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Essaouira spreads along a long sandy strip of Morocco's Atlantic coast. The kind of place you'd imagine Peter O'Toole's Laurence of Arabia riding in to from the desert. Definitely Moroccan, but with a European familiarity - it was designed by a Frenchman. What wouldn't work for Toole's Laurence is the air full of windsurfers and kitesurfers. Some of the best places to stay in Essaouira cater for this crowd, but most are ideal for those who are here for more than the waves.
The powerful and constant wind, the locals call it alizee or taros, which makes this sunny, sandy destination unpleasant for people who want to sit on the beach, makes Essaouira heaven for windsurfers and kitesurfers. And in a way it's these active travellers who've helped protect Essaouira's natural charms from becoming over touristy. Today the busy medina is just as important as a market place as it ever was. This port is not just a pretty museum to its past life, it's still vibrant.
The beach is long, curving and quiet and the hotels are – generally – more boutique one offs than Travelodge, so the vibe is so far more independent traveller than tour group. The streets are too narrow for those big tour buses.
Essaouira's protected natural harbour made it an important trade route, hence the massive medina. The labyrinth of streets has been famously recorded by many, and is a delightful tangle of treasure - and a nightmare for cars - so visitors are forced to navigate the same pathways as the sugar pirates who influenced the layout of the town.
It's only from the outside that Essaouira looks European, within the narrow alleyways permeated by spicey smells whipped around by the wind it feels very Moroccan. As well as the spices and the smell of the sea the air is filled with the sounds of Gnawa singing.
Essaouira actually means 'beautifully designed small fort', so, it follows that the old fort is one of the city's main attractions. This fortress originally protected the surrounding town and the harbour.
The medinas and souks are the other main attractions - aside from the windsurfing or kitesurfing. The working fishing harbour, and tiny wood work factories are also fascinating, and there's a wonderful art scene - artists have been coming here for years because of the wonderful light.
If you're planning an active break
- If you're here for the breeze, one of the best places to stay in Essaouira is the Ocean Vagabond. You're only 100metres from the beach and there are spectacular views of the ocean. But it's also only 200metres from the medina. The decor is colourful, modern Moroccan and it feels laid back and comfortable. With rooms priced from just £80 per night this is also one of the best places to stay in Essaouira on a budget.
- For those who like watching windsurfing, as well as going windsurfing, Madada Mogador is should tick all the boxes, if only for the roof terrace which has sweeping views over the sweeping beach. There's also a good restaurant which runs cooking classes - maybe if there's a rainy day?
- Dar Liouba used to be an Imam's residence, and its seven comfortable, sunny, whitewashed rooms can all be booked together, making this one of the best places to stay in Essaouira for groups. They also offer windsurfing or kitesurfing specific packages.
For a Sunny City Break
- If you love the idea of staying in a riad, this 18th Century boutique version, just minutes from the beach and the golf courses is probably one of the best places to stay in Essaouira for you. As well as being a romantic blend of traditional and colonial decor, the Villa de l'O is close to both the beach and the souks, and has wonderful sea views from the rooftop terrace, which also overlooks the old town's battlements.
- Casa Lila is a great choice if you're looking for Moroccan sun on a budget - rooms start from just £63 per night. And large rooms sleep up to four. The reasonable price doesn't mean Casa Lila is a plain Jane, she's charming and traditional, but not always in the colours you'd consider traditional Moroccan - making this a really unique place to stay.
- If you're here for the history book into Dar L'Oussia, which is situated in the old ramparts. As well as the historic location these 23 rooms, and fours suites, ooze heritage, from the four poster beds to the art, to the wonderful inside courtyards and romantic balconies overlooking them.
- For something more modern try Riad Lotus O Marine. Its luxury includes modern art and even more modern lighting.
- And if you want to hang where Hendrix and Marley hung, book in to Heure Bleue. Who knows what convinced them this was the best place to stay in Essaouira? Was it the roof top terrace and pool? Was it the cinema onsite, or the multiple restaurants which also run cooking classes? Or the location, near the gates of the medina and just minutes from the beach? Or maybe it was the fact that it was originally the home of Caid Mbark Saidi?
This is also a great place to visit in winter, when it's quieter.
