It’s that time of year. The time of year when the heat turns up in Marrakech and I, along with most Moroccans and European tourists, head to coastal Essaouira for a bit of rest and relaxation in the laid-back medina, just 2.5 hours from Marrakech. Essaouira is quickly becoming one of my favourite cities in Morocco. With an emerging arts and an expanding restaurant scene combined with the traditional Morocco that I love, this seems like the perfect little town.
And it seems more and more tourists are feeling the same way, spending fewer days in Marrakech to enjoy a longer stay in chilled-out Essaouira. You see the medina here is just so laid-back and easy to navigate. Cafes dot the little streets, while the Gnaoua music from the little music shops fill the streets. This is the place to go for shopping: leather babouche, Moroccan wedding blankets at reasonable rates, cheap kaftans to wear to the beach, and other unique goodies you find along the way.
With little to do except wander: along the Skala, through the Mellah, passed the fishing boats at the port, with your feet in the water along the beach, it’s also fabulous for people-watching from one of the several cafes throughout the medina.
And the arts scene is expanding. New art galleries are opening, including a space inside the Bastion Est along the Skala, and the Dar Souiri cultural centre with its diverse cultural programme including regular concerts and art exhibits. This is all in addition to the most fabulous Gnaoua and World Music Festival held annually in June. It’s also one of my favourite weekends of the year.
The city just has a cool vibe. And below are the places I frequent on my regular visits:
For a truly local experience, head to the fish market in the medina. After selecting your choice of seafood, drop in to one of the small restaurants to have your fish grilled to perfection for a minimal cost. Don’t forget to ask your server for the bread, tomatoes, coca cola and olives to add to your feast!
I’m not alone when I say this is my favourite place to start my day as tables can be hard to come by as locals gather for their breakfast. A tasty croissant, a great café nous nous and the eclectic art collection makes this a great start to the day!
One of my favourite traditional Moroccan restaurants in the Essaouira medina, Feraouz offers a brilliant fixed menu that is sure to leave you feeling full. The complimentary argan oil for dipping fresh bread is a wonderful way to start the meal. I’ve opted for the beef, almond and prune tajine on a few occasions and absolutely love it. It’s also open for dinner although I’ve only lunched here.
Located in the Marches aux Grains, not far from the fish souk, this little café has a great fixed price menu at 100.00MAD. I always start with the goat’s cheese and argan oil starter and then enjoy one of the few tajines on offer, usually a seafood dish. After all, I am in Essaouira, a fishing village! Then order a delicious café nous nous to accompany your dessert as you people-watch over this little square!
Update October 2014: During a visit in August 2014, the service and food were mediocre.
Located just inside the medina, the food is delicious, the service great, the prices reasonable and the décor fab! This is the place to go when you’re ready for a salad! However, at the time of my visit in June, the restaurant was not serving alcohol.
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Love love love this place. The share plates of Moroccan salads are the perfect start to a meal. I love the steak here. The retro décor is also interesting and the walls are regularly covered in an art exhibit.
This little restaurant with a simple menu located en route to the Skala, is a refreshing little place to have lunch. I had the calamari, friends had other dishes and we all had lunch envy despite loving our entrees. The tapenades are lovely starters. And the original mural decorating the walls provides great artwork to admire given the lack of seaside views.
The best place in town for view, dinner and fun! Grab a table on the rooftop to watch the sun set and daily life on the square below. Then as the sun goes down, the DJ turns up the music as the dance floor quickly fills up until the wee hours of the morning. It’s so fun, I’ve been here when the call to prayer is sounding throughout the medina and I decide I must call it a night!
Jardins by Villa Maroc
One of my favourite places to spend an afternoon, Jardins by Villa Maroc is located about 15 minutes from Essaouira city centre and can be booked directly by heading to the riad Villa Maroc within the medina. Heck, they even organize the transport. The funky décor, warm pool, relaxing ambiance and delicious BBQ lunch makes for a perfect day out, especially if you’ve been to Taros the previous night.
The collection here is small, but the leather bags here are yummy – colourful and practical styles and made from fine leathers. I also quite love the one-of-a-kind flats available in a variety of colours.
Histoire des Filles
I rarely leave this shop empty-handed. Super cool accessories, both fashion and interior, both women’s and men’s clothing collections, a room dedicated to children’s wear make this my favourite shopping destination in Essaouira. It’s like stepping in to a department store, but with Moroccan and Moroccan-based designers galore!
This cozy riad within the medina walls is a traditional home with fabulous original tiles, décor and warm service. I like the larger rooms on the second floor... even if I am travelling alone!
CTM has a new bus station located in the new area of Essaouira, just a 6.50MAD cab ride from the medina. Though somewhat grungier than Supratours, I find the ticket sellers much friendlier and tend to take this option when leaving Marrakech. Departure times, in particular the 12:30 p.m. bus, also tend to suit my schedule better.
Supratours has several buses per day, and I’m a big fan of the “Comfort Plus” despite the 30.00MAD increase in price. (I once asked what the difference was between the Comfort Plus and the regular bus and I was told it was “plus comfortable”. At the time I thought it was a ridiculous answer, until I boarded the bus and realized that the bus had individual reclining seats so I had no one sitting beside me and could blast my music as loud as I wanted.) The bus station is steps from the medina and prices are 80.00MAD one way to Marrakech on the regular bus, 110.00MAD on the Comfort Plus. (I tend to take the 17h00 Comfort Plus back to Marrakech as I’m always sad that my Essaouira stay is ending.)
A version of this article was originally published on the blog Why Morocco.