Insider’s Guide to Ouarzazate

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Ouarzazate (pronounced almost like: “Where’s Oz At”) carries with it the usual chilled-out charm of the southern regions, but because of its size, has a bit of a cosmopolitan feel, which is no surprise considering its infamous connection with blockbuster cinema. Two major film production studios are located here, a film school and even a museum of cinema. The number of A-list celebrities that have graced the streets and cafés of Ouarzazate is impressive. From Brad Pitt to Cate Blanchett and Martin Scorsese, many of Hollywood’s most successful actors, directors and producers have spent weeks, if not months, here working and enjoying all Ouarazate and the surrounding region have to offer.

For many, the desert city of Ouarzazate and the ancient Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou aren’t as recognizable movie icons as the Hollywood Hills sign or the cactus filled desert plains of Arizona, but Ouarzazate has a long established relationship with cinema; so much so, it’s been nicknamed “Ouallywood.” Many directors have held an obsession with the beautiful range of landscapes and locations which are in easy reach, including Orson Wells, Ridley Scott and David Lean. Its most famously been the setting for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) & Gladiator (2000) and The Sheltering Sky (1990) and has even entered the world of television, with Ait Ben Haddou featuring regularly as a backdrop in the third season of Game of Thrones (2013). One of the best things to do while in town is put on your directors cap and head to a movie studio to revisit some of your favorite cinema moments!

Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou in the Moroccan Atlas mountains at sunset

Probably the most iconic attraction in Ouarzazate is Ait Ben Haddou, a beautiful ancient ksar about 30 minutes outside the city. Ait Ben Haddou has been used as a backdrop in countless movies and TV programs.

Ouarzazate’s other nickname, “The Doorway to the Desert” is just as well suited. One of the main reasons to camp down in Ouarzazate for a night is its prime location — with day trips and overnight excursions to oasis valleys, the Sahara sand dunes, UNESCO world heritage sites and ancient kasbahs all within easy reach. A trading stop on the old trans-Saharan caravan route, the city and its province are rich in history and fascinating cultures to learn about.

Both of Morocco’s desert regions are half-day drive: M’Hamid or Merzouga. A night in the Sahara is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities you won’t want to miss.

Notes from the History of Ouarzazate

Once an isolated military outpost during French Occupation, the surprisingly vibrant city of Ouarzazate is nestled amongst a barren, rocky plateau south of the High Atlas Mountains, 1160m in altitude. Its vast, arid surroundings mark the beginning of Sahara desert — a change in landscape, which in itself, is a spectacle to encounter. Mountains and valleys with beautiful windswept formations roll for as far as the eye can see, hiding palm groves and breathtaking views. The expanse of something so absolute never fails to impress.

The Berbers and nomads who inhabit these regions of Morocco call this region the Hamada, which literally means “desert scrubland.” The word “Ouarzazate” means “noiseless” in Tamazigh, capturing its remote and serene setting.

Today, Ouarzazate hosts the marathon des sables, where athletes endure a gruling, multi-day marathon through the desert, largely considered the most difficult race in the world. The city is also in the final stages of completing a solar power station, which, alongside hydro and wind plants, is set to provide almost half of Morocco’s energy by 2020.

What to Do in Ouarzazate

You will find plenty to explore besides ancient kasbahs and the impressive sets of iconic movies. The city is ready for all your shopping needs with scores of souks, souvenir stores, cooperatives and markets to get lost in. Add this to an abundance of travel and rental agencies offering bikes, motorbikes, quads and 4×4’s and there should be more than enough to check off on the bucket list.

People watch — Place Al-Mouahidine, 3rd of March Square, Rue de la Poste and Avenue Mohammed VI are where you can find most of the main shops, cafés and restaurants of Ouarzazate. Go for a stroll and take a rest at your favorite pastry shop or café to experience and take in the city’s lively evenings.

Shop around — You can do all your shopping in the local market (especially at the Sunday souk) but you can also explore the surrounding towns for special gifts. The local shops on the market road open right at 6am and sell all kinds of items from clothes to crafts and spices. If you feel like exploring outside of Ouarzazate, nearby towns Tinehir and Errachidia are very well known for their beautiful silver jewelry and pottery, respectively.

