17 Best Places to Visit in the Middle East
Bathed in scorching sunlight, the Middle East has been a monument to humanity's endurance ever since the birth of civilization, 8,000 years ago. Despite what its reputation might suggest, Middle Eastern countries are fairly diverse, both in terms of their heritage and what they offer to the modern traveler. If you're eager to explore ancient temples and exquisite mosques, go on desert safaris and peruse colorful bazaars, here are 17 must-see sites to include in your next Middle East vacation.
1. Dubai, UAE
Dubai stands out as a beacon of ultra-modernity in a historically conservative country. The downtown area is a spectacular mix of luxury hotels, high rise condos and office buildings, cafes and open air venues that host markets and events. The city is also home to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, which towers above the Dubai Marina, an artificial canal city built along a 2 mile stretch of the Persian Gulf. Just admiring the view from the Dubai Marina skyline at night-time is enough to make your heart stop. Everywhere you look, there are architectural wonders, from the elegant Burj al Arab to the spectacular twin skyscrapers of the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel.
On the ground level, the walk at Jumeirah Beach is a hugely popular promenade leading straight to the beach. This is a great place for Gulf nationals to mix with tourists and Western Expats while showing off their expensive cars, so keep an eye out for Lamborghinis and other 5 star brands. And of course, race car enthusiasts can also visit the FIA Grade 1 Dubai Autodrome, located just 20 minutes away from Central Dubai.
Steering away from the glass and steel, a visit to the historically rich Bastakiya Quarter is also a must. This old part of the town includes the Al Fahidi Fort (Dubai's oldest building, built in the 1780s) and the spectacular Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. The city is proud of its heritage, as evidenced by loving recreations such as Souk Madinat Jumeirah, which seeks to capture the feel of a traditional Middle Eastern bazaar.
Last but not least, families and thrillseekers alike will get a kick out of the IMG Worlds of Adventure theme park, while movie lovers will find themselves right at home perusing the exhibits of Motiongate, a Hollywood-themed amusement park. And if it's animals you crave, The Green Planet is home to a plethora of exotic reptiles and birds, while the Dubai Dolphinarium will allow you to get up close and personal with one of nature's brightest creatures.
2. Jerusalem, Israel
Jerusalem is a unique city, full of history, tradition and sacred sites representative for three religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Guided day tours allow you to trace the footsteps of Biblical stories across places like Mount of Olives, the Western Wall and the Gethsemane Garden. Every tour will likely include a trip to the Temple Mount, a place of tremendous historical and religious importance. On it lies the glittering Dome of the Rock, which just might be Jerusalem's star attraction. That's because it plays a significant role in all three major Abrahamic religions. For Jews and Christians, it is believed to be the place where Abraham offered his son to God, whereas for Muslims it is associated with the prophet Muhammad's ascension to heaven.
But even if you aren't particularly religious, you'll still fall in love with Jerusalem's old-world flair, which is evident in places like the Tower of David and the Armenian Quarter. You can marvel at the beauty of the imposing Damascus Gate or mingle with the locals in Shuk Machane Yehuda, one of the city's busiest bazaars. It's worth mentioning that Jerusalem has a very diverse street food market that will enchant any starving tourist. Start with the traditional sabich and falafel, then work your way towards more recent imported recipes like fried red mullet and "chraime" (a spicy North African fish dish).
Finally, for tourists with a penchant for the great outdoors, the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens are a real treat, a place where you can find many of the animals mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, including elephants, giraffes and various species of birds. Also, while not technically "outdoors", the Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve deserves a mention for its intricate maze of underground corridors filled with impressive rock formations.
3. Petra, Jordan
If you're passionate about the idea of exploring ancient cities, Jordan's Petra should feature prominently on your bucket list. Its intricate sandstone-carved structures are the stuff of legends, being featured in countless movies and TV shows. And its history is just as fascinating. Petra actually served as capital city to the Nabataeans before coming under Roman rule in 100 AD. Then it went through a period of obscurity as several earthquakes ravaged the once-prosperous city, before being rediscovered as the architectural marvel it is today.
