Essaouira is a town on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco. It’s known as the home of Gnawa music and has hosted many music festivals. Essaouira has a laid-back ambiance – it was a former hotspot for hippies – and is especially popular in summer months when Moroccans wish to escape the heat.
This city’s name is sometimes difficult for foreigners to pronounce – how to even twist your tongue around that string of vowels?! To make it easier, pretend that the “ou” is actually “w”, as in “Essawira”. The “ou” spelling often is a result of transliteration of Arabic for French speakers. If you want to be a cool Morocco Local Insider, then refer to this town just as many Moroccans do, and call it “Swira”.
How to Get To and Travel From Essaouira, Morocco
If you want to travel to or from Essaouira, you have a few choices, such as:
- PRIVATE TRANSPORTATION
- PUBLIC TAXI
- The city’s airport is called Essaouira Mogador Airport.
- Its airport code (IATA) is ESU.
- It is located about 10 miles (16 km) from the center of Essaouira.
- Essaouira Mogador Airport is a smaller airport in Morocco and has some international connections with London, Paris and Marseille. Currently only 2 airlines fly in and out of Essaouira: Ryanair and Transavia.
- There is no train station in this city, so you cannot take the train to or from Essaouira.
- This city is served by several bus companies. However, if you choose to travel to Essaouira by bus, we recommend to travel with Supratours or CTM.
Approximate Drive-times from Essaouira to Other Popular Destinations in Morocco
Below are approximate one-way and direct drive-times from this city to other popular destinations in Morocco. You’ll want to allow more time if you plan to stop along the way, if there is road construction, or in case of inclement weather.
Essaouira -> Agadir: 3 hours
Essaouira -> Casablanca: 5-6 hours
Essaouira -> Chefchaouen: 9 hours
Essaouira -> Fes: 8 hours
Essaouira -> Marrakech: 3 hours
Essaouira -> Oualidia: 3 hours
Essaouira -> Rabat: 6 hours
Essaouira -> Tangier: 8 hours
Brief History of Essaouira, Morocco
Essaouira traces its roots back to the Phoenicians and later Carthaginians and is even mentioned in maps dating back to the 5th century BC.
Like many other Carthaginian sites, Romans also took over Essaouira. In fact, this Roman colony was important for supplying the purple dye used for the Senator’s robes in Rome. The dye was made from local shells.
With its location on the Atlantic, Essaouira was a coveted location to colonize! The Portuguese were among the first modern powers to take control of the area in the early 16th century, along with other ports of Agadir and El Jadida. The French, Dutch, Spanish and UK all attempted to take over Essaouira but were not successful.
The current city was founded in 1765 by Alaouite sultan Mohammed Ibn Abdullah and was meant to compete against the port of Agadir. It was in part planned by French engineers, which is marked by some clear grids within the medina. Essaouira prospered with its close access to Marrakech and Sahara trade routes, actually became the principal port in Morocco until the 19th century. As a way to promote commerce, Sultan Mohammed encouraged Moroccan Jews to settle in Essaouira, and as a result, there are many vestiges of this Jewish heritage still today.
Essaouira was known as “Mogador” until the 1960s – this name is sometimes attributed as the Portuguese bastardized version of an original Amazigh name meaning “safe anchorage”, and sometimes attributed to a Muslim saint from the Middle Ages who is buried nearby.
Main Sights to Visit / Things to Do in Essaouira, Morocco
Compared to some other cities in Morocco such as Fes, Essaouira doesn’t have as many sites to visit inside the city.
Here is what we recommend to visit in Essaouira:
- Medina: The medina of Essaouira is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s charming and picturesque with white-washed walls and blue accents. Its smaller size does not overwhelm and is not as hard to navigate as other medinas in Morocco. You’ll see some European influence in some of the buildings, and you can discover small interesting art shops and stands, mixed among the more typical local stores. If you’re up for an authentic local meal, find the fresh fish market and choose from a variety of that day’s catch. Have it cleaned nearby, then take your purchase to one of the many small “restaurant” stands to have them prepared as you like (fried or grilled). You can also order from the stand sides and beverages. This is all about first come, first served – grab a place to sit but be prepared to sit in quite close and noisy quarters – literally elbow to elbow – with locals.
