Souks and sunsets: Things to do in Essaouira, Morocco

Souks and sunsets: Things to do in Essaouira, Morocco

Perched on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, Essaouira is a cross between North Africa and the Mediterranean. Surrounded by golden-stone city walls, it mixes bright blues and dazzling whitewash with flowing djellabas and the smell of spices. Influences from the Arabs, Africans, Romans and French all blend together to create a mellow, relaxed beach town.

Add in 300 days of sunshine and constant warm but not baking hot temperatures, and you’ve got the perfect short break destination. Although Essaouira hasn’t got much in the way of must-see sights, it’s an easy place to spend a few relaxed days, whether just as a weekend break or as part of a longer Morocco itinerary. So here are my favourite things to do in Essaouira.

Read more: A Moroccan cookery class in Essaouira at L’Atelier Madada

The best things to do in Essaouira, Morocco

Blue boats in Essaouira port, Morocco

Essaouira blues

Climb Essaouira’s ramparts

The Essaouira ramparts are where the medina meets the Atlantic Ocean. These city walls were built in the 1760s by a French military architect, Theodore Cornut, to protect the port from raiders. The design was inspired by the town of Saint Malo in France. If you’re a vintage film fan you might recognise them from the start of the 1952 Orson Welles film Othello. The movie opens opens with a shot of Iago suspended in a cage over the rocks which was shot here.

The seafront ramparts are bookended by the impressive skala, a type of defensive bastion. At one end is the Skala du Port, which is the gateway to the fishing port. And at the other end is the Skala du Ville, with 19 bronze cannons lined up along the sea wall. There are great views across the medina and out to the ocean from the ramparts, and you’ll usually find artists and craft stalls set up along the waterfront or in the arches beneath, which were originally military stores.

Essaouira ramparts, Morocco

The Skala de la Ville seafront bastion

Watch the boats come in

In the 19th century, Essaouira was Morocco’s biggest port. It was known as the ‘Port of Timbuktu’ as goods like gold and spices came by caravan from sub-Saharan Africa to be shipped from here out to Europe and the Americas. Today the port’s cargo is a bit smaller scale as the water isn’t deep enough for big modern ships. But there’s still plenty going around the harbour and watching the fishermen at work is one of the most popular things to do in Essaouira.

You can often see fishermen mending their nets and shipbuilders at work on the traditional blue wooden fishing boats which are still used today. Between 3pm and 5pm, the fishing boats come in for the day and the fishermen auction off their catch. You can watch the bargaining going back and forth. Or pick up some fish or seafood which you can have grilled at stalls along the edge of the port – the hordes of seagulls and stray cats will fight it out for any leftovers.

Blue boats in Essaouira port, Morocco

Essaouira’s blue boats

Blow the cobwebs away on the beach

Essaouira has been nicknamed the ‘windy city’, and it’s partly justified. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the trade winds blowing into the bay keep temperatures down to a more reasonable mid-20s °C in summer while the rest of Morocco is sweltering in the heat. And if you don’t mind a light sandblasting you can still get a dose of beach time.

Most beach-goers opt for something a bit more active than sunbathing though. The mild, calm waters in the bay make it great for windsurfing or kitesurfing, and even if you don’t have a go yourself it’s impressive to watch. You can also go horse-riding along the beach, ride a camel through the dunes, or hire a bike and cycle along the beachfront promenade.

Walking on the beach, one of the best things to do in Essaouira

Essaouira’s wide sandy beach

Don’t get lost in the medina

Formerly known as Mogador, the medina in Essaouira has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its unusual mix of Moroccan and European styles. But unlike the medinas in a lot of other Moroccan towns and cities, walking into Essaouira’s medina isn’t like going into a maze, so you’ve got a pretty good chance of not getting yourself completely lost.

