Bliss out in bohemian Essaouira, a Moroccan city where sea air mingles with a laid-back pace of life. Meander through the souks of the medina, dine on fresh fish with locals and find out why this harbour town is an artistic enclave.

On Morocco’s western Atlantic coast lies the historic walled town of Essaouira, the beachy, boho sister to Marrakech where the dust and din of the frenetic city gives way to deep blue skies and fresh, sea air. Fishing boats bob up and down on the harbour, and inside the medina, whitewashed walls and cobalt blue doors line the passageways.

Follow the rues and avenues that reveal colourful souks and markets stalls showing off pyramids of spices, brilliantly coloured and fragrant, and soak up the artsy vibe – artists and musicians flocked here in the 60s, with Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Cat Stevens among the famous names that sought space and inspiration here. The bohemian town has drawn artists, poets and musicians ever since, and with galleries on every corner, live music in the bars and riads, and glimpses of street art in the alleyways in between, the scene is still very much alive.

The medina is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and the historical port remains the beating heart of the town. Sea-blue boats bring in swells of fresh fish each morning under greedy, circling seagulls. As you might guess, Essaouira is famed for its sparklingly fresh seafood which is served in the restaurants nearby – as well as devoured by stray cats, fat and happy from their luxury diet.

The pace in Essaouira is beautifully blissed out. The inhale-exhale of the tide sets the rhythm for leisurely lunches, meandering strolls through the medina, for shopping, stopping, and smelling the rose oil. Here you’ll find a laid-back hippie hangout you’ll want to escape to again and again.

TO EAT

Being a harbour town, Essaouira’s order of the day is fresh fish. Fishermen selling their goods at a small portside market each morning draws tourists – and bigger price tags. Instead, venture deep inside the medina to the locals’ market. Find it off Avenue Mohamed Zerktouni, where an arcade of spices, herbs, trinkets and knick-knacks opens to a larger space. Huge stone slabs are piled high with seabass, snapper, sardines and prawns, and live crab clamber in buckets.

Barter for your fish of choice before handing it off to be grilled, and you’ll be lead to your seat in the “dining room”, a gloriously no-frills canteen with plastic-clothed picnic tables. Your fish will arrive grilled to perfection: salty and charred on the outside, meaty and fresh on the inside, and served with simple salad, bowls of olives, and skinny little chips with hot sauce. It’s fish and chips Essaouira-style, and it’s delicious – even more so when enjoyed among the hubbub of local life.

Mandala Society

Vegetarians and vegans will find a haven at Mandala Society on Avenue de l’Istiqlal. The cute café is owned by Moroccan-Icelandic wife-and-husband team, Birta & Othman, whose two sets of twin daughters you might see having breakfast and colouring in at the tables – it’s a true family affair. Subtle nods to Iceland are dotted among the copper lamps and prints, everything else is authentically Moroccan, and proper filling salads bursting with colour and flavour come from the open kitchen. Visit for lunch, or stop by for a smoothie at the open window to watch the world go by.

Salut Maroc!

Come sundown, head to Salut Maroc!, a characterful riad where an explosion of colour and maximalist mosaics fills the walls and courtyards. Pattern on pattern, the mish-mash shouldn’t work, but it does, and the bold block colour, painted wooden beams and hanging tapestries are an artform that inspire a good mood. Climb to the roof terrace to watch the sunset, and catch the seagull social hour where gulls gather to drift on the breeze – and make for that enviable Insta-worthy shot. Traditional Moroccan mint tea, served hot and sweet, is reviving after an afternoon in the souks and is the perfect pick-me-up before dinner.

La Table by Madada

As for dinner, the best spot in town is La Table by Madada. Housed in an old carob warehouse on the Rue Youssef el Fassi, it’s a top-notch example of modern Moroccan cuisine. A contemporary menu with fresh seafood a-plenty and inventive flavour pairings joins a well-chosen selection of Moroccan wines and live music that stays tastefully on the side of ambient without crossing over into “tourist entertainment”.

Street Stalls

Don’t underestimate the joy of the street stalls. Carts of fresh orange juice roll through the town as well as those serving up sugar cane juice, cool and thirst-quenching, and great to sip while strolling the beach.

TO SHOP

The bohemian spirit that swept through the town in the 60s can still be felt today. From sprawling, psychedelic murals on the walls to striking, lifelike portraits in exhibitions, there are galleries galore. These sit side-by-side with antique shops, and often the two interlap: shiny, contemporary showrooms with wall-sized pieces join tiny ramshackle hole-in-the-walls, bulging with worldly finds.

Galerie la Kasbah

Don’t miss Galerie la Kasbah – part gallery, part museum – where a small door opens to a vast courtyard of curiosities, and the sharply dressed owner, Kabir, emerges from the palm trees to tell you about the history of the space and the co-operative of artists. Pick up artworks, antiques, hand-painted bowls or sculptures from any one of the many floors and hidden rooms. Kabir will ship anywhere in the world.

Elizir

Once a well-loved restaurant, Elizir is now a vintage store packed to the rafters with an eclectic collection of retro finds. Vintage lamps, old film posters, kaleidoscopic prints, trinkets and oddities, and a stack of old chairs and armchairs join old retro record players and so much more.

Galerie d’Art Frederic Damgaard

Danish art historian Frederic Damgaard opened Essaouira’s first gallery over 30 years ago and has amassed a bright selection. Browse and be inspired by original artworks from local Naif artists, expressionist paintings and surreal sculptures – prices are reasonable if you haggle.

L’Atelier

L’Atelier is a modern cookware-come-concept store and coffee shop that sits in a former almond warehouse. Lofty, light, and airy, it makes for a great afternoon pit stop. Caffeine addicts can happily get their fill here before browsing kitchen niceties of flavoured salts, olive oils, modern tagines, tea towels and textiles. Cooking classes here are a great, fun way to hone your skills.

Skala

Essaouira is famed for crafts and the ramparts of the Skala house more unique finds than the typical medina stalls. Follow the sandstone passageway from the main Moulay Hassan square, the small shops are numbered and lead to a courtyard: the Woodworkers Souk. The Art et Cadeaux workshop specialises in Moroccan patchwork wooden tables, mirrors and furniture, as well as small boxes and other gift-worthy items.

TO STAY

Villa Maroc

In prime position off the main square and in easy distance from the port, harbour and beach, Villa Maroc is your launchpad for exploring. A home-from-home, all airy white-washed walls and laidback luxury, the 18th-century riad is made up of several historic merchants’ houses, cleverly connected so the layout has different levels with secluded salons and lounges. Vines snake up the railings of the interior courtyard, where the whitewashed walls find bursts of colour – cobalt blue railings and turquoise seating meet jungle-greenery and bright pink roses, and cacti bask in the sun of the terrace. Inside the private-feeling apartments you’ll find pared-back, thoughtful interiors, carefully chosen African art, antiques and charming textiles.

Villa Maroc’s sun-dappled roof terrace is perfect for either long alfresco breakfasts, where owner Cornelia spends each morning chatting warmly with her guests, or sunset Campari sodas. Food here is fabulous and can be enjoyed wherever takes your fancy – a fireside table in a private room, the long dinner table, on a clandestine lounge or at a candlelit table for two outside your room. Round off an evening with a whisky nightcap by the fire for full effect. Come morning, wake up gently with a massage at the in-house spa where warm argan oil soothes any post-indulgence aches away.

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