On your way to the Sahara? Don't forget to spend a couple of days in Ouarzazate, Morocco. Here's everything you need to know, things to do, what to see, where to stay and how to get there from Marrakech.
Ourzazate is not the prettiest city, but then that's probably not why you're visiting.
However, that's not to say that Ouarzazate is completely lacking in note-worthy tourist sites. In fact, for those happy to spend a day or two exploring the gateway to the Sahara, you'll find plenty to keep you occupied - here are the top things to do in Ouarzazate.
Things to do in Ouarzazate
Catch sunrise or sunset at Ait Ben Haddou
Speak to many planning a trip to Morocco, and the only thing they know about Ourzazate is the impressive Ait Ben Haddou. Game of thrones it seems has done a good job of the city's PR!
And yet unlike some TV-famous sites, this one is definitely worth a visit.
But if you're only here for a short while, how do you decide whether it's a sunset or or sunrise view that you'd enjoy the most?
Well, due to some spectacularly bad time management on our side (we got distracted by 101 different views and didn't get as long there in the evening as we would have liked), we actually chose to venture there for both.
And whilst sunset was undoubtedly spectacular, if we only had to pick one, sunrise would be it.
Heading up into the ancient kasbah at first light, there are no stall owners lining the narrow passageways, the tour groups are yet to arrive and the entire place is unbelievably peaceful, bar the call to prayer that echoes across the valley.
It may have been many years since Ait Ben Haddou was a place to live, but to visit as the sun rises, it's easy to imagine how incredible this place must have once been.
Take a step back in time at Telouet Kasbah
Valley of the Kasbahs.
That was the nickname given to this once incredibly wealthy region of Morocco. With prime position on the trans-Saharan trading route, beautifully ornate and phenomenally expensive palaces (kasbahs) filled the valley, the most famous of which is the stunning Ait Ben Haddou.
However, there's another kid in town, a different kasbah that is beginning to attract local and international interest - Telouet Kasbah.
Abandoned more than half a century ago following Morocco's independence, much of this spectacular red sand palace has fallen into complete ruin. However, within the main halls and the reception rooms, certainly enough remains to catch a glimpse of the opulence and beautiful decoration, and the wealth that once existed here.
Further information | The kasbah is located approximately 45 minutes away from Ouarzazate along a road that good do with a bit of TLC. We travelled it after the sun had set, but wouldn't be in a rush to do it again! Note that this is not accessible with public transport. There is a guard positioned at the entrance who will charge each person between 10-20 dirham per person.
An afternoon at Fint Oasis
Located approximately an hour outside Ouarzazate, along roads that become progressively more dusty, those willing to go that extra mile for a travel experience will discover Fint Oasis.
This small village, home to basic dwellings and dozens of children, is a real palm tree lined oasis in the middle of the desert, a place where save for the odd satellite dish, life appears to continue very much like it must have done many years ago.
Donkeys are more common than vehicles, families bathe and wash clothes at the water's edge and tourists remain a curiosity.
This isn't to say that facilities are lacking - in fact there are several places to stay and a wonderful spot called Terasse de Delices to sit and have lunch (they had hotel rooms at the time of our visit but we are unable to establish if they can currently be booked in advance).
NB: a word of warning about car parking in Fint. The roads are not good, and unless you have a four-wheel drive, heading off down tiny tracks and across the river to park at Terrase des Delices is probably not advisable. Instead, we settled for handing 10dh to a local to watch our car in the village whilst we headed off to explore.
Have a quad adventure
Miles of unpaved dusty roads and sand are sort of made for a quad bike adventure, wouldn't you agree? Unfortunately we didn't have time to experience this tour ourselves (although seeing fellow travellers whizzing over desert-like landscapes sort of made us wish we had) but it comes highly recommended by, well, pretty much every single person we spoke with.
Beginning in Ourzazate, you'll explore desert tracks used by ancient nomad caravans, the wonderful Fint Oasis (that place above we said you absolutely have to visit), old film sets and Ait Ben Haddou. It's a fantastic way to see the best the region has to offer in just a few hours.
See this link to check availability and prices.
Visit the film studios
Stop and speak with almost any local in Ouarzazate or Ait Ben Heddou, and you will likely be regaled with tales of the day they were an extra in Game of Thrones or some big Hollywood blockbuster. And to be fair, a great number of them were!
