It is the coastal wind – the beautifully named alizee, or taros in Berber – that has allowed Essaouira (essa-weera, or es-sweera in Arabic) to retain its traditional culture and character. For most of the year, the wind blows so hard here that relaxing on the beach is impossible, meaning that the town is bypassed by the hordes of beach tourists who descend on other Atlantic Coast destinations in summer. Known as the ‘Wind City of Africa’, it attracts plenty of windsurfers between April and November, but the majority of visitors come here in spring and autumn to wander through the spice-scented lanes and palm-lined avenues of the fortified medina, browse the many art galleries and boutiques, relax in some of the country's best hotels and watch fishing nets being mended and traditional boats being constructed in the hugely atmospheric port.
Essaouira lies on the crossroads between two tribes: the Arab Chiadma to the north and the Haha Berbers in the south. Add to that the Gnawa, who came originally from further south in Africa, and the Europeans, and you get a rich cultural mix.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Essaouira.
Surrounded by dramatic, wave-lashed ramparts, the narrow streets, hassle-free souqs, street vendors and vibrant galleries of Essaouira's walled medina make it a wonderful place to stroll. Dating from the late 18th century and added to Unesco’s World Heritage list in 2001, it was famously used in the opening scene of Orson Welles’ 1951 film Othello and, more recently, Game of Thrones.
Essaouira’s wide, sandy beach is great for walking and kitesurfing, but sunbathing and swimming can be difficult when the winds are strong. For swimming, stick to the town stretch, as Plage Safi to the north has dangerous currents. Beach football is a popular weekend activity and camel owners ply the sands to the south. Bargain hard if you want to take a ride (under Dh50) but there are better camel encounters to be had in Diabat.
Essaouira's large working port is noisy, pungent and hugely atmospheric. Along with the flurry of sea-blue wooden boats arriving and departing, nets being repaired and the day’s catch being landed, you can see traditional wooden boats being made. The boatbuilders supply fishing vessels for the entire Moroccan coast and even as far away as France, as the design is particularly seaworthy. It’s also worth visiting the fish auction, which takes place in the market hall just outside the port gates.
You might recognise the ramparts of the 18th-century Skala de la Ville. They, along with the hulking Bastion Nord, had a starring role in Game of Thrones as Astapor. In real life these ramparts protected the medina from the crashing Atlantic waves, and its row of 19 bronze cannons from a host of seafaring marauders. Today – tourists aside – it’s a peaceful place to take in the ocean views and a prime sunset-watching spot.
Head to the port in the afternoon when the sea-blue boats come in for the day and the fishermen auction off their catch. There's always some heated bartering back and forth, closely watched over by hordes of seagulls and stray cats ready to pick up the scraps.
Turn left outside the Bab Doukkala and around 15 minutes later you’ll reach the industrial quarter’s abandoned warehouses. Take a left past salvaged wooden doors and scrap metal and, before you reach the ocean, among the trash and treasure you'll find a row of ramshackle fisherpeople's huts turned studios – look out for artists Azzedine, Fillali and Hader. On Sunday the market along the main street means bargain hunters prepared to rummage can pick up a new wardrobe for Dh20.
The Sunday market at Had Draa, 30km from Essaouira, is the largest in the region, where animals and produce have been traded for centuries. Early risers will be able to pick up anything from a long-lashed camel to a bleating goat and watch locals bartering over a donkey, doing the weekly shop and gossiping over mint tea. The epitome of farm-to-fork, it has a livestock area, an on-site halal abattoir and stalls selling grilled-meat kebabs.
This idyllic organic farm makes a perfect day out or a pit stop on your way to Marrakesh. Tours (bookings essential) are with the owner Khalid, who will share his ingenious farming methods. Afterwards enjoy a leisurely alfresco lunch lounging on Berber rugs – expect fresh juices, hand-pressed olive oil, homemade bread, corn-fed chicken and bountiful salads of whatever’s in season. Delicious.
In 1994 Charles Melia left Châteauneuf-du-Pape to create Morocco’s southernmost winery, 20km from Essaouira; since then it's grown from five to 50 hectares. After a vineyard tour (tastings from Dh50), lunch on traditional dishes with a twist along with a tasting of five wines (Dh330), including Moroccan speciality gris, all with wonderful views over the countryside. Bookings essential.