Often referred to as the Door of the Desert, Ouarzazate was once an important stop on the trans-Saharan caravan route that connected traders from Africa and Europe. During French colonial rule it served as a garrison town; and today it is a popular stopover for tourists on their way from Marrakesh to the south of Morocco. Some visitors come to discover the film sets and studios that give the city its other nickname, Ouallywood. Its Atlas Mountains panoramas and the many ksars and kasbahs of the surrounding area have featured in a slew of major films and television series including The Mummy, Gladiator and Game of Thrones. Others use Ouarzazate as a convenient base for exploring the nearby desert with its lush oases and rich Berber culture.
Admire the View From Tizi n’Tichka Pass
If you’re traveling from the north, the only way to reach Ouarzazate is through the Tizi n’Tichka Pass (which translates from the Berber for “difficult mountain pasture”). The road was constructed by the French in 1936 and incorporates more than 100 switchback turns. Although the ascent can be hair-raising, the view from the summit is a breathtaking panorama of Atlas peaks and rolling foothills studded with distant villages. Stop to admire the view, take pictures and browse street-side stalls selling minerals from the surrounding mountains. Even if you’re traveling from the south, the pass is worth a special visit from Ouarzazate and can be combined with a trip to Aït Benhaddou (see below). It remains open year-round but can be treacherous with ice and snow in winter.
Wander Around Taourirt Kasbah
Ouarzazate’s main historical attraction is the Taourirt Kasbah. Located on the eastern edge of the city, its fortified façade and densely packed red clay buildings were occupied by members of the El Glaoui dynasty, who controlled the city in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although it is now partly ruined, sections of the 300-room palace have been restored and can be explored on foot. Discover maze-like passageways, steep steps and dizzying ramparts in addition to recognizable features such as the harem quarters and palace kitchens. In some rooms, traces of the original stucco and woven reed ceilings remain. On the battlements, fabulous citadel and Atlas Mountains views await. The Kasbah is open every day from 8 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. and entry costs 10 dirhams (about $1) per adult.
Discover Ouarzazate’s Filmmaking Culture
Movie buffs will appreciate Ouarzazate’s filmmaking heritage. The first port of call should be Atlas Film Studios – the largest film studio in the world in terms of acreage and home to sets from blockbusters like "Jewel of the Nile" and "Kingdom of Heaven." Next up is CLA Studios, a favorite of major directors like Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese, with headquarters in the city and a full-scale film set located in the desert nearby. If you’re pushed for time, combine your tour of Taourirt Kasbah with a visit to Musée du Cinema, located across the street. Although small and a little dusty, it contains interesting memorabilia including old props and cinematic equipment. Tours of Atlas Film Studios cost 50 dirhams ($5) per adult while tours of CLA cost 40 dirhams ($4).
Spend the Day at Aït Benhaddou
The region’s most famous film set is also an iconic cultural landmark – Aït Benhaddou, a 17th-century ksar located half an hour’s drive west of Ouarzazate. The impressive fortified town has been used to represent several fictional locations, including the slaving city of Yunkai in "Game of Thrones" and Zucchabar in Gladiator. It’s also UNESCO-protected for its importance as an example of traditional southern Moroccan architecture. Its embellished, red clay walls are reinforced with high angle towers and a baffle gate; while the warren-like buildings of the citadel itself house local vendors selling brightly coloured crafts. Discover a ruined mosque and a public square, and astonishing rampart views. Many operators offer day tours from Ouarzazate, most of which include hotel pick-up, transport, and an English-speaking guide.
Plan a 4x4 Adventure to Fint Oasis
When you need a respite from the heat and dust, plan a trip to nearby Fint Oasis. Situated approximately 10 miles from Ouarzazate along an unpaved road, it’s best reached by 4x4 – with the navigation of the rocky terrain being half the fun. You can join an organized tour or hire your own 4x4 from a company like Quads Adventures. Either way, the vibrant green of the oasis is a beacon of life in an otherwise barren landscape. It supports four traditional villages, where life continues as it has for centuries with donkeys wandering the streets and families using the river to bathe. Come to swim, sample authentic Berber cuisine, sip mint tea and listen to traditional music. Some operators even offer overnight stays in a local home.
Sign Up for a Dades Valley Tour
Ouarzazate is also a natural jumping off point for the spectacular Dades Valley. Tours usually stop in Skoura, a historic trading town famous for its mudbrick kasbahs, palm groves and colorful souks; and in Kelaat M’Gouna, the capital of Morocco’s rose water industry. If you travel in mid-May, your visit may coincide with the town’s annual rose harvest festival. Stop along the way to admire the stunning mountain scenery and to hike on foot to the region’s many ruined kasbahs. The final destination is Todra Gorge, where sheer pink rock walls tower some 985 feet above your head and a crystalline river gives life to cool palm thickets. Tours typically last all day, although you can drive from Ouarzazate to Todra Gorge in just over two hours.
Feast on Authentic Moroccan Cuisine
Those with an interest in authentic Moroccan cooking will find plenty of places to sample local delicacies. For a fine-dining experience, top-ranked restaurant Le Jardin des Arômes cannot fail to impress. Expect a magical garden setting and sumptuous dishes ranging from Lebanese mezze to seafood tagines and couscous with almonds and raisins. Equally high-end option La Kasbah des Sables blends Moroccan ingredients with French culinary style; while more affordable Restaurant Douyria serves filling tagines, grilled meats and pastillas. The latter is a traditional adobe home with a terrace that boasts mesmerizing views of Taourirt Kasbah. If you’d rather people-watch while enjoying your dinner, visit the street vendors and cafés in bustling Place Al-Mouahidine. Ouarzazate also has a variety of international restaurants.
Stay in a Luxury Kasbah or Riad
If visiting Ouarzazate’s magnificent kasbahs leaves you wanting to experience the grandeur of the old dynasties for yourself, consider a stay in one of the city’s lovingly restored historic hotels. Kasbah dar Daif is located on the banks of El Mansour Eddahbi Lake and features gorgeous rooms decorated with antique tapestries, rugs and paintings. It also boasts a gourmet restaurant, a private hammam and spa and lush gardens complete with a sparkling pool. Alternatively, luxurious Riad Ouarzazate is instantly recognizable for its wonderfully ornate façade. It’s adorned with carved wooden doorways and colorful zellij mosaics, while all nine bedrooms are inspired by different desert destinations ranging from Fint Oasis to Merzouga. The riad has its own Moroccan restaurant and terrace and can arrange luxury day trips and multi-day tours.