Entering Petra is done primarily through a narrow canyon called the Siq, at the end of which you'll be greeted by the Treasury, also known as Al-Khazneh. This is perhaps the most emblematic attraction in Petra, resembling a Greek temple in structure and rumored to hold ample amounts of treasure back in its day. The Monastery and the Obelisk Tomb are less known but equally impressive. And the magnificent colour of the stone in which they're carved has given the complex the nickname "The Rose City".
Petra is also surrounded by many hiking trails, allowing the traveler to enjoy Jordan's raw natural beauty. Wadi Sabra is a trail definitely recommended for seasoned hikers, but you can also hire a guide to follow on horseback. Another excellent option is Wadi Farasa, which leads to the Qasr Al-Bint monument and also passes other notable points of interest like the Roman Soldier Tomb and Garden Triclinium.
4. Doha, Qatar
Doha, the capital of Qatar, is a sprawling multicultural city on the edge of the desert. It's skyline is dotted with modern high rises such as the torch-shaped Aspire Tower in the Sports City complex or the 52-story Tornado Tower. But even before the Oil Revolution would turn Qatar into one of the richest countries in the world, this peninsular community has always enjoyed a special relationship with the sea.
Many of its most illustrious landmarks can be found on the waterfront, with the Doha Corniche promenade being an excellent place to view things like the iconic Pearl Monument or the luxurious entrance to the Sheraton Hotel. If you'd prefer to explore Doha by boat, you can even book a dhow cruise, an upgraded version of the traditional wooden merchant sailboat, which are now used to ferry travelers around Corniche Bay. Other fun maritime activities include pearl diving, snorkeling and jet-skiing.
But Doha's charms run even deeper than that. It is a surprisingly rich city in terms of culture, with the Museum of Islamic Art and the National Museum of Qatar both being located here, as well as the Katara Cultural Village.
While much of Doha is new and shiny, there are traditional parts of the city to explore too. Souq Waqif, for instance, is an old-world bazaar that still features plenty of stalls dedicated to traditional garments, spices and handicrafts. And the 19th century Barzan Towers showcase Qatar's architectural style prior to the advent of industrialization.
5. Abu Dhabi, UAE
The capital city of the United Arab Emirates is one of the richest and most glamorous cities in the Middle East. If you're looking for a certain type of postcard-ready atmosphere with turquoise waters, manicured gardens and white sand beaches, this is the place to be. Abu Dhabi is first and foremost a place of leisure and relaxation, but it's also on the forefront of modern design and technology.
In the former category, it's places like Corniche Beach, also known as the jewel of the Emirates' seaside, that offer opportunities for swimming and various water sports, while the likes of Yas Waterworld and Warner Bros World exist to catch the eye of theme park lovers. There's even a place dedicated to car aficionados, the aptly titled Ferrari World, where you can bask in the magnificence of some of history's most celebrated muscle cars.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi's cutting-edge attractions include the wondrous Capital Gate, a truly modern skyscraper notable for its wavy shape, and the indoor adventure hub that is CLYMB, a building that comes with its very own skydiving chamber. Then there's Louvre Abu Dhabi, a chapter of the famous French museum that's dedicated to international artwork. But perhaps the most impressive landmark of all is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest religious structure in the entire country and a marvel of modern Islamic architecture.
6. Tel Aviv, Israel
Not far from the historical city of Jerusalem, lies the modern hub of Israel, internationally recognized for its high-quality restaurants and world-class coffee culture, along with its sizzling nightlife scene. The city prides itself with the title "the capital of Mediterranean cool" and its numerous attractions are keen to prove it.
Tel Aviv-Yafo has a long promenade stretching alongside the western shoreline where you can find clean sand, lounge chairs, ice-cream vendors, and other beach folk. Meanwhile, Hilton Beach stands out for being quite friendly to the LGBTQ crowd, while Frishman Beach offers numerous amenities while being close to the city center. But Tel Aviv is more than just beaches - it offers family-friendly entertainment in venues ranging from Luna Park with its thrilling rides to the Memadion water park.
