Essaouira, Morocco, is a gorgeous seaside destination, nicknamed “Africa’s Windy City” for the strong trade winds that first gave rise to the thriving port city. Today, Essaouira is as striking as ever, a picturesque and relaxed hub that offers plenty to do and see. Whether you plan to get in the water or not, you shouldn’t leave Morocco until you’ve spent some time exploring Essaouira.
Essaouira by Land
Although the location of present-day Essaouira has been inhabited for more than 2,000 years, the port city really took shape in the late 18th century, when the Moroccan sultan decided to build up the site. Before long, Essaouira was the kingdom’s principal port. It linked Morocco to distant lands in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, while also serving as the final stop on an overland route from Marrakech to the sea.
In the modern era, Essaouira is just as impressive as it was hundreds of years ago. The Medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where narrow alleys interlock within fortress walls, all based on a style of European military architecture. In the Medina’s alleyways, vendors sell handcrafted goods, and an open-air market offers fresh fish to visitors who can stomach the strong smells.
And although most people think of Chefchaouen when they picture colorful Moroccan cities, the buildings in Essaouira are just as bright. From whitewashed walls to blue doors, yellow frames, and red shutters, this city is extremely photogenic.
Over the years, Essaouira has earned an artistic reputation, possibly because it was a filming location for Orson Welles’s 1951 film “Othello.” The city has attracted famous musicians throughout the decades, and it’s also home to several prestigious art galleries. Though small, these spaces are worth a visit, especially on a hot day.
For stunning views of the Atlantic, visitors and locals head to the city’s ramparts, called the Skala du Port and the Skala de la Ville. With cannons lining the walls, the ramparts are beautiful at any time of day — but they’re absolutely stunning during the serendipitous moments when seagulls fly overhead.
To top everything else off, the city hosts the Gnaoua World Music Festival every summer. Although Gnaoua music already blends religious songs and dances from several cultures, the festival also features rock, pop, and jazz artists from around the world. The musicians assimilate their songs and styles to sound like Gnaoua, making the festival a huge hit for both locals and travelers.
Essaouira by Sea
Because the city is so breezy, Essaouira is the ideal Moroccan destination for windsurfing and kitesurfing. For swimmers and waders, it’s usually best to stick to the designated town beaches and keep away from the city’s northern shores, as the currents can be quite dangerous.
That said, even travelers who choose to stay out of the water should plan a visit to the port. There, workmen repair nets, fishers unload their hauls, handymen transform simple wooden planks into seaworthy vessels, and rows upon rows of blue boats bob in the water — one of the classic symbols of Essaouira. And after leaving the port, many people even choose to take a camel ride along the beach!
Not far from shore, the Îles Purpuraires stand guard over the city. Since the islands are a nature reserve, travelers aren’t allowed to visit. But rare falcons — and several old ruins — are visible from the shores of Essaouira, making the islands feel slightly less off-limits.
If you’re planning an excursion to Essaouira, rest easy! There are dozens of hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and riads (traditional homes with interior courtyards) in the city that open their doors to travelers. And, with low prices that are often more typical of hostels, your trip to Essaouira won’t even break the bank.
Cover photo by Katya Alagich