On Morocco’s Atlantic coast, a little under three hours due west of Marrakesh, Essaouira is a laid-back port town cooled by the vents alizés trade winds gently blowing in from the ocean.
Once known as Mogador, the town took its current name from the 18th century medina – ‘souira’ meaning small fortress – with crenelated walls enclosing a handful of palmed-lined avenues and connecting atmospheric alleys.
As Marrekesh’s closest harbour, Essaouira linked caravans from sub-Saharan Africa to the rest of the world and it became a cultural melting pot. Jews from Europe were encouraged to settle here to handle trade with Europe, at one point comprising nearly half of the population, and historic synagogues and walled cemeteries can be found in the old Jewish ‘Mellah’.
Fortunes faded, but Essaouira’s well-worn charm brought Hendrix, Cat Stevens, the Rolling Stones and a trail of hippies in the 60s, and while things maybe be better heeled today, its rich atmosphere and bohemian vibe are still strong.
A mass of blue fishing boats undulate in the protected harbour whose catch can be found grilled on open air stands, while the planned streets of the medina contain restaurants, galleries, boutiques and an altogether more relaxed place to browse.
Sandy beaches extend for miles out from either side of the town, swept by near perfect breezes drawing in wind and kite surfers from April to August. Inland there are a handful of more rural retreats, argan tree plantations and even vineyards to discover.
When to go
A dry climate means anytime from March to October is pleasant to visit. July and August’s heat is cooled by the breeze, making the town popular with inland Moroccans during the summer, and the end of June sees Essaouira host the renowned Gnaoua Music Festival.