and rugged surroundings by horseback. There is also the opportunity to enjoy a camel ride on several sections of the beach.
Diabat is a small Berber village located at one end of Essaouira’s beach. Whilst it is almost desolate, it is reported to have been a favourite hangout of the legendary Jimi Hendrix in times gone by. Today, you can see a coastal ruin before calling into the Hendrix Café for a drink.
Essaouira is one of the few places in Morocco where argan trees are grown. Argan trees are only grown in Morocco, and the nut-like fruit is used to produce argan oil, which is said to have great benefits for the skin, hair, and nails.
Get to know charming and laid-back Essaouira and discover another side to magical Morocco.
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