Asilah is a very interesting blend of laid back and city, cultural and tourist, and all the lines that meet in between. Asilah’s story is of a town of once great importance in Morocco and fame that then wasted away with the inevitable changes of time, but in the past several decades has worked to make itself one of the centers of culture in the entire Muslim world—and thus bring the town back into modern relevance.
Asilah is a small fishing village whose history stretches back nearly 3,500 years. The reason for this is that Asilah, already known for its beaches, is also a natural harbor that has been used by many groups throughout the centuries including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Byzantines, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Portuguese. The Portuguese built the large walls, ramparts, and fortifications that give the town its distinctive appeareance to this day. Asilah was finally reunited as part of Morocco near the end of the 17th century, and served as a major pirate haven for the next 200 years.
Asilah is a far quieter place now, with pirates and wars long forgotten, though the city walls and ramparts remain in beautiful shape because of restoration work. Today it is a popular tourist destination, in part because of the aptly named Paradise Beach, a relaxing pace of life, and a series of cultural festivals that have made Asilah one of the great cultural centers of the Muslim world. There are multiple festivals through out the year encouraging Muslim artists and the expansion of culture and art. August is particularly a major month for these events, as August is considered “the cultural festival.” Started in the late seventies, these festivals helped turn Asilah from a dilapidated town without much importance in modern day Morocco to becoming a major destination for tourists and artists alike.
The August cultural festival seems to turn the entire city of Asilah into an art gallery. Artists will show exhibitions of their work to the public in the Pasha Raissouni Palace—but their work is not just contained there. The artists will display their work on the streets, and even on the walls of the town itself. Music, art, and a plethora of other activities that are designed to encourage an artistic culture. Asilah has become the artists’ hangout in Morocco, fulfilling the hopes of the city when the festivals and planned renovations began in the late 1970s.
Asilah is easily accessible from the nearby city Tangier by train or bus, which makes it a popular spot for tourists to take a few relaxing days to recharge after seeing the sights of a bustling tourist city. Asilah has a nice variety of hotels, from high end to cheap but clean, to multiple camp sites specifically for those backpackers and travelers who came for Morocco for that sort of adventure. Most of the campsites are located on or close to the beaches by the sea, giving a beautiful view to wake up to in the morning, and the calming sound of the ocean to fall asleep to. Being a coastal town long sustained as a port and fishing village, it should come as no surprise that some of the restaurants in Asilah claim the best sea food, as discussed in our Morocco travel guide . If you are a sea food fan, this is definitely a place worth stopping to check out the local menu.
Asilah’s transformation into a cultural and artistic hub has once again restored it to a place popular to visit and important to the country. The town has spent much of its new found wealth by re-investing in the town itself, and the positive effects show. Even when construction is booming, all designs try to stay similar to the original appearance of their ancestors’ homes—often even using the useable parts and materials from old buildings that had to be torn down due to disrepair. In the late seventies Asilah was considered nothing short of dilapidated and only a short stop on the way to Tangier. Thanks to the culture festivals, started by two locals who had dreams of seeing their town return to prominence and glory, that is far from the case. Asilah’s restorative efforts are nationally recognized in Morocco, and their culture festivals are perhaps among the greatest in all the Arab world.
Asilah has become a beautiful town that tourists and travelers of all sorts can appreciate from the brightly decorative murals on building walls to the long walks by the sea. Asilah is a laid back, easy going town with a lot to offer travelers in Morocco, whether artists or not, and should be a mandatory stop on any Moroccan tour. This town is an amazing example of how a few individuals can change a place for the better, and make something amazing that was maybe beyond even their wildest dreams.