Marrakech and Grand Tour of the Sahara Desert – 5 Days
Discover the beauty of Morocco with this exciting 5-day itinerary. Begin and end in Marrakech, visiting the rocky peaks of the High Atlas mountains and the colossal sand dunes of the Sahara. You’ll wander medieval medinas and souks, marvel at palaces and mosques, and explore ancient kasbahs and desert towns.
Explore Jemaa el-Fna Square – the busiest square in Africa
Ascend the High Atlas mountain range and spot Mount Toubkal
Swim in natural pools at the base of the Todra Gorge
Ride a camel over the dunes of the Sahara
Day 1: Arrive, Explore the Red City
Welcome to Marrakech! Nicknamed the "Red City" for the natural pigment in the sandstone used to build its walls and buildings, Marrakech has always been a major economic center.
Orient yourself around Marrakech's main square, Jemaa el-Fna: the souks (el Attarin, Haddadine, and Smata) are to the north, the Koutoubia Mosque and Gardens are to the west, and the kasbah (old fortress or fortification) area home to the Saadian Tombs, Bahia Palace, and El Badi Palace are to the south. On the southwest corner, you will find the calèches (French for horse-drawn carriage) that offer a unique way to tour the medina (old quarter). In the Ville Nouvelle, you will find the Majorelle Gardens—a perfect spot for respite away from the crowds.
Start your day at the Koutoubia Mosque with its towering minaret. Notice the open spaces and courtyards along many alleyways: these fondouks or caravanserai were once inns used by traders and merchants and their animals. Wander the souks and be sure to visit the Souk des Teinturiers (Dyers' Souk) to see how workers use traditional methods to dye cloth and wool.
Next, visit the 16th-century Ben Youssef Madrasa Islamic school to appreciate the carved cedar ceilings, zellij (intricate tile work), and Islamic calligraphy. Check out the 500-year-old Saadian Tombs or visit the 19th-century Bahia Palace, one of the largest and most luxurious palaces of its day. And if time allows, visit the 17th-century El Badi Palace for comparison (be sure to check out the sunken gardens).
Browse leather goods in a shop next to the Chouara Tannery, before heading upstairs for a view of the 11th-century dye pots. A technique and process that is little changed over the centuries! Visit the oldest operating university in the world, Al-Qarawiyyin University (859 ACE) and catch a glimpse of the decorated interior of the Mosque (non-muslims cannot enter). Explore the Al Attarine Madrasa and marvel at the intricate zellij (mosaic tilework). Visit Fes el Jdid to check out the Mellah (Jewish quarter and cemetery) and if there's time, catch the sunset from the vantage point of the Merenid Tombs.
Day 2: Over the High Atlas mountains and into the desert
Leave the busy city behind and head east toward the desert, ascending the High Atlas mountains. See if you can spot Mount Toubkal, the highest peak at 13,671 feet (4,167 m). Along the way, you will pass many Berber villages—made up of traditional mud-brick buildings.
Lunch in Taddert and tour the local Argan Oil Cooperative and discover how the local women extract the precious oil from the argan nut to make oil used in the health, food, and cosmetic industries. Follow the winding road to the Tizi n'Tichka pass and stop to appreciate the panoramic view.
Continue east, traveling through the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, many in disrepair as they're constructed of pisé mud (rammed earth). As you head toward BoumalneDades, you will pass many small towns where you can see traditional farming methods in use. Be on the lookout for nomads tending to their animals as you make your way through fragrant Kela'aM'gouna, the "Valley of the Roses". You'll eventually arrive in Boumalne Dades, a major town bridging the DadesRiver, and your home for the evening.
Day 3: Desert towns, fossil workshops, and camping in the Sahara
Today you will drive further east to your final destination: the sand sea of Erg Chebbi outside of Merzouga. Along the way, stop in Tinerhir to admire the river oasis that extends on either side of the town. The surrounding desert landscape reveals impressive buttes, mesas, and plateaus.
Nearby, you will have the opportunity to explore the Todra Gorge, a 984 feet (300 m) deep ravine, cut by the Todra River. Continue to the desert town of Erfoud. Known for its figs and fossils, visit a craft workshop and discover how the fossil-rich rocks are skilfully transformed into practical and decorative objects. It's a good idea to buy fresh figs here, as well!
As you near Merzouga—the town closest to the Sahara—stop in the market town of Rissani and be sure to visit the livestock auction as well as the "donkey parking lot". Leaving Rissani behind, you will start to see the beginnings of the massive sand sea of Erg Chebbi, looming on the horizon.
Upon reaching Merzouga, switch gears and transfer to your personal camel to begin your trek over the sands and to your Bedouin-style camp. Hike to the top of a nearby dune to watch the setting sun, before enjoying a warm meal by the fire.
Day 4: Date palms, movie locations, and Aït Benhaddou Kasbah
Wake early to appreciate a desert sunrise and further explore the Sahara: rent a sand board, join the Erg Chebbi tour around the sand dunes or a quad ATV tour, or lounge by a pool in nearby Merzouga.
Head south to Khemliya, a traditional Saharan village (with its people originally from Mali). Here you can enjoy traditional music, drumming and dancing before taking a casual walk around the village and its farmed plots in the sand. You will have a second chance to stop in Rissani to visit MaisonTuareg, a storehouse selling traditional arts and crafts, including carpets, jewelry, and leather goods. From there, pass through umbrella-shaped trees of the acacia forests before reaching Alnif for lunch. Continue on through the Draa Valley, dense with date palmeries and another opportunity to pick up a box of dates for the drive.
Continue west to the desert hub and popular filming location of Ouarzazate. Made popular by the growing movie industry, you will have the option to tour one of the two movie studios and envision how the nearby regions have been featured in many movies. Some popular film credits include Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Prometheus, American Sniper, and Game of Thrones. To learn more about the history and filmmaking process in the area, stop at the Musée du Cinema.
Continue west to medieval Aït Benhaddou. A protected UNESCO site, Aït Benhaddou is the most famous kasbah in Morocco and once upon a time, held an important position along the trans-Saharan trade route between Marrakech, Ouarzazate, and the southern desert. Spend the night in the old town and wander the empty alleys after the day-crowds have left. Pay a nominal fee to enter a few of the kasbahs and climb up to the rooftop for pretty views.
Day 5: Return to Marrakech, Depart
Before the crowds filter into the old kasbah, explore the narrow passageways and alleys to get a real feel for this 11th-century fortified city. Leave Aït Benhaddou behind, and return to Marrakech, traveling one more time up and over the High Atlas mountains and through the Tizi n'Tichka Pass.
After exploring Morocco's quiet desert towns and various deserts, soon you will be back in the bustling city of Marrakech. You may wish to take the afternoon at a slower pace—find a café near Jemaa el-Fna and enjoy your last (local) Moroccan meal before catching your flight home.