Essaouira: Morocco's Hip Side
Perched on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, the blue and white-washed coastal village of Essaouira has forever welcomed artists and artisans.
For many visitors to Morocco, the main destination is Marrakech. This popular city is a must-see in the country, for sure, but for an entirely different experience in Morocco, my pick is Essaouira. Located on the Atlantic coast about two-and-a-half hours from Marrakech by bus, Essaouira is known as the Windy City of Africa due to the strong coastal winds that sweep through almost constantly.
With just 10 percent of the population of Marrakech, the smaller city is far easier to navigate and explore. It’s distinctly Moroccan, with its walled medina, narrow alleyways, souks and Berber influence; yet it’s also a place with a young, vibrant, artistic vibe. Here is a guide to experiencing the hip cultural scene of Essaouira.
Small galleries and studios are found all over town; one of the best ways to begin a stay in Essaouira is to simply walk through the main squares to get a feel for the creative scene. You will find not only established galleries, but also the work of plenty of street artists, photo-worthy graffiti and murals on the sides of buildings, as well as colourful creations made of pottery and wood displayed along walls and sidewalks.
Visit the Galerie d’Art Frederic Damgaard (Avenue Okba Ibn Nafia; free entrance) for a nice introduction to local artists, along with a decent book selection and pieces for sale. The Association Tilal (2 Rue du Caire) exhibits the work of half a dozen or so local painters with distinctive styles. Espace Othello (9 Rue Mohammed Layachi) began from the overflow of artwork the owner had on exhibit in his nearby restaurant, and has grown into its own gallery with paintings and sculptures by local artists. The name is derived from Orson Welles’s 1952 film, Othello, which he filmed here.
Other galleries that are worth checking out are Galerie Empreinte, Galerie d’Art Bab Sbaa and Galerie La Kasbah, all located in the old medina area. Keep in mind that most galleries, as well as shops, are closed in the early afternoon from around 1–3 pm, in traditional Moroccan manner.
Along with painting, sculpture and other fine art, Essaouira is famed for its handicrafts — particularly woodcarving, cabinetmaking and intricate marquetry inlays. Along the Skala de la Ville is a string of workshops that specialize in these traditional craft arts, where you can not only buy items, but often watch the artisans at work. An important thing to know is that the traditional woodcarving was done with local thuya wood, which is now endangered. Therefore, you will generally find such other types of wood as ebony or walnut in the carvings. But if you do see anything of real thuya, be aware that buying this wood threatens the last remaining trees and encourages illegal logging. Other places to shop for local artisan crafts include Rafia Craft (82 Rue d’Agadir), which showcases shoes woven from doum palm fibres; Boutique Kif Kif (204 Place du Marché aux Grains) with locally made linens, towels, home décor and bags; and Galerie Jama (22 Rue Ibnou Rochd) for high-quality Moroccan rugs from Mustapha el Boussaidi, who has been making tribal carpets since age 11. The multilevelled Jama, which is located in an old house, also has a nice selection of silk, pottery and other objets d’arts.
Like most cultural hotspots, Essaouira also has a musical side, from traditional styles such as the mystical Gnaoua and Sufi, to classically based Alizés and Printemps, to modern jazz, dance and reggae tunes. Caravane Café (2 bis Rue Qadi Ayad) is a trendy spot with a cosmopolitan-cool vibe, which is frequented by musicians.
Essaouira’s most famous music event is the Gnaoua World Music Festival, held every year in May or June and attracting musical artists from all over the world. Dubbed the "Moroccan Woodstock," the festival is a melting pot of Gnaoua masters alongside foreign rock, jazz and reggae musicians. It lasts four days and attracts around half-a-million visitors each year. One- and four-day passes are for sale, but many of the performances are also available to attend for free.
The cultural scene of Essaouira is more than enough to make you want to visit, and keep you busy, but if you want to explore other top things the city has to offer, try your hand at the wind and kite surfing that the strong breezes create such a demand for. Other popular activities include biking excursions, cooking courses and photographic tours.
If You Go
A luxury tourist bus service such as Supratours is an easy way to get there, generally making a stop for snacks and toilet breaks along the way. This way of travel also allows you to see one of Morocco’s most unusual sights, the tree-climbing goats! These skilled animals easily scale the trees to eat the fruit of the Argan tree, and make for quite an interesting photo op. There are also flights into Essaouira from Casablanca, as well as from Paris and London. G Adventures runs a number of departures in Morocco encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.
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