Why go now?
Bright and breezy Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, is an enchanting, laid-back alternative to the frenetic melting-pot of Marrakesh. The town’s name means “little picture” in Arabic, and it’s a painter’s dream location, with a vibrant blue-and-white “medina” (inner walled city), enclosed by fairy-tale, sand-coloured ramparts and imposing stone gates (“Babs”). Beyond the colourful port, rolling waves and a wide buttery beach stretching for miles complete the canvas.
The bustling medina is much easier to navigate than you’d imagine. A series of linked streets forms a central spine leading directly from the northern gate, Bab Doukkala, to the main square of Place Moulay Hassan, by the waterfront. Tiny passageways and pungent souks splay outwards like fish-bones.
June is a lovely time to visit, before temperatures soar – though the local Alizés winds mean Essaouira never reaches boiling point. Music fans will be bowled over by the town’s annual Gnaoua world music festival (June 29 – July 1; festival-gnaoua.net) but be warned that it gets pretty crowded.
Where to stay
Housed in a former palace next to Bab Marrakech, Heure Bleue Palais (1 on the map above) at 2 Rue Ibn Batouta (00212 524 783434; read a full review and check availability) is the most elegant address in town, with spacious rooms, an exotic marble hamman and a small roof-top swimming pool. Doubles from €180 (£157), including breakfast.
Dar Caravane (2), less than a mile (10 dirhams/80p by taxi) from town on the Route d’Agadir, is a delightful, artist-owned enclave set in mimosa-filled gardens. The outdoor pool is surrounded by sculptures and patrolled by the house peacock. Suites cost from €75 (£66), including breakfast (00212 524 784804; booking.com).
Run by Englishwoman Sandra Cripps, Riad Remmy (3), tucked within the medina at 29 Daouad Ben Aicha (00212 653 236192; riadremmy.co.uk), is fantastic value. Rooms are charming, with bright local textiles and wrought-iron lamps. Doubles cost from €48 (£42), including a roof terrace breakfast alongside the riad’s pet tortoises.
Begin your evening with a Flag Special beer (20 dirhams/£1.60), overlooking the square and harbour from the upper terrace of Bab Laachour Café (4) on Place Moulay Hassan (00212 524 473102). Soak up the sunset and watch djellabah-clad traders wheel their barrows filled with fish across the cobblestones.
Leave the square through a rose-pink archway to claim your pre-booked table at top fish restaurant La Table by Madada (5) at 7 Rue Youssef El Fassi (00212 524 472106; latablemadada.com), a chic carob warehouse conversion. Try spider crab gratin (165 dirhams/£13.50).
Head towards the port from Bab Doukkala (6) and tunnel into the warren of souks (7) on your right – a sense-swamping riot of mint leaves, squawking chickens, traffic-light peppers and pyramids of ras el hanout seasoning. Go across the street to the former grain market (8), for a nous-nous (half espresso, half steamed milk; 14 dirhams/£1.10) in a peaceful, umbrella-shaded café.
The triple-archway near the grain market leads to Avenue d’Istaqal’s colourful parade of cupboard-size shops, decked with local ceramics, leatherwear and rolls of rainbow fabrics.
Weave your way to the right to explore the medina’s arty Kasbah area. You’ll find Galerie la Kasbah (9) at 4 Rue de Tetouan (00212 524 475605; galerielakasbah.com), an Aladdin’s cave of native Souiri furnishings, tiles and paintings.
Ready for a break from shopping? Follow the seagulls down to Essaouira’s port for a straight-from-the-sea lunch at one of the Gargottes (10), a run of blue-and-white stalls that serve freshly caught fish cooked over charcoal for around 70 dirhams (£5.65). Work off your fishy feast with a walk along the Skala du Port ramparts, which command story-book views over the harbour and town (10 dirhams/80p; closes at 5pm daily).
A living museum itself, Essaouira is short of conventional museums. However, Musée Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah (11), in a former pasha’s residence on Rue Laâlouj, has fascinating sepia photos and a collection of old weapons, jewellery and traditional guembri lutes (00212 524 475300; open Weds–Mon; 10 dirhams/80p entrance). Revisit Place Moulay Hassan afterwards, and watch the musicians and acrobats from a table at Dolcefreddo Caffetteria Geletaria (12), while savouring the best ice cream in town (00212 663 571928; 20 dirhams/£1.60).
The romantic walkway of Skala de la Ville, Essaouira’s cliff-top sea bastion, is under renovation but a roof terrace sundowner at nearby Il Mare (13) at 43 Rue Yamen (00212 524 476417) will give you a bird’s-eye view. Leave the restaurant and take a sunset stroll among the archway workshops still flourishing beneath the ramparts, where artisans create intricate marquetry work in local thuya wood.
For an unforgettable night on the tiles, make a beeline for the medina’s Caravane Café (14) at 2/bis, Rue Qadi Ayad (00212 524 783111). The plant-stuffed courtyard is crammed with paintings and artefacts, and entertainment takes the form of live gnaoua music, a magician and a fire-dancer every night (closed Mondays). The eclectic menu includes south-east Asian staples (such as Mayi Goreng, at 90 dirhams/£7.30) alongside French-Moroccan cuisine.
Meander to Bab Doukkala through the “mellah” (old Jewish quarter) of the medina, a labyrinth of former mansions. Look for stone door signs with the six-petal rose of Mogador (Essaouira’s former name), and the plaque outside the steam baths where Orson Welles filmed scenes for Othello in 1949.
Hop aboard a blue horse-drawn calèche carriage outside Bab Doukkala, and negotiate an atmospheric private clop down to Bab Sba (15), the medina entrance gate nearest the beach. It should cost around 30 dirhams/£2.40.
Essaouira’s beach beckons. Begin with a mint tea (20 dirhams/£1.60) on the terrace of Chalet de la Plage (16) at 1 Boulevard Mohammed V (00212 524 475972) and watch dog-walkers, kite-fliers and local lads playing football on the seemingly endless pale sand. Offshore, sea-spray billows in foamy clouds around the Île de Mogador, and seagulls wheel overhead.
Now dip your toes in the sand for a 30-minute walk along the beach to the Océan Vagabond Beach Restaurant (17) (00212 524 784367; oceanvagabond.com). Have your last Moroccan lunch for now – try lamb brochette for 90 dirhams (£7.30) and a glass of local gris wine (actually golden in colour; 40 dirhams/£3.20) – before reclining blissfully on a sunlounger to watch the camels ambling by.