As you wander through narrow alleyways lined by tall whitewashed buildings there are still plenty of twists and turns, but it’s based on a French-inspired grid design which makes it a lot easier to find your way around (apparently the name Es-Saouira even translates as ‘beautifully designed’). The centre of the media is Place Moulay Hassan, a big pedestrianised square where you can grab a table in one of the cafés for the perfect people-watching spot.

Whitewashed buildings in the medina in Essaouira, Morocco

Whitewashed buildings in the medina in Essaouira

Shop the Essaouira souks

Essaouira’s small and fairly laid-back souks are a good place to practice your bargaining skills before tackling more manic versions in big cities like Marrakech. As well as produce stalls selling fresh meat, fish and piles of aromatic spices (the custom Ras el Hanout blends are a good one to take home), there are also souks for hand-made jewellery or made-to-measure tailoring.

You can also search for treasures at the flea market in La Joutia square. Elsewhere in the medina you can pick up gifts like local artworks, argan oil from the cooperatives around town, silver ornaments from the Jewish silversmiths, ornate marquetry boxes and furniture carved from thuya wood, and the mysterious lotions and potions concocted by the Berber pharmacists.

Bread stall in the medina

Bread stall in the medina

Listen to live music

Gnawa music is massively popular throughout Morocco, but Essaouira is its heartland. This type of music originated in Senegal, Sudan and Ghana, and was brought to Morocco by slaves. It mixes spirituality, rhythm and wild dancing, building up into a hypnotic trance. There are only three instruments – krakets (iron castanets), ghimbri (a three-stringed bass) and voice.

You can hear it at the Gnawa Blues restaurant, or at the Gnaoua World Music Festival each June. As well as Gnawa, there’s also the Festival des Alizés in April for classical music or the Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques in November for Arab and Andalucian music.

Seagull on the ramparts of Essaouria at sunset

Sunset seagulls

Learn to cook Moroccan food

One of the best ways to take a taste of your holiday home with you is to learn to cook some local dishes. L’Atelier Madada cookery school offer half-day classes with a local chef which are run in both French and English. The day starts with a lesson in how to make a proper Moroccan mint tea, then you cook a two-course menu and take a tour around the market’s spice souks.

Whoever books in for that day first gets to choose what you cook, and you can pick from a range of traditional tagines, as well as other dishes like pastilla (a pie made with layers of puff pastry), zaalouk (an aubergine salad) or briouates (triangular stuffed pastries).

Moroccan mint tea in a rooftop terrace cafe

Rooftop mint tea

Or just eat your way around town

If cooking your own dinner sounds like too much hard work, you can just go on an eating spree around town instead. In the port and the fish souq you can pick up freshly caught fish and seafood and have it cooked for you, washed down with a fresh orange juice.

Other food spots worth a visit are Yoo Healthy Food (8A Rue Ibn Roch) for great smoothies and salads, Gusto Italia for Italian seafood dishes (14 Rue Charif El Idrissi), La Table by Madada (7 Rue Youssef El Fassi) for classy Moroccan food and tapas in a romantic candlelit atmosphere, and Triskala Café (Rue Touahen) for tasty organic vegetarian and vegan options.

Food in Essaouira, Morocco

Sea bass tagine at La Table Madada

Catch a stunning Essaouira sunset

Essaouira’s west coast location makes it a great place to watch the sun slowly dipping down into the water. Looking out across the Atlantic from the city on a clear day you get a spectacular dusk light show, with the fading sun making the stone glow gold and the fishing boats and seagulls silhouetted against the light. Grab a prime spot along the ramparts or head up onto the rooftop at Taros Bar in Place Moulay Hassan for a prime sunset viewing spot.

Fishing boats silhouetted against the sunset in Essaouira

Sunset in Essaouira

Looking for somewhere to stay in Essaouira?

