Why you must visit Essaouira, the laid-back alternative to Marrakesh

Day Trip to Essaouira
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Why go now?

Bright and breezy Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, is an enchanting, laid-back alternative to the frenetic melting-pot of Marrakesh. The town’s name means “little picture” in Arabic, and it’s a painter’s dream location, with a vibrant blue-and-white “medina” (inner walled city), enclosed by fairy-tale, sand-coloured ramparts and imposing stone gates (“Babs”). Beyond the colourful port, rolling waves and a wide buttery beach stretching for miles complete the canvas.

The bustling medina is much easier to navigate than you’d imagine. A series of linked streets forms a central spine leading directly from the northern gate, Bab Doukkala, to the main square of Place Moulay Hassan, by the waterfront. Tiny passageways and pungent souks splay outwards like fish-bones.

June is a lovely time to visit, before temperatures soar – though the local Alizés winds mean Essaouira never reaches boiling point. Music fans will be bowled over by the town’s annual Gnaoua world music festival (June 29 – July 1; festival-gnaoua.net) but be warned that it gets pretty crowded.

Getting there

Low-cost carrier easyJet (easyjet.com) operates the UK’s only direct flights to Essaouira, from Luton (Tues–Sat; from £29.99 one-way). Essaouira airport is 10 miles from town; transfers cost 6 dirhams (50p) by airport shuttle bus or 150 dirhams (£12.25) by taxi. If you need to travel on different days, use Marrakesh airport for one or both legs of your journey. Essaouira is 2½ hours away by taxi (700 dirhams/£57) or three hours by “Supratours” bus (75 dirhams/£6.12; see oncf.ma for timetables/advance bookings).

Where to stay

Special treat

Housed in a former palace next to  Bab Marrakech, Heure Bleue Palais (1 on the map above) at 2 Rue Ibn Batouta (00212 524 783434; read a full review and check availability) is the most elegant address in town, with spacious rooms, an exotic marble hamman and a small roof-top swimming pool. Doubles from €180 (£157), including breakfast.

Mid-range

Dar Caravane (2), less than a mile (10 dirhams/80p by taxi) from town on the Route d’Agadir, is a delightful, artist-owned enclave set in mimosa-filled gardens. The outdoor pool is surrounded by sculptures and patrolled by the house peacock. Suites cost from €75 (£66), including breakfast (00212 524 784804; booking.com).

Budget

Run by Englishwoman Sandra Cripps, Riad Remmy (3), tucked within the medina at 29 Daouad Ben Aicha (00212 653 236192; riadremmy.co.uk), is fantastic value. Rooms are charming, with bright local textiles and wrought-iron lamps. Doubles cost from €48 (£42), including a roof terrace breakfast alongside the riad’s pet tortoises.

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