While luxury hotel chains and very un-Muslim nightlife are turning Marrakesh into the Miami of North Africa, Essaouira, the windswept port town 100 miles west, feels firmly stuck in the boho 1970s. There was a time when Hendrix, Cat Stevens, and the Stones all came to get lost in the town’s mellow beach vibe and soak up the local Gnawa music. Today, it’s Daenerys Targaryen. The city serves as a set for Game of Thrones, standing in for the slave city of Astapor.
At first, Essaouira (pronounced essa-WERA) feels slightly desolate, but after a few days wandering the souks and climbing the crumbling ramparts lined with galleries and seafood restaurants, you’ll feel like a local, haggling with artisans for their carved-wood animals and drinking mint tea at one of the outdoor cafes in the main square, Place de L’Indépendence.
Essaouira is not your Caribbean-style beach scene: The waterfront is dominated by a busy fish market and the sand is less than pristine. Backpackers mingle with vacationing European couples while teenagers play pickup soccer alongside camels, which you can ride for a few dirham. While the waves are great for surfing, the sea’s pretty cold all year and can be rough. But like the town itself, the water is blessedly empty, even in high season.
More information: Fly to Marrakesh and grab a taxi ($70) or bus ($8) for the two-and-a-half-hour drive west. Morocco’s first eco-hotel, Lalla Mira, is a good old-town option. [from $58; lallamira.net]
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