Essaouira doesn’t take itself too seriously. Life isn’t raging forward as it is in Casablanca and Marrakech—the first thing you see when you roll up to this north African section of the Atlantic is able-bodied dudes clutching wind-surfing kites and jumping and hovering four feet above the water.
Set between ocean and argan forest, Essaouira’s bite-sized medina is known for its 20-foot ramparts and its bright-blue doors rather than the mercenary souk merchants you’ll find in many Moroccan towns.
In fact, there are many ways Essaouira might surprise you. Here are seven of them.
1. It’s very arty
If it’s Sunday, it’s joutiya (junk market) day in Essaouira’s crumbling quartier industriel, just north of the medina. Sneak into the alleyways behind the market, and you’ll find well-known local “junk market artists” like Ben Ali and Abdelaziz Baki working with bright, nail polish-esque enamel paint in their makeshift studios. You can buy art directly from them, avoiding the medina’s middleman markup.
Inspired by the town’s relaxed environment and coastal light, these artists—who are often self-taught—hold down day jobs as fishermen, spending their mornings catching monkfish and sardines from Essaouira’s distinctive blue flouka boats. Fifty-year-old Ben Ali, whose father founded this commune of joutiya artists back in the ’70s, paints darkly comedic art that is a big deal in the Sahel and, increasingly, in Europe; leading Italian art critic Corrado Levi says he’s a genius.
2. There’s fabulous (organic!) wine
Restaurants in Essaouira’s medina are more likely to offer alcohol than those elsewhere in the country. In fact, many of Essaouira’s mellow-chic eateries serve wine from nearby Val d’Argan, the first winery in Morocco to obtain organic certification. Its white El Mogador tastes like the offspring of a French sancerre and a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, a welcome departure from the acidic, watery whites of more prominent vineyards like Medallion and Domaine de Sahari.
My favorite place to sip this wine is at Umia, an upscale and romantic restaurant adjacent to the ramparts, with dim purple lighting and groovy tulip chairs. Alternatively, join the bevy of German, Norwegian, and British expats at Silvestro’s Italian restaurant and wash down your margarita pizza with Val d’Argan’s Rhône-varietal rosé.
3. You can be yourself
Homosexuality is illegal in Morocco, but some areas are more laissez-faire than others. Essaouira has emerged as Morocco’s unofficial gay capital, with more openly gay Moroccans and expats than anywhere else in the kingdom. The region’s Chleuh Berber tribe is particularly tolerant.
Plus, in contrast to other parts of the country, you can bust out the beachwear—bikinis and short shorts are part of the landscape.
4. Hendrix was here
Jawad and his crew at Equi Evasion ranch can lead you down the beach on horseback to Bordj El Berod, the Portuguese watchtower ruins that people claim inspired Jimi Hendrix to write his 1967 hit “Castles Made of Sand.” Whether this is true or not, you’ll feel like old-world nobility as you look out over the Atlantic atop a horse, the tide rushing past its hooves. Say “’Zid!” to get your Arab stallion to move, but beware: The horses are quick, and your derrière will feel it for a few days.
5. There are tree-climbing goats
Let’s repeat that: There are tree-climbing goats! In the argan forest 10 minutes outside town, you’re apt to find these adorable, borderline-magical creatures climbing the gnarled branches of the indigenous, nearly fossilized argan trees. And we’re not talking about one or two rogue goats here. I once counted 10 standing in a single tree—they looked like Christmas ornaments. The goats eat the argan tree’s fruit and excrete out seeds, which Berber herdsmen collect and turn into an oil used in traditional medicine and cooking. Ask your riad to hook you up with an inexpensive car service so you can go see the goats for yourself.
6. Essaouira is the Chicago of Africa
Atlantic trade winds mean it’s always a blustery day in Essaouira, hence its nickname, “Africa’s Windy City,” and the abundance of surfers and kitesurfers who après-surf at Café Panoramique and watch the sun disappear behind Essaouira’s port.
7. There were more Jews than Muslims here in the 19th century
Jewish merchants were invited to this port town to help develop trade links. But over time, the population has declined. “Now I’m the last Jew living in Essaouira,” says Joseph Sebag, the second-generation proprietor of Galerie Aida. “It’s like a private club where I’m the only member.” An eclectic mix of French and English books line the walls of Sebag’s bookshop, and his white cat snoozes on shelves carrying classic works on Moroccan life and art. “The hippie movement of the ’60s and ’70s made Essaouira trendy,” explains Sebag, “but after that, a lot of the Jews left because of the conflict in the Middle East.”
The bookstore has been here since 1950, but has no sign—look for it just below the trendy Taros Café. For more on Essaouira’s Jewish heritage, check out the recently restored Slat Lkahal community synagogue in the Mellah neighborhood.