Insider’s Guide to Ouarzazate, Morocco

ouarzazate Morocco

Once an isolated military outpost during French Occupation, the city of Ouarzazate is nestled amongst a barren, rocky plateau south of the High Atlas Mountains, 1160m in altitude. It is known as the “doorway to the desert,” since 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 and the expanse of something so absolute never fails to impress. The Berbers and nomads who inhabit these regions of Morocco call them the Hamada, which literally means ‘desert scrubland’ and the word ‘Ouarzazate’ means “noiseless” in Tamazigh, capturing its remote and serene setting.

The city itself carries the usual chilled out charm of those in the southern regions, but also holds it own cosmopolitan feel, which is no surprise considering its infamous connection with blockbuster cinema. Two major film production studios are located here, a film school, a museum of cinema and 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 their fair share of time in this city.
Its most famous attraction is Ait Ben Haddou, a beautiful ancient ksar which has been used as a backdrop in many movies and tv programs.  But besides all the glitz and glamour, the city has managed to live up to its name and has remained one of Morocco’s most laid-back towns. 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. The main festival is the marathon des sables, where athletes endure a seven day marathon in the desert and 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.
Ouallywood
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.
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).
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.
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.
Sahara Desert Morocco
Ouarzazate’s other nickname as the “doorway to the desert” is just as well suited, with good access to both of Morocco’s desert regions right on its doorstep. A night in the Sahara is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities you won’t want to miss and Ouarzazate is the last big city in the south of Morocco where this is still relatively easy and affordable to do. Many agencies in the city will be able to organize a trip for you with a taxi, camel ride, and camping experience in the desert. You will have to endure a 5-hour drive from Ouarzazate to M’Hamid or Merzouga, the fringes of the desert. But, from there, a camel will be your mode of transportation through the sand dunes to your camping site. Spend the night under the stars and return early the next day, or spend a few nights exploring each of the two Sahara regions which Morocco has to offer.
The Erg Chebbi Region
The Erg Chebbi region can be accessed via the N10 which takes you past the old caravan trading towns of Tinghrir, Errachidia & Rissani before you reach the sleepy desert town of Merzouga. Here there are well built asphalt roads taking you right upto the face of the dunes, and the town sees increased tourism as a result. A short walk from the centre, and you’ll find yourself immersed by the golden velvet Chebbi dunes. Despite its increase in tourism compared to Chigaga, there are plenty of reasons to choose the Chebbi region for your Lawrence of Arabia adventure; the drive up to towering sand dunes, which are the highest in all of Morocco, is in itself a spectacle, while remote, ancient ksar villages like Taous, the Gnawa village of Khelmia and the views of mountains in Algeria from this region are not to be missed.
The Erg Chigaga Region
The Chigaga dunes can only be accessed by camel trekking or 4WD, making it less visited, more remote, wild and as nature intended. Although its dunes aren’t as tall as Chebbi’s, the expanse of rolling sandscape, glimpses into nomadic culture and wild desert shrubbery give it a more rustic safari feel. Its possible to drink tea with nomadic families and visit nomadic schools, which are set up in tents and travel with the nomads. The route from Ouarzazare takes you past the laid back Oasis towns of Agdz and Zagora, before reaching M’Hamid at the fringes of the dunes, all major trading towns on the trans saharan trail to Toumbouctou in Mali. Like Chebbi, views looking toward mountains in Algeria can be seen as a stunning backdrop to the dunes, and fossils lying out in the open on the dry plains of Foum Ziguid and Lake Erikki will undoubtably amaze.
Camel Trek in the Dunes
The best way to enjoy the shapes and textures of the sunlit sand is to slow down the pace of your journey somewhat and trek by camel into the dunes. Arranging this for sunset or sunrise is a must and climbing to the top of a tall dune to get a view over the horizon is the best way to get to know your new found surroundings.
Camp out under the stars
Whether your at a mid range or luxury camp, rest assured you truly will be sleeping under one million star accommodation in the Sahara. Here you can see milky skies and shooting stars in a way like never before while star gazing from your camp amid the dunes.

Ouarzazate Kasbahs

Ouarzazate was not only a strategic location for the military during French occupation, it has long been an important trading town along the trans saharan caravan trade route and its roll as the gateway to the desert has brought many privileges. Ancient kasbahs and ksar line the palmeries and roadsides throughout this province and a full day or two can be spent exploring crumbling ruins in nearby Berber villages. Its just as easy to loose track of time while taking a walk around the labyrinth of streets in the UNESCO world heritage ksar of Ait Ben Haddou as it is admiring the lavish decor featured in the Taourirt Kasbah, while a trip out to Tamdaght will give you a glimpse of what it must have been like crossing these valleys during the time of the trans saharan caravan trade. Step back in time and explore some of Morocco’s finest examples of traditional architecture in the South.

 

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.

 

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 & tailors. Its strategic location along the sub saharan 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.
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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 (see ‘day trips’ below). 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).

 

Discover the City of 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 & 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 on the to do list.

People watch: The central square (3rd of March Square), Rue de la Poste and Avenue Mohammed VI are where you will find all the main shops, cafés and restaurants of Ouarzazate. Go for a stroll and then 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.
Take a photography class
Photo Motion are based in Ouarzazate and run photography workshops in English and German. They organize excursions to photograph the Oasis de Fint and longer trips through the Draa Valley palmeries.

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, Lawrence of Arabia style adventure. Cheap eats and local café grills are clustered around the central market at Pl Mouahidine, Av Al Mouahidine and Rué 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 Av Mohammed V, where you can enjoy some French pastries & croissants with jams, alongside a strong café noir or a mint tea.

Douyria: If 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. Open daily from 8am to 11pm.

La Kasbah des Sables: For 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. Every day, between noon and 2pm or 7 and 11pm, take a seat at one of the candle-lit tables and enjoy a delicious mix of French and Moroccan dishes such monkfish or chicken with Atlas morels.

Jardin des Arômes: The 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. Open daily between 11am and 1am.

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 between 6am and 10pm right in the town center.

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.                                               Avenue Moulay Rachid Mon – Sat noon – 3pm, 6:30 – 11pm.  

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 Daily 8am – 10pm
Pizzeria Veneziano
The speciality is of course, pizza, but this simple but well run joint also serves up other European dishes and there are a few veggie options on the menu too. Takeaway is available.
Avenue Moulay Rachid
Day Trips from Ouarzazate
Before the French military constructed the Tizi n’Tichka Pass in 1936, the backroad between the village of Telouet & 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
half way along the route is one of the best preserved fortified villages in Morocco, and Kasbah Tamadaght (see above) 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.
Explore the 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.
The 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.
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 & late August-November. Kasbah Taourirt boasts a superb panorama view over the lake itself

Ouarzazate Oasis

Whether bound for the Chigaga or the Chebbi dunes, your journey will take you through
breathtaking Oasis valleys before reaching the desert and its worth spending some time in
the palmeries to get a further glimpse into what life is like in a real desert oasis.
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 & 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.

Other Articles about Ouarzazate

Introduction to Ouarzazate

An Introduction to Ouarzazate

Taourirt Kasbah in Morocco

A Maze of History: Taourirt Kasbah in Morocco

Insider's Guide to Ouarzazate Morocco