If you're interested in what the city has to offer from a cultural standpoint, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is a must-visit location, as is the ANU Museum of the Jewish People. Those on the lookout for some delicious local cuisine will also want to pay a visit to the Sarona Market, the largest indoor culinary market in all of Israel. Finally, for the architecture buffs among you, keep in mind that the White City neighborhood features a collection of over 4,000 buildings representative of the Bauhaus style of the 1930s. Make sure to book a guided tour to get the full experience.
7. Beirut, Lebanon
Chic and elegant, Beirut is one of the liveliest cities in the Middle East. Famed for being both a cultural and economic hub of Lebanon, in recent years it has proven itself to be quite liberal for a majority Muslim city. This means that it's generally more cosmopolitan and welcoming of Western mores and attitudes, particularly as they pertain to clothing and the consumption of alcohol.
A prime example of this is Gemmayzeh, often called "the Soho of Beirut", and the docks around Zaitunay Bay, which are exclusive and cater especially to yachting aficionados. The Ain El Mraiseh district is another popular hangout, known for its coffee shops, dense concentration of luxury hotels, and beautiful views of Beirut's coastal area.
What's more, the inquisitive traveler will find plenty to like about Beirut's historical side. The National Museum and the Gibran Museum seek to preserve the city's rich history. The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, also referred to as the Blue Mosque, is Beirut's most impressive place of worship. And nothing quite beats the electricity of Martyrs' Square with its iconic memorial statues. Finally, for those who wish to venture a bit outside the city's limits, the spectacular Raouche Rocks offer some marvelous photo opportunities, particularly at sunset.
8. Dead Sea
Well-known for its high saline content that makes it almost impossible to sink in, the Dead Sea is a major highlight of any vacation to the Middle East. Both the Israeli and Jordanian side of the sea are blessed with numerous beaches and resorts that cater to your every whim, while the area surrounding the Dead Sea is shrouded in mystique and intrigue.
On the Israelian side, Kalia Beach is a particular highlight, one that's especially treasured for its mineral-rich mud, which travelers typically soak themselves in before washing it off. Meanwhile, the Ein Kedem beach boasts natural sulfuric pools that are as healthy as they are enjoyable. On the Jordanian side, Amman Beach is probably the most popular seaside spot, with water so salty that even non-swimmers can float on it.
Moving beyond beaches, if hiking is your preferred activity, the hills surrounding the Dead Sea provide many routes and natural landmarks to discover. The Nahal Arugot, a trail climbing along a stream with waterfalls and terraced pools, and the Masada ruins are just two notable examples. But whatever you do, don't leave before first exploring the Qumran Caves, home to the famed Dead Sea Scrolls - the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Bible.
9. Damascus, Syria
The oldest capital city in the world and one of the holiest according to the tenets of Islam, Damascus is a beautiful destination that has unfortunately been through a lot of turmoil recently. Nevertheless, it endures thanks to its timeless architecture and firm appreciation of the past.
This is most visible in Old Damascus, the historical part of town. Here, intricate painted ceilings, cobblestoned mazes, imposing archways and lush gardens are just a few of the key features that the neighborhood has to offer. This is also the site of one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world - the Umayyad Mosque. Like many Middle Eastern places of faith, the mosque has ties with both Islam as well as with the Christian world - a 6th century legend states that this is where the head of John the Baptist has been preserved.
Additionally, the historical al-Hamidiyeh Souq market place will quench your thirst for shopping while the Saladin Mausoleum and the Saladin Statue will give you a glimpse of a time when ottoman sultans were venerated as gods. Add a spot on your list for Khan Assad Pasha Al Azem, a caravanserai (roadside inn) that doubles as the city's premier public bath house.
10. Isfahan, Iran
Despite being the successor of the mighty Persian Empire, Iran often gets overlooked as a destination in tours of the Middle East, but it really shouldn't be. Aside from its capital of Tehran, the nation boasts several smaller cities such as Isfahan that have much to offer to the intrepid traveler.
Take the Naqsh-e Jahan square, for instance. Built during the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736) the square is one of the largest of its kind in the world, and includes several historical monuments enframing a vast plaza with a large pool in the middle. The dome of the Sheykh Lotfollah mosque dominates the eastern side of the square and remains a masterpiece of Persian architecture. Renting a horse drawn carriage for a tour around the plaza or visiting private collections at the Isfahan Music Museum are bound to make your stay a memorable one.