Discover the Old District — A more unique side of town seemingly unaffected by modern life that offers a more personal encounter with Ouarzazate. Stroll passed mud brick houses lining the old streets and watch locals going about their day, carrying breads and pastries to the community oven and children play football in the streets. The Taourirt part of the Old District holds an ancient fortified village, still standing right in the heart of the city.

Explore on a four-wheeler — If you want to get to know Ouarzazate and its surrounding areas on your own terms, renting a four-wheeler is the way to go. They are ideal for those looking to lead their own day trips to the natural wonders around town. Quads Adventures is right outside the Atlas Studios and rents out all sorts of exploring equipment.

Go for a Hike — You can also choose to explore the area on your own two feet. Nearby spots such as Fint Oasis and the Tifoultoute Kasbah are perfect for a nice hike (15km and 8km from Ouarzazate respectively). If you are into longer walks, the 35km road to the incredible site of Ait Ben Haddou and the Ounila Valley will take you through rivers, desert mountains and lost Berber villages. It’s even possible to walk or cycle the old caravan route from Ait Ben Haddou to the intricately decorated Telouet Kasbah.

What to See in Ouarzazate

CLA Studios — Welcome to Ouallywood! Leave Ouarzazate behind and visit Jerusalem, Mecca and an authentic kasbah all in one place… or, should we say, visit the incredible recreations of these places. At CLA Studios you will be able to explore all sorts of impressive sets and props used for movies such as Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and The Great Journey (2004). Route de Marrakesh. +212 (0)5 44 88 20 53. Open daily, 8 AM – 6:30 PM. 40/35 dhs. Call ahead to make sure they aren’t closed for shooting.

Ouarzazate, Morocco - Jan 4, 2017: Entrance to Atlas Corporation Studios is film studio. Ouarzazate area is film-making location, where Morocco's biggest studios

Atlas Studios — If you have some extra time (or are simply a movie enthusiast) you can’t pass up the opportunity to visit another of Ouallywood’s famed studios. Just 4km from Ouarzazate city center and for just Dh50, you can explore all the elaborate sets for popular movies such as Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra (2002), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Babel (2006) and many others. An experienced guide will tell you all about the behind-the-scenes secrets you’ve always wanted to know. Route de Marrakesh. +212 (0)5 24 88 22 23/12. Oct – Feb: 8:15 AM – 5:15 PM; Mar – Sep: 8:15 PM – 6:45 PM. 50/40dhs. Call ahead to make sure they aren’t closed for shooting.

Museum of Cinema — Located just opposite the Taourirt Kasbah and housed in a former studio, this quiet museum holds a rich collection of old sets, props, and cinematic equipment. This is a perfect alternative if you don’t have the time to visit one of the cinema studios outside of town. Avenue Mohammed V. +212 (0)5 24 89 03 46. Open daily, 8 AM – 6 PM. 

Telouet Kasbah — Arguably one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in Morocco. This slowly dilapidating kasbah was once the palatial residence of Thami El Glaoui, pacha of Marrakesh and Lord of the Atlas. Sadly, large portions of the Telouet Kasbah have been left to crumble and the reasons why are all part of its complex and fascinating history. Some large rooms have been restored, showcasing mesmerizingly intricate mosaic interiors. Its worth getting a guide to show you around the ruins and help you understand the rich history of this kasbah. Proche Telouet. +212 (0)6 33 91 53 70. Open daily, 8 AM – 6PM.

Taourirt Kasbah — Set right on the edge of the quieter side of Ouarzazate is where you will find one of Morocco’s most intriguing legacies of wealth and power. Taourirt Kasbah, a massive citadel, sits against the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains and contains almost 300 rooms within its walls. Although is was constructed by the Glaoui, it was never actual residence to the main family and was instead home to the families of many close relatives in the Glaoui dynasty, along with hundreds of servants, cooks and tailors. Its strategic location along the subsaharan trade route meant it enjoyed gifts from caravans passing by and was seen as a strong indication of the Glaoui’s undisputed hold over the South. Some of the restoration work carried out on the kasbah was washed away by heavy rains, but the main courtyard and some main rooms are beautifully decorated. Follow the maze of corridors to a prayer room on the top floor, which provides stunning views over Lake El Mansour Edhabbi, or explore the village within the kasbah for great deals on local crafts.

