Mauritian culture is a fascinating blend of African, South Asian and European influences. Here are 8 fun (and budget-friendly!) experiences to try out in Mauritius if you want to get a handle on Mauritian food, spirituality, and traditions.
A predominantly Hindu, French Creole-speaking nation off the coast of East Africa…!? It’s hard to know what to expect when visiting Mauritius for the first time.
Everyone thinks of sandy beaches, luxury resorts and water activities. But did you know that Mauritius also has an incredibly vibrant and diverse culture to share with visitors? On top of that, it’s one of the safest countries in Africa, which makes Mauritius an ideal introduction to the continent.
On my recent trip to Mauritius as part of the #MyMauritius Explorer Lab, I got to discover some of the most intriguing elements of Mauritian culture. There’s so much more to this island nation than just the beach! To prove it, I decided to put together this list of 8 culture-focused, ‘alternative’ things to do in Mauritius.
Before we start, know that my stay in Mauritius was hosted by Mauritius Tourism and iAmbassador. As always, all opinions and recommendations are my own.
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Check out my Mauritius video!
This short video of my time in Mauritius features a few of the island’s best cultural attractions. Watch it through, then read on to discover my top recommendations!
Understanding Mauritian culture
I’m the first to admit that I didn’t have a clue about Mauritian culture before I landed on the island. (Well, that’s not entirely true – I did watch a short film on the plane ride over!)
When you’re preparing for a trip to Mauritius and trying to understand the culture, your first big clue is the island’s geographical location.
Mauritius sits in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa, relatively close to Madagascar. Because of its strategic position, Mauritius was always coveted by imperialistic forces. Over time, the island has variously been occupied by the Dutch, French and British.
African and Indian communities were brought to Mauritius (usually under duress) to labour in the island’s sugarcane and tea fields. After slavery was abolished and Mauritius gained her independence, freed slaves stayed and made a new life for themselves on the island. Some European families settled as well, and were soon joined by Chinese immigrants.
Although I’ve never been to India, my initial impression is that South Asian culture is the strongest influence in Mauritius today. There’s an undercurrent of Middle Eastern culture (similar to what I experienced in Oman), a bit of a Caribbean feel in the music and dance, and of course a healthy dose of French influence – which in many ways reminded me of other former colonies, including Vietnam.
8 unforgettable ways to experience Mauritian culture
Here are 8 easy, fun and budget-friendly ways to experience some of the different elements of Mauritian culture during your holiday.
Wondering how to visit all these different cultural sites? Do what we did and hire a car and driver for the day – it’s the best way to get around the island!
Savour Mauritian cuisine
If you want a clear example of how culturally and ethnically diverse Mauritius is, just look to the country’s gastronomy. Mauritian food, much like Mauritian society itself, combines Chinese, Indian, Creole, East African and European techniques and flavours.
Read next: The world’s most beautiful food traditions.
Must-try Mauritian dishes include vindaye, an adaptation of West Indian vindaloo. Made with mustard, vinegar and a truckload of spices, it’s traditionally served cold as an accompaniment to fish. Chatini (chutney) is a popular condiment and traces its roots back to British-Indian origins.
Rougail, a specialty Creole dish that originated on neighbouring Reunion island, is a rich ragout-like stew made with tomatoes, garlic, ginger and pieces of chopped sausage, squid, prawns or fish.
Fresh fish and seafood of all kinds (and all colours!) is wildly popular in Mauritius. You’ll also see a lot of rice-based dishes, including briani (biryani) and creations gifted from the island’s Chinese community, such as bol renversé (a layered dish of rice, chicken, shrimp and vegetables).
Most hotel buffets serve a few traditional Mauritian dishes as part of their lunch and/or dinner service. Another way to sample Mauritian food is by taking a walk along the beach at Grand Bassin in the afternoon, when street food vendors set up their carts. Most markets on the island also have food offerings, and you can of course try some of the local restaurants in Port Louis, Flic-en-Flac, and in other villages.
If you’re hungry for more beyond the buffet, this guided street food tour of Port Louis will introduce you to some of Mauritius’ best local spots and show you exactly what to order.
Watch a Sega performance
Not since I visited Colombia have I encountered a country that moves to the rhythm quite like Mauritius does. Reggae and Seggae are popular music genres on the island. But it’s Mauritian Sega, an art-form registered by UNESCO on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, that you should really look out for.
A Sega performance is a window onto Mauritian culture and the history of the island. Much like slave music in America’s South, Sega was originally used to express pain and loss. Over time, it morphed into an upbeat, optimistic expression of dance, singing and music.
Sega costumes – billowy floral skirts, cropped tops and woven hats for women; baggy shirts and trousers for men – are an important part of the performance. The beat is supplied by ravannes, cylindrical drums, triangles, and a maravane, a traditional instrument made by filling a box with seeds to create a maraca-like sound. Lyrics are sung in Creole as the barefoot dancers sway their hips, dancing in groups or couples.
Many hotels (including Beachcomber properties) host free Sega performances for guests throughout the week. You can also find Sega shows at bars and restaurants across the island.
Visit a local market
It’s no secret that I love local markets, so I was thrilled when I had a chance to wander around a couple of Mauritius’ most vibrant. Curepipe Market in the centre of the island is a very curious example of modernist architecture. Fruit vendors spill out from under the concrete facade. Inside, the market is a maze of food stalls.