Even if you aren't a devout Muslim, you can still admire some of Isfahan's superb places of worship, like the Jameh Mosque with its neighborhing Grand Bazaar, or the Shah Mosque, both of whom are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. Finally, during the evenings, make sure to drop by the Khaju Bridge, a rendez-vous spot for many locals and enjoy the bands playing Persian music under the archways.
11. Kuwait City, Kuwait
If many of the Middle Eastern cities on this list shine due to their preservation of historical buildings and artefacts, Kuwait City is an example of a truly modern metropolis. It features a unique blend of western-style hotels, couture shopping malls and traditional Islamic architecture and bazaars.
The first thing you'll notice about Kuwait City is its distinctive skyline. Dominating it are the three Kuwait Towers, one of which features a revolving view point overlooking the Persian Gulf. The biggest of the three suspended spheres combines engineering utility with leisure opportunity, serving both as a million gallon water tank as well as a birds-eye-view restaurant. But the towers are not the only skyscrapers in town, not since the inauguration of the even taller Liberation Tower, which stands at 372 meters high. But even it is topped by the Al Hamra Tower, a carved skyscraper whose peak reaches 414 meters.
Not too far away, Al Shaheed Park is another recreational area that can be enjoyed with friends and family. Additionally, the aptly-titled Green Island represents a veritable oasis filled with picnicking areas. And if you're interested in learning more about the area's bedouin culture, be sure to visit the Sadu House museum before you depart.
12. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
As the second-largest settlement in Saudi Arabia, Jeddah stands tall as a modern port city, one known for its Corniche resort area as well as for housing the historic Al-Balad district. Since non-Muslim travelers are generally prohibited from visiting Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, exploring Jeddah is your next best opportunity.
The newer portions of Jeddah are meant to dazzle and catch your eye, from its luxurious beaches to one-of-a-kind monuments like King Fahad's Fountain. Then you've got the ornate Al Tayebat International City, filled with exhibits pertaining to local culture and history, and the sea-facing Al Rahma Mosque. Alternatively, those looking for some lighter entertainment will have plenty of fun at the Al Shallal Theme Park and the Fakieh Aquarium.
Meanwhile, Al-Balad is the historical district of Jeddah. It has served as a central hub for the Indian Ocean trade routes for centuries, channeling both goods and sea-voyaging pilgrims towards the holy city of Mecca. This allowed the city to blossom into a multicultural center with a distinctive architectural tradition - most famously the tower houses such as the Nassif House or the Matbouli House, both of which are now museums. The central market is a great place to practice the ancient custom of haggling when buying embroidered textiles or Arabian sweets.
13. Manama, Bahrain
Manama is the luxurious capital of the Bahrain island nation and also the financial epicenter of its thriving economy. The oil-generated money and following rapid urbanization has draped the skyline with glass and steel spires. The city is known as a great place to do business - either networking on a corporate paid yacht, or on a small retail level, while exploring the narrow stalls of the Bab Al Bahrain market for spices, perfumes and handmade jewelry. Write down Bahrain International Circuit as a great place to spend a day at the races. Then there's the spectacular Bahrain World Trade Center, probably the most distinctive-looking building in the city. It's also worth mentioning that, although Bahrain is an Islamic country, alcohol consumption is allowed; naturally, common sense rules apply.
Bahrain's capital is a great place to visit for relaxation purposes too. Reef Island and the Bahrain Bay Beach are popular areas where you can sit back and lie in the sun while still being close enough to the city to enjoy lunch in one of its many top-level restaurants. And there are a variety of recreational spots, from the green environments of Andalus Garden to the animal shows at the Dolphin Resort that deserve your time and attention.
14. Erbil, Iraq
The cultural capital of the Kurdistan region is one of Iraq's main cultural centers, having been lucky enough to escape the ravages of war and still maintaining its unique identity. Being one of the oldest continually-inhabited settlements in the world, Erbil is both historically-rich and ethnically-diverse.
