On the road of a 1,000 kasbahs from Marrakesh to the Sahara, one pitstop stands out for its movie-star credentials and sunset-soaked citadels. Ouarzazate is Morocco’s desert-based Hollywood. Here’s how to see it.


On the popular journey from Marrakesh to the Saharan sand dunes, almost all roads lead through Ouarzazate. It may look like a sleepy town, but under the surface, this small centre in the middle of the desert has a few surprises up its sleeve.

The first thing you notice as you approach Ouarzazate is a massive shining beacon of light. Radiating from something similar to a modern lighthouse, the world’s largest solar power complex towers above the desert. By 2020, Morocco wants to provide 50% of its energy from renewable sources. This would make it a global leader in the field.

But, Ouarzazate is also the leader in another dazzling field. Atlas Studios, just outside the centre of town, has been churning out Hollywood blockbusters since 1983. Over 200 movies have been filmed in this landscape. It has served as everything from biblical scenes to ancient Egyptian fables.

In addition to being the hub of the Moroccan movie industry, the area surrounding Ouarzazate is home to intriguing kasbahs – both decaying and restored – and a hidden oasis that make it a destination well worth stopping for.

Here’s our guide to making the most of a visit to Ouarzazate including our suggestions for where to stay.

CELEBRATE OUARZAZATE’S FILM PEDIGREE AT ATLAS STUDIOS

At a whopping 433,000 square feet, the Atlas Film Studio is considered the largest in the world. With cheap production costs and the same desolate scenery as more dangerous countries further east, Morocco has attracted Hollywood studios to set up base in Ouarzazate.

Over 200 movies and television programmes have been filmed at Atlas Studios including, Gladiator, Ben Hur, The Mummy, Passion of Christ, Black Hawk Down and Game of Thrones.

Strolling around this desert studio, visitors are transported across the continents. Tibetan houses back onto Egyptian temples in a location that has been everything from biblical Israel to Yunkai – the mythical city conquered by Daenerys Targaryen.

Some of the sets have been preserved while others are constantly being built and then knocked down again to make way for the next one. There are complete sets for the films of Kundun and the Mummy, a plethora of film memorabilia and an exhibition hall to Prison Break.

The highlight is the set of Kingdom of Heaven – a 1 km drive from the entrance. Head up to its towering walls, survey the weaponry and the religious imagery and pretend you are Orlando Bloom or Jeremy Irons saving Christendom.


Atlas Film Studios / 8:30 – 17:00 Oct to Feb; 8:00 – 18:30 Mar to Sep | Price: 80 Drh for Atlas Studios; 40 Drh Kingdom of Heaven Set; 110 Drh for both.

PROWL THE MAZE OF TINY ROOMS IN KASBAH TAOURIRT

Kasbah Taourirt is a citadel in the centre of Ouarzazate. It was the official residence of the Glaoui family who owned the valuable trade routes between Marrakech and the Sahara. Their powerful stronghold on this important economic belt allowed them to build the formidable Taourirt which was probably the largest of their kasbahs.

Inside, 300 rooms and a true maze of passageways, draws visitors deeper and deeper inside a labyrinth you wonder whether you’ll find your way out of. Room after room is connected by narrow passageways, sharp steps and a growing sense of curiosity. Intricate plasterwork, painted stucco and intriguing mosaics help to distinguish one room from the next.

The huge number of small rooms are some indication of how many of the Glaoui family and their servants lived in the kasbah during their powerful years. However, it has been restored – polished back to show off the craftsmanship that only the Glaoui family could afford. To get a feel for what it was like to live in the Kasbah, head out the back where you’ll find Moroccan families still living in some of these tiny rooms. For a small fee they’ll be more than happy to show you around.

After wandering through the interesting collection of tiny rooms, check out some of the very good local art for sale in a few of the rooms near the exit.


Kasbah Taourirt / 8:30 – 16:00 every day | Price: 20 Drh

BE BAFFLED BUT CAPTIVATED AT THE CINEMA MUSEUM

Opposite the Kasbah, the Cinema Museum is a more intimate look at the film industry in Ouarzazate. Rather than large sprawling lots, the museum contains some old sets, various film props and archaic cinematic equipment.

It’s a small dusty space with the film sets from Aladdin, the Mummy and Babel. But with only the occasional scruffy information board and the remnants of old movies hanging around, if feels more like an abandoned house than a museum. Perusing the old and interesting camera equipment felt like we had accidentally stumbled into the storeroom. Antique pieces were scattered around collecting dust, seemingly devoid of any particular order.

Apart from a toilet attendant who we inadvertently woke up from a nap, there was no-one else around. Just the two of us, strolling through the museum, mostly wondering what we were looking at.

But the Cinema Museum is one of those endearing experiences you can only get in Morocco. Confusion aside, we stumbled over the cell Russel Crowe emerged from in Gladiator, a very convincing looking Egyptian palace and a set that looked like it was straight off a Star Wars movie.

You wouldn’t make a special trip to Ouarzazate for the Cinema Museum but as it’s just across the road from the Kasbah, it’s worth exploring the quirkier side of Moroccan tourism.


