Reading The Alchemist as I re-traced Santiago’s steps through Morocco was a must, and few places made me feel as if I was in the shoes of Santiago the shepherd boy as much as Essaouira did. Walking through the labyrinthine streets of the old medina was like taking a stroll back in time. The bright reds and oranges of the fresh fruit contrasting against the faded wooden carts they were set on, the peeling paint on the facades of the blue and white buildings, the pure sensory overload from roaming through the markets, Essaouira was just filled with a nostalgic beauty. This budget-friendly small city on Morocco’s beautiful coastline is a can’t-miss destination for backpackers.
It’s a surf haven with a long strip of sandy beach and a culturally-rich old city. For backpackers looking for an alternative to expensive Mediterranean destinations like Santorini or Mykonos, Essaouira is perfect. Whether you’re looking to surf, relax, or immerse yourself in the Moroccan culture, Essaouira is a perfect destination. Here’s everything you need to know about this charming coastal city oozing with culture.
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Table of Contents
- How To Get To Essaouira
- When is the Best Time to Visit Essaouira
- Where To Stay in Essaouira
- The Best Things To Do In Essaouira
- The Best Day Trips from Essaouira
- Nightlife in Essaouira
- Safety Tips for Essaouira
How To Get to Essaouira
Despite being a small city, Essaouira is serviced with budget-friendly flights from many European hubs. Flights are affordable, making Essaouira a popular getaway from the winter blues. Look up flights with RyanAir, Transavia, and EasyJet to find the best deal.
If you’re already in Morocco, taking the bus is your best bet. From Marrakech, I hopped on Supratours. A ticket will set you back 100 dirham, or $10 USD. It costs an additional 5 dirham if you check a bag. The bus station is located next to Marrakech’s train station. A taxi from Marrakech’s medina cost me 20 dirham after a fair bit of haggling. The Supratours bus takes three hours and drops you off on the outskirts of Essaouira’s medina, likely a 10-minute walk or less from your accommodation.
Other cities also have direct buses to Essaouira. Use CTM if you are coming from Casablanca. The journey will take a little over six hours. If you’re already on the coast, the Souk to Surf shuttle service is a pricier, but convenient option. It’s a good way to meet fellow travelers. It runs daily, making it worth the premium if you need something reliable.
Renting a car is also a popular option for travelers looking to take in as much of Morocco’s coastline as possible. We rented a car for about $25 a day from a sleazy-looking but nice enough guy, off the street in Essaouira around the corner from our hostel. Dude had his long, greasy hair slicked back, rocking a suit two sizes too tight and flashing all the biggest pieces of jewelry imaginable. But like I said, nice enough guy and would rent from him again. Renting a car will be cheaper if you arrange it in advance or hire a car at the airport, though. Ours was kind of a last-minute decision so we just took the deal in front of us.
Travel Insurance for Morocco
And of course, before you go, it’s always a good idea to have travel insurance handy. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels for as low as $45 a month, and their coverage includes Morocco among the 190+ countries that they cover. It’s handy to have travel insurance in Morocco, especially if you plan on hiking in remote areas, high altitudes, or taking to those crazy winding roads with even crazier drivers.
When Is The Best Time to Visit Essaouira?
Unless diving into the sea is a big priority of yours, I’d say there’s no wrong time to visit Essaouira. For me, the best time to visit Essaouira is between October to April. Despite it being winter in Morocco, Essaouira stays quite hot during the days, but not too hot that it’s unbearable. There are fewer crowds, which can be a good or bad thing depending on how much nightlife you’re looking for.
Where To Stay in Essaouira
If you’re on a tight budget, hostels are an excellent option for accommodation in Essaouira. Hostel living has become increasingly popular amongst all types of travelers, especially younger generations who embrace hostel culture and its communal atmosphere.
I stayed at Essaouira Beach Hostel, a perfect embodiment of that lively social culture and atmosphere. The hostel is a minute away from the beach, and a short walk along the beach from the medina. If you’re prioritizing surf and beach time, then Essaouira Beach Hostel is the perfect choice. They’ve got a rooftop terrace, free breakfast, surfing and kitesurfing lessons, and an unmatched social atmosphere. The dorm rooms start at around $12 a night, and each bed has actual black out curtains to guarantee a good night’s sleep.
There are other hostels that are actually located in the medina, although I preferred the location of Essaouira Beach Hostel. It was nice to have a little oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the medina, while still having everything you needed nearby. The Chill Art Hostel in the Medina is a good option for those looking for a location within the old city. I’ve walked past it a few times and it looks great, tucked away in one of the little alleyways of the medina.
The Best Things To Do in Essaouira
Essaouira is more than just a pretty face. Aside from relaxing, Essaouira’s got quite a few activities to fill your time, although stay tuned for the day trips section. I think that’s where Essaouira and Morocco’s coastline truly shines. However, the medina, markets, and beaches of Essaouira have plenty to keep you busy.
