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Essaouira or Marrakech: which is the best place to visit?

Essaouira or Marrakech: which is the best place to visit?

Holiday time is precious, and when you’re heading to a country like Morocco, with its abundance of things to do and places to see, you need to plan ahead. One of the most common questions we’re asked, especially by those who are limited on time, is whether they should visit Essaouira or Marrakech.

For a long time, Marrakech was the default destination in Morocco, a place geographically close to Europe but a million miles away culturally. In more recent times, travellers’ eyes have opened up to other destinations, with the picturesque coastal town of Essaouira drawing admiring glances westwards.

Essaouira and Marrakech share some common highlights (culture, food, medinas) but differ significantly in other areas (outdoor space, nightlife, transport options). So we’ve compiled a guide on what makes each place so special, compared the two, and given our opinion on which one you should visit.

If time allows, definitely visit both. Check out our guide on how to get from Marrakech to Essaouira. But if you need to decide between Essaouira and Marrakech, keep on reading. For your interest, we also have a comparison guide on Essaouira vs Agadir.

About Essaouira and Marrakech

Essaouira

Essaouira port in July - kids jumping into the water

Essaouira is a charming port town perched on the Atlantic coast and popular with kite-surfers due to the strong ocean winds. There’s a chilled out, hippy vibe to this town, where everything is walkable and the traffic-free medina beckons you for aimless wanders punctuated with mint tea breaks.

Essaouira is one of Morocco’s most beautiful towns and will appeal to those travellers who want to experience the local culture and cuisine. There are also many activities in Essaouira to enjoy, including learning to surf, kite-surfing, and quad-biking.

However, be warned, this is not the destination for sun bathers due to the strong Atlantic Winds. Essaouira has be coined “The Windy City of Africa” for a reason!

Marrakech

For many people, Marrakech is synonymous with Morocco and all that the country has to offer. Particularly around the bustling and hectic medina, the atmosphere combines historic and modern Morocco, with mopeds whizzing around the narrow alleyways and shopkeepers waiting for their next haggling opponent.

If you step away from the medina, Marrakech slows down slightly, especially in the new town area of Gueliz with its stylish restaurants, cafes and hotels.

An evening spent in the main square of Jemaa el-Fnaa is not just a Moroccan highlight, it’s truly one of travel’s great experiences. For an introduction into what makes Morocco so special, Marrakech takes some beating.

Getting there and around

Essaouira

Petit taxi Bab Doukkala

Essaouira has its own small airport, 15km to the southwest of the medina. If you’re lucky enough to be flying from one of the handful of cities served by the airport, it’s a relaxed and stress-free entry into the country.

The town is also on the national bus network, with a few buses departing each day for Marrakech, Casablanca and Agadir. They’re not very frequent, so some advance planning is required.

Essaouira isn’t on the railway network so don’t plan on riding the rails.

Within the compact town, you’re never too far from where you need to go, so walking is a welcome option. If you need to jump in a taxi (the small blue ones are known as petit taxis and only carry three passengers), relax in the knowledge that they’re safe and affordable, with fixed fares of 8DH (9DH at night).

Grand taxis are available for larger groups or longer journeys.

Marrakech

Whilst Casablanca is Morocco’s main international gateway, Marrakech Menara Airport still has a large number of destinations, mostly within Europe. If you’re based in Europe, it’s likely they’ll be a direct flight to Marrakech from your home country, meaning the city has excellent regional connectivity.

It’s also a major bus and train hub, with bus services to almost every town in the country. Marrakech isn’t on the high-speed train line, but does have services on the slower line to Fes, Meknes, Rabat and Casablanca, including a sleeper train.

The medina is much larger than Essaouira’s, but still walkable if you are planning to explore a specific area.

Once you are outside the medina, you’ll need transport to reach most places, as the city is quite spread out. Local buses are an option but are usually hot and crowded; most people take a taxi but beware of faulty meters and unscrupulous drivers. The general rule is never get into a taxi if the driver approaches you, as you’ll be overcharged.

Accommodation options

Essaouira

Riad Dar L'Qdima, Essaouira

Essaouira has a fantastic selection of riads, often available on Airbnb or direct with the owner. They provide an authentic Moroccan experience, usually in an ideal location. They can get chilly in the winter months, although there’s often a wood-burner.

The city is also home to some great value hostels which are also often in old buildings and central locations. Several high-end resort style hotels also line the main road across from the beach, if you prefer some luxury.

Marrakech

Marrakech has been welcoming tourists for decades and has the full complement of accommodation options, ranging from cheap and cheerful dorm beds, to ultra-luxurious, international standard resorts costing thousands of euros per night.

Some of these resorts also cater for the package-tour, all-inclusive crowd, who only venture into the medina on the hotel shuttle buses. And a couple even have waterparks.

Marrakech also offers some superb riads, often with swimming pools (which you won’t get in Essaouira) and offering great value.

Food and drink

Essaouira

fresh sea food served at Salut Maroc

The food scene is Essaouira is low-key but of high quality, especially if you’re a fan of seafood. There are several recommended pizzerias, with perhaps the best pizza in Morocco.

Elsewhere, small family-run restaurants are popular, with cute seating and home-cooked food. Near the medina walls past the main square, you’ll also find some international standard fine-dining, with a French touch.

The nightlife is Essaouira is similarly low-ley and relaxed, focused on a few rooftop bars like Taros, which have DJs, alcohol and a cooler-than-thou atmosphere. Don’t expect any European style nightclubs though, Essaouira isn’t that kind of place.