Ouarzazate Cinema Museum / 8:00 – 18:00 every day | Price: 30 Drh

WATCH SUNSET OR SUNRISE OVER AÏT BEN HADDOU

Built on the side of a hill, Aït Benhaddou is a magnificent fortified town (ksar) whose red mud walls and buildings sit majestically over the banks of the Ounila River. It’s castellated walls and dramatic location conjure images of biblical towns, long lost villages, and battling armies.

Hollywood has also taken notice. For years the movie studios have made the pilgrimage here to film such classics as Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and Jesus of Nazareth.

Inside the ksar, tiny alleyways and staircases meander around the red brick buildings which are in various states of decay. Some have been left in ruin while others have been renovated or completely rebuilt by the film industry. Most are filled with stallholders selling art, knick-knacks and local artefacts.

It’s not an authentic look at rural Morocco life, but more a mix of remade film sets, large crowds and local salesmen.

However, if you plan to arrive at sunrise or sunset, the crowds will be small, the stall holders either gone or still in bed and Kasbah Aït Ben Haddou will be shimmering in a golden glow. Head up to the top of one of the surrounding hills and you will be rewarded with beautiful desolate mountain scenery.


Kasbah Aït Ben Haddou / Open 24 hours a day | Price: Free | Access: Enter via the footbridge from the town or the new entrance gate south-east of the ksar | Location: 30-minute drive from Ouarzazate.

ABSORB THE PEACE AND QUIET OF IDYLLIC FINT OASIS

It may be only a 40-minute drive along a rough road from Ouarzazate, but if you want to get off the beaten track and explore a local village in a beautiful oasis, then Fint Oasis may just be the ticket.

A community of 150 people live in the 4 villages that line the palm-fringed river. Life seems to have changed very little from centuries gone by. Women work small fields; men herd goats and children pull faces from the backs of donkeys carrying them and their produce between the villages.

And, it’s idyllically scenic. In spring, the area is ablaze with the contrasting colours that typify the Moroccan scenery. With a little more water in the oasis, the crops are a sparkling green and the riverbanks adorned with bright pink flowers. The wide red rock canyon walls swirling overhead give the area an exotic, otherworldly feel.

There’s nothing you need to do at the Flint Oasis other than stroll around and enjoy the slow pace of life. Locals will no doubt approach to offer a tour. If you decide not to, you can easily park the car and stroll around yourself.

A hotel in the oasis, Terrasses des Délices, does an excellent cup of mint tea on their patio overlooking the lush palm trees.


Fint Oasis / The oasis is shown on the map at the end of this post. The 45 minute drive can be done slowly in a simple 2WD but is quicker and more comfortable in a high clearance or 4×4 (25 minutes). Take the gravel track (P1507) heading south out of town before turning onto the P1509 for a bumpy last few minutes

QUAD BIKING IN THE DESERT

If movie memorabilia, intriguing kasbahs, quirky museums and mysterious oases leave you wanting more of Ouarzazate, there’s a 4 wheel answer to your prayers.

The desolate landscape around Ouarzazate is the perfect location for quad biking. Cross stunning trails towards Fint Oasis, explore hidden corners of the desert and have afternoon tea in a local homestay. It’s a great, adrenaline-filled way to get more out of your Ouarzazate experience.

Quad Evenement offer a 3-hour tour starting at the depot right near the entrance to Atlas Studios or a 4-hour tour which also includes Ait Ben Haddou

NOOR SOLAR ENERGY COMPLEX

By 2020, Morocco wants to provide 50% of its energy from renewable sources. The world’s largest concentrated solar power complex is working towards this target on the outskirts of Ouarzazate.

Built over an area the size of 3,500 football pitches, line after line of solar panels catch the sun’s rays creating enough power to supply a city the size of Prague. Each panel reflects light up to a massive tower casting a powerful light over the desert. As you approach, it looks like something out of a science fiction movie hovering over the sleepy dusty terrain.

The bright light hovering above Ouarzazate proclaims Morocco as truly part of the modern age. Eventually, the Noor Solar Plant will be able to store energy in the form of heated molten salt, allowing for the production of electricity in the evening.

While the power station is clearly visible from all around the town, tours are not currently available without high-level scientific clearance. But, it’s well-worth driving up to the entrance to get a closer look at the tower’s brilliance and admire the effort Morocco is making to green-up their energy supply.

WHERE TO STAY IN OUARZAZATE MOROCCO

As the major centre in the area, Ouarzazate has some good accommodation options for all budgets and all the facilities you might need for your stay including restaurants, supermarkets and petrol stations. A few of the sights are in or close to the centre of town, so it makes a good base to explore the area.

However, if you have your own car, you might want to consider staying near Aït Ben Haddou. This way, you can easily be there for sunrise and/or sunset to maximise the photo opportunities. At this time, you can explore the place with very few people around. Driving in Morocco is easy (as we covered in this post) so getting back to your hotel from Ouarzazate after dinner is no problem. Having said that, the food at Riad Tamdakhte, just near Aït Ben Haddou was very good. So there’s no reason to travel if you don’t want to.

