In the 19th century the walled coastal city of Essaouira was Morocco’s main seaport, connecting trade routes through its Saharan hinterland with the rest of the world.
Essaouira had been revived the century before by Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah (1710-1790). He set up a large Jewish quarter and commissioned the French engineer, Théodore Cornut to design Vauban-esque ramparts, built from the ruins of a Portuguese castle.
These regal artillery platforms are still intact today and have set the scene for movies and TV series like Game of Thrones.
Essaouira is at the head of a sandy bay, buffeted by trade winds giving flight scores of kite-surfers.
1. Essaouira Medina
Defended from the ocean by the long 18th-century ramparts, Essaouira’s Medina is a fortified town with European military architecture in a Maghreb context.
This has earned it UNECO World Heritage status, not least for the many reminders of how multicultural life was on these tight, twisting streets after their regeneration by Mohammed ben Abdallah.
Berbers, Arabs, Europeans and Africans lived side-by-side, and the large Mellah (Jewish quarter) has two cemeteries and a couple of synagogues you can visit.
The Medina is smaller and less chaotic than its equivalents in Marrakesh and Fez, while shopkeepers and restaurant touts are usually less pushy and there’s less danger of getting lost.
Suggested tour: Essaouira: Half-Day Old Town Guided Tour
2. Sqala du Port
Under the watch of a square tower with bartizans, the Sqala du Port is a long embattled artillery platform built in the style of a Vauban fortification in 1769. The platform protects the harbour with two 200-metre platforms, leading from the Bab el-Marsa gate east to the tower, and then south to the circular Borj el-Barmil bastion.
The tower can be scaled for a complete view of the ramparts and the port with its cluster of blue wooden boats.
Poking between the crenellations are original 18th-century bronze cannons, cast mostly in Spain but also the Netherlands.
This stirring scene was a shooting location for Orson Welles’ Othello in 1951 and as the slavers’ city of Astapor in the third season of Game of Thrones.
3. Sqala de la Kasbah
On two levels at the north end of Rue Skala, the Sqala de la Kasbah was constructed slightly earlier in 1765 and is on one axis beside rocky outcrops pummelled by the Atlantic.
At the top end is the bastion, Borj Nord, with arches and bartizans that you can nose around.
As for the artillery platform, this is armed with several dozen bronze cannons, cast in the cities of Barcelona and Seville between 1743 and 1782. These guns are 3.25 metres long and as with their neighbours on Sqala du Port had a range of 1,500 metres.
Along the narrow Rue Skala on the platform below, the old arched gun positions now hold little souvenir shops.
4. Bab el-Marsa
One of Essaouira’s defining images is the fortified gate that opens onto the Sqala du Port.
This Baroque structure, with a frieze, pediment, scrolls and fluted pillars, was built in 1770 by the renegade architect Ahmed el Inglizi.
As you might tell from his name el Inglizi was an English convert to Islam, who also made his mark in Rabat, building the fortifications and restoring the Medieval mosque.
The inscription in the pediment reads, “Glory to God. This gate, ordered by the most glorious of Kings, Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah, was built by his servant Ahmed Laalaj.” With the date, 1184 (1770).
5. Essaouira Beach
Beginning just east of the harbour, this gently shelving sandy beach lines the Bay of Essaouira as far down as the mouth of the Oued Ksob river several kilometres away.
Mogador Island at the entrance to the bay, protects the beach from the open Atlantic surf, so the waves roll in at thigh height.
While Essaouira Beach is much safer than most beaches on the Atlantic, children will need to stay close to the shore.
The Bay of Essaouira is swept by trade lively winds, which makes kite-surfing the water sport of choice: Bluekite, Loving Surf, Ion Club, Ananas, Yalla Surf, Kite Paradise, Mogasurf and Yousurf are just a handful of the many companies providing licenced tuition in kite-surfing, conventional surfing in the bay and paddleboarding.
In the quieter southern portion you can saddle up for a horseback or camel ride, a special way to watch the sun go down.
Recommended tour: Essaouria: Beach & Big Dunes 2-Hour Quad Biking Tour
6. Le Souk
Smaller than the bazaars in Marrakesh and Fez, the arcaded Souk in Essaouira has the advantage of being easier to navigate without hassle, and selling wares at a lower price than in the bigger tourist cities.
As with all souks, this is broken down into different sections, the main one being devoted to handmade souvenirs like clothing, geometric tiles, colourful ceramic dishes, tagines, glassware, stencilled lamps, ornate teapots, inlaid wood and silver jewellery.
Elsewhere you’ll come across food and produce, from stacks of khobz bread, olives, nuts, spices, garlic, chillies and jars of preserved lemons, to all kinds of animals, some alive and some not.
7. Fishing Port
If you’re an early riser you could wander down to the harbour to watch the fishing boats returning with their catch at the crack of dawn.
Although small, this is one of the most productive fishing ports in the country, with a big catch caused by the Canaries current and those powerful trade winds.
The harbour pulses with life until well after lunch, and though it’s a heady olfactory experience, and a little rough around the edges, it is also picturesque for its determined seagulls and blue painted wooden boats.
Historically the pigment for this paint came from shells harvested on the Iles Purpuraires since Roman times.