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What to see and do in the Moroccan coastal city of Essaouira – from cookery classes and Gnawa music to kitesurfing and watching sunset from the city walls #Essaouira #MoroccoThe best things to see and do in Essaouira on the coast of Morocco – from shopping the souks and seaside sunsets to Moroccan cookery classes and Gnawa music festivals. #Morocco #Essaouira

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  • Reply
    Aggy (@dewtraveller)
    March 31, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    Pretty place! This is the second time that I’ve heard of Essaouira and I am more and more convinced of its beauty! I love that it’s perched near the sea but has a lively town too!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 1, 2014 at 10:35 am

      It is a great combination – on one hand you have the walled town but then just outside there are these huge long beaches too.

      • Fernando in Rio and Farihd in Essaouira
        September 22, 2016 at 8:38 am



      • Lucy
        September 22, 2016 at 11:29 am

        That’s great to hear, I loved Essaouira and hope to get back there sometime soon!

  • Reply
    March 31, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Sadly when I was in Morocco I didn’t have time to visit Essaouira, but I definitely intend to return to visit the town. It looks and sounds so lovely!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 1, 2014 at 10:38 am

      Hope you get the chance to make it out there sometime Andi, it is well worth a trip!

  • Reply
    March 31, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Such a beautiful place! I love small towns with a rich history and the ocean nearby makes me wish I could go there now. 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 1, 2014 at 10:40 am

      It does have such a lot of interesting history for a small place, and you can really see all the different cultural influences on it.

  • Reply
    March 31, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    Sounds like a very entertaining few days, Lucy. That shot across to the beach is lovely. 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 1, 2014 at 10:39 am

      Thanks Jo, we were staying in the old town and arrived in the dark so didn’t even see the beach for the first couple of days so it was a nice surprise!

  • Reply
    March 31, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    Sounds very relaxing – you can see why Jimi Hendrix (allegedly) loved it there too!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 1, 2014 at 10:41 am

      Yes there’s definitely a bit of a hippy vibe and a lot of Hendrix fans!

  • Reply
    March 31, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    Lovely – it is on my list! Seems to be a good place for photographers, and foodies by the sounds of it. What’s with the sea bass? Looks like fennel, but is it? It makes my mouth water.
    Jude xx

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 1, 2014 at 10:41 am

      There’s so much to photograph, it definitely kept me busy! Yes that’s sea bass with fennel and peas, bit of an unusual combination but it worked really well.

      • Heyjude
        April 1, 2014 at 11:28 am

        I like all three so must try the combination together. Don’t suppose you have the tagine recipe?

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 1, 2014 at 7:56 pm

      Afraid not, this is the nearest I can find though our version had peas and no prawns but this sounds good too!

      • Heyjude
        April 1, 2014 at 9:02 pm

        Ooh thanks! I shall have a look and adapt, though I do like prawns too.

  • Reply
    Mani (A New Life Wandering)
    March 31, 2014 at 11:01 pm

    Great pics!

  • Reply
    April 1, 2014 at 7:48 am

    Very enticing. This is beautifully written.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 1, 2014 at 10:42 am

      Thanks Rachael, I did totally fall in love with the place so have enjoyed writing about it!

  • Reply
    Global Detour
    April 1, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Was there good seafood in Essaouira?

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 1, 2014 at 10:45 am

      Lots yes, there are lines of stalls down by the port where you can pick your seafood and have it grilled, with lots of calamari and prawns.

      • Global Detour
        April 1, 2014 at 11:17 am

        Yum! Thanks Lucy. It’s on the list!

  • Reply
    April 1, 2014 at 9:47 am

    It really looks and sounds lovely Lucy. I love the idea that it is full of different cultural and ethnic groups, it sounds like it adds a richness to the place. And its by the sea which always gets a big tick from me!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 1, 2014 at 10:43 am

      Me too, I love being by the sea (despite living a hundred miles or so inland!) so try and get in at least a couple of doses of salt air each year.