Best Hotels in Essaouira
Essaouira Lodge 34 rooms from $58Essaouira
With lots of space and plenty of privacy this is an informal understated place in the countryside not far from the buzz of Essaouira for couples to relax or big groups to congregate. Wide choice of spotlessly clean accommodation - catering for different numbers and budgetsSwimming Pool - Outdoor and plus villas with private pools.Spa
Villa Gonatouki 10 rooms from $57Essaouira
Looming large on the horizon this impressive guesthouse caters for couples, families and large groups. Bohemian rooms are decorated in colourful palettes and chunky furnishings. There is a hammam plus massage and two pools. Great service in a palatial place with an informal atmosphere.Groups - Perfect for a special celebration and getting a group of friends and family togetherTotal relaxation - Unwind in Morocco's bucolic surrounds - with nothing but a good book for companyCooking classes - Get in the kitchen with Samira, the head chef, and pick up some local flavoursSwimming Pool - Outdoor plus lap pool
Dar Sahil 6 rooms from $57Essaouira
Traditional Berber house just outside Essaouira surrounded by beautiful countryside. Six room and two suites furnished in classic style with carved wooden headboards and tiled floors. There's a lovely pool for cooling off and wonderful Moroccan dinners created from the market's best ingredients.Golf - Situated adjacent to a golf course described as one of the 10 most beautiful in the world by 'Golf World Magazine'Value chic - Unbeatable value. Rooms start from just €55 per night.Sights nearby - Just 25km south of EssaouiraSwimming Pool - Outdoor pool
Dar Liouba 7 rooms from $63Essaouira
A lovely creamy clad guesthouse, formerly an Imam's residence. Sunny rooms have white washed walls, comfortable beds, and splashes of colour. Cosy living areas have fireplaces and there's a fabulous roof top terrace. Excellent value, available for exclusive use.Restrictions on children - Over 2s welcome.Sailing - Can be booked nearby.Local markets - Good for local colour.Surfing - Suitable beaches nearby.Recommended by - I Escape
Riad Baladin 10 rooms from $75Essaouira
Understated hippie chic that will appeal to couples looking for a serene, zen vibe. Light and bright airy white-washed rooms overlook a courtyard or one of several terraces. Bathrooms are ornately tiled, some compact. There is a funky restaurant and a hot tub. The beach is moments away.Romantic Break - Light and airy rooms have a whimsical feel, perfect for romance.Value chic - Achingly beautiful interiors at an inviting price.Sights nearby - The ancient Essaouira Citadel is moments away.Seaside - Ideal for a seaside holiday.
Ocean Vagabond 14 rooms from $83Essaouira (Aïcha)
Chic boutique hotel with impeccable design. Modern Moroccan style throughout with vibrant art, bright colours and local artefacts. Spectacular cuisine served in the restaurant specialising in seafood. A laid back hotel in a prime spot for windsurfers and kitesurfers.Total relaxation - A tranquil haven with fragrant gardens, lovely swimming pool, massage and hammam area and welcoming bar.Active Holiday - An excellent location for watersports enthusiasts particularly windsurfing, surfing and kiteboarding.Sailing - Boat trips can be arranged around the island of Mogador, the ideal way to explore the coast.Sights nearby - Take the guided tours of the Medina, including the ramparts, museums and Church of St Anne.Recommended by - I Escape
Casa Lila 10 rooms from $78Essaouira
Completely charming traditional riad with romantic rooms and suites. Colour themed rooms in pastels with chequered floors, whimsical furnishings, and Moroccan art. Lovely terrace, alcoves and roof terrace for sun bathing. A romantic spot, also family friendly.Romantic BreakCity StyleSights nearby - Situated in the heart of the Old TownCooking classes - Check for timings.Recommended by - CN Traveller
Dar L'Oussia 23 rooms from $89Essaouira
A beautiful boutique riad in the old ramparts. It oozes heritage and traditional romance. Sunny rooms and suites all in creams with four poster beds, artworks, and balconies onto the inner courtyards. Fantastic roof top terrace and great Moroccan restaurant. A great value spot for couples.Roof terrace - With panoramic viewsRomantic BreakSights nearby - Situated in the ramparts of the medina, close to the souks and ancient fishing portViews - Great views from hotel
Villa Maroc 21 rooms from $120Essaouira
