What to see and do in the charming Medina of Essaouira
Only 2-hour drive from Marrakech, located on the windy Atlantic coast, it lies the beautiful coastal town of Essaouira. Also known with the old Portuguese name of “Mogador” (the small fortress), it boasts a bustling Medina surrounded by high walls that protect it from the sea and that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
Its narrow alleys, craft shops, typical architecture with whitewashed walls and the extensive use of wood, make the town a must-visit of Morocco. Essaouira features a mix of various cultural influences: its importance as a trading port during the 18th & 19th centuries attracted British, French, Arab and Jewish merchants and sailors to its shores.
These European and Arabic influences are still reflected in the architecture and structure of the city. Essaouira is also nicknamed “the city of the wind” due to the strong wind that often blows here, and that undoubtedly makes the long beaches of the city a paradise for the surfers.
An interesting footnote is that the famous director Orson Wells filmed here the version of Shakespeare’s Moorish tragedy Otello.
Essaouira is also famous for the Gnaoua and World Music Festival, a lively week-long event with performances ranging from traditional slave-derived music to contemporary jazz that takes place in the late June.
Let’s go to wander through the medina
Our driver drops us off in front of the imposing Bab Sbaa gate and passing by the Clock of Essaouira and the old Ben Youssef Mosque, in a few minutes we reach our Riad in the heart of the Medina. Thrown the backpack in the room, we immediately start our tour to discover this charming and attractive place.
Ok, keep calm! At first, we need a quick stop for lunch. We are starving, and the display of a small restaurant shows such a tasty shawarma kebab and meat skewer. The food is delicious, and the view on the crowded Avenue d’Istiqlal from the little restaurant’s terrace is beautiful.
Back on the street, lined by shops selling any goods and the charming white houses, we reach the fish market. In this small square, hidden in the alleys on the left side of Rue D’istiqlal, many stalls are selling the catch of the day.
Strolling here we find out a cool thing: haggling with the fishermen you can buy the fish and make it immediately cooked in the small restaurant located in the left side of the square where you have only to pay this service! The restaurant is really crowded and mostly frequented by locals.
Leaving the market, we reach the Mellah of the medina, the old Jewish quarter. In the 18th century, the Jewish population made up nearly half of the people of Essaouira.
This part, with its Jewish cemetery, numerous synagogues still intact and the stars of David engraved above many of the houses’ doors, is undoubtedly really charming.
Getting lost in the narrow lanes lined by shops selling local crafts including brass, carpets, fabrics, leather, wood, ceramics and local hand made footwear, art galleries, small pastry shops, and cafes, we reach the large Moulay El Hassan square.
It’s the main square of the Medina that faces the Ocean, and it’s characterised by the enormous amount of seagulls that fly right above. Crossing the square and passing through Bab El Marsa, we are now in the bustling harbour of the Medina.
Bab el Marsa is monumental gate build in blocks of stone that boast Arabic inscriptions carved in sandstone and a particular triangular pediment surmounting the door.
Before entering the gate is possible to visit the Scala of the Port, a bastion overlooking the sea, from where you can enjoy one of the beautiful and suggestive views of the city and its high ramparts.
The main attraction of the harbour is the fishing fleet that is mostly comprised of family-owned boats. The characteristic of these boats is their blue colour.
Moving on the sea in and out of the harbour and scattered everywhere around the piers tied up together, the boats give a unique and picturesque touch to this lively place.
We have a walk along the pier surrounded by the many stalls selling fresh fish and fishers who clean the boat deck and tidy up the nets; then we go back on the main square where we have a pleasant stroll on the rocks at the bottom of the high ramparts of the West Bastion.
It’s incredible how high and imposing is the bastion…we feel like ants… Anyway, it’s late evening, and it’s almost time to reach the North bastion to watch the sunset.
Going back in the alleys of the Medina, stopping by now and then to have a look in the shops, we reach the Skala the kasbah, the fortified walls overlooking the sea next to the North Bastion.
Scala of the Kasbah was built for defence against attacks from the sea, and it is constructed in two levels. Its ground floor featured storage rooms for military material wheres in the upper floor were located the bronze cannons that is still possible to see walking on the wall over the cobbled stone.
As the sun sets over the Atlantic Ocean accompanied by the sound of the waves crashing on the ramparts, the white houses of Essaouira are wrapped by its hues of orange, pink and red that make our day unforgettable.
|Need to Know|
|1) When to go
All year round. Compared with other destinations in Morocco, Essaouira has a moderate and not usual climate with mild winters and warm, dry summers. Averages highs range from 18°C in January to 24°C in August. The wind is another constant in this climate, and it blows all year round, especially in the form of an afternoon breeze in summer.
Summer season (May-Sep) is the best for windsurfing and kitesurfing.
2) How to get there
If you are travelling around on your own, the cheapest way is by bus from Casablanca or Marrakech. If you have more days to spend around the country, the best way to reach Essaouira is to book a private car with a driver through a local agency to avoid wasting time and do your visits with no rush. In our 2 trips around Morocco, we arranged the vehicle with driver with Tizi trekking and Atlas discovery.
3) Where to sleep
Essaouira offers a good range of accommodations, and the best place to stay is inside the Medina and its comfortable Riad. We slept at La Caverne d’Ali Baba along Avenue d’Istiqlal.
Alternatively, we can suggest to you:
Click here to see all the accommodations in Essaouira.
4) Where to eat
Our favourite place where to eat is Place Moulay el Hassan, where you’ll find small restaurants-stalls selling fresh fish. You have to haggle the price choosing among tasty fish, octopus, squids, lobsters displayed on the stalls and make them cooked on the grill by the cook.
Click below to see the list and reviews of the restaurants in Essaouira.
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