Where to Eat in Ouarzazate

The gateway to the desert is home to several decent restaurants and a wide range of cuisines making it one of the few places in the south where you can eat well outside of your riad. Whether seeking the perfect pizza, ice cream or pastry, this is a great stop to dine on some culinary delights before you head to the dunes for a more rustic adventure. Cheap eats and local café grills are clustered around the central market at Place Mouahidine, Ave Al Mouahidine and Rue du Marché where you can find the usual brochettes, tagines & kefta, as well as some more adventurous dishes, like braised cow hoofs & chickpeas.

Avenue Moulay Rachid is the best bet for finding a tasty oven baked pizza or a well cooked tajine, while Accord Majeur and La Kasbah des Sables win the vote for fine dining. An alternative breakfast can be found at the row of terrace cafés along Avenue Mohammed V, where you can enjoy some French pastries & croissants with jams alongside a strong café noir or a mint tea.

DouyriaIf you’re looking for an amazing view and excellent cuisine, Douyria is where you will want to spend your evening in Ouarzazate. In a peaceful cushion-lined nook, you will be able to take in an impressive view of the Atlas Mountains and the Taourirt Kasbah while enjoying a traditional Moroccan meal. Vegetarians, don’t miss out on the veggie pastilla! Ave. Mohamed V, Taourirt. +212 (0)5 24 88 52 88. Thurs – Tues, 11:30 AM – 3:00 PM and 6:30 PM – 10:30 PM. Reservations recommended.

La Kasbah des SablesFor an unforgettable dining experience, La Kasbah des Sables is a must during your visit to Ouarzazate. The restaurant itself resembles a Moorish palace and is decorated with cozy lounges and nooks arranged around an enormous indoor shallow pool. A wall of jewel-colored lights completes the décor and creates an incredible ambience you won’t easily find elsewhere. Sit at one of the candle-lit tables and enjoy a delicious mix of French and Moroccan dishes such monkfish or chicken with Atlas morels. N° 195 Hay Ait Ksif. +212 (0)5 24 88 54 28. Open daily, noon – 1:45 PM and 7:30 PM – 9:45 PM. Closed for the month of July. Reservations recommended.

Jardin des ArômesThe shimmering colors, ambient lighting, intimate lounge areas and tasteful décor make this restaurant one of the best spots for a romantic evening. The excellent Moroccan cuisine is also an excellent excuse to stop by: you will find everything from tasty tajines to delicious couscous. 69, avenue Mohamed V. 212 (0)5 24 88 88 02. Tues – Sun, lunches and dinners (approximately noon – 3 PM and 7 PM – 10 PM. Reservations recommeneded.

Accord Majeur —  Famed as being a favorite with the Hollywood film crews when they’re in town, its joked you may find yourself brushing shoulders with movie stars while dining here. The menu features a range of well perfected International dishes including duck confit, fillet steak and Italian pastas, while the relaxing ambience and roadside terrace make for a unique dining experience. A well selected wine list adds to the charm. Rue Al-Mansour Ad-Dahbi. +212 (0)5 24 88 24 73. Mon – Sat, noon – 2pm and 7pm – 11pm. Reservations Recommended.

Patisserie des Habouss — For a hearty breakfast or a quick bite in the afternoon, Patisserie des Habouss is the ideal spot to try the tastiest Moroccan pastries. You can also grab a fresh baguette to go (Dh10) or a delicious croissant (Dh2.5) any time. Conveniently located in the town center. Place Mouahidine. Open daily, early morning – late night. No reservations needed.

3 Thés An affordable and reliable option in the centre of town which serves traditional Moroccan dishes such as tagines and pastilla alongside International options like salads, paninis and pastas. Avenue Moulay Rachid. Open daily, 8am – 10pm. No reservations needed.

Explore Outside of Ouarzazate

Before the French military constructed the Tizi n’Tichka Pass in 1936, the backroad between the village of Telouet and Ait Ben Haddou served as the main passageway over the Atlas mountains for caravans journeying the trans-Saharan trade route between Marrakesh and sub-Saharan Africa. The road runs through the heart of the Ounila, a fertile valley which is full of olive groves, terraced orchards, crumbling kasbah’s and cliff-side cave dwellings. Recently paved and now an easy drive, this is a great scenic alternative to explore while visiting Ait Ben Haddou and the Telouet Kasbah. Anemiter – a village roughly halfway along the route is one of the best preserved fortified villages in Morocco, and Kasbah Tamadaght is just 6km further up the valley from Ait Benhaddou. The picturesque Oasis de Fint makes for a comfortable day trip, while Lake El Mansour Eddahbi is perfect for a hike or a spot of birdwatching.