Aimlessly Wander the Historic Streets of the Ancient Medina
Personally, I’m a wanderer, and no matter how many times I walk the same streets, they always feel a tiny bit different. That’s how I felt about Essaouira. The medina isn’t huge by any means, but it’s ever-changing and full of life. It never got boring roaming through those alleyways and weaving through wooden carts and donkeys. It always felt like there was something new around each corner, or a charming alleyway that I’d missed on a previous wander.
The hub of Essaouira is in the medina, a part of the city that truly feels like you’ve traveled back in time. Aimlessly wander through its market streets and cramped alleyways, flanked by blue and white buildings reminiscent of the iconic Greek buildings of Mykonos and Santorini.
Feast on Fresh Seafood and Traditional Moroccan Cuisine
The medina is home to some great restaurants and street food options. Take advantage of the fresh seafood and treat yourself to a fish tagine, calamari, octopus, and more. Tagine is a traditional Moroccan stew, and Essaouira’s twist on it usually involves replacing the meat with seafood. I’ve seen sardine, octopus, and shrimp tagine offered at restaurants. If you’re feeling particularly bold, you can head down to the old fish market by the port and try some sea urchin or some Moroccan-style ceviche. The sea urchin was a pleasant surprise. I ordered one just because to say I’ve tried one. I ended up eating three more. They’re not for everybody, but I loved it.
Some of the best restaurants in Essaouira include La Table, which serves up delicious French-Moroccan fusion dishes; Chez Sam, an authentic restaurant specializing in local seafood dishes; and The Hungry Nomad for its rooftop and vegetarian options. For those who want some Mediterranean flavors, head over to Café des Arts where you can enjoy freshly cooked tapas and drinks on their outdoor terrace overlooking the sea. The spot that earned my loyalty, though, was the local fish spot on the other side of the block from the hostel. I mean, 35 dirham for a huge plate of fried seafood!? Plus bread and olives to boot. I wouldn’t say it’s worth going out of the way for, but if you’re staying at Essaouira Beach Hostel, it is the spot for sure.
Surf, Kitesurf, or Soak in Some Sunshine on the Beach
For those looking to relax, there is a long strip of beach with plenty of space to sprawl out and soak in the sun. For the more adventurous traveler, surfing and kitesurfing are some popular activities. Essaouira attracts surfers and kitesurfers from all over the world. This whole strip of Morocco’s coast is some of the best you’ll find in the world if you’re an enthusiast of catching some waves. If you don’t have your own gear, many places in Essaouira offer both lessons and rentals for both surfing and kitesurfing. Essaouira Beach Hostel offered it all, and its location right on the beach makes it convenient to get from the shop to the shores.
Chase Some Ocean Views Along the City’s Fortress Walls
Like many medinas of Morocco, Essaouira’s is surrounded by walls. Some stretches of the wall are climbable, giving you excellent views of the old city and the Atlantic Ocean. The city’s 18th century ramparts are a beautiful spot for a sunset stroll above the city.
Get Lost in the Colorful Souks of the Medina
Hope you’re good at haggling. Like any tourist destination in Morocco, haggling is part of the lifestyle. It can get annoying, but if you plan on shopping in the souks, you’ll have to get good at it. The medina is filled with markets and stalls sprawling out onto the streets. Whether you’re hunting for souvenirs or simply admiring the colorful handicrafts, it’s worth a wander to see what you’ll find. The vibrant souks have something for everyone, and I walked away with a few small souvenirs from the shops.
Experience the Chaos of Essaouira’s Sprawling Sunday Market
The one thing about souks is that they definitely cater to wealthier tourists looking to spend money. As backpackers, we aren’t exactly in the market for a giant rug or massive painting for our nonexistent houses. If you happen to be visiting during the weekend, Essaouira comes alive during its sprawling Sunday market. The market street begins just outside the medina and goes on for over a mile. It’s more local, so you won’t find much in the way of souvenirs aside from some art and jewelry. However, if you want some fresh fruits or vintage clothing at an unbeatable price, this is the place to be.
The Best Day Trips from Essaouira
One of my favorite experiences in Morocco was rent a car and just cruise down Morocco’s rugged and untouched coastline. Between Essaouira and Agadir, there are countless fishing towns and hidden surfer havens along miles and miles of beautiful sandy beaches. It was the biggest surprise of my trip to Morocco. I truly had no idea that Morocco had beaches this gorgeous. If you can, rent a car and see for yourself.
This charming small town along Morocco’s coast is the definition of dreamy. It is a fishing village located about 45 minutes south of Essaouira. This idyllic spot is ideal for visitors looking to escape the crowds, eat some fresh seafood, or go for a surf in a beautiful setting. The cliffs flanking the long strip of beach are gorgeous. Tafedna is like a hidden cove filled with secret beaches. The laid-back atmosphere and friendly locals make it a great vibe all around.