Here are some suggestions from us for staying around Ouarzazate.

BUDGET OUARZAZATE

DAR WIDAD


Dar Widad is a great budget option 10 minutes’ drive south of Ouarzazate. The rooms may be small but everything is clean and the facilities operational. The landlady could not be more helpful or friendly, offering useful information, local tours and history about the area.

CHECK PRICES

GREAT VALUE TAMDAKHTE

RIAD TAMDAKHTE – OUR PICK


Just north of Aït Ben Haddou, this excellent value riad has magnificent views from both its upstairs roof terrace and the front patio. Large and comfortable rooms beautifully decorated in local Moroccan style make this our favourite the area. It’s a 30-minute drive to Ouarzazate.

CHECK PRICES

UPMARKET OUARZAZATE

DAR KAMAR


For a treat in the centre of Ouarzazate try Dar Kamar. The friendly English speaking hosts have shown considerable attention to detail. Their beautiful restored riad creates a lovely African inspired relaxing space. Breakfast is served on a terrace that overlooks the town.

CHECK PRICES

BUDGET OUARZAZATE

DAR WIDAD


Dar Widad is a great budget option 10 minutes’ drive south of Ouarzazate. The rooms may be small but everything is clean and the facilities operational. The landlady could not be more helpful or friendly, offering useful information, local tours and history about the area.

CHECK PRICES

GREAT VALUE TAMDAKHTE

RIAD TAMDAKHTE – OUR PICK


Just north of Aït Ben Haddou, this excellent value riad has magnificent views from both its upstairs roof terrace and the front patio. Large and comfortable rooms beautifully decorated in local Moroccan style make this our favourite the area. It’s a 30-minute drive to Ouarzazate.

CHECK PRICES

UPMARKET OUARZAZATE

DAR KAMAR


For a treat in the centre of Ouarzazate try Dar Kamar. The friendly English speaking hosts have shown considerable attention to detail. Their beautiful restored riad creates a lovely African inspired relaxing space. Breakfast is served on a terrace that overlooks the town.

CHECK PRICES

WHEN TO VISIT OUARZAZATE MOROCCO

Ouarzazate can be painfully hot in summer reaching up to 40 degrees Celsius. The valleys around it are most beautiful in spring. At this time, the lush green crops contrast beautifully with the red rock. However, in winter and early spring, the passes over the mountains can still be covered in snow making them impassable.

So we suggest you plan your visit from late-March to early May. At this time, the roads should be open and the temperatures not too high.

After the summer temperatures drop, mid-September to mid-October can also be a good time to visit. However, the green valley floor will not be as vibrant as in spring.

While not essential it is also worth avoiding Ramadan. Morocco is a very religious country with strict adherence to fasting. This means that local cafes and services are often closed during the day. For 2020 Ramadan will be from 23 April to 23 May. For 2021 it will be from 12 April to 11 May.

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HOW TO GET TO OUARZAZATE MOROCCO

Ouarzazate is on the main road between Marrakesh and the popular tourist trail down to the Sahara dessert. So, the roads are paved and the area can be easily visited using any type of car.

From Marrakesh, Ouarzazate is 130 miles. This will take around 4 hours including stops to soak in the amazing scenery along the way.

If you would like to follow our circuit around this part of Morocco, we next went to the Valley of the Roses and discovered the colourful lifeblood of this area, then on to the Tinghir Oasis for some amazing hiking.

BUS / If you don’t have your own car, it’s still very easy to get to Ouarzazate. There are around 5 bus services daily from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate, which take around 4 hours, 30 minutes. The cost is around €8.

TOURS / Short on time but still want to see a bit more than Marrakesh? This day trip to Ouarzazte crosses the Tizi-n-Tichka pass and also includes Aït Benhaddou. For a slightly longer trip, this 2-day tour includes the Sahara as well.

WHERE NEXT?

Firstly, if you like what we do, we’d love it if you could follow us on Instagram.

For some tips on getting around, read our article about driving in Morocco to see just how easy it is.

We also recommend exploring some of the less known places in Morocco such as the Aït Bouguemez valley where we had a wonderful couple of days in a Berber community and the Ouirgane Valley where we did some great hiking.

If you have any questions please leave them in the comments section below – we will always reply. To stay up to date with our travels, follow us on social and signup to our NEWSLETTER.

On the road of a 1,000 kasbahs from Marrakesh to the Sahara, one pitstop stands out for its movie-star credentials and sunset-soaked citadels. Ouarzazate is Morocco’s desert-based Hollywood. Take in sunset at Ait Ben Haddou, relax in Fint Oasis and explore quirky citadels #fintoasis #aitbenhaddou #ouarzazate #morocco

On the road of a 1,000 kasbahs from Marrakesh to the Sahara, one pitstop stands out for its movie-star credentials and sunset-soaked citadels. Ouarzazate is Morocco’s desert-based Hollywood. Take in sunset at Ait Ben Haddou, relax in Fint Oasis and explore quirky citadels #fintoasis #aitbenhaddou #ouarzazate #morocco

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