Its most famous highlight is likely the fortified Erbil Citadel. Occupying 102,000 square meters of land raised between 25 and 32 meters above the surrounding city, it features a vibrant maze of narrow alleyways that form the beating heart of this commercial city. The citadel is currently undertaking a major restoration process so it is uninhabited for the first time in seven thousand years. However, one can still walk around the cobblestone streets, enjoy a nice Masgouf at one of the restaurants or buy souvenirs in Qaysari Bazaar, one of the world's oldest covered markets.
The other attractions in Erbil range from the tranquil Sami Abdulrahman Park, the city's green lung, to the Kurdish Textile Museum, which has costumes, rugs and traditional sewing machines on display. You can also unwind at the Aqua Tarin Water Park or test your capacity for thrill rides at Majidi Land Erbil. Finally, cap off your visit with a trip to Shanadar Park, a vast area of vegetation replete with cable cars and water fountains.
15. Baalbek, Lebanon
The second Lebanese city on our list is a far cry from some of the metropolises outlined before it in terms of population, but it offers unique historical insights into the Middle East and its evolution through time. Located just a two hour drive away from Beirut, the ancient city of Baalbek used to be known as Heliopolis in Ancient times, and there are Greek and Roman influences within it still visible today.
The Roman Temple still bears some of the world's most well defined reliefs and sculptures to survive from antiquity. Originally dedicated to Bacchus (also known as Dionysus) the god of feast and wine, the complex is larger than the Parthenon in Athens, but far less famous. Baalbek also houses the largest stone ever found, creatively titled the Stone of the Pregnant Woman, which weighs over 1,500 tons. Lastly, in the nearby Bekaa Valley, the 13th century shrine known as Qubbat Duris exemplifies the area's long-running Muslim heritage.
Baalbek's modern side is less talked about, but well worth exploring. On your way back from exploring ancient ruins ask any taxi driver to take you to the nearest al jawhari sweets shop - best in the area and famous across the Middle East. And be sure to spend some time relaxing in the Ras el Ain public garden or visiting the colorful Sayyida Khawla Shrine.
16. Wadi Rum, Jordan
A 4 to 6 day trip to Jordan should comfortably fit in Petra, the Dead Sea, Aqaba and the shores of the Red Sea. But take at least one additional day to the other worldly experience that is the Wadi Rum desert. Formed over the course of millennia through natural erosion, this incredible landscape seems almost unreal at first glance.
In fact, with its red colors and jagged rock formations, Wadi Rum might make you think of Mars, which is why it's typically used as a backdrop for any movie that supposedly takes place on the red planet. What's more, the domed, igloo-like accommodations that dot the landscape are intended to highlight the feeling that you are in a mars colony, gazing at the stars.
Amidst this coarse landscape, several rock formations stand out. The ancient water hole of Lawrence's Spring is among them, as is the massive Um Frouth Rock Bridge, a popular hotspot for climbers. Then there are the Jabal Umm ad Dami mountains, a favorite among rock climbers and hikers. Finally, the remnants of civilizations long gone can still be witnessed here, with the ruins of the Nabatean Temple being a prime example.
17. Liwa Oasis, UAE
As we delve into the heart of the desert that occupies most of the UAE, we discover a network of oases that served as the birthplace for the ruling families of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. One such example is the Liwa Oasis, situated at the edge of the large and mostly uninhabited Rub Al Khali desert.
About 50 traditional villages are located here, around the azure lakes of the Liwa Oasis, as well as an ancient arrangement of very well preserved fortresses stretching for over 113 km across the sands. "The Route of the Forts" as it's called is an adventure-filled circuit that brave tourists can embark on, venturing along its winding paths as they explore a relatively uncharted, exotic location. Be sure to make a pit-stop in Mezairaa, the main town located near the oasis, where you can load up on souvenirs and gifts for the folks back home.
Among the numerous experiences that can be had here, camel treks are a must if you want to discover your inner Lawrence of Arabia, while dune bashing can be immense fun if you know how to operate a 4x4. And if you're looking for the ultimate in desert pampering, look no further than the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort, complete with its own spa and swimming pool.
Have your mind set up yet? A vacation to the Middle East is the perfect blend of comfort, luxury, tradition and variety. What shall your first circuit look like? Book the best vacation package and begin your exploration today.