If you are planning your travels for 2019 and want to include some unique, vibrant cities from the Middle East this post is made for you. The Middle East is a big geographical region that extends across Turkish, Persian and Arabian lands. It is made of 16 countries: Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine/Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
The politics of that region is sometimes unstable, but for the most part it is safe to visit most of the countries on this list. As an Arab Middle Eastern, I have been able to visit most of these countries since they were on my door step when I lived in Saudi.
There are so many cities within the Middle East that are full with beauty, charm, nature and lots of good food! I asked expert travel bloggers to share their favourite cities to share them with you.
Al Ain, UAE
By: Melissa from The Roaming Family
We were fortunate enough to live in the Middle East as a family and one of our favorite cities was Muscat, Oman. Muscat truly has something for everyone - families and couples alike.
Muscat is a beautiful, sprawling city with the Gulf of Oman on one side and towering desert-like mountains on the other. Unique to most Gulf cities, Muscat has no skyscrapers and is all about the charm of the Arabian architecture. There’s an incredible amount to see and do in this friendly city.
We stayed at Grand Hyatt Muscat, a lovely hotel located in the Diplomatic district, so it was a quiet area. Yet it was close to everything we wanted to see. At the top of our list were the Grand Mosque (amazing), the Sultan’s Palace (wow!), the Corniche (so pretty) and Mutrah Souk (shopping!).
Muscat is very family friendly and welcoming in general. As it is not as “wealthy” as some of it’s Gulf neighbours, it does not have as many expats and the Omanis work hard in all aspects of life. It truly stood out in our minds as very different from the other Gulf countries we had visited.
If traveling to Muscat, I highly recommend you take time to explore the city and also the surrounding countryside. The Wadis of Oman are spectacular and true Oasis’ in the desert. In addition, try to visit between May and September to experience turtle watching at Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve.
By: Marysia Maciocha from My Travel Affairs Blog
I really loved Tabriz, maybe because it was the first city I have visited in Iran. It holds a special place in my heart because my journey around this amazing country started there.
I crossed a land border to Iran from Armenia and it was my very first planned stop. Tabriz is a superb city influenced by Azerbaijani culture and heritage, it used to be one of the historical capitals of Iran.
The city has many historical sites, representing Iran's architectural transition throughout time. My favourite one was the Grand Bazaar of Tabriz which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - a beautiful, largely 15th-century covered market featuring brick vaulting and domed halls. I highly recommend visiting if you are planning a trip to Iran. You won't regret it.
Tabriz and its area are renowned for chocolate, sweets, dried nuts and fruits, and traditional Tabrizi food - 'chelo' kebab. The city is famous for its hand-woven rugs and handicrafts in the whole of Iran. And all of those things you can experience and admire on the Tabriz Grand Bazaar.
You can easily spend a whole day there, strolling around the little shops, talking to people (Iranians as the most welcoming and hospitable people in the world), drinking tea, admiring real artists making rugs or jewellery, try all the delicious confectionaries and of course do not miss having lunch in Haj Ali Restaurant, which locals love and you will too!
By Esra from Arabian Wanderess *yours truly*
As mentioned above, Iran is a truly amazing place to visit in the Middle East and it’s one that I visited four times and I would still love to go back to study more of the arts and the architecture. One of the cities that I really enjoyed was Shiraz. I liked all the cities to be honest, but I had a little connection with Shiraz that makes it one of the top cities I visited in Iran.
Shiraz houses a number of major Islamic, Persian Architectural gems like the pink mosque, where the pink light almost dances when the sunrises and goes through it. I also found that the food in Shiraz was hands down the best I have ever had. It was just mouth watering and delicious. I only stayed there for three days and I surly didn’t get enough. Another thing I didn’t even considered was the bookstores there and their beautiful illustrated art books that I bought a few of.
By: Leona from Wander Must Family
Doha is a great city to visit especially if you are short on time or as a stopover destination as all of the main attractions are easily reached and close together! It is best to visit Doha in Winter as you can take more advantage of the outdoor activities while the weather is pleasant, but there are also lots of great indoor activities to do! In summer the temperatures can reach 50 degrees, so it is much harder to spend time outdoors! Some of my favorite things to do in Doha include walking the Corniche, visiting the Museum of Islamic Arts and of course wandering around the Souq! This is all easy to do in one day! There are also some great parks at the museum and the Souq if you are visiting with children and want them to blow off some steam!
Remember if you are visiting Doha to dress conservatively and cover your shoulder and knees to ensure you don't offend local sensibilities! Fridays are often quiet in the morning as it is prayer time so take advantage of the great hotel facilities or do a Friday brunch! Also, much of the city closes during the day during the Holy month of Ramadan, so be sure to factor that into your travel plans!
Al Ain, UAE
By: Family Travel in the Middle East
Too often when people think of the UAE, the only think of the big cities Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The oasis city of Al Ain sits approximately 1.5 hours south of both of these cities, but has the most fascinating past that can be dated back to the Bronze Age. In more recent years, it is the home of the country’s founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and birth place of the country’s current ruler, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It gets its nicknames “Oasis City” or “Garden City” from the lush natural springs.