- Sqalas (skalas): Walk along the sqalas, or fortified sections, surround the medina – there are great views of the port and ocean.
- Port: Essaouira is Morocco’s 3rd largest port, and fishing is very much a part of Essaouira. This will be obvious from all of the smaller blue fishing boats moored in the harbor. There are some great photo opportunities here, as you’ll see plenty of seagulls eager to get a taste from the day’s catch, and if you’re walking from the port toward the medina, keep an eye out for the “hole” in the wall. This offers a great view of the medina! Near the port you will also find food stalls with a wide variety of the freshest seafood imaginable, prepared simply but deliciously on outdoor grills.
- Beach: Essaouira’s coastline tends to be windy and so a great place for sail-boarding and kite-surfing. Choose to relax on the beach, ride a camel, or for the more adventurous, consider a horse ride or rent a quad, to explore the coastline. There are 2 beaches in Essaouira: the most accessible is right next to town – this is a nice place to swim, and the other is known as “Second Beach” (locals call it “Deuxième Plage”) and is better accessed by car. Here the waves are larger and it’s where you’ll find more options for quads and horse-riding.
Handicrafts and other traditional Moroccan artisanal items from Essaouira
- Thuya wood: Essaouira is best known for “thuya” wood. Thuya is a rare species of evergreen tree, growing almost exclusively in Morocco and in particular, the general area around Essaouira and Atlas. Thuya wood is known for its distinct aroma, deep color and interesting grain patterns. Thuya wood, and products made from it, are expensive due to the fact that it is the burl of the thuya which is coveted. You may find thuya used in large sculptures and unique chairs and its veneer may be used for decorative items. Artists find much inspiration in Essaouira, and you will find it in many forms such as art naïf paintings and recycled metal parts sculptures.
- Argan oil: Sometimes called Morocco’s “liquid gold”, argan oil is pressed from the argan tree, which is native to Morocco and only grows in the region surrounding Essaouira and the Atlas. Many people are surprised and amused to find these trees filled with goats, eager to eat the argan nuts! Argan oil is used for both culinary and cosmetic uses.
Suggested Day Trips from Essaouira
Although Essaouira is growing in popularity as a requested destination to be included on tours of Morocco, it’s not a city to be used a hub for travels around the region. Usually 2-3 nights in this charming coastal town are enough to immerse yourself in this calm city on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco, and it’s best to include Essaouira as part of a circular tour around Morocco to cut down on back-tracking on the same roads.
Instead, Essaouira is often recommended as a day trip from Marrakech.
However, if you do find yourself with some extra time in Essaouira and want to explore more of the local area, you could choose to visit:
- Imsouane or Sidi Kaouki: The Atlantic Coast of Morocco offers many places for water sports enthusiasts, and the small villages of Imsouane and Sidi Kaouki are no exception! They are popular for surfing, kite-surfing and sail-boarding.
- Val d’Argan Winery & Vineyard: Located around 15 miles (23 kilometers) due east of Essaouira in a village called Ounagha, Val d’Argan Vineyard & Winery sits on more than 120 acres (50 hectares). It boasts a bed & breakfast, as well as a panoramic restaurant where dishes are paired with its own selection of Moroccan wines.
Recommended Private Tours from Essaouira
Because of its location, very few, if any, tours start from Essaouira. However, this city can easily be included as part of a private Morocco tour, especially if you have plans to visit Marrakech.
Here are our top 3 recommended Morocco private tours to visit Essaouira:
- Make it easy on yourself to plan your honeymoon in Morocco with this 8-day honeymoon tour from Casablanca to Marrakech. Romance abounds with plenty of downtime to relax and explore on your private Morocco honeymoon tour!
- Were you surprised to learn that Essaouira has some Moroccan Jewish heritage sites? Discover even more Jewish history in Morocco on this private 12-day Jewish Heritage tour starting from Casablanca.
- If you’re looking for the ideal private Morocco tour discovering the best destinations in Morocco, then book this 15-day private tour of Morocco from Casablanca.
This post is just one of a series of Moroccan city destination guides by Morocco Local Insider.
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