Since 1998, lovers of music, art, and North African folklore have gathered in Morocco each June for the Gnaoua World Music Festival, a four-day event that draws nearly half a million attendees. It’s a vibrant celebration of contemporary world music and skilled Gnaoua musicians—descendants of African slaves who have left their mark on Moroccan culture as healers, mystics, and keepers of a spellbinding musical tradition.
This global festival is also a reflection of its host city, an 18th century ocean port designed to demonstrate Morocco’s outward focus. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Essaouira is known for its persistent coastal winds, a thriving fishing harbor, and a refreshingly laid-back atmosphere that offers respite from the bedlam of Marrakech. You may come for the festival, but you’ll stay for the seafood, the world-class windsurfing, and the tranquil essence of this charming seaside city.
So pack your bathing suit (and don’t forget your windbreaker)—we’re off to Essaouira for the next two days.
The Quieta Man
Essaouira—the Arabic name of which has been interpreted to mean “the walled” or “the beautiful image”—was known as Mogador until 1956, when Morocco gained its independence from France. Today, that name is reserved for the Iles de Mogador, the islands that guard the entrance to Essaouira Bay and protect several species of nesting birds, including the endangered Eleanora’s falcon.
Take in views of the islands, the bay, and the wide sandy beach from the balcony of Hotel Villa Quieta, a peaceful and lovingly maintained property one mile south of the medina walls. This 13-room hotel offers a flower-filled garden, an outdoor swimming pool, and a generous multi-course breakfast—as well as what might be the friendliest staff in town.
A Fish Called Wanda
Although it was designed by a French architect and initially settled by Jewish traders, the Essaouira medina is also quintessentially Moroccan—with a bustling souk, narrow winding alleys, and unfamiliar aromas at every turn. But what was once a hub for exporting sugar, molasses, and slaves from sub-Saharan Africa is now a place to find art galleries, antique shops, and skilled carvers of local thuya wood.
Spend the morning (and afternoon) in this intimate medina, getting to know the kasbah, the souk, and the old Jewish quarter. But nowhere is the local flavor more apparent than the Port of Essaouira, where fisherman pull in their catches on a fleet of brilliantly painted boats. As for visitors, you need only choose one of the blue-and-white stalls near the entrance to find a fresh and memorable lunch of grilled sardines, calamari, and skate.
May The Winds Blow Till They Have Waken’d Death!
Advantageously situated in the triangular trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, Essaouira was sometimes called “The Port of Timbuktu” in reference to its volume of exported African goods. This vital position was protected by the Port Skala—fortified ramparts that offer iconic late afternoon views. Movie lovers will also recognize this small fortress as a filming location for Othello, the 1952 big-screen adaptation by none other than Orson Welles.
The Caravanes Of Antioch
Tucked away in a nondescript alley, Caravane Café serves an inventive blend of flavors that span the globe—but it is not merely the cuisine that draws diners to this renovated riad. Upon entering the art- and palm-filled courtyard, you’ll be greeted by live musicians, fire eaters, and an intoxicatingly jubilant atmosphere. It’s the perfect place for a plate of Thai beef, a celebratory mojito, and a fun-filled night with good music and new friends.
Gone With The Wind
With a nickname like “The Wind City of Africa,” it’s no wonder that Essaouira attracts windsurfers and kitesurfers from all over the world to tame its steady trade winds. And while these athletes often flock to the southern shores of Essaouira Bay, swimmers and sunbathers prefer the neighboring beach in Diabat, a small village to the south that offers solitude, scenery, and a pristine stretch of sand.
Come lunchtime, return to the medina to snag a rooftop table at Taros, a restaurant aptly named with the Berber word for Essaouira’s coastal wind. Sample a few fresh Moroccan oysters, enjoy a hearty merguez tagine, and savor an unforgettable view of the ocean and port below.
Histoire Of The World, Part I
Kick off a leisurely afternoon in the medina at Gelateria Dolcefreddo, where you can indulge in a dish of ice cream or a cup of coffee on the edge of Place Moulay Hassan. The energy boost will come in handy as you peruse the nearby shops—a local favorite, Histoire des Filles, among them. Whether you’re searching for clothing, accessories, home décor, or organic argan oil, you’ll find it all in the many rooms of this modern boutique.
Since it opened in 2014, Umia has made a name for itself by crafting a refined menu that changes by the day. The kitchen and dining room are open and airy, the waitstaff as welcoming as family, and the cuisine a wonderful mingling of Moroccan and European flavors. The ambience is also just right for a romantic evening, a family meal, or a final night in this captivating coastal town.
A Few Notes
How on earth does one pronounce Essaouira, you ask? Es-where-uh. Not as hard as it looks.
Although strong winds in Essaouira are common year-round, beach-goers would be wise to visit between May and (especially) September. If you’re attending the Gnaoua World Music Festival in June, just keep in mind that accommodations fill up a few months in advance.
TITLE: The working port of Essaouira | SATURDAY: Wandering the streets of the medina; architectural details in the medina; one of the medina’s many blue doors; doorways in the medina; an alley in the medina; the blue boats that fill the port; the view of the medina from the Port Skala; the view of the port from the Port Skala | SUNDAY: The medina view from the terrace at Taros; stalls in the medina; shopping in the medina; Place Moulay Hassan; the view from the port at sunset.