Laid-back Essaouira may have fewer shops than Marrakesh, but if you want to spend more time chilling than haggling, then the seaside city’s hassle-free souqs are for you. All of Morocco’s popular merchandise can be found in Essaouira’s compact, easily navigable medina, along with local specialities such as thuya wood, vibrant local art, raffia shoes and organic argan oil, the country’s liquid gold.
Best for arts and crafts
Essaouira is renowned for its skilled artisans turning fragrant thuya wood – a conifer native to northwest Africa – into all manner of boxes and decorative objects, often inlaid with other woods or mother-of-pearl. Watch the marquetry artists in action at the Coopérative Artisanale des Marqueteurs.
Mashi Mushki – ‘no problem’ in the local dialect – is a quirky gallery-cum-shop selling a selection of work by local artists and artisans, including colourful paintings and prints, handwoven throws, bags and jewellery. A minimum of 10% of its profits go to Project 91, which was set up by owner Jeremy Davies and organises vocational training for young locals helping them find employment.
Danish collector Frederic Damgaard first visited Essaouira in the 1960s and decided to stay, opening the eponymous Galerie d’Art Damgaard in 1988. This pioneering art space still showcases the work of local painters and wood sculptors, such as Mohamed Tabal.
Lovers of retro furniture could while away a few hours at Elizir Gallery (22 Ave d’Istiqlal), housed in Abdellatif Rharbaoui’s former restaurant. Over the years, he’s amassed a treasure trove of fabulous vintage finds – pick up such relics as a Vernor Panton lamp, film posters or antique Berber doors for a memorable souvenir. If it’s too big to carry, he’ll ship it to any corner of the globe.
Best for carpets and blankets
Can’t tell a boucherouite from a Beni Ourain? Head to Galerie Jama, where the knowledgeable owner Mustapha El Boussaidi has been working with Moroccan carpets since he was 11. He specialises in gorgeous vintage pieces – less carpet, more floor art – and can tell you its age, origin and the meaning behind seemingly random markings. It’s a no-pressure experience, and prices are fair for the quality, but there’s always some wiggle room.
Housed in an old workshop, Pop-In (79 Derb Chbanat) is an offshoot of Mashi Mushki across the street, selling a mix of old and new carpets and sequin-studded handiras (Moroccan wedding blankets) at reasonable prices.
In the right-hand corner of Souq Joutier, Abdel’s no-name wardrobe-sized emporium is piled high with vintage silk blankets, handiras and natural-coloured wool blankets complete with pom poms. Mustapha at Koulchi (1 Rue Jbala) does a cheaper, contemporary take on these traditional blankets in brightly coloured cotton and wool – and can even make them to order.
Best for fashion and accessories
Essaouira’s first concept store, the super-stylish Histoire de Filles is the brainchild of Parisian Christelle Pailly. Expect to find a curated mix of Moroccan and Morocco-based designers of clothing for men, women and children, including Max & Jan, Las Chicas, Lalla bags, Luc Baille jewellery and Cote Bougie candles.
Doum palm fibres have long been woven into simple sandals and shoes in Essaouira and can be found all over the medina; Rafia Craft sells more stylish designs for a fraction of the price back home. Or treat your feet to some comfy babouche slippers handmade by Younes (Souq El Gazel, #181) in leather and suede, plain and decorated, pointed and round, in every colour imaginable.
For arm candy, try Mohamed Ouchen’s shop (4 Rue El Attarine) for handcrafted leather bags, alongside boots, belts and pouffes, or visit Rachid (22 Rue Laalouj) for pretty woven baskets decorated in sparkly sequins or bling embroidery to carry your shopping.
Tazra (45 Rue El Attarine) is the place for eye-catching traditional jewellery from the award-winning Omar Samat, and with a few days’ notice, he can custom-make rings and earrings. At Corallo (176 Ave Mohammed Ben Abdallah), Stefano from Naples handcrafts one-of-a-kind pieces from silver and natural stones, including pearl, topaz or turquoise.
Forgotten your beach gear? Gipsy Surfer stocks everything you might need, from sunglasses to surf boards, along with their own-design T-shirts made in Essaouira.
Best for oils and spices
Sidi Yassine’s small boutique is a showcase for their superb organic argan oil products. The 100% natural body oils are perfect for pampering dry skin and are scented with essential oils such lavender, rose and ginger. The lip balms make great gifts. There are culinary-grade cold-pressed oils too, delicious drizzled on salads, and moreish amlou, the ‘Moroccan Nutella’.
Next door to Histoire des Filles, Christelle’s husband Pasha runs cafe-cum-boutique, L’Atelier. Take a sightseeing break with a fresh juice or smoothie and a bite from the vegetarian-friendly chalkboard menu, and then stock up on organic honeys bursting with health-giving properties, olive and argan oil, spices and homemade jams. They also stock covetable homeware from the likes of La Verre Beldi and the cooperative Arts Tissage Tam.
You’ll find all manner of potions, powders and pyramids of freshly ground spices in herbalist Seddiki Mohamed’s aromatic shop (203 Marche aux Epices). Look out for Ras El Hanout, a classic mix of pungent spices used for stews and grilling, as well as cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, paprika and saffron that will help you create tasty tagines in your own kitchen.
At Au Petit Bonhomme de la Chance, you’ll find everything you need for a DIY hammam visit – black soap, mineral-rich rhassoul clay, scrubbing mitts – alongside herbal tea blends, natural perfumes and vitamin-filled cactus seed oil. The owner, Habiba Ajaoui, is the co-author of Discovering the Spices of Morocco, available in English and French.
The tiny shop Villa Maroc sells Domaine Villa Maroc cosmetic and culinary argan and olive oils from their own farm, certified by Ecocert.
Best for souq shopping
The Sunday joutiya (flea market) is just a short walk from Bab Doukkala, where stalls stretch to the horizon selling everything from car parts to costume jewellery and secondhand clothes to cycles. You can bag a bargain if you’re prepared to rummage.
Less about shopping and more about getting a taste of rural life, the sprawling Sunday souq at Had Draa, around 30km from Essaouira, is as authentic as it gets. Berber farmers travel from miles around for the livestock auction – camels included – to sell their produce and catch up over a glass of tea. The definition of farm-to-fork, this market has an on-site abattoir, butchers’ stalls and grills for when people get peckish. It gets packed so move out of the way if you hear a cry of 'balek!' ('watch out!'). There’s a smaller, more manageable market at Ida Ougourd on Wednesdays.