Following on from my cultural travel guide to Marrakech, I’m sharing the next leg of our wonderful winter escape – a mini-break in the colourful port city of Essaouira on the coast of Morocco. A quieter, more laid-back offering to its buzzier cousin, it’s a charming little place – perhaps it’s the restorative sea air – that has so far managed to avoid tourist trappings and tat.
Clustered behind an 18th century rampart bordering the sea, Essaouira’s Unesco-protected Medina is a picture of bright blue and white – rambling alleyways, shuttered windows and crumbling, old doors. Formerly known as Mogador, it’s much smaller and easier to navigate than Marrakech – everything spans off two central, arterial streets extending from the port entrance. Walk further away from harbour docks, blue boats and squawking seagulls, and a meander along the coast takes you across a sweep of sandy beach.
It’s not necessarily somewhere you go for the sun and sand – although local Alizés winds make it a haven for surfers – rather, it’s a place to chill-out, take in the faded, bohemian atmosphere, explore the souks and maybe pick up a rug or two.
Where to stay
We stayed at the brilliant Villa Maroc, which we discovered via a quick Google search when we were first researching the trip, and which I would wholeheartedly recommend. Located in the heart of the Medina and a stone’s throw from the port, it’s a small, charming hotel housed in an old 18th century riad with 21 bedrooms.
The service is friendly and every detail carefully thought out – there’s fresh flowers in the bedrooms, candlelight in the cosy communal areas in the evenings, dinner by the fireside on chillier nights (a must), and a particular highlight, freshly prepared breakfast on the sunny terrace overlooking the sea in the morning.
If you’re looking for an escape from city life, Villa Maroc also has a countryside retreat called Les Jardins that is a 15 minute drive away. You can stay in the guest house or for 250 dirhams they also offer day trips, where you can enjoy the swimming pool and a Moroccan-style barbecue for lunch.
Villa Maroc has plenty of quiet corners to escape to; play a game of chess or scrabble in the lounge, enjoy a drink at the inviting bar area or find a sunny spot on the terrace.
The bedrooms are pared-back with a Moroccan charm – think crisp white linen, shaggy berber rugs and patterned tiled floors. A nice touch was a shelf of books other visitors had left behind.
Things to do
Part of the charm of Essaouira is just wandering around and not doing anything in particular except taking it all in. Get your bearings by walking the Skala du Port ramparts that frame the sea and watching the fishermen sell their catches to an audience of cats and seagulls. Then, stroll deeper into the Medina and the rabbit warren of souks, letting your nose guide you from the fish market to the spice stalls. Take a path off one of the main streets and you’ll find eclectic stalls selling all manner of baskets and patterned ceramics, not to mention an Instagrammable door or three.
Further along the beach away from the crowds there’s brisk walks and camel rides to be had.
Places to eat and drink
We had some of our best food in Essaouira, most notably at Villa Maroc, where they serve a delicious three course menu on low, intimate tables by candlelight in front of warming fires (it’s warm during the day, but gets chilly at night). Elsewhere, it was quite refreshing that there were no trendy coffee shops or flashy restaurants, but here’s some select favourites that we found.
Sahakfe, Rue Abdellah Chefchaouni – Villa Maroc’s quaint cafe, serving up fresh, light lunches and a lovely orange cake
l’Atelier, Rue Mohamed Ben Masoud – Housed in a former almond warehouse, l’Atelier is stylish cafe, boutique and cookery workshop rolled into one
UMIA, 22 Rue Skala – a contemporary restaurant that feels like you’re dining in a friend’s very chic home, complete with retro tables and vintage furniture. Excellent wine
BistrO Essaouira, 66, Rue Boutouil – a small, cute, newly renovated boutique restaurant with an eclectic menu of European and Asian-inspired dishes
And that’s it really, there we have beautiful Essaouira – just right if you’re looking for an alternative city break off the beaten track and away from the crowds. Easyjet now flies directly there or you could combine it with another city like we did for a longer escape. Just make sure you take a half empty suitcase with you – you’ll need it for the shopping!
all images Cate St Hill