Located just 30 minutes away from Essaouira, you’ll find the quiet surf town of Sidi Kaouki. It’s home to a long strip of beach and not much else, making it perfect for those seeking a relaxing beach day. It’s popular among surfers, and there is plenty of room to share the waves. This random abandoned building on the side of the beach was also quite cool, and a great spot for photos. I wouldn’t prioritize Sidi Kaouki, but considering how close it is to Essaouira, it’s not too much of a hassle to get there.
About an hour and a half from Essaouira, you’ll find the surfer and hippie haven of Imsouane. Aside from Essaouira, Imsouane was my favorite spot along Morocco’s coast. Cruising along the coastal highway felt like driving along California’s Highway One, and pulling into Imsouane truly felt like stepping into some surfer paradise beyond one’s wildest dreams. It is a small village, but very popular among surfers so the beach does get pretty crowded. If surf is your main goal, I’d recommend hitting one of the less-crowded spots along Morocco’s coast. Otherwise, Imsouane is a great home base with plenty of hostels and restaurants.
Taghazout is another small fishing village located a bit further south than Imsouane. It’s becoming an increasingly popular holiday destination for surfers, backpackers, and those looking for somewhere a little more peaceful. The town itself has retained much of its traditional charm with narrow streets lined with whitewashed houses and bustling markets selling local produce. There are many activities to enjoy in Taghazout such as surfing, swimming, or simply relaxing at any of the beachside restaurants.
Just a little further south from Taghazout, you’ll find Tamraght. I can only write “small fishing village with idyllic vibes and surfer haven” so many times. The thing is, many of these towns are objectively quite similar, but everyone has their favorites. Tamraght is a favorite among backpackers and surfers, home to the legendary Devil’s Rock surf spot. Lunar Surf House Hostel plays a huge part in travelers falling in love with Tamraght, as the vibes are laid-back and can suck you in for days or weeks at a time.
There are dozens of these small fishing towns and surf havens all along Morocco’s coast. Explore as many as you can, and you’re bound to find your spot. As we cruised down the coastline, I couldn’t help but notice all the van-lifers and campers taking advantage of this pristine paradise. A road trip is essential, and one of the best things to do in all of Morocco.
Nightlife in Essaouira
For a sleepy, coastal town, Essaouira has quite a vibrant nightlife scene. Along the beach, you’ll find a decent selection of beach bars and nightclubs.
Beach and Friends was the nightlife spot that I frequented the most. It had a decent selection of drinks, although I stuck mostly to tequila shots because I’m a mess. I’m not sure how lively it is during the busy season, but it was one of the main nightlife hubs when I visited in the awkward month of February. I had a lot of fun, despite the dance floor being pretty empty and consisting only of people from my hostel. It’s the crew that matters, right?
The Roof was a fun spot and it’s right around the corner from Essaouira Beach Hostel. Again, during the offseason, it was quite empty. My local friends liked to keep the party going at OZO once the other bars closed for the night, but I personally never went myself. Taros is another local recommendation from the hash dealer sitting next to me on the bus from Marrakech to Essaouira.
All in all, if you’re looking for a party in Morocco, Essaouira is one of your best bets. It’s a much more relaxed vibe, and you’ll have easier access to alcohol than elsewhere in the country. There was even a liquor store right down the street from my hostel. I didn’t realize how much of a blessing that was at the time. It was nearly impossible to find easy access to alcohol the rest of my time in Morocco.
Safety in Essaouira
Morocco is a relatively safe country to visit for tourists, and I’d consider Essaouira to be on the very safe side of the spectrum. As with any destination, it’s always important to be aware of ay potential risks. The main concern in Morocco is paying the tourist tax and getting scammed, but that’s about it. It’s not as bad in Essaouira, but can still happen.
Parts of Morocco are also very conservative, but Essaouira is quite chill overall. Be sure to respect local and religious customs. Don’t just wander into mosques. Don’t take pictures of people without their permission. Be respectful. Outside of the medina and along the beach, things are a lot more carefree. Within the medina and holy areas, try to dress and act a little more conservatively.
Unlike big cities where taxis would charge you whatever they wanted, Essaouira’s drivers were always consistent and fair. It is 7 dirham for a ride pretty much anywhere within the city. If you’re sharing the cab with other passengers, it’ll be 5 dirham each. There aren’t any dodgy neighborhoods in Essaouira to beware of, especially not along the beach or in the medina. Overall, Essaouira is as chill and as safe as it gets.
Essaouira is truly one of my favorite destinations in Morocco. Even writing this, I can still remember the pungent smell of the fish market, the clopping of wooden wheels on cobblestone, and the suns’ rays shining on the peeling white paint of the medina’s historic architecture. Essaouira is simply an incredible place to visit.
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