This road trip from the thriving city of Marrakesh, over the highest parts of the Atlas mountains just short of the snow line, and down into Quarzazate, the “Gateway to the Desert,” is nothing short of breathtaking. I have done this trip several times, not only to visit astonishing locations of Hollywood movies you probably never knew were actually shot in Morocco, but also because of the incredible landscape. This winding, two-lane road with hair bends and deep drops on both sides the higher you climb, is best done by hiring a private car and driver who most likely will be a Berber and could negotiate the track with his eyes closed. I have to admit, I closed mine a few times when he had to overtake a heavily overloaded truck or bus.
Another famous movie location is situated in the opposite direction, Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. Much loved by Orson Welles, this blue, picturesque fishing town and surfing paradise features in the movies Othello and Alexander. In more recent times, Essaouira was the fictitious Astapor in Games of Thrones. Welles’ statue sits in a square of the town (for some reason missing its nose), so this might be an alternative road trip from Marrakesh that is much less hair-raising as there are no mountains to be crossed.
A movie tidbit you might not know about: not a single scene of Casablanca was filmed in this city, nor anywhere in Morocco for that matter.
Your trip starts in Marrakesh, and you should reserve 2 days to explore the city as there is so much to do and see apart from movie locations. Here they are and the films they feature in.
Not surprisingly, several parts of this most colorful and historic city of Morocco have lent themselves as sets for several movies. Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), opens with a bus going through the Bab Doukkala Gateway, then goes on to the Bab El Khamis market with more scenes set at the vibrant Jamaa El Fnaa square. Watch the snake charmers, and don’t get lost, because the square is huge. Bab Doukkala is one of 19 gates in the ancient city wall leading to the medina, often used by camel caravans in the past. Bab El Khamis is also a gate that leads to a tiny covered souk selling artisanal carpentry, pottery, and brass. It’s adjacent to a larger flea market which isn’t often visited by tourists. My favorite 5-star hotel in Marrakesh, the legendary Mamounia, is also featured in the movie. Even if you don’t stay there (it’s very expensive) you can buy a day ticket which allows you to use the pool and facilities, visit the lavish gardens, and enter the hotel and bar to view stunning works of art.
Although Sex and the City 2 is set in Abu Dhabi, it was entirely shot in Morocco. Yet again, Marrakesh’s souk is the background to many scenes, and another fabulous hotel is featured: the Amanjena, which is just outside the city and a favorite haunt of the likes of David Beckham.
2. High Atlas
When you have had your fill of Marrakesh, plan your trip to Ouarzazate. Although the distance is only 125 miles, plan for the entire day and set off early in the morning to allow you ample time for stops along the way. Spend the night in Ouarzazate in a hotel which by itself is a movie museum, the fabulous Berbere Palace.
Any reputable hotel in Marrakesh where you might stay will provide you with a private car and driver. I, being a solo woman traveler, have traveled this way on many occasions in Turkey, Jordan, Morocco, and Lebanon. It’s the safest and most comfortable way to get where you want.
The first movie location you come across on your way to the High Atlas is the desert outside Marrakesh where scenes of Alexander (2004) were shot. As the road winds up higher and higher into the mountains, you’ll encounter several boys by the wayside selling sand roses, crystals, and amethysts. They make very pretty souvenirs, but don’t forget to haggle! Signs will also appear that indicate the snow line. Yes, Morocco isn’t all hot desert climate. Even if you travel in the summer, bring a light jacket when you visit the Berber mountain villages, some of which are movie locations too. It can be windy and chilly.
One such village is Taguenzalt, where parts of Babel (2006) were shot. You are now in the southern foothills of the Atlas Mountains, driving above the Valley of the Roses. In the spring the entire valley is in full bloom, and the flowers are picked by local women to be made into perfume, soaps, and other sweet-smelling products.
3. Ait Benhaddou
If you haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia (1962) yet, you should do so if only to relive your visit to one of the most filmed locations in Morocco: Ait Benhaddou. The ksar, or fortified village, is built along a hill next to the Ounila River and the dark ochre-colored earth, straw, and mud buildings and square towers have lasted for centuries. Ait Benhaddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Apart from Lawrence of Arabia, it has also served as a backdrop to other movies like The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), The Jewel of the Nile (1985), and is the “real life” Yunkai of Game of Thrones. Walking around, you will notice that there is a modern village of the same name connected by a footbridge to the squares and towers of the old ksar.
Known as the Gateway to the Sahara, Ouarzazate is a busy town dominated by the massive 19th-century Taourirt Kasbah that you can already see from quite a distance away as you descend from the High Atlas. It’s located in the middle of a bare plateau, but there is some greenery and palm trees, not only dry sand and rubble. At the foot of the kasbah stretches the modern town with plenty of street markets. You’ll find Moroccan leather goods, ceramics, and brass and copper objects.
This city is the center of the Moroccan film industry, often referred to as the Moroccan Hollywood.
5. Atlas Film Studios And Movie Museum
Located just 5 miles outside Ouarzazate lies the world’s biggest film studio: Atlas Studios and Movie Museum, covering a mind-boggling 322,000 feet of desert. Opened in 1983, it has served for shooting countless Hollywood movies that, one way or another, required a desert background. You can tour the studios, but reserve a few hours to do so. You are greeted by a prop jet plane used in Jewel of the Nile, and then proceed to visit Egyptian tombs, statues, temples, and much more. All of these sights will look familiar if you are an avid movie buff, albeit a bit run down and dusty.
6. Abandoned Set Of The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
An abandoned movie set from The Hills Have Eyes just outside Ouarzazate is a fitting reminder, a dust-covered ghost set. Out of the desert rises an American-style gas station, with signs creaking in the wind. Littered with rusting car wrecks and an abandoned “diner” with puppets peeking out the windows, broken glass bottles, and soda cans, this is a place that can give you nightmares.
7. Props At The Berbere Palace Hotel
A much nicer movie location trip is to be found in the Berbere Palace Hotel that we have mentioned above and recommended you spend the night. The hotel’s theme is simply “movies,” and the lobby, gardens, rooms, and bungalows are decorated from top to bottom with original props from the movies shot here. You’ll find Cleopatra’s throne, Zira from The Planet of the Apes (though it was not shot in Morocco), photographs, and documents. The rooms are airy and beautiful, and the large swimming pool is much appreciated after a long day of driving through mountains and the desert. For food, try one of the tasty tagines, the Moroccan stew slow-cooked in an earthen pot over an open fire.
If you have the time and want more stunning movie locations, head further east towards the border with Algeria the next day. You’ll find the endless Erg Chebbi, huge sand dunes bordered in the north by the oasis town of Erfoud. These regions were the locations of the desert scenes in Sex and the City 2 and The Mummy. Make sure your private car is a 4×4, as this is a real desert tour. Don’t bank on crossing into Algeria, because the border is closed. Depending on the route, you might want to visit colorful Zagora. Although it is not a movie location, it is worth a visit because of its green spaces and beautiful, hand-woven Berber rugs, silver and gold jewelry, and leather goods. There is still a road sign indicating the direction and distance to Timbuktu.
Just to be complete, Rabat, Morocco’s capital, isn’t anywhere near the areas we have told you about, but it was the location for most of the action in American Sniper (2014).