Essaouira, or Mogador is located on the western coast of Morocco. It is a small, sleepy town that has gained some prominence lately as a getaway from Marrakech. Today, the city retains a small-town feel but it wasn’t always this way.
History of Essaouira
Archeologists have found remnants that Essaouira has been inhabited since prehistoric times. In the 1st century BC the Berber rule Juba II built a Tyrinian purple dye factory in Essaouira. The dye was exported to Rome and was used as the dye for the edges of Imperial Roman purple senatorial robes. The dye was worth more than gold!
The fortresses that make up the old medina are perhaps the most noticeable feature. They were built by Portuguese conquerers around 1505 along with five others along the coast. By 1550 they were driven from all but three Moroccan cities. Essaouira was a stronghold for the exporting of sugar, molasses and a mooring point for pirates!
Modern Essaouira was found in 1760 by Mohamed III in hopes of securing a harbor as close to Marrakech as possible. The king put a lot of effort into building this city as the principle shipping port in Morocco. He hired engineers and builders from various backgrounds to build up the city. He encouraged foreign residents to move to Essaouira, hoping their connections and expertise would further build the city.
Essaouira also had one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, at 40% of the population. There were more than 40 operating synagogues at any one time. Today a few survive and are being rehabilitated as a part of King Mohammed VI plan to save sites of important religious, historical and cultural significance. Essaouira grew to be so powerful that European nations had their diplomats and trade delegations stationed either in Essaouira or Tangier. Like the rest of Morocco, Essaouira fell under the French protectorate from 1912-1956.
Until the 1960’s the city was known as Mogador and purists still insist this is the rightful name of the city. However for all intents and purposes it’s legal name is Essaouira. Today it has a laid back vibe and was known as a “hippie hangout” for decades. While Jimi Hendrix “Castles in the Sand” was said to have been inspired by Essaouira, the artist didn’t visit until two years after the songs’ release.
Chances are you may have seen Essaouira on screen. Its medina is a UNESCO world heritage site and has appeared in the HBO hit show Game of Thrones where it served as the city of Astapor. Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Alexander, and Lawrence of Arabia all also had portions filmed in Essaouira.
What to Do
Just because it’s a small town, don’t think there’s nothing to do in Essaouira. While you might opt to just relax, sip nous nous, and people watch others may want to jump in the water with a kite board and catch some waves.
There aren’t a lot of museums or traditional historical sites to be found in Essaouira but there are a few. The largest is the ramparts that line the city and the skala which was built to protect the city. On the lower level you’ll find shops that were once used for military fortifications. Some parts are under renovation but it’s still possible to wander in different areas. This is also where the scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed.
The Ramparts run closer to the port. There are two different ways to get on top of the ramparts. First, you can enter at the actual entrance right before the port. The admission is about 10 dirham at last check. But, if you stroll down to the port, nearly to the end you’ll find a stairway going up. It’s actually possible to enter here and walk along the rampart and see the port from above as well as the old Portuguese and Spanish cannons.
Essaouira’s Jewish population also left behind several synagogues. While there were around 43 operating at one point in Essaouira, only one still holds services. The Simon Attias (also known as the Chaim Pinto) synagogue is small and free to enter with a free will donation for upkeep. It’s small and is representative of a Sephardic synagogue. The synagogue is in the mellah area, currently being rehabilitated. This can be a sketchy neighborhood, especially at night so it’s advisable to visit and walk during the day.
Take a Cooking Class
Cooking classes are popular all over Morocco. We highly recommend Khadija’s Kuzina classes that are held in her home. You’ll get to experience authentic dishes in a very homey atmosphere. Then you get to eat everything too!
Visit the Port
Perhaps the biggest tourist attraction in Essaouira is the port. Everyday small and medium scale fishermen bring in their catch around 10am. You can visit at anytime of day and find what’s fresh on display. Purchase directly from the sellers and have it grilled for you nearby. A great lunch and fun activity!
Go to the Beach
Of course Essaouira also has a beach. The wind blows nearly all the time year-round so cool winds are always in the cards. The water however is quite shallow so it’s a good spot to take children as they can swim and play without the fear of large drop-offs. You’ll find families having picnics, surfers, and sand castle building during summer months. While Moroccans don’t often brave the water in winter, many visitors do and thanks to wet-suits it’s not too bad!
Whether you want to take a horseback ride on the beach or a longer adventure to neighboring villages there are a lot of options that begin in Essaouira. Of course if you dream of riding a camel on the beach that’s possible too.
Prefer to go faster? Quad bike rentals and tours are also an option.
Gnaoua Festival of Essaouira
The largest festival that happens in Essaouira is the Gnaoua Festival held yearly in June. This is an action packed weekend full of music and entertainment. If you want to attend plan early because riads fill up and the city is full! It is a great opportunity to experience West African music and culture.
Where to Eat
If you’re wondering where to eat in Essaouira you’ve got some good options – especially if you like seafood! This is my favorite thing to talk about!
Along with these blog posts I have some other suggestions for our favorite spots. Something worth keeping in mind is that Essaouira is very seasonal. In winter months many restaurants operate on a random schedule or are completely shuttered. You should make sure to check before you go as to whether they will be open or not. Also in the winter it’s tough to find places open after 9pm – plan accordingly!
- Umia – one of THE best restaurants in Essaouira, if not Morocco itself. I can’t say enough good things about the food here. Love it.
- Creperie Mogador – this little crepe shop has sweet and savory varieties, all made the Breton way – Gluten Free!
- Patisserie Chez Driss – the most famous patisserie in Essaouira with great cakes and sweet treats. Eat in or take away.
- Pasta Baladin – with a great location on the corner near the entrance to the skala they have fantastic pasta (with gluten-free options). The owner/manager is from Turin and the food is authentic and very affordable.
- Silvestro’s – we’ve loved the fire grilled pizzas here for a long time though lately them seem to not be quite as good. It’s still a nice spot for an evening dinner, but not the best choice if you’re in a hurry.
- Mega Loft – with a varied menu and cool decor this is a great lunch spot or enjoy it on a warm evening while people watching.
- La Fromagerie – this place isn’t in Essaouira proper but you can easily get a taxi to bring you to and from – and it’s worth it! The restaurant is based around cheese and Moroccan dishes. It’s fantastic!
- Du Val D’Argan – Listen up wine lovers – this one is for you. Did you know Morocco has wineries? We do. This is the only one in the southern part of Morocco (the rest are in the north near Fez) and it’s gorgeous! You can go for a tasting and lunch – or just a tasting – or just lunch! They also have rooms so you can stay on site.
- The Port – I talked about this above but buying your own seafood and having it grilled onsite is an experience you really should have when you visit!
Where to Stay
Essaouira hotels are often lumped together with riads but they are two different things. A riad resembles a bed and breakfast and we think the best place to stay. But if you’d rather a hotel there are those as well. Some of our top recommendations include;
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