Essential Essaouira – A Destination to Discover


Known for its windswept beach and boho-chic vibe, the whitewashed medina of Essaouira (pronounced Ess-a-weera) has long attracted independent travellers looking for life in the slow lane. However, as local resident Lynn Sheppard explains, behind the hewn stone walls of this city, all is not what it seems…


Situated on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, Essaouira was until recently overshadowed by its near neighbour and tourism hub, Marrakech. An apparently sleepy kind of place, it would appear the principal activity for visitors and locals alike is to sit on a cafe terrace with a nouss-nouss coffee (literally “half-half” milk and coffee) or a mint tea and watch the world go by. 

Appearances can be deceptive, however. The pink-hued fortifications of this small fishing town are steeped in a history larger than one might expect. And today, vibrant food and festival cultures are vying for attention with European destinations. Add to this the great lengths to which the Moroccan authorities are going to reassure visitors’ security, and there has never been a better time to discover the essence of Essaouira.

Essaouira medina from the port
Skala fortifications in Essaouira
Blue flouka fishing boats

A history of diversity

Everything Essaouira – formerly known as Mogador – ever was, is and will be is down to its strategic location on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast. Phoenicians, Romans, Portuguese and French all sailed in on the trade winds and left their mark, as did the indigenous Amazigh (Berbers), neighbouring Africans and Arabs from the East. 

Seeking to orientate Morocco towards the West, in the second half of the 18th century, Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah invited Jewish merchant families, many of whom had settled in Morocco following the expulsion of Muslims and Jews following the Spanish Inquisition at the end of the 15th century, to set up in Mogador.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the streets of Mogador were the base not only for Jewish merchants, but also for European diplomats, negociants and Barbary corsairs. Mogador was the port of Timbuktu, transporting the goods of the camel trains across the oceans in exchange for the spices and tea of the East.

Haim Bitton at Slat Lkahal synagogue

Haim Bitton, is a Jewish son of Mogador responsible for the renovation of Slat Lkahal, one of 37 synagogues which once stood in the city. He is happy to recount stories of Victorian envoys, Tuscan tabernacles and the arrival of green tea to visitors. “The history of Jews in this city is integral to the history of this city and so much has been lost. We need to tell the story of a glorious and peaceful cohabitation to a new generation.” 

A thriving food culture where Moroccan and international cuisines meet 

Essaouira’s culinary traditions are as multicultural as its history. Many local dishes originate in the shared history of the city when different communities celebrated feasts and festivals together, preparing and exchanging special menus and dishes particular to the occasion. 

Today, Essaouira (recognisable to Game of Thrones fans as Astapor) has many European and North American residents. Many have invested in businesses here and have made a valuable contribution to a selection of boutique B&Bs and a thriving foodie scene. John Quinn, a hairdresser from Glasgow, UK, established a restaurant, OneUp, in the former British Consul’s residence.

Local produce at the vegetable souk
Spice souk

Around the corner, in the Kasbah (King’s Quarters) district, chef and food writer Frédérique Thevent of La Découverte restaurant uses the excellent local produce: argan and olive oils, freshly caught sardines and seafood, dromedary meat – much sourced from local coops.

She creates slow food, Moroccan style. “It is a great pity that many visitors never venture beyond the beach or the walls of the medina”, says Frédérique, “Essaouira is predominantly a rural Province and alongside the fish from the port of the city, fantastic produce can be found in the countryside.”

For example, in the countryside above Essaouira, Abderrazzak Khoubane, a descendent of the last Caïd (local official) of the French Colonial era and a returnee to Morocco after an extended period spent in Canada, has opened La Fromagerie. Here he specialises in artisan goats cheeses and mechoui goat (grilled in a fire pit). Just a few kilometres away is the Val D’Argan vineyard, specialising in organic wines of the red, white, rosé and – unique to Morocco – gris (grey) varieties. 

La Fromagerie
Argan trees
Sardine ball tajine

The humble argan tree after whom the vineyard is named – thorny, spiky and unforgiving – has become a source of culinary, cosmetic and economic inspiration in this area, to which it is solely indigenous globally.

The kernel of the argan nut is ground to produce the much sought-after argan oil, now globally known for its cosmetic properties. When the kernel is toasted and ground, the resulting culinary oil gives a nutty, smoky flavour to local salads and tajines, the quintessentially Moroccan stew cooked in a cone-hatted ceramic dish. 

A multicultural musical heritage

The town’s diverse musical heritage is reflected in a packed calendar of festivals. In autumn, the Andalousies festival celebrates the Andalusian genre of music associated with Muslims and Jews fleeing the Iberian Peninsula following the fall of the Moorish Empire.

In June, the Gnaoua World Music Festival features concerts by and fusion collaborations between world music artists and the Sufi practioners of the Gnaoua tradition. For many, “gnaoua” is synonymous with Essaouira, although the rituals came to Morocco with the sub-Saharan African slaves of the Sultans and have roots conterminous with Yoruba, Voodoo and Santería.

Maâlem Omar Hayat performs with Sonny Troupé from Guadeloupe
Hindi Zahra at the Gnaoua Festival

Newer festivals highlight female sufis (Hadra Festival in August) and Moroccan indigenous musical traditions (Joudour Festival in August/September), while the longer-standing spring festival, Les Alizés, (named after the local trade winds) focuses on Essaouira’s outward perspective by featuring celebrated artists in a more classical tradition in the European sense. The latest festival, MOGA, to be held for the first time in October 2016, brings the offer right up to date with a promised line-up of electronic acts and DJs.

Essaouira – a destination to discover 

In contrast to many other Mediterranean destinations, Morocco has consistently stayed on foreign governments’ safe lists. And a direct air link to London begun in Spring 2015 has finally made Essaouira more accessible. The town’s complex and fascinating history, its rich culinary offer based on excellent and unique local produce and a varied and ever-increasing programme of music festivals and cultural events means time to discover essential Essaouira is now.


This article was written and submitted to Afro Tourism (along with images) by Lynn Sheppard and it appeared in the first edition of S.E.E. AFRICA published in 2016.

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