Looking for the top things to do in Essaouira, Morocco or our top tips for restaurants and riads? Keep reading!
Essaouira is the town we almost didn't make it to.
Before arriving in Morocco, and in our first few days in Marrakech, many people said it wasn't worth a visit. For them, this outpost on the Atlantic coast was windy, a little ugly and, if you did decided to make the journey, then a day was really enough.
Within minutes of arriving at the old city walls, we knew they had made a mistake; this was our sort of place.
Here, within the blue and white confines of Essaouria's medina, is a different side of Morocco. A place for men to fish, for lazy afternoon strolls and steaming pots of mint tea enjoyed overlooking the ocean. After five days amongst the frenetic souks and streets of the country's biggest tourist draw, the peace and tranquillity that oozes from the pores of this delightful seaside town is as intoxicating as it is soothing.
We planned for two days - we left, reluctantly, after four.
Things to do in Essouaira
Explore the medina
Essaouira's medina may be small, but that means it's perfect for exploring without fear of getting lost! Small shop lined streets full of colourful blankets and rugs, wooden handicrafts, and delicious food shaded by the tall whitewashed buildings for which this town is known.
We also discovered that this is a great place for buying souvenirs or unique pieces for your house - especially if you don't enjoy the haggling process. Lots of stalls have fixed, advertised prices and even the ones that don't begin their bargaining at a much more reasonable position. We got a beautiful blanket for a fraction of what we were quoted in Marrakech.
Although a Moroccan medina is very much best discovered without much of a plan, to orient yourself in the first day or two, it's worth knowing that the two main streets within the medina are Avenue Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah and Avenue Mohamed Zerktouni (which is where you'll want to head to stock up on fruit and veg too).
Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah Museum
Housed in an old riad, the Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah Museum may not be a must-do in Essaouria, but the collection of old musical instruments, ritualistic devices, weapons and traditional dress is a pretty good excuse to get away from the sun for an hour - and if nothing else, that staircase is made for the 'gram!
For more information, see this website.
Opening times: 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. | Cost: 10Dh | Rue Laâlouj
Check out the fish market
Wizened old men and giant nets, the salty smell of the ocean and icy fish spread out across old wooden tables. Long before the tourists arrived, people were making a living here off of the sea - for many, times have not changed.
Visit in the early hours of the morning for the chance to see the fishermen returning with the catch, or meander down to the harbour before lunch to witness the daily haggle for the fruits of the ocean.
Even if not in the mood to buy, this is an excellent place to people watch, and a dream for photographers like us - check out our Essaouira fish market photography post, and discover why you'd be crazy to forget your camera!
To avoid confusion, we have to let you know there are actually two fish markets in Essaouira. Our favourite to experience was by the harbour, but there is also an indoor one on Avenue Mohamed Zerktouni. Many visitors to the town love to buy a fresh fish from either market and take it to a restaurant who will grill it for a small fee.
Go snap happy for the blue boats
Search google images for Essaouira, and the results you get back will almost certainly be full of the most picturesque little blue boats!
Yet, this wonderful shade of colour is not an accident, or there purely to create a pretty tourist picture. No, the blue that covers the hull of every boat and adorns the shutters of every window here speaks of 3,000 years of history, and of the colour harvested from the shells found on the Purple Islands that protect Essaouira from the open sea.
Spend some time at the beach - just be prepared for the wind!
Arriving into Essaouira, it's clear that this is a place popular with tourists. What isn't so clear however, is why it hasn't become just another resort. To answer that, we'd recommend you spend a few hours at the beach. The trade winds that keep this town pleasantly cool during the hot summer months are the same that will ensure that you leave the beach with sandy second skin.
Still, on a beautiful sunny day, there will be few better places to sit and relax - and drink a covert brown paper bag covered beer.
If you're into watersports however, then this may just be the perfect spot for you - in fact, die-hard windsurfers come from all over the world just to enjoy the constant wind that Essaouira enjoys. If you're unable to bring your own equipment, you'll be pleased to hear that renting it is incredibly easy with several reputable companies in town. One week rental starts at £160 GBP (dependent upon time of year), and discounts will be given for longer periods.
Take a day trip to Sidi Kouki
Cheap fresh seafood, roaming donkeys, wide, never ending beaches and excellent surf (for both beginners and pros) - we almost don't want to tell you about this wonderful little surf village, just half an hour outside of Essaouira.
