Photo credit: Lynn Sheppard @www.maroc-o-phile.com
Essaouira is a coastal destination that we regretted not being able to visit during our time in Morocco. We were enticed to visit by an itinerary suggested to us by Lynn Shepard, a Moroccan travel expert from Voyjer. They put together custom-designed itineraries which is the perfect way to get the best of a destination, particularly if research and planning isn’t your thing. The custom trip they design for us (and if you have been following our journey, you might have guessed) had a culinary theme, including this food tour of Marrakech.
Since we didn’t get to journey to Essaouira ourselves, Lynn graciously offered to write this guest article for us.
The windswept boho-chic port town of Essaouira on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast has seen some pretty famous voyagers pass through. Orson Welles filmed his 1952 classic, Othello, here and the likes of Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix are said to have jumped off the 1960s Marrakech Express to visit and hang out with local artists, musicians and hippies. Although still largely a destination for independent travelers (there are only 3 larger, 5-star hotels in town), Essaouira has been firmly pinned on the tourism map since the start of direct flights from London, UK around a year ago in May 2015.
Just 2.5 hours by bus or car from Marrakech, Morocco’s undisputed tourist hub, Essaouira attracts many day trippers. After the hustle and bustle of Marrakech, many invariably regret not staying for longer! This seaside town really deserves more than a day trip – 24 hours are just not enough to soak up the laid-back, chilled-out vibe.
However, if you only had a day in Essaouira, though, the absolute must-do activity, as well as checking out the UNESCO registered medina (walled old city) with its Portuguese, French, Jewish and sub-Saharan African influences, is to eat fish fresh off the quayside. And the local specialty is sardines. Forget what you know about sardines out of a tin (although plenty of those come from here); fresh is best!
Essaouira’s Fresh Seafood
Swiris (a.k.a. Essaouirans) insist sardines are best eaten at lunchtime, straight off the bobbing blue flouka boats. The fish market in the medina is currently under renovation (summer 2016), so head to the port to buy them ready-salted for around 5 dirham a ‘packet’ (5-6 fish). On route, you can swing by the skala fortifications and take the iconic shot of the city through the round window in the defensive walls. Once you have your fish, walk back to the main souk street (Avenue Istiqlal, known locally as Khodara, which means greengrocers) to pick up some lemon, tomato and cucumber from the veg souk (1 lemon, two tomatoes and a cucumber should be around 5dh), and a couple of still-hot round breads. Down the alleys opposite the vegetable and chicken souks you’ll find several BYO restaurants where you can have the sardines grilled. Pick a restaurant with a roof terrace for a seagull’s eye view of the medina. Basically, if you find one without its own menu, the staff will cook what you bring. It costs around 5dh per shuwaya (metal fish grill). Throw in a soft drink or pot of mint tea, and you have lunch for two for under five pounds/dollars/euros!
After your lunch, wander back through the medina (old city) the main square to enjoy a stiff pressed coffee or a mint tea and a session of people-watching before you embark on your exploration of the ancient city and its ramparts. Wherever you sit, it won’t be long before you’ll be treated the musical (and acrobatic) talents of Essaouira’s local Berber street troupes! If you prefer, you can grab a fresh orange juice at a stand where the square meets the port. My favorite is Soufiane’s, whose kiosk is the last on the left as you walk towards the port.
Shopping in Essaouira
Suitably fortified, you can start souvenir shopping. Typical purchases are local argan oil (for culinary and cosmetic uses), Swiri “naive” art and silver jewelry transported up from the south of Morocco where the traditions taught by Jewish silversmiths are still practiced by Muslim artisans today. Have no doubt: Essaouira’s merchants are wily but you won’t be subject to the hard sell you’ll experience in the Marrakech medina.
Purchases made, take time to stroll the medina and the sea walls. If you are still in town for sunset, the best vantage points are the beachfront, the medina skala fortifications or from the rooftop bar at Taros, on the main square. And if you plan to stay the night, be sure to book into a ‘riad’, a renovated traditional townhouse. Many date from the 18th century and feature the colonnaded ground floor, tiled internal courtyard open to the sky and rooms off internal walkways on the higher levels that are typical of the era. After all that brisk sea air, you’ll fall into a deep sleep to the sound of seagulls crying and waves crashing!
For more tips on Essaouira, buy a copy of The Best of Essaouira online here: http://maroc-o-phile.com/best-of-essaouira-e-book/
About the Author:
Lynn Sheppard first travelled in Morocco in 2001 and moved to live in Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast in 2012, where she began supporting local non-profits, writing and becoming an expert on all things Swiri (ie. Essaouiran). She is the Voyjer Morocco specialist, having written an e-guide to Essaouira. She blogs at maroc-o-phile.com and writes for other travel industry clients worldwide. Today, she divides her time between Essaouira and Edinburgh, Scotland.
You can find additional articles about the sights and flavors of Morocco that you might enjoy here.
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Photo Credit: Lynn Sheppard Maroc-o-phile.com
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