Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful towns on Africa's Atlantic coast, Essaouira (pronounced Essa- wira), formerly known as Mogador, has a unique charm. People have time to talk - and listen - with an easy-going tolerance and friendliness born from centuries of mixing with people of other nations and cultures. Even the many stray cats and dogs seem to get on well with each other and their human neighbours. Yet alongside this relaxed, laid-back and slightly bohemian atmosphere there is a sense of sophistication and energy – the feeling that this is a happening place to be. The town is increasingly becoming known as a centre for arts, crafts and music and, each year, hosts several world class festivals and other events. With mild temperatures all year long and around 300 days sunshine a year it is a great place to visit at any time.
The atmospheric medina is a delight to walk around. It is authentically scruffy but clean, easy to navigate and safe to walk around - with no motorised transport allowed inside the walls your only risk of being run down is by one of the blue painted handcarts (carrossas) that are used for transporting goods. Within its intact pink walls is an intriguing fusion of French-style piazzas with their relaxed café culture, narrow lanes lined with colourful shops and mysterious covered alleyways. The whitewashed buildings have blue-painted window frames and ornate doorways leading to intriguing interiors with arty galleries or chic hotels happily coexisting alongside traditional businesses and family homes. Not surprising then that, in 2001, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although it is only a leisurely 15 minute walk from one end of the medina to the other it is so packed with fascinating architecture, artisans workshops, galleries, shops, restaurants and cafés that it would take weeks to discover everything. Shopping here tends to be an enjoyable and sociable experience with none of the hassle that is typical of many other North African towns. You will find hundreds of tiny shops crammed with characterful leatherwork, metalwork, exquisite carpentry, glazed pottery, jewellery, brightly coloured carpets, original art and foodstuffs such as olives, spices and rare argan oil.
The hub of the town is Place Moulay Hassan, a French-style piazza lined with cafés where you can spend time people-watching in the sunshine whilst enjoying mint tea, excellent coffee or freshly squeezed orange juice accompanied by pastries from the nearby patisserie.
Opposite Place Moulay Hassan is the photogenic little fishing harbour. Here you can watch the catch being unloaded from brightly-painted boats, learn how the vessels are made using centuries-old techniques or have lunch at one of the seafood stalls which serve wonderfully fresh fish and shellfish simply grilled over charcoal and served with a baguette and juicy tomato salad.
Listed as one of the world’s best beaches, Essaouira’s main beach is a wide crescent of golden sand which stretches for two miles from the medina to the former hippy village of Diabat (now being developed into a smart golf resort). It is famed for its world-class watersports which include surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing. You can book lessons and equipment at several places along the main beach or take a caleche (horse-drawn taxi) out to the less crowded north beach. If you don't fancy participating, you can sit at one of the many waterfront cafes or restaurants and enjoy watching the colourful watersports. There is also usually a game or two of football to watch, even at night when the whole beach is floodlit. Further along the beach, among the sand dunes, there are horses, camels and quad bikes for hire. Even further south, you can walk at low tide to the romantic fort of Borj El Barod which is slowly crumbling into the sea. Nearby you can watch birds at the Ksob estuary or else take a boat from the harbour around the Iles de Mogador, breeding ground for the rare Eleanora’s falcon which can sometimes be seen circling over the town.
Eating and drinking
Essaouira is packed with laid-back cafés and characterful restaurants serving good, freshly cooked, food in interesting surroundings. Menus tend to feature Moroccan, French and Italian dishes and, of course, excellent fish and shellfish so you should find something to suit most tastes and budgets within 10 minutes walk.
The surrounding area
The countryside around Essaouira has been designated by UNESCO as a specially protected biosphere on account of the rare argan trees which only grow in this area. The oil which is produced from the trees is prised for culinary and cosmetic purposes. You can sometimes see goats grazing on top of the trees, which look rather like prickly olive trees.