Piqued your interest? Be sure to check out our guide to this wonderful little surf town.
Scale the Skala du Port
Essaouira has gained modern notoriety for its role in Game of Thrones - so you can imagine how disappointed we were to discover that the ramparts were closed for building works at the time of our visit (completely scuppered Andrew's plans to don a long blonde wig and pretend to be Daenerys for the day!).
Thankfully, Skala du Port (the fort that also features in the TV show) was open for business - and provided better views over the medina than we could ever have hoped!
Our top tip? Head up later in the day when there are fewer tourists and better, less bright light - after all, this is by far when of the top things to do in Essaouira, you better get a good photo! :)
Opening Hours: 9 a.m. - 5.30 p.m. | Cost: 10Dh (Update December 2018 - this now costs 60Dh for non-Moroccans and 25Dh for under-12s).
Where to eat in Essaouira
Taverna bolognese da Maurizio
Address: Rue Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah
Owned and run by a delightful Italian chap, this place serves up some of the best pasta we've tasted in a while. Cheap (you can get a basic dish for around 50 dirham) with good size portions - so good we ate their twice!
Check out Tripadvisor reviews here.
Address: Mehdi Ben Tomert
A small family run restaurant with just four tables and walls decorated with boxing memorabilia (the father/husband member of the family is a top-notch boxing coach by all accounts). The meals are not fancy, and there are only a handful of dishes on the menu, but order one of each and get ready for one the best and most authentic meals you'll have in Morocco! Best of all? Two people can eat until they're stuffed and pay only 100 dirhams! If you've read our post on travel costs in Morocco, you'll know that's an absolute bargain.
We loved this little gem so much and were gutted when we went back on our last night to see that it was shut for the evening - so if you're only here for a night or two, don't leave it too late!
204 Place du Marche Aux Grains
Delicious fresh-pressed juices (served in jam jars, naturally), healthy sandwiches, and an excellent veggie burger can all be had in this delightful café located in a wonderfully sunny square. Just a word of warning - you might have to kick a cat off your seat before you can sit down!
Check out Tripadvisor reviews here.
5 Rue Hajjali
Super cool design, a lovely shaded terrace and excellent food. Sure, it's a little pricey, but if you've been eating tagine all week, the menu here will delight and surprise! Excellent veggie options too.
Check out Tripadvisor reviews here.
Where to stay in Essaouira
After nearly a week in a beautiful riad in Marrakech, it was the hostel scene in Essaouira that called to us. And one hostel in particular - Green Milk. Wonderfully friendly staff, a sociable vibe (without the need to constantly be stoned), a surprisingly good kitchen, cool design, excellent English-speaking staff and a fantastic, if somewhat aloof, dog named Chico.
If you're doing your own research, you'll probably come across Atlantic Hostel. After discussions with several previous guests who sought solace at Green Milk, it seems that their reputation as a dirty, party hostel is warranted. Unless you enjoy being kept awake by loudly played bongos until 5 a.m., it's probably worth giving it a miss.
If riads are more your thing (especially if you're not going to have the opportunity to stay in one elsewhere in Morocco), then you'll be pleased to know that Essaouira has them in abundance - and at really fantastic rates. Our top recommendations are Riad Lunetoile (amazing rooftop and seaside charm), Dar Ness (great location next to the beach) or, if you feeling like going all out for a couple of days, Riad Chbante.
Really want a kitchen but hostels not aren't your cup of tea? Consider Jack's Apartments or one of the many Airbnbs in the city (sign up via this link and receive a £30 discount on your first booking).
How to get to Essaouira from Marrakech
Two bus companies operate this line (CTM and Supratours) with multiple departures every day. The journey takes just over 2.5 hours, and the cost is 70 dirhams per person with luggage charged at around 5 - 10 dirhams extra. Supratours appear to be the preferred company, although we travelled one way with each and can recommend both. Check their websites for up-to-date timetables.
A word of warning about taxis: if you arrive in the Supratours station, taking a taxi really isn't necessary as the entrance to the medina is located only a few minutes away. From the CTM station however, hailing a cab is definitely worth it - but be prepared to barter hard for your trip! The journey should cost no more than 30 dirhams, but it'll take a while to get it that low (and your would-be taxi driver might get a little grumpy at the haggle - ours certainly did!)
And, if you're still wondering how to say the name of this fantastic place, then just say 'Esswera'.