Prices in Morocco have risen along with its popularity, but there are still bargains to be had. In the relaxed seaside city of Essaouira, many of the attractions are free: exuberant music festivals, gallery-hopping around the 18th-century medina, gazing over the ocean from its honey-coloured ramparts, watching fishermen at work in the postcard-pretty harbour and strolling along its endless golden beaches.
The medina and beyond
Essaouira’s fortified old city – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is compact and walkable and, unlike the labyrinthine medinas of Marrakesh and Fez, it’s hard to get lost. Just pick up one of the many free maps in shops, restaurants and hotel lobbies – Les Carnets du Voyage is one of the best – and go.
The open-fronted emporiums that line the main thoroughfare, Ave de l’Istiqlal, and the hassle-free souqs that fan out from it are as much for locals as for visitors. If you’re up for a rummage, the Sunday souq a short walk from the Bab Doukkala is the place to bag a real bargain; a seemingly endless line of makeshift stalls sells everything from kaftans to car parts. Get there early to beat the crowds.
Go off the beaten track to meander through the maze of crumbling mansions that makes up the Mellah, formerly the Jewish quarter, looking out for stones engraved with the six-petal rose of Mogador (the city’s Portuguese name) and the Hammam Babsi that appeared in Orson Welles 1951 film, Othello.
The ramparts of the Skala de la Ville and the hulking Bastion Nord (closed for renovation, but free to explore when they’re open) had a starring role in Game of Thrones as Astapor, the infamous city in Slaver’s Bay where Daenerys Targaryen freed the Unsullied army of eunuch slave soldiers.
While the picturesque harbour – complete with sea-coloured wooden boats, leathery fishermen and seagulls circling overhead – has its own Skala du Port (entry Dh10), where you can get that iconic shot over the walled medina that appears on all the tourist brochures.
Music and art
For four days every June, Essaouira is taken over by the Gnaoua and World Music Festival, featuring masters of Gnaoua – an ancient, spiritual and rhythmic African Islamic music tradition – alongside international world music stars. It opens with a colourful parade, and concerts at the main stages are free and crowded. To get up close to the action, opt for a one-day (from Dh150) or three-day (Dh600) pass. Tickets for more intimate venues are around Dh250.
For classical music lovers, Dar Souiri – home to the Essaouira-Mogador Association – is one of three venues hosting the annual Printemps Musical des Alizés in April, with concerts from the Moroccan Philharmonic Orchestra, along with virtuosos and young musical talent from around the globe. If you miss the festivals, Dar Souiri holds regular concerts (around Dh100), as well as free art exhibitions; check their noticeboard for details.
Gallery hopping is free: start at the city’s oldest art space, Galerie D’Art Damgaard, which showcases the vibrant naïve style of the biggest names in the Essaouira art world, including Mohamed Tabel and Ali Maimoune. Other private galleries include Espace Othello, Galerie du Sud (Rue Attarine) with three outposts in the medina, and L’Atelier des Arts Empreinte (28 Rue Abou Al Mouhajer), a framing-workshop-cum-exhibition space for local artists.
A stroll along Essaouira’s enormous sweep of golden sand is a must, with its entertaining mix of promenading families, sunbathing tourists, barefoot football matches and camels plodding up and down the surf.
The omnipresent gusts of wind, known locally as alizee, create the perfect conditions for kitesurfing and windsurfing. Explora offers lessons for all levels from €55 for two hours, or you can just hire the gear.
Dune jumping on a quad bike is worth a splurge, and Palma Quad runs a two-hour tour around the deserted dunes of Cap Sim, a 30-minute drive from Essaouira, from Dh700 for two sharing, including transfers.
For a feet-in-the-sand sundowner, head to Océan Vagabond, where the two-for-one happy hour starts at 7pm.
There’s no shortage of street eats in Essaouira’s medina, with wooden carts piled high with seasonal fruit, such as strawberries, nectarines or prickly pears (ask the vendor to peel them for you). Khoobz, the ubiquitous flat bread, go on sale twice a day (Dh5), or look out for Moroccan-style pancakes, called msemen (square and flaky) and baghrir (round and spongy). Wash it all down with some freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, which cures all ills for just Dh5.
For a cheap and delicious lunch, make like the locals and BYO. Buy your fish – sardines are the quintessential Essaouira dish, which cost around Dh10 for 10 – at the fish souq in the medina. Take them across the street to the no-name café in the far-left corner of the Marché aux Grains – look for the parasol-shaded yellow tables – where they’ll grill them for you for Dh5. Splashing out another Dh5 will get you bread and a simple salad.
For a fancier but still wallet-friendly alfresco fish lunch, head to the grillades, the line of blue-and-white clad wooden shacks between the port and Pl Moulay Hassan, where you can take your pick from the catch of the day, from snapper to squid. At Breton du Sud (grillade #33) fish, bread, salad and a soft drink will set you back about Dh50.
To satisfy your sweet tooth, try Pâtisserie Driss, which has been serving up moreish pastries (around Dh5) since 1928, or Gelateria Dolcefreddo on Pl Moulay Hassan, the perfect spot to combine coffee, ice cream and people watching. Don’t miss the Café Dolcefreddo, a scoop of vanilla and an espresso (Dh25).
They say the best Moroccan food is served at home, and dinner at the diminutive candlelit Restaurant les Alizes Mogador is the next best thing. Run by a friendly Moroccan couple, this restaurant offers a three-course traditional menu for Dh129 or a main course for Dh75. If you’re tired of tajine, Silvestro (70 rue Laalouj) serves up wood-oven pizzas and pasta dishes from Dh45.
The Moroccan-Australian owners of Riad Dar Afram have kept the classic Moroccan style of this laidback riad, with painted wooden ceilings, stained-glass windows and colourful kilims. The six ensuite rooms are large enough to hold extra beds, while the patio has been converted into a convivial lounge. It’s popular with musicians, so don’t be surprised if an impromptu jam session breaks out after dinner. Doubles start at €27, which includes breakfast.
The dazzlingly white, blue-shuttered Riad du Figuier has been turned into a relaxed B&B, set around a lovely courtyard garden complete with orange trees and a tinkly fountain. The five white-walled rooms come with tiled floors, beamed ceilings and splashes of colour from carpets and local art. Breakfast – including the riad’s own fig jam – is served on the roof terrace or in the sunflower-yellow lounge. Doubles start at €45, including breakfast.
The two-bedroom Dar Emma is perfect if you want your own place. This tall, skinny house is spread over four floors and has an artful mix of traditional Moroccan decor, vintage finds and contemporary touches, with a roof terrace for sunny days and a log fire for chilly evenings. The expat British owner, Emma, will share her local knowledge, from souq shopping to where to eat and the best day trips. It sleeps up to four for £100 per night.