How to spend one day in Essaouira, Morocco
One day itinerary for Essaouira, Morocco
Morocco is fast becoming one of the most popular year-round micro holiday destinations from the UK and after my recent trip I can certainly see why. The climate, cost of living and authenticity of this country are appealing, but the chance to get a taste of African culture for such a short (and affordable) flight really clinches the deal.
I spent a week in Morocco, splitting my time between Taghazout and Essaouira with a day trip to Paradise Valley.
Essaouira is a seaside, seafood loving port town which combines the hustle and bustle of Marrakech with the laid back surf culture of Taghazout into the perfect city break. In just a day, you can experience the best of Moroccan culture, seaside living, history and food.
Wander the Medina
Start your day by braving the Medina. Beat the rush of the crowds and the heat of the midday sun by wandering its streets in the morning. You’ll find everything from traditional rugs, cushion covers, clothing and art to herbs and spices, teas and argan oils. As with any local market, you’re best to wander first and buy later, getting a lay of the land before you decide where to make your purchases.
While in Marrakech stall owners can be pushy, in Essaouira they are mostly friendly and enjoy the art of bartering. My strategy of coming in with a low price and then my final price was scoffed at, with stall owners saying ‘no no, you come back three times then we agree on the price’. Be prepared to barter, but also to make an offer that is too low a few times to be able to work out what a fair price is. I always came it at a third of asking for my first offer, then went up very incrementally from there.
The best time for photography and exploring is definitely the morning, however to see the Medina in action you should time a walk through for the late afternoon, when it is bustling with tourists and locals alike.
The more touristic end of the Medina is the half closer to the port, while the Eastern side closer to the entrance which leads into Essaouira and away from the port and beach fills up with a local food market as the day creeps on, peaking just before sunset when I was there (during Ramadan). It was amazing to experience the market thriving with Moroccan families stocking up on bread, mint and fruit before heading home to feast.
Ramparts & Citadel
After the Medina, take a Northern exit towards the top end of the Port. Here you’ll find access to the Ramparts and Citadel through a small hole in the wall. Entry is 60 MAD (around six euro) for tourists, but it’s worth it for the view back on the walled Medina. This is where you will get the best photographs of your trip, and also an opportunity for unobstructed views of the operational fishing port in action.
Now that you’ve seen it from above, head down and take a walk through the thriving port filled with its famous small blue fishing boats and fisherman in various stages of preparation. The people are used to tourists (but still be respectful that they are trying to make a living) and welcome you to wander around the area. In the afternoon, vendors set up stalls to grill and sell freshly caught produce, which is an experience of its own.
Once you’re done with the hustle and bustle, it’s a short walk out of the Medina area to the beachside. Essaouira’s coast is beautiful but can get quite windy, so it’s highly likely you’ll be treated to a horizon filled with colourful kite surfers. Not to mention the camels and horses.
Right down the beachside are beach clubs and restaurants, and sun beds are available to hire. As an Aussie, when faced with a sandy beach I relish laying down my towel and judging the tourists on the sun beds, but on such a windy beach a sun bed really is a must to save your skin from being whipped with sand.
If the sand and sea isn’t for you, head to Bar Miramar where you can order a drink and relax on some beach facing lounges and chairs. Guests staying at Le Medina, the beach clubs’ nearby resort, can also access a private beach area.
If you’re up for an adventure, quad biking over the dunes is a popular activity and gives you a unique perspective over the relatively untouched landscape between Essaouira and the southern fishing villages. I did a three hour tour with Palma Quad which was good fun and very professional.
Eat a Tagine & Drink Mint Tea
Several really great restaurants in and out of the Medina, but no matter what you do you must have a tagine and mint tea. Tagines are curry like dishes cooked and served in iconic clay pots, and a traditional dish to Morocco. They can vary between savoury, sweet, vegetarian or meat filled, so if you look around you are sure to find one to suit your tastes.
Mint tea is another local delicacy and Moroccans have given the preparation and serving of it an element of theatre. The first time you order mint tea, ask your server to show you how to pour it – it involved running water through and back into the pot a few times before pouring your tea from a height to give it bubbles.
Where to eat in Essaouira
The Loft: Tucked away down an alley of the Medina, this small restaurant has a retro fit out and delicious dishes. It can get busy, so get there early to get a table.
Adwak: Another popular spot, Adwak serves an incredible traditional menu with starter, tagine main and dessert included. The decor is like you’ve stepped into the setting for a big family dinner.
Mega Loft: Calling itself a ‘concept’ Mega Loft is just off the main strip in the Medina and is a combination restaurant, rooftop bar, live music venue and store. It’s definitely worth a visit with plenty of space inside and out.
Mandala Brunch Society: Great for coffee and pancakes to write home about, this was by far my favourite spot for brunch. You know it’s good coffee when you aren’t the only Australian in the cafe! This was the only place we ran into fellow Antipodes, in search of a good brew.
Yoo Healthy Food: This is a small spot serving freshly made sandwiches, smoothies, juices and frozen yoghurt. Great for a refreshing, quick bite to eat.
