Asilah is a sleepy fishing town in the North of Morocco, just one hour south of Tangier. While not completely off Morocco’s well-beaten path, it’s often missed by travellers bound inland for Fez or Chefchaouen, yet has a uniquely alluring charm. With an immaculately restored medina that’s re-painted vivid shades of blue & white each summer, Asilah has the feel of being Morocco’s own Santorini – a great spot to see the more chilled out, seaside town life in Morocco.
The town lies in the middle of a fascinating history in historical, architectural and artistic terms. It’s 3,600 year old history that includes a varied range of occupiers, involving Roman, Arab Portuguese, Spanish and French colonisation. Many famous writers and artists have spent time here; in ancient times is it reported Hercules did a tour of the area and, more recently; Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Edith Wharton, Jean Genet (who is buried in the nearby town of Larache), William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix and Henri Matisse have all found the area inspiring. The Portuguese ramparts remain fully intact and a full day can be spent wandering through its old gates and the ever narrowing medina streets inside the walls.
The architecture in Asilah has been heavily influenced by these different periods of occupation, which is one of the main reasons for its unique and charactered feel. Evidence of Mediterranean design can be seen in the rampart walls and gates themselves, reflecting the Spanish & Portuguese influence on the Asilah’s development, Roman ruins can be found in the nearby town of Larache and Arab influences are more subtly found in the decorative window shutters and the labyrinth like medina layout to the streets.
Asilah is synonymous with art and the peaceful seaside town is home to over 50 resident artists. It is packed full of art galleries, studios and exhibition spaces with artists from around the country selling their work. Each summer, the town invites artists from across the globe to visit and take part in an annual arts festival. The festival begins in July and commences by the artists and locals re-painting the medina. They purposefully leave large spaces of the medina walls white-washed blank, ready for artists to create and design new murals and street art during the festival.
Artwork can be found everywhere, including sketches and engravings etched onto doorways and walls by children. Large sections are even allocated for children to paint their own ideas and fun workshops are held encouraging children to work together and help paint new murals onto the walls. This is actually how Asilah began its synonymous relationship with art. In 1978 seven Moroccan artists were invited to the town to hold art classes for children, inviting them to draw on the walls of the medina. The festival goes on for a number of weeks showcasing a range of artistic disciplines, from music and poetry to performance and painting, and everything in between. Its mark is left on the town for the remainder of the year, as the murals and artwork are left spread throughout the medina, hiding down different alley ways and backstreets for you to discover as you navigate your way through the labyrinth of interconnecting streets.
Unless the festival in full swing really appeals to you, its best to avoid visiting during the months of and around the arts festival. This is high season for Asilah and although that may sound fun, the crowds unfortunately distract slightly from the chilled out, peaceful retreat which the town is best visited for. It is still worth finding out what is on in the Arts festival line up and visiting if there is something that catches your attentions, as this is a fun time of the year. But to get a true sense of Asilahs’ chilled out charm, its best to visit off season and wander the medina, shop in the souks and relax on the beach without the crowds. Moroccan families searching for a place to cool off for their summer vacation along with all the tourism the festival itself brings, means this otherwise tranquil town becomes jam packed with tourists and summer camp trips, upping the amount of touts on the streets and creating sharp increases in hotel prices.
If you are a lover of the quirkier details found in the medinas of Morocco, then Asilah won’t disappoint, with hundreds of creatively designed doorways, decorative window shutters and retro, old electricity & water metres from the French occupational period. Together with the artwork and murals spread throughout the medina, these little details all paint the picture of Asilah. One of the main things to do is to simply wander the streets and take in all the unusual textures, shades & charm the town has to offer.
Paradise may be somewhat of an over statement, but the beach 2km south of Asilah should not be missed. Collective taxis run back and forth throughout the day from nearby the Banque Populaire and return back to Asilah around sunset. Sharing a collective taxi is an interesting adventure in itself, as you pass by untouched sections of Morocco’s coastline. Known locally as Rmilate, the beach is packed full of tourists during the summer months and is best visited off season, when you can expect to have a large space to yourself. Numerous cabin hut restaurants line the base of the enclosing cliffs, serving up freshly grilled sardines, Moroccan salads and fish tagines.
A clay rock deposit near the northern end of the beach provides a free exfoliation, locals will be quick to point out where you can find the right stuff!
Small cities like Asilah are easy to miss, that’s why we recommend traveling with a company who knows, and helps you to experience off the beaten path locales. We work exclusively with Moroccan guides who know the country and culture. Contact us today to start planning your Moroccan adventure!
Hidden Morocco is a multimedia series showcasing some of the more easily missed destinations to discover while traveling in Morocco. Whether its the whitewashed fishing town of Asilah or the mesmerizing mosaic interior of the Telouet Kasbah, we aim to share with you some of our favorite, hidden-away places to get a true taste of Morocco. From photo essays to video features, explore Morocco’s better kept secrets with us by searching the archives with: hiddenmorocco