Included in: Discover Essaouira 3-Hour Guided Tour with Tastings
In the 18th century when Mohammed ben Abdallah (1710-1790) revived Essaouira he encouraged Jewish people to settle in the city and take care of trade with Europe.
At one point Jews comprised just under half of Essaouira’s population, and although the community has all but disappeared the Mellah (Jewish Quarter) remains in the north-east of the Medina.
There are two Jewish cemeteries, both of which can be visited if you call the number on the gates.
The older of the two is right on the ocean, which regularly spills over its wall.
Although many of the inscriptions have disappeared, you can still make out the markings on the tombs indicating whether its occupant is male (circle) or female (triangle), and several preserved synagogues left over from the 40 that stood here in the 19th century.
In the Mellah, pay a visit to the Synagogue Slat Lkahal, which is being restored from a state of ruin, as well as Simon Attia, preserving its scrolls, black and white photographs of the community and the rabbi’s quarters below.
9. Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah Museum
There’s a riveting collection of artefacts going back to the Phoenicians at this museum in a 19th-century mansion on Rue Laâlouj.
Initially a seigniorial residence, the building, arranged around a patio and fountain, became Essaouira’s town hall during the French Protectorate in the 20th century.
The museum tells the city’s story from prehistory to the time of Mohammed ben Abdallah, with panels indicating Essaouira’s natural heritage and old local trades like extracting argan oil.
Among the many compelling pieces are coins minted in the city in the 18th century, traditional Berber, Jewish and Arab jewellery, as well as ritualistic objects and musical instruments relating to the Gnaoua, Hmadcha, Melhoun, Andalusian and Berber cultures.
There’s also costume, fine workmanship in cedar, carpet-weaving and stucco, and Roman amphorae discovered completely intact in the Bay of Essaouira.
10. Fish Market
There are two fish markets in Essaouira, one right on the fishing harbour and a large indoor hall on Avenue Mohammed Zerktouni.
At both you’ll be able to take your purchases, be they sardines, shrimp, red snapper, conger eel, squid or any other Atlantic catch, to the little restaurants nearby to be grilled fresh over charcoal for you.
This process can be a bit of a minefield, as the restaurants often have no fixed price list and might overcharge.
In this instance a bit of local knowledge from a trusted guide might go a long way.
11. Place Moulay Hassan
At the head of the peninsula sheltering the fishing port is a spacious plaza heralding the entrance to the Medina.
Place Moulay Hassan is completely open to the south and west, giving the square a clean view of the fortified tower and the ocean from its seawall.
The sunsets are beautiful in the evening, when Essaouira’s residents visit for walks and to mingle at the terraces on the square’s north side.
In June, this space becomes the largest stage at the annual Gnaoua World Music Festival.
12. Three-Hour Guided Tour with Tastings
There’s so much to experience in Essaouira that it’s easy to feel like you’ve missed something.
A way to avoid that is with a trusted guide, and there’s a three-hour tour on GetYourGuide.com.
This will bring you to all the obligatory spots like the ramparts, the fishing port and covered fish market, but will also involve some discoveries that you might have missed.
You’ll call in at Essaouira’s oldest bakery, making pastries to time-honoured recipes, catch a demonstration of Arabic calligraphy and watch an artisan at work in his studio.
The tour involves grilled fish at the market, a typical Moroccan dessert and finishes up in authentic style with a glass of mint tea.
13. One-Hour Horseback Ride
This adventure, posted on GetYourGuide.com entails crossing the Oued Ksob river to the Ranch de Diabat, three kilometres from Essaouira’s medina.
From there you’ll ride off on an hour-long trek on the deserted beach.
If you’re new to horseback riding this can be a gentle trot, with lots of time to look out to Mogador Island and its ruined fortifications.
More experienced riders can pick up the pace for an exhilarating gallop through the shallows.
The trip will take you past the ruins of the palace that Mohammed ben Abdallah built for himself on the left bank of the Oued Ksob river.
14. Half-Day Quad Bike Tour
Also at Diabat’s wild beach, the Half-Day Quad Bike Tour will lead you into the high dunes behind.
After a safety briefing and plenty of time to get to know your vehicle, you’ll zip off into the dune fields for a three-hour ride, up vertiginous slopes to soaring perches where you can marvel at the Atlantic.
These quad bikes are 125cc, and the tour includes hotel pickup and drop-off, as well as refreshments and photos taken by your guide.
Book online: Essaouira Sand Dunes: Half Day Quad Bike Tour
15. Gnaoua World Music Festival
The Gnawa ethnic group comes from Western and Central Africa, brought to Morocco as slaves.
The word Gnawa actually comes from the Berber for “slave”. Rooted in Gnawa culture are ancient prayer and healing rites, and the music that accompanied these ceremonies evolved into modern Gnawa music.
Their songs comprise rhythmic plucking on the low-toned sintir, hand-clapping and call-and-response singing.
The eclectic Gnaoua World Music Festival takes place over four days in late-June, drawing tens of thousands of people to the city.
On the bill each year are masters of Gnawa music, as well as musicians thrilling the crowd with jazz, blues, funk, pop, rock and other world music genres