La Coupole: Would you believe me if I told you I had an amazing steak in Essaouira? This restaurant is on the beachfront outside the Medina and serves modern cuisine with a Moroccan twist. Everything we ordered was delicious, and the staff were very friendly and welcoming.
Transport in Essaouira
Transport within Essaouira is easy – it’s small enough to walk everywhere through the city. If you’ve read any of my other city guides you’ll know I’m a big advocate for walking, and if you stay in the Medina you’ll have the chance to take a different route every day and discover something new each time.
Getting to Essaouira, however, is a bit of a tricky one. There are local buses and public transport but being a city break I didn’t really want to take the chance on what would likely be a slow and arduous journey. Essaouira is almost three hours from Agadir airport and about the same from Marrakech, and it gave me better peace of mind to opt for taxis.
Even this turned out to be an experience, the first taxi we hailed from the airport was an old Mercedes which struggled up every hill and added an hour onto the trip to our first destination, Taghazout. Our second taxi experience, which we booked in advance to request a larger, modern car still had engine troubles so had to swap up into a ‘friends’ taxi in a small town along the way.
On our trip from Essaouira back to Agadir airport, we booked a private transfer through our hotel for only a small extra charge and it was the only air conditioned, hassle free ride we had – so well worth the money in my eyes! It of course depends what kind of trip you’re after, but if I made any recommendation it would be to organise private transfers in advance for all of your travel between towns.
How much I spent in a day in Essaouira
Breakfast at Mandala: £15
Lunch at the Port: £10
Quad Tour (for two): £100
Dinner at Adwak: £15
Accommodation (for two): £40
One day total: £110
Make a weekend of it
You could easily spend a full weekend in Essaouira. If you followed the guide above, I would recommend spending your second day relaxing by the beach (weather permitting) and hitting up more of the town’s great restaurants.
However, you could also fit in a visit to one of these nearby destinations on your way back to the airport:
A sleepy surf town, Taghazout’s beaches were beautiful. It’s definitely a developing town tourism wise, and there are no ATMs in the town, so be prepared with cash. From here you can organise surf trips or surf the local beach if the conditions are right. Most restaurants are stacked right on the oceanfront, so do head down for lunch or dinner if you can. Surf Berbere has a great view and organises surf excursions and day trips for tourists to surrounding areas.
One of the day trips on offer is to Paradise Valley, which involves around a one hour drive followed by a 40 minute walk to a beautiful canyon and swimming hole. Popular with big tour groups, if you hit the right time on a private or self drive trip you could end up being the only ones there (or, only humans – the local dogs are frequent visitors as well). The walk into the Valley is lined with vendors selling tagines, so be sure to stop into one. Our tour included lunch and it was one of the best tagines of our trip.
I didn’t actually make it to Marrakech, opting instead to spend more time in Essaouira relaxing rather than venturing into a busy city. However, I’ve only heard good things and a friend who combined recently spent a weekend in Marrakech followed my recommended day guide above on a day trip to Essaouira and loved the chance to see another side to Morocco with the port, beach and seafood experience. You could easily do the opposite, or split a weekend with two spend a day in each city.
My trip highlights
Essaouira’s Medina was absolutely beautiful and from the riad to the restaurants you instantly fall in love with the decor and want to transport it back to your own home. Thus, I managed to be sold on a rug and two cushion covers right before I’m about to move countries; just another victim of the intoxication of the Medina and its treasures. In saying that, I’m truly in love with my rug and every time I see it it brings back a rush of memories of this trip and my time abroad, so in a way it’s absolutely priceless.
Another highlight was the food, which I didn’t actually expect to be so incredible. Most restaurants have a great balance between modern and traditional cuisine to suit a western palate while still providing authenticity. There are some very trendy places too, and I had a great night listening to live music at Mega Loft.
After spending three nights staying at a riad in the Medina, we opted to spend our last night at Le Medina resort, which for 112 pounds gave us access to a private pool (which was a big plus as we couldn’t bring ourselves to swim in ocean for the wind chill) and a delicious cooked breakfast included, not to mention a spacious and luxurious room. It was a nice treat after a week of budget accommodation, and I’d highly recommend the hotel for value.
What I didn’t really consider before our trip was that Morocco is in Africa (obvious, you’d think) so it would be a very different experience to our usual trips to Europe. We arrived at the airport completely unprepared for this, and I quickly realised I’d have to shove my shorts and singlet tops to the bottom of my backpack in favour of mid-length skirts and shirts to keep my shoulders and knees covered. This was more to fit in and avoid glances, I was never explicitly told off for exposing skin, but I felt I need to nonetheless.
In addition to covering up, one of the other major differences in Morocco was the drinking culture. Alcohol isn’t necessarily unavailable, but it is pretty scarce, so I actually spent my week there not drinking at all. It depends on the location too, I didn’t see any alcohol being served in Taghazout but the more modern restaurants and bars in Essaouira generally had beer and wine.
My trip to Morocco was an incredible experience and the stand out city was Essaouira. The relaxed, friendly vibes from the locals can’t help but influence your mood. Coupled with beautiful scenery, a vibrant culture and the perfect balance between bustling city break and laid back seaside retreat, Essaouira is the perfect place to spend a day – if not more.