The cupboard-sized shops, the melange of French, Berber, and Moroccan cultures, the scents emanating from the scattered souks, the simple blue boats along the harbor, empty stretches of sandy coastline, the terraces of fine dining restaurants, the sandstone of the medina—Essaouira appears to have walked out of half a dozen different worlds.
You'll wonder how it escaped status as a world-famous beach town, and then you hear about the winds along the harbor, known as the alizee, or taros in Berber. They're fierce along the water, and that explains the ratio of kitesurfers to beachcombers. Instead of becoming a beach town, Essaouira became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Temperatures are generally Mediterranean, though record highs do hover around 100°F in summer months—hence why most visitors opt for spring or autumn travels. (More on the best time to visit Morocco can be found here.) You shouldn't need to rent a car unless you're traveling around the country, and the Marrakesh airport is 2.5 hours away by taxi. Hotels range from the ultra-luxe to the shoestring, and you won't be wanting for choices.
History of Essaouira
Essaouira gained UNESCO status thanks to it being a prime example of an 18th-century fortified town. The city walls are an incredible reminder of its past, the medina inside still very much a part of its present. The harbor is chock full of traditional fishermen's boats, and you'll catch them (the fishermen—not the boats) hauling in their catch or mending their nets on the regular. The entire port is ridiculously picturesque, in that gritty, nostalgic kind of way.
To get into Essaouira's history, carve out ample time in your itinerary to just wander. You likely won't get too lost—the streets are linked in such a way that you're never too far from the main thoroughfare running through its center, the spine of the medina. It stretches from the North Gate, Bab Doukkala, all the way to Place Moulay Hassan, by the waterfront.
Little sandstone passageways, grand stone gates, pungent stalls selling everything from mint tea and colorful silks to live chickens; there's no better way to ingratiate yourself with the city. And once you reach the harbor, don't shy away from being social. Small blue and white gargottes are selling the fresh catch of the day, and the fishermen will quite likely fight over your patronage. You can also sample oysters down here.
Back in the citadel, also consider walking up. You pay a nominal fee to go up the ramparts, where you'll catch a view of the harbor and Île de Mogador from above. This is an excellent spot to catch the sunset, by the way.
Dining & Nightlife
Seafood is the name of the game here, though it might not take on any taste that your palate is familiar with. Spider grab gratin, whole fish cooked over charcoals—little twists on even traditional items will keep you curious. You'll also find a hefty dose of classic French influence, in addition to the obvious Moroccan staples of couscous, beef, and lamb.
In the morning, grab a cup of nous-nous: It's half espresso, half steamed milk. When snack time rolls around, that means gelato! You'll find a few good places around the Place Moulay Hassan, where you can watch magicians and acrobats do their thing while you savor away.
The nightlife is particularly robust on weekends, and live gnaoua music is almost always churning somewhere. Find a rooftop terrace, like at Taros, and it's a two-fer when it comes to views and entertainment. Grab a Flag Speciale—brewed in Casablanca—to keep it local.
Things to Do
In case it wasn't already clear, the main thing to do in Essaouira is to simply be here. Wander the city walls, and watch the craftsmen working on their inlaid woodwork—it's a specialty of the town—from above. Take a stroll along the beach (the sand is unusually hard), and watch the kitesurfers and camels roll by. Stop at the Place Orson Welles, commemorating the fact that parts of Othello were filmed here.
Try to count the djellabah-clad traders wheeling their barrows of fish straight from the harbor. Sit in an umbrella-shaded cafe, and pick out your favorite of the fabrics sold in the small shops across from you. Explore the artsy and eccletic Kasbah area, "window shopping" for tiles and paintings. Check out the old mansions of the "mellah," the old Jewish quarter. Grab a sunlounger near the infinity pool on the rooftop of your hotel. It's the simple things that really define a place, after all.
If you're looking for a good day trip, near Marrakech are the famous "Goats of the Argan Trees." It's just what it sounds like: These goats go up naturally in the trees, though local farmers do now encourage them for the spectacle. Check out what else there is to do in Morocco—though you'll likely want to spend as much time in Essaouira as possible. It's the kind of place that one might call absolutely hypnotizing.