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Essaouira, Morocco – laid-back, breezy town on the Atlantic coast

Positioned on the Atlantic coast, the 18th-century port city of Essaouira was always one of my favourite places in Morocco. The charming fishermen’s town attracts many tourists but doesn’t lose its magic. If you are still considering in what coast city to spend your holidays, go for Essaouira.

Essaouira is a laid-back, breezy town with a wide beach, a picturesque fishing harbour, a vibrant blue and white painted Medina, and rich history. Seagulls and cats are the kings of Essaouira. You will meet them on every corner, hunting for a fish, stealing your breakfast and guarding the peace of the magical town.

Music is an essential part of this charming city. Essaouira is famous for the sounds of hypnotic spiritual Gnaoua music and the annual Gnaoua World Music Festival. Do you know Jimi Hendrix’s song “Castles in the Sand”? People say Essaouira inspired it, and the town for many years, attracted hippies worldwide. In Essaouira and around, few cafes/hotels claim J. Hendrix was staying/eating in their place.

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Locals say that Essaouira is full of good spirits, and I believe them. Somehow, time stops at this place; you forget the daily routine and immerse yourself in the laid-back environment. In Essaouira, I love waking up early and, at a slow pace, exploring the empty town. Even at 10 am, the streets are empty. Locals are lazily rising to get ready for the day. Despite being popular among foreigners and local tourists, Essaouira’s spirit remains unaffected by time and modernization.

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In Arabic, Essaouira means “Little picture”, “well designed”, or “protected”, depending on how you pronounce the S”. And Essaouira is a little picture, every year attracting many photographers and moviemakers. Famous movies and television shows like “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Gladiator”, “Game of Thrones”, “Prison Break”, “Sherlock”, and “The Nine” were shot in Essaouira.

Essaouira Morocco – History

Although history books state that Essaouira and its fortifications date from the 18th century, the town has a much older history. In the 15th century, the Portuguese were among others who invaded the Moroccan coast and constructed the massive stone walls, a fortress that, until these days, surrounded the Medina of Essaouira. 

Photo by Martynas Rudzinskas

After Moroccans finally reclaimed Essaouira in 1764, Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah (also known as Mohammed III, c. 1710-1790) moved to Mogador (meaning a small fortress). He hired a French architect, Théodore Cornut, to build Essaouira from scratch, and create a melange of European and Moroccan styles. With merchants from Europe, Jews and English traders, the city was enjoying its golden age.

“Essaouira was the only Arab city where most of the residents were once Jewish”

Then, Sultan named the city ‘Essaouira’. However, after the French had established their protectorate in Morocco, they changed the town’s name back to Mogador. Only in the 1960s did Essaouira get back its name. However, you will often see the Mogador name next to Essaouira’s.

The Jewish community contributed a lot to Essaouira’s development. Back then, the Jewish community was 40 per cent of the city’s population. However, when the State of Israel was founded in 1948, Essaouira lost almost all Jewish habitats. Today, visitors in Essaouira can visit two synagogues and the Jewish cemetery (I only saw The Rabbi Pinto Synagogue).

Today, the Medina of Essaouira is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

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Essaouira is a mesmerizing place in Morocco. You have to enjoy it without rush and go with the flow.

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