Ait Ben Haddou — You might recognize the sand-colored houses of this impressive ksar (Arabic for “fortified city”) when you see it for the first time and you’ll have good reason to: Ait Ben Haddou has been used as the backdrop for many popular movies including Lawrence of Arabia (1962), TheLast Temptation of Christ (1988) and Gladiator (2000), to name a few. But there is more to this ksar than just Hollywood blockbusters. Ait Ben Haddou is a massive fortification made up of six kasbahs all protected by UNESCO. You can spend several hours in its maze of winding streets until reaching a fortified granary at the top which provides an amazing view of the valley.

Ounila Valley — The road between Ait Ben Haddou to Telouet is a stunning trek, cycle or drive, with picturesque Berber villages, farming hamlets and crumbling kasbahs dotted all along the way. Stop at Anemiter to see a well preserved fortified village and head visit the classic Kasbah Tamdaght.

Tamdaght Kasbah — Set 6km away from Ait Ben Haddou in the Ounila Valley lies another ancient kasbah, which has a slightly more authentic and rustic Berber charm than the above. It can be incorporated into a day trip through exploring the picturesque Ounila valley to see Ait Ben Haddou, Tamdaght and the Telouet Kasbah in one excursion. Its still possible to catch a glimpses of traditional Berber life out here, as you watch shepherds pass by with their livestock and its no wonder why Ridley Scott chose to feature this areas incredible landscapes and the crumbling kasbah in Gladiator (2000).

Oasis de Fint — Just 15km outside of town, you will find the picturesque Oasis de Fint, an ideal location for day-trippers. The drive is not too rough and you can take a standard vehicle if you drive carefully. Take the side roads to head towards the river and then spend your day walking around the quiet Berber villages and grabbing a bite at the local auberges. The Tifoultoute Kasbah is also nearby and deserves a few hours of your time. Explore its ancient walls and take in the incredible view it offers you over the Draa Valley.

El Mansour Eddahbi Barrage — Sightings of various desert-dwelling species are common at this birdwatchers haven, including blackbellied sandgrouse and lanner falcon. A great place for hiking and fishing, the best times of the year to visit are March-May and late August-November. Kasbah Taourirt boasts a superb panorama view over the lake itself

Draa Valley Palmeries — The Draa Valley encompasses a stunning 125km belt of oasis palmeries, with ancient kasbahs and windswept mountains lining the groves. The area is seen while traveling toward Foum Ziguid, M’Hamid and the Erg Chigaga dunes and presents a stunning example of expanse of the ‘Hamada’ as well as the oasis valleys themselves. Explore the chilled out oasis town of Agdz and watch Jebel Kissane, which towers over the town, change in the light during sunset, or venture out to Zagora and seek out some truly authentic Saharan treats in the markets. Alternatively, head out to Foum Ziguid and learn about ancient fossils, which can be found on the dry, rocky plains.

Ziz Valley Palmeries — The Ziz Valley palmeries, seen when travelling toward Merzouga and the Erg Chebbi region, provide all the essentials for a desert oasis adventure. Expect to learn about ancient water irrigation techniques and traditional oasis farming methods while exploring the plameries and visit ancient ksar and kasbah lining the groves. The sleepy village of Aoufous is a great example of life in the Oasis and is best visited during October, when the dates are in season.

Tinghrir Palmeries (and the Todra and Dades gorges) — Dades, Tinghrir and Todra offer their own spectacular palmeries to soak up an oasis adventure, but the real sight to behold if venturing out this direction are the gorges. Wind your way through mountain roads and that zig zag back and forth on themselves and admire beautiful gorge formations in the Dades Gorge, or drive through gorge walls that slowly narrow in on themselves in Todra. Both gorges provide amazing trekking potential and even rock climbing for the adventurous.

About the Author

Lucas Peters Morocco Author PhotoThis Insider Guide was updated by Morocco expert, author and photographer Lucas Peters. After spending years traveling to the distant corners of Morocco, he penned the best-selling guidebook Moon Morocco. He is now based in Paris, where he lives with his wife and son.