  • Reply
    April 1, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    have always wanted to visit Morocco! :)And visit i shall!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Courtney
    April 1, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    Essaouira looks like a very photogenic town and lots to keep it interesting when it’s too windy for the beach. Fab photos Lucy.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 1, 2014 at 9:18 pm

      Definitely – we hardly spent any time on the beach but in the summer I could see myself spending a few days there (maybe bringing a windbreak like on my childhood holidays in the UK!).

  • Reply
    April 1, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    Essaouira,looks like a neat place. If you could look west across the Atlantic you would see Florida.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 1, 2014 at 9:19 pm

      Yes it’s funny to think that that’s the next land across from there!

  • Reply
    Cathy Sweeney
    April 4, 2014 at 2:13 am

    You certainly paint a compelling picture of Essaouira to entire me to visit. It’s a different world than I’ve ever seen first hand. I’d love to have a chance to enjoy the activities, places and food you’ve mentioned. I could use some haggling practice, too — never been fond of doing that, but know that it’s a must in some parts of the world.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 4, 2014 at 10:53 pm

      I did fall in love with the place so pleased to hear that it came across in the post! I’m not the best at haggling either, I never know what is a reasonable price but there are a lot of places that it’s definitely expected.

  • Reply
    scot lycan
    May 27, 2014 at 2:49 am

    I just learned today that my aunt from Manhattan is moving there. I fell in love w/ Marakech a year ago but now you’ve made me want to visit your piece of the world. Great work!

  • Reply
    Fiona - The Beauty Shortlist
    July 7, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    Having spent a total of 3 years in Essaouira on and off, this is a fantastic and accurate piece on this beautiful place (I’m here again now for summer!) Although Instead of mild, calm waters in the bay, a lot of the time there are plenty of waves…if, though, wind is not your thing, Sept and Oct are the calmest, hottest months when it turns into “the Med” and the Atlantic breezes subside completely…but it’s never scorching…top temp might be 30c-ish – while in winter daytime temps of 23c are quite common making it much more appealing for a winter getaway than southern Europe. Or Marrakech which can be pretty cold at night in winter! love the people here. The slow life, the gratitude, the incredible sense of humour I adore here, the generosity, the simplicity. Storytelling, hospitality, religious tolerance (Essaouira used to be 50% Jewish)…beautiful scenery, fresh seafood and a taxi costs 60p wherever you’re going. My kind of town . Never been? Do come and visit..! .2 nights in Marrakech and 3 in Essaouira ⭐️Direct flights to Essaouira from London and Paris mean you can skip Marrakech if you already know it – there is a great spirit here, and summer lives here all year round…

    • Reply
      July 14, 2016 at 10:34 am

      Essaouira is so lovely! Has to be one of my favourite places, I would love to come back again – so agree with your reasons too, and the direct flights now make it even better.

  • Reply
    June 16, 2018 at 5:23 pm

    Great article I am just planning a trip to Essaouira and will definitely make a note or two on your tips! So excited!

    • Reply
      June 20, 2018 at 8:44 pm

      Hope you have a fantastic time!

  • Reply
    February 25, 2019 at 9:38 am

    I’m most interested to visit Morocco’s beautiful people, countryside, architecture, food, fashion, decor and beauty.

    • Reply
      February 25, 2019 at 2:16 pm

      It has a lot to offer!

  • Reply
    Peter Andrew
    March 28, 2019 at 7:07 am

    Essaouira is the most charming and vibrant port and resort town .It is the best holiday destination to experience the true culture of morocco due to its laid back life style. whats your say about visiting Essaouira in june for Gnaoua Music Festival, i heard its too much crowded with tourists.

    • Reply
      March 30, 2019 at 7:18 pm

      It’s a lovely place – I’ve not been for the festival but I hear it is really busy.

  • Reply
    May 26, 2020 at 9:15 am

    Very interesting article & amazing pictures, Essaouira is one of my favorite places in morocco, Thank you for sharing your experience with us

  • Reply
    Lucy Dodsworth
    June 3, 2020 at 8:59 pm

    You’re welcome, I loved it there too!

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