Ah, Morocco. The land of Indiana Jones, Lawrence of Arabia and the Dothraki. For years, I dreamed of visiting the spice markets of Fez, but I didn’t know much more about Morocco. I never even heard of Essaouira before I arrived. Five hours there and I was completely in love.
Essaouira is located on the coast about 2.5 hours west of Marrakech, and about 4.5 hours south along the coast from Casablanca. There are national buses and tours that will get you to Essaouira. The premium CTM bus costs $7.35 per ride. You could rent a car too, but I don’t think I’d recommend that after seeing how Moroccans drive. Personally, I’d recommend booking a tour, such as with Time Out Marrakech for $33. Their small bus will get you to the coast much faster and give you enough time to explore the town.
While you can hire a tour guide of the city for about $10, I’d recommend setting off to explore on your own. The city has less than 80,000 inhabitants and it doesn’t take long to get around. While there is a new, modern city that has developed in recent years, the historic Medina (a walled Old Town of a North African city) is where you’ll want to wander.
The buses drop you off at the parking lot down by the beach and harbor. It’s only a few steps to the wall of the Medina where the exploration begins. Unsurprisingly, the first attractions are dozens of tourist restaurants side by side, hawking their dishes to every foreigner passing by. I always recommend skipping these establishments. I’ll mention later how to find a good, local spot.
After the restaurants, you get into the souk, or market. All kinds of local products are available, from Moroccan silk scarves to olive wood boxes. When visiting a souk anywhere in the world, it’s customary and expected to haggle. Essaouira is no different. Quite often the first price quoted will be at least double what you can eventually get the product for. Don’t be afraid to go as low as you can. They rarely get mad, and it can be a lot of fun.
As you continue deeper into the city, the busy market streets give way to smaller alleyways and individual shops. Among them was a cute art workshop tastefully decorated with different tools.
This is also where you’ll find the better restaurants. Venture down some of the side streets and you’ll eventually end up in a small alley with a hole in the wall serving local dishes. The conditions might not be the cleanest, but the food is surprisingly good. I had my first meal in Morocco in one such alleyway. I went with the lamb couscous. Yeah, it was way better than similar dishes I’d had growing up in the US.
If you’re looking for just a coffee, there’s an awesome book cafe in the far back of the town (near the end of the fortification reaching into the sea). Books line the walls and a sign reads “pick a book, pet and cat and drink a coffee.” Cats and kittens are everywhere, always ready for a friendly pet. There’s no WiFi there, but why would you want to waste your time online in a place like that?
Finally, make sure you stroll along the battlements surrounding the town and rising above the sea. These extend around the harbor. If you climb over the wall at the harbor, you’ll get a great view of a castle on a small island not far out to sea. The city might seem ancient, but the walls were only built in the 18th century by European architects. Don’t be fooled. Essaouira has its origins in prehistoric times. It’s a wonderful introduction to Moroccan culture. It’s certainly possible to explore the city in a day, but feel free to stay longer in one of the small hotels, hostels or B&Bs if you want to make the most out of your visit.