Eclectic and characterful four-riad guesthouse in the heart of the Medina. Couples and families will love the privacy and surprise factor on offer as well as the highly efficient staff. A romantic spot overlooking the seaChicRomantic BreakSights nearby - Situated in the heart of the Old Town, close to all major attractions.Swimming Pool - At sister hotel Les Jardins de Villa MarocRecommended by - CN Traveller
Dar Maya 5 rooms from $104Essaouira
A gloriously luxurious riad with beautiful interiors, fantastic roof top terrace bar and pool, excellent restaurant and hammam. Creamy rooms and suites with fireplaces, hints of Moroccan heritage, and huge marble bathrooms. A romantic spot for two.City StyleRomantic BreakLuxurySights nearby - Situated in the heart of the Medina, minutes from all the major attractions.Recommended by - Mr & Mrs Smith, Tablet
Le Jardin des Douars 26 rooms from $104Essaouira (Oued kseb)
A fantastic oasis of beautiful gardens, traditional-chic Moroccan suites, sprawling terraces, excellent North African/French cuisine, and spa - on the edge of Essaouira. A great example of Moroccan tradition and French-chic. A great venue for a private party with a "Wow factor".Garden - Spectacular gardens filled with argan trees.Groups - Villas suites sleep up to 10ChicLuxuryRecommended by - Mr & Mrs Smith
Riad Baoussala 6 rooms from $104Essaouira
Charming, intimate riad just outside Essaouira. Rooms, suites and a cottage for up to five are arranged around a pretty courtyard. Decor is traditional & calming and each room is individually designed. A gorgeous pool (heated in winter) is perfect for relaxing after a day exploring or on the beach.Value chic - With rooms starting from just €100 per night including breakfast, it's excellent value for money.Local markets - Bag a bargain and enjoy the sights and sounds at a local market, or Essaouira's MedinaSights nearby - Just 9km from Essaouira, or even shorter by track!Great walks - Along those wonderful beachesRecommended by - I Escape
Madada Mogador 7 rooms from $120Essaouira
Foodies, luxe detailists and style lovers will enjoy the experience of staying here - where good smells, beautiful views and delicious food unite to make for an exotic sensory experience. Popular cookery workshops on site.Roof terrace - Wonderful panoramic views of the city.Beach LifeViews - Great views from hotelCooking classes - Moroccan Cookery Classes are held daily in the funky Atelier Madada.Recommended by - Mr & Mrs Smith, I Escape
Villa de l'O 12 rooms from $135Essaouira
A fabulous 18th century boutique riad in a perfect location - minutes from the beach and the golf course. Sand stone columns, sculpted woods, and beautiful fabrics blend oriental tradition and western luxury. A lovely roof terrace has stunning coastal views. A luxurious treat.Romantic Break - A lovers retreat- elegant suites ooze grown up style, while the roof terrace offers the best views of anywhere in town.Active Holiday - Essaouira is a hot spot for outdoor activities particularly windsurfing and kitesurfing.Sights nearby - Make sure to explore the sights of the city, especially to the art galleries, museums and fishing harbour.Local markets - Explore Essaouira's souks, packed with beautiful handicrafts and local produce.Recommended by - I Escape, Tablet
Riad Chbanate 8 rooms from $146Essaouira
Discreet riad in quiet, off piste location by the Medina boundary wall with impressive bathrooms, friendly staff and resident turtle. Good for couplesLocal markets - Visit the excellent soukSeaside - Ideal for a seaside holiday.Cooking classes - Check for timings.Surfing - Suitable beaches nearby.
Riad Lotus O Marine 5 rooms from $146Essaouira
A stylish boutique hotel with retro rooms, excellent restaurant, spa, and rooftop terrace. Eclectic rooms and suites filled with modern art, luscious fabrics, and modern lighting. A great choice for couples.City StyleSpa - Beldi hammam offering a range of traditional body scrubbingsSights nearby - Located in the heart of Essaouira's Old TownViews - Lovely sea viewsRecommended by - I Escape
Heure Bleue 33 rooms from $177Essaouira
Large timeless French colonial-style Relais & Chateaux hotel just inside the Medina wall that will appeal to those who favour old school service. Ideal for couples and groups who want all the facilities and amenities of a classic 5 star establishmentChic - Previous hang out of Hendrix and Marley.Swimming Pool - Fantastic roof top pool.Roof terraceRomantic BreakRecommended by - Mr & Mrs Smith, Relais & Chateaux