Marrakech

For dining and nightlife, Marrakech has it all, with perhaps the best night-time scene this side of Madrid.

Whatever you’re craving to eat, you can find it in Marrakech, from tagines, snails, or McDonald’s, to top-end, world-class restaurants with celebrity chefs.

The nightlife scene is more what you’d expect to find in a European city than Morocco, with bars and nightclubs operating late into the night, catering to a (usually) young and eager crowd.

Safety

Essaouira

Dar Loulema riad, Essaouira

Essaouira is one of the safest places to visit in Morocco. Solo female travellers may encounter some unwanted attention at the beach, especially towards the southern end, but this is extremely rare and more of an annoyance than dangerous.

The people in Essaouira are especially friendly and welcoming of visitors, with the vast majority of the (traffic-free) medina completely safe to walk around, even late at night.

Marrakech

Marrakech at night

Marrakech does have a slightly edgier feeling, especially in the darker corners of the medina after dark.

There’s also a higher-level of touts and low-level hassle present in the medina which can quickly become tiresome. The medina isn’t traffic-free, so do keep an eye (and ear) out for mopeds which, at times, can feel an incessant and annoying presence.

The shopkeepers here are masters of haggling and getting the best possible deal for themselves; try to keep all interactions friendly and laid-back.

Cultural opportunities and things to do

Essaouira

Most cities of Essaouira’s size would be grateful with just one stand-out attraction, let alone three. There’s no shortage of cultural opportunities and things to do in the city.

Pick from either the Essaouira Medina, the UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, the working port, or the long, sandy arc of beach which leads directly from the medina gates to the town of Diabat five kilometres away.

If you fancy getting active, Essaouira is known as one of the world’s premier spots for wind-surfing and kite-surfing, with the gentle waves also perfect for learning to surf. Essaouira even has its own winery!

Marrakech

Marrakech is bursting full of flavour and chaos, with plenty of attractions, both cultural and fun-filled.

A wander around the medina feels like visiting several cities in one go, finishing at Jemaa el-Fnaa for a night you’ll never forget.

Visit cultural sites such as Bahai Palace or the Jardin Majorelle before checking out the 12th century Koutoubia Mosque.

There are also many less cultural activities available, including a selection of waterparks, ideal for cooling down during the hotter days.

Visiting with children

Essaouira

Essaouira with kids

With the beach, port and traffic-free medina, Essaouira has plenty of places for kids to safely relax and play. Do check out our guide to visiting Essaouira with kids.

The beach in particular is an excellent retreat for little ones, there’s even a mini playground to enjoy. And surf lessons are a must for kids age 4+.

Essaouira also has a more relaxed vibe than other Moroccan cities which kids will possibly prefer.

Marrakech

Marrakech with kids walking in medina

Marrakech can be a sensory overload for kids, especially if you’re based in the medina and need to navigate the mopeds and alleyways on a daily basis.

The parks outside the medina, especially in the old town, are a welcome retreat, especially with the abundance of western-style restaurants if the tagines are getting repetitive.

Climate and best time to visit

Essaouira

kitesurfers in Essaouria

The same sea-breeze that attracts the kite-surfers is also appreciated by the land-loving visitors, for its cooling affect on the climate. As Essaouira is on the coast, the temperature never gets too hot, usually sitting well below 30 degrees Celsius.

In the winter, it can get quite cold in the riads and it’s not uncommon to see visitors hurriedly buying warmer clothes from the souks on the main street.

Whilst the rest of the country bakes, Essaouira is usually a few degrees cooler, making for a great climate.

Marrakech

Marrakech is well away from the coast, in the centre of the country, and it can get seriously hot in the summer, often threatening the mid-forties, but nearly always in the thirties.

It can feel very oppressive during the day in the summer and the heat affects moods and sightseeing stamina. However, during the winter months you can expect warm days, whilst a jacket is required in the evening. Marrakech is a safer bet for warmth in the winter months.

Summing up – which one do we recommend?

Whenever the ‘which one do you prefer’ question comes up, it’s always down to personal preference and what you’re looking for in a trip. But if we had to choose between Essaouira and Marrakech, it’s the cool coastal city of Essaouira which gets our personal vote, even though the tallying resulted in a draw here.

Not many similarly sized places have so much to offer the visitor, with the UNESCO-protected medina perhaps the highlight. What we particularly love about Essaouira is the relaxed atmosphere in the medina and the long stretch of beaches, ideal for a chilled afternoon stroll for those not inclined on surfing the waves.

Marrakech is a wonderful city though, very close to the top of our ‘favourite city’ list, with a wealth of culture and fun-time things to keep you busy and entertained. It’s a magical place.

As we said at the beginning, the best answer to the conundrum of ‘which place to visit’ is easy; extend your time in Morocco, visit both Essaouira and Marrakech, and see which one comes out on top for you.


Explore Essaouira ebook

Updated for 2024, the Explore Essaouira ebook is the only travel guide you need for exploring Essaouira. It is jam packed with inspiration on what to do, where to eat, where to stay, and also includes a step-by-step self-guided walking tour (with photos). 

This is a PDF download for use offline and on the go (and ad-free!). Save it to read on the plane to Morocco, download to your phone to follow the self-guided walking tour around the medina, or print it off at home before you leave on your adventures and highlight all the bits you want to remember for your visit.

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