Once popular with artists and the hippy crowd, Essaouira has diversified in recent years, pulling in more travelers looking to escape from the crush of Marrakech and searching for a sleeping village in the south. Though no longer the sleepy village it once was, Essaouira has maintained its diversity, its love for art, and, yes, its hippy crowd.
There’s a little something for everyone here, and for most people traveling through this region, this city itself is a real highlight. The distinct cry of seagulls descending on the fishing boats entering the port, the chipped paint and weathered stone, the quiet mornings and lively evenings—these are just a few of the memories travelers come away with.
For a clean, friendly hostel experience, Atlantic Hostel Woodstock (34 Rue Ellabanna, tel. 0629/652 268, 50Dh) is the top choice for many students and backpackers. Divided into two buildings right next to each other, Atlantic and Woodstock, this hostel has slowly built a reputation for being one of the better ones in Morocco, with a quiet night of sleep the norm. This is a good place to meet fellow travelers and maybe make a new friend. Woodstock is typically quieter, while Atlantic is where the kitchen and much of the socializing is.
For warm, friendly lodging, look no further than Riad Malaïka (17 Derb Zayan, tel. 0524/784 908, http://www.riad-malaika.com, 690Dh). Conveniently located in the heart of the medina, just off the main thoroughfare, this renovated riad has kept just enough historic detail to make it interesting, including the retro tile work leading to the rooftop terrace. The rooms are cozy with plush beds, perfect for a quiet night of much-needed sleep. Wifi, heating, and breakfast are all included with your stay. This is a locally owned and run riad with all of the staff proud and knowledgeable about the area.
Tucked into the back of the medina, just off the main shopping road leading from Bab Chbanate, the expansive Riad Chbanate (179 Rue Chbanate, tel. 0524/783 334 or 0668/034 757, http://www.riadchbanate.com, 1,600Dh) has some fun designs, including a rope swing in one of the suites, and wide bathtubs big enough for two. Candlelight dinners are the norm here at the ground-floor restaurant. Breakfast, included with the room, is a veritable culinary experience with viennoisseries, fresh bread, Moroccan-style crêpes, and fresh orange juice. The terrace is private with views out over Essaouira and the ocean, perfect for a little sun tanning away from the crowds.
Vegans rejoice! Shyadma’s Vegan Food (20 Pl. el-Khaima, Rue Laalooj, tel. 0615/287 208, Mon.-Sat. 10am-10pm, Sun. 1pm-10pm, 70Dh) has a diverse menu that features all vegan food, including soy-based and lentil-based veggie burgers as well as a few interesting vegan twists on the Moroccan tajine. With original recipes by Essaouira’s own Hussein Abarro, this is a real treat for those looking to change up the pace and vegans and vegetarians tired of the usual available options.
Brave the grungy stairs to Silvestro (70, rue Laalouj, tel. 0524/473 555, daily 7pm-11pm, 120Dh) and you’ll be rewarded to an explosion of flowered wallpaper and Moroccan stucco work set against a soft, jazzy background. The menu offers up a fine choice of Italian classics (like penne arrabbiate, made with homemade pasta, and some killer gnocchi). Pizzas are all wood-fired and the seafood and mushrooms are fresh. There’s a selection of wines and liquors, and, thankfully, it’s non-smoking.
For an upscale, French-style dinner, pull up your chair under the stone arches of La Table Madada (7 Rue Youssef el Fassi, tel. 0524/475 512, www.latablemadada.com, Wed.-Mon. 7:15pm-11pm, 250Dh). The menu features some classic cuisine with a touch a local flavor, such as the spider crab and avocado tartar with a hint of argan oil and tiger prawns served with chermoula and Taliouine saffron rice. The bar has a full array of cocktails, as well as a list of wines from France and Morocco. Tapas (35Dh) are also served, making the bar a nice place to stop in before heading out somewhere else for dinner. Cooking classes are also available during the day.
UPDATE: Sadly, one of my favorite restaurants, Elizir, is now closed!!! I’m hoping someone else takes up the mantle of what was a real funky, delicious treat in the middle of a great city!