Unbeknown to us before we started planning this trip, Morocco has been the chosen filming location for everything from the classic Lawrence of Arabia, to the big box office success The Mummy and even smaller indie flicks like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. But what really drew attention to the area, was the recent choice to film various scenes of Game of Thrones, Season 3 in the area.
However, unless you're a huge film buff, we really don't think you need to visit them both - the actual studios are a little (or very) tired looking and nothing removed the magic of film more than discovering everything in made of polystyrene.
Instead, pick CLA studios. The headquarters in the centre of Ouarzazate still aren't anything to write home about, but the full scale film set (where Game of Thrones and Kingdom of Heaven was filmed) outside of town definitely is. When we visited we were the only tourists, and with no security to tell us to get off, get down, or stop prancing about like Daenerys (that's Andrew, not Emily!), we were free to go crazy!
Further information | CLA studios are based on the main highway into the city (Address: Road of Marrakesh, Isfoutalile, Ouarzazate) and staff will provide directions to the desert film set. The studio is open 8 a.m. - 6.30 p.m. and entry costs is 40 dhs per person.
Take a desert tour
For many, visiting this part of Morocco is synonymous with a trip to the Sahara desert. However, given the distances you need to cover, taking a tour beginning in Marrakech will involve a number of very long driving days.
If you're keen to make it the desert but would like to limit bus time, starting in Ouarzazate may be a good option. Tours can be booked on arrival with local agencies but for those on a tight timescale, consider booking it in advance.
Where to stay in Ouarzazate
For ease, we have included options in both Ouarzazate and Ait Ben Haddou. The two are very close together, and when picking accommodation, it actually matters very little exactly where you choose to base yourself.
Kasbah Tifaoute Guesthouse | Located a 15 minute walk from Ait Ben Haddou, this is a very highly rated accommodation option for the budget traveller. Click here for further information and to check availability.
Auberge le Defat | Where we stayed in Ait Ben Haddou. A pleasant hotel with pool, restaurant, extremely helpful staff, parking on-site and free breakfast. The rooms were basic but adequate and, at around £18 a night, reasonably priced. Click here for further information and to check availability.
Dar Kamar | Set in a converted 17th century guesthouse, this eclectically designed riad is a very popular choice. Incredibly friendly and helpful staff, good location in Ouarzazate, spacious rooms, in-house hammam and by all accounts, a fantastic breakfast. Doubles start from £48 a night. Click here for further information and to check availability.
Le Petit Riad | A family run riad (home of a mountain guide no less), this small berber-style guesthouse has large rooms, flamboyant design, outdoor pool and fantastic views. Doubles start from £50 a night. Click here for further information and to check availability.
Le Temple Des Arts | If you're looking for luxury, it doesn't get much fancier than Le Temple des Arts. Each room has a unique and film-inspired design with high quality furnishings, and the grounds are beautiful. There is also an on-site hammam and sap, as well as an outdoor spa. Restaurant is very highly rated. Prices start at £127 for a double room per night. Click here to check current availability and prices.
Kasbah Dar Daif | Another highly rated hotel, this one very family friendly with classic Moroccan design throughout, a wonderful pool and incredibly helpful staff who can assist with tours or route suggestions. Prices start at £123 for a double room per night - it's worth noting that free upgrades seem to be pretty common here! Click here to check current availability and prices.
Weather in Ouarzazate
Being the gateway to the desert it should come of little surprise that in peak summer, the temperatures in Ouarzazate can get unbearable warm. Of course, this also means lots of daylight hours, but really isn't terribly conducive to outdoorsy type activities.
We visited in February, and the weather was almost perfect - dry and warm, although evenings were pretty chilly. Generally, the best time of year to visit is early spring or autumn, when temperatures in Ouarzazate are wonderfully pleasant - with limited chance of rain.
How to get from Marrakech to Ouarzazate
As with most places in Morocco, life is so much simpler when you have your own car to get around. Theoretically, you could get from Marrakech to Ouarzazate in around 4 hours - but that would a shame. The road between these two cities is breathtakingly beautiful, so enjoy it!
Thinking about car rental? Get a quote here.
Bus Marrakech to Ouarzazate | Supratours 8.30 a.m., 3 p.m. and 3.15 p.m. | CTM 00.30 a.m., 11.15 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Bus Ouarzazate to Marrakech | Supratours 4 p.m. | CTM 8.30 a.m., 11 a.m., 11.45 a.m. and 10 p.m.