The largest oasis in the Grand Erg Occidental, this dusty desert city is an enchanting place. It’s characteristic architecture, red mud buildings studded with spikes, hints at sub-Saharan Africa. Its location, at the edge of an escarpment, makes for breathtaking views across a salt lake and out to the dunes beyond. The main street bustles in the morning and evening; the locals are a diverse mix that includes Haratines, Berbers and the descendants of Malian merchants and slaves.
Town highlights are the beautiful colonial-era Hotel de l’Oasis Rouge and watching the gurgling fougara (irrigation) at work in the shady palmeraie. Authentic craftwork can be found at Artisanat Timimoun and at Trait d’Union Solidarité Alsace, a rug making workshop (call to visit). The later has revived traditional designs and trains and employs local women as weavers.
Base yourself here to do the Sebkha Circuit, a 75km-to-90km loop that takes in the Saharan dunes of popular imagination, as well as the salt lake, crumbling hilltop ksars and deep red caves. You can arrange a car and driver with the tourist office in the commune office near the market, or ask your hotel.
There are a few notable places to stay (although the legendary Hotel Gourara was closed for renovations at time of writing). Hotel Ksar Massine, out towards the airport, has good facilities and comfortable rooms. It functions as the area's business hotel, but don't be put off by that; fellow guests are most likely engineers, archaeologists and geologists – the mix makes for a wonderful desert bonhomie, and the Algerian-Dutch-Swiss family who own the place are delightful. Also out of town is Camping Roses de Sable, a lovely place set in a large garden where you can sleep in a zeriba under the shade of a palm tree or in the pretty bungalow at the back. Beyond the walls lay an ocean of dunes as far as the eye can see. Gite Djenane Malek, in between the old town and the palmeraie, has cute rooms and a terrace with spectacular views, although service and facilities are lacking, and the caged animals might distress some travellers.