What to see and do in the ancient 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: the importance as a trading port during the past centuries attracted to its shores Portuguese, British, French, Arab and Jewish merchants and sailors.
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!
1. Bab Sbaa gate
The minivan leaves us in front of the imposing Bab Sbaa, a monumental 19th century gate that marks the entrance to the Medina. After passing the gate we arrive in Avenue Oqba Ibn Nafiaa, where in front of us stands the Clock Tower of Essaouira, built in 1912 by order of the French general Maréchal Lyautey. We continue our walk passing by the ancient Ben Youssef Mosque with its imposing door finely painted in brown (access only for Muslims), and in a few minutes we reach the Riad La Caverne d’Ali Baba, located in an excellent position along the Avenue d’Istiqlal, the main street of the Medina. Leaving the backpack in the room, we immediately begin our tour to discover this fascinating place and its attractions.
2. Avenue d’Istiqlal and Souk Jdid
Back on the main street of the Medina, lined by small shops selling all kinds of goods and charming typical white houses, we pass by the Sidi Ahmed mosque, known as the mosque of the kasbah, and reach the Souk Jdid area. This is the busiest area of the entire Medina, where several local markets are located.
In the alleys on our right is the flea market, known as Joutiya, and the seed market, while on our left is the spice market and the folkloristic fish market. Strolling through the multitude of stalls of the fish market, hidden in a small square behind the Avenue d’Istiqlal, we find out an interesting thing. Haggling with the fishermen , it’s possible to buy fish and have it cooked immediately in the small restaurant located on the left side of the square, where you pay only for the service. The restaurant is very busy and mostly popular with locals.
3. Jewish quarter and Jewish cemetery
After the pleasant visit of the souk Jdid, we leave Avenue d’Istiqlal behind and in a few minutes we reach the old Jewish quarter, better known as Mellah. For those interested, continuing along the main street, going out from the Medina through the Bab Doukkala gate, you can visit the ancient Christian Cemetery, where Charles Gustave Bouveret (1878 – 1943) is buried. He was a French doctor who became a symbol of ancient Mogador, founder of 2 hospitals and a tuberculosis clinic. Close to the Christian cemetery, is the ancient Jewish Cemetery with the Mausoleum of Haim Pinto, the most important Rabbi of Mogador, who died at 96 years old in 1845. Every year, during the anniversary of the rabbi’s death, thousands of Jews come on pilgrimage (called hiloula) to Essaouira to pray on this important tomb.
The Mellah in the eighteenth century was inhabited by many families of Jewish origin who, at the time, made up almost half of the total population of Essaouira. Very interesting are the Haim Pinto Synagogue with the adjoining house of the Rabbi, where you can learn about the history of the Jewish quarter and its inhabitants, and the small Synagogue Slat Lkahal Mogador. Walking along the narrow alleys of the neighborhood, one of the most fascinating features that we notice are the entrance doors of the houses engraved with the Star of David, a symbol that represents Jewish religiosity.
Not far from the current Jewish quarter, there is another religious building, the Simon Attias Synagogue, built in 1882 and where, at its entrance, there is a table with a Koran and a Torah on it to symbolize the coexistence between Muslims and Jews. All three synagogues have been restored and renovated in the past years.
4. Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah Museum
Once along Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah street, teeming with shops selling local handicrafts – including brass, carpets, fabrics, leather, wood, ceramics and handcrafted footwear -, art galleries, small patisseries and coffee bars, we reach the Rue Laalaouj where we visit the Simon Attias Synagogue and the Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah Museum. Housed in a 19th century riad, it owes its name from the founder of the city and exhibits historical artifacts, from ancient ceramics to jewelery, paying homage to the rich history of the city.
5. Moulay El Hassan Square
After the interesting visit of the Museum, we head to Moulay El Hassan square. Before reaching the square, in a small alley is the old and fascinating building of the Palace of Justice, characterized by a large wooden door painted in blue surmounted by the inscription engraved on the stone “Palace de Justice”. Moulay El Hassan is the large main square of the Medina that overlooks the ocean and is characterized by the huge amount of seagulls flying right over our heads. Crossing the square and passing through Bab El Marsa, we are now in the lively port of the Medina.
6. Bab El Marsa and Skala du port
Bab el Marsa is a monumental gate built at the end of the 18th century in stone blocks at the behest of Sultan Sidi Mohammad Ben Abdallah and features a particular triangular pediment that surmounts the gate itself and some Arabic inscriptions carved in the sandstone. An interesting detail of Bab el Marsa are the engravings representing the crescent, a symbol of the Islamic faith, the Star of David, a symbol of the Jewish religion and the shell of St. James, a Christian symbol of pilgrimage. Before crossing the door ,it is possible to visit the SKala du Port, a bastion overlooking the sea always built on the orders of Sultan Abdallah, from which you can enjoy a beautiful and evocative view of the Medina and the high west ramparts that protect it from the sea.
7. Port and fish market
Wa have a pleasant walk along the pier of the port, where the main attraction is undoubtedly the fishing fleet consisting mainly of family owned boats. The characteristic of these boats is their blue color. Sailing in and out of the harbor and tied togheter everywhere around the docks, these boats truly give a unique and picturesque touch to this lively place. Scattered here and there on the pier are many stalls selling fresh fish, but, although very interesting, in the mid-afternoon this market is no longer as lively as in the early morning.
8. The ramparts
Back in Moulay El Hassan square, we reach the sea and walk on the rocks at the foot of the high walls of the West Bastion. The ramparts were built in 1760 by a French military architect, Theodore Cornut, on the orders of Sultan Abdallah, to protect the port from marauders.
9. North Bastion and Skala of the Kasbah
Going back to the alleys of the Medina, stopping every now and then to have a look at the shops, we walk along Rue skala and reach the Skala of the Kasbah, the fortified walls overlooking the sea next to the North Bastion. The Skala of the Kasbah was obviously built to defend the city against attacks from the sea, and is structured on two levels. The ground floor was characterized by warehouses to contain the military material, while on the upper floor there were the bronze cannons that can still be seen walking on the rampart.
The North Bastion is also the best place in Essaouira to enjoy a spectacular sunset over the Atlantic Ocean. As the sun slowly disappears on the horizon accompanied by the sound of the waves crashing on the ramparts and the white houses of Essaouira are enveloped by its last rays of an intense orange color, we think back to our fantastic day in one of the most fascinating cities of all Morocco with a thought, come back as soon as possible!