The area surrounding the market is really interesting too. The hand-painted signs on the little Chinese shophouses and barber shops reminded me a lot of Ipoh in Malaysia. The local markets are a total contrast to Mauritius’ resorts, and a great place to people watch.
I also visited Grand Baie Bazaar, a large undercover market. Unlike Curepipe, it’s very much geared towards tourists and sells a lot of mass-produced, imported souvenirs.
I decided not to stay and instead walked down to the adjacent public beach. On the way, I met Monsieur Noah, the local shoe repairman who operates his business from a little yellow cabin on the side of the road near the market. He gave me a little introduction to his tools – then gave my sandals a once-over!
There are also markets in Port Louis, Flacq, and other villages across the island. Experience the market and see what else Mauritius’ capital city has to offer with this full-day walking tour.
Visit Mauritius’ holiest Hindu site at Grand Bassin
Grand Bassin (Ganga Talao) is a large water reservoir located in the southern part of the island. It’s a holy pilgrimage site for Mauritius’ Hindu population. Every year, hundreds of thousands of worshipers (including many international visitors who come especially for the event) descend on the area to mark Maha Shivaratri, Shiva’s Great Night.
Two enormous 33 metre-tall statues guard the lake, one in the image Shiva and another for Durga Maa, Hindu Goddess of war. After you’ve seen the statues close up, continue to the shore of the lake to visit Ganga Talao Hall, a complex of temples and shrines.
Remember this is an active site where many families come to worship, so you’ll need to dress appropriately (covered shoulders and knees) and be respectful when walking around the area.
So many religions (Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam) means that Mauritius has a lot of festivals! If you’re lucky enough to visit during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that usually falls in mid-November, you’ll see how the whole island comes together to celebrate. Diwali is actually a national holiday in Mauritius and marked in some way by all religious groups.
Retrace Mauritius’ Tea Route
Mauritius’ history of slavery and plantation farming has left an indelible mark on the island’s culture. Visiting important historical sites such as the Tea Route can be a good way to learn about this difficult but formative chapter of the island’s history.
Preserved plantation homes and crumbling sugar mills are all artefacts of Mauritius’ colonial period. You can also visit old cane fields, including Frederica Reserve, a former farm that’s been transformed into a wildlife sanctuary.
Aapravasi Ghat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Port Louis, once served as an immigration depot for indentured labourers arriving from India. It’s now home to one of the many museums in Mauritius dedicated to memorialising the slaves’ lives and stories.
Meet the craftsmen at a model ship workshop
Mauritius’ signature handicraft is model ships. It’s said that a Frenchman, Raphael Touze, first introduced the art form to Mauritius in the 1970s. The island’s rosewood, teak and native ebony trees produce beautiful timbers perfect for woodcraft, and so the industry took off. Models ships are now one of Mauritius’ biggest exports!
You can find workshops all over the island, but the most famous of all is Historic Marine. Craftsmen are happy to entertain guests by running through the different stages of production, which involve whittling, gluing, and hand-sewing the canvas sails.
Seen up close in person, you can really appreciate how intricate and time-intensive this handicraft is. It can take months to produce just one ship – no wonder the price tags at the gift shop are so high.
Try Mauritian rum (and wine!)
Mauritius’ volcanic soils make the island incredibly fertile. Sugarcane has historically been the main crop here, and even though there are far fewer fields than there once was, a couple of cane growers still run their mills.
Rum is a happy by-produce of sugarcane juice and a very popular beverage on the island. Lazy Dodo is my favourite local label. To learn more about the sugarcane and rum industries, I highly recommend visiting L’Aventure du Sucre Museum Factory, which houses a museum and hosts rum and cocktail tastings.
Another profitable crop in Mauritius is lychee fruit. There are small orchards all over the island. As my driver told me, individual families often buy the rights to harvest the fruit of one lychee tree – because the trees are so susceptible to fruit bats, Mauritian lychees are very precious (and expensive!) .
Local label Takamaka makes light and fruity lychee wine, which you can try at any hotel bar or at the historic Le Château de Bel Ombre.
Join the locals for a ‘sundowner’
One Mauritian custom that I think we can all get on board with is the ‘sundowner’. Come sunset, families and couples flock to the nearest beach to bask in the diffuse rays and dip their toes in the surf. Socialising, eating street food and maybe picking up a few fish from the nearest market are also part of the ritual.
Sundowning is particularly popular on weekends and during holidays. On public beaches such as Grand Baie, you can see large groups of men playing checkers and cards under the shade of palm trees and kids playing in the water. A dusk stroll along the shoreline is one of the loveliest ways to spend an evening in Mauritius while participating in a local tradition.
If you want to elevate your sundowner experience, you can ride horseback along the beach instead!
Where to stay in Mauritius
I was lucky enough to stay at two Beachcomber properties in Mauritius: Beachcomber Trou aux Biches (prices here) and Beachcomber Dinarobin. Both have direct beach access, amazing food, and regular cultural performances. It’s absolutely worth splashing out on, especially Dinarobin, which is seated at the foot of the spectacular Le Morne mountain.
For a more budget-friendly option, try Voila Bagatelle Hotel or any of the other properties around Quatre Bornes.