This up-and-coming destination is just off the beaten track enough to still be charming despite the tour groups (mostly day-trippers from Spain) that have found their way here. For many years, Asilah (formerly Zili, a small town of Phoenician origins) was mostly known as a fishing village, albeit picturesque, where the waves from the Atlantic pounded at the 500-year-old stone walls of this former Portuguese outpost. Paul Bowles and a few other expat writers and artists have found their way here, but it wasn’t until former Foreign Ambassador Mohamed Benaïssa and the Asilah-born artist Mohamed Melehi decided to revamp the town through their passion for painting, sculpture and the arts that this little fishing village began to transform. In 1978 the first ever Cultural Moussem of Asilah took place and the town was forever altered.
Today, the self-proclaimed “City of Art” hosts the yearly Cultural Moussem of Asilah that draws artists, art dealers, musicians, poets and performers from around the world. To commemorate the summertime festival, many of the medina walls are used as murals, making the entire medina one of the major tourist attractions.
After spending some time in other medinas, it is refreshing to walk through this fresco-filled medina, looking at the work of artists from around the world. Throughout the year, the Zilachis take pride and help to clean their city, which is surprisingly tidy, especially in comparison to some of the other medinas.
Paradise Beach, about 4 kilometers south of the city, is a gem. Outside of summer months, it’s possible to have the entire beach to yourself.
Christina’s House (26 Rue Ibn Khatib, tel. 0677/276 463, 250Dh) is a popular favorite, particularly with students and budget travelers. This cozy riad features a large terrace to relax on, a shelf full of English-language books to choose from, delicious breakfast, and clean rooms. This is one of the better options around Asilah for the price.
If you’re looking to stay in the old medina, Riad Asilah (64 Rue Bab r’Mel, tel. 0539/417 979, 650Dh) is the only true guest house in that area. It is easy enough to find, near Bab el Souk. The terrace is closed off from the sea, though it is pleasant enough kick back and read a book. Decor tends toward the tacky, but the beds are comfortable, linens are fluffy and water is hot. Wifi, AC and breakfast are all included with your stay.
Thealong the medina wall outside of Bab al-Baher, tucked behind a bamboo fence, serves mint tea and is a local tradition. Fishermen have long gathered here to wile away the hours playing parcheesi (“par-cheese” in the local dialect), sipping tea, smoking kif and waiting for the tides.
Casa Garcia (Angle Ave. Prince Héritier et Melilal, tel. 0539/417 465, daily noon-3pm and 7:30pm-11pm, 120Dh) has modest roots, reflected in the decor, fitting of a captain’s lounge. It’s popular with locals and tourists. The succulent, buttery John Dory is filleted and grilled to perfection. Other tasty, simple, fresh seafood dishes are available, including gambas a la plancha and grilled sol, as well as pastas and sandwiches. Reservations are recommended during high season.
Port XIV (14 Ave. Moulay Hassan Ben Mehdi, tel. 0539/416 677, daily noon-4pm and 7pm-midnight, 200Dh) has emerged as a regional leader in fine dining. Karim, the Scottish-Moroccan owner, studied in restaurants around Europe and the details show, from the spot-on service to the spot-free crystal glasses. Go for the oysters, sourced locally from Morocco, but save room the rest of the menu, including swordfish steaks that are seasoned to perfection and lightly battered fish and chips. Reservations are recommended during high season. This is one of my favorite restaurants in all of Morocco!