Many buildings in the city have been meticulously restored in the past decade, including the Al Ain Palace Museum which tells much of the history of the Nahyan family. Al Jahili Fort is one of the oldest buildings from the modern era in the city centre, a great place to see a photographic display of a bygone era as well as admire the early architecture. For more recent history of the country since federation, the best place to visit is Qasr al Muwaiji, dedicated to Sheikh Khalifa’s birth place in a beautifully restored building.
The much acclaimed Al Ain National Museum which has a fabulous archaeological collection is closed indefinitely for renovations. You can still find traces of the regions ancient past at Hili Archaeological Park, open afternoons and evenings. The more adventurous with 4wds can explore the 5000-year-old Jebel Hafeet - or Bee Hive tombs.
It is the unique geography of Al Ain that is most fascinating. After miles of rolling desert – you will notice on your trip inland that the and turns from white to a rich red – then suddenly a craggy mountain appears. Jebel Hafeet is a limestone mountain that sits 1280m high above the city, with the fascinating hot springs of Green Mubuzzarah at its foot. It is not attached to the Hajar Mountain range that runs through the length of Oman and up to the Arabian Gulf. It does, however, create a fertile valley in between these mountains. Explore the city’s many UNESCO listed oases, the most famous being in the city centre, the Al Ain Oasis with its 3000-year-old Falaj irrigation system. In these beautiful gardens you will see why Al Ain was seen as the summer retreat from the coastal cities!
As well as the historic highlights, there are plenty of other family amusements in the city. The Al Ain Zoo is one of the best in the Middle East. There’s also Hili Fun City if you love a little flash back to the theme parks of yester-year, or for some watery adventures, Wadi Adventure. It retains more of the old-style charm of it’s neighbouring Oman but with the modern input from the UAE.
By: Inma Gregorio from A World to Travel
They say you either love or hate Dubai. It is one hundred percent true. In fact, you can have both, as it happened to me.
One of the reasons that made me stop loving architecture and drop out my civil engineering studies was realizing how unsustainable this field was around 15 years back and the fact that architects, instead of favoring local architecture - developed with local materials and following traditional techniques - were all competing for ridiculous awards that would recognize how much a building was standing out instead of blending it. So when I finally got to visit Dubai a few years back, I was really afraid I wasn't going to like it. Surprisingly, I found this city fascinating in so many ways. Mainly because Dubai taught me lots of things. And that's something I owe this city.
Clicking the link above, you can find my favorite things to do and see in Dubai. For starters, I will say that my number one thing to do in Dubai is riding the metro. Yes, as crazy as it sounds, I really enjoyed crossing the city on it. But there are many more. From hot air balloon rides at sunrise over Dubai's dunes to admiring the sunset from a boat in the Marina, feasting on the brunch buffets you can find all over the place and even not drinking alcohol for a few days; this city proved to be as unique and stunning as the media portrays daily. A Middle Eastern gem you shouldn't skip!
By: Patrick Muntzinger from German Backpacker
While parts of my backpacking trip around Egypt were especially stressful (especially Luxor), my favourite place of the country was the city Aswan in southern Egypt. Compared to other places, Aswan is less touristic and therefore a little bit more relaxing to explore. However, there are still plenty of attractions and exciting things to do. Take a boat to the Tombs of the Kings on the other side of the Nile, where you can climb up the sand dunes for some incredibly views of the Nile and the Sahara. Take a Felucca ride on the Nile (especially recommended during sunset), which will only cost you a few Euros. Aswan is also the base for (half-) day trip down south the visit the famous Abu Simbel temple, which is certainly worth a visit as well. While Aswan might not be very convenient to reach due to its distance to Cairo, I enjoyed my time a lot!
by Lisa from ScubaAroundTheWorld
Dahab easily makes the top 5 of our favorite places in the world. We can’t get enough of scuba diving in Dahab, but that’s not the only reason we keep coming back. Actually we like Dahab so much that we even have our own holiday house there. We’re not in Dahab year round but we’ve been coming here since 2005. So we’re locals… almost. We still tend to think of Dahab as a village, but it has grown a lot over the years. With a population of over 15.000 people you can’t really call it a village anymore. Dahab doesn’t have your standard big-city amenities, no theatre, no cinema, no large shopping malls. But it has enough shops and restaurants for a comfortable stay. Of course, you don’t need a theatre to experience culture in Dahab, it’s around you every day! Go for tea with one of the Bedouin families, spend the night at a Bedouin camp in the desert or have a lovely Bedouin dinner in the mountains overlooking the ocean. We love a good Bedouin BBQ in the desert! Other activities include snorkeling, freediving, wind and kite surfing, hiking, mountain climbing, yoga or going on a camel safari. Compared to larger touristic cities in Egypt such as Hurghada and Sharm el Sheikh, the people in Dahab are much friendlier and the shop keepers a lot less aggressive. Of course they’ll try, but no is really no. The atmosphere is very relaxed and it’s no wonder people often end up staying in Dahab a lot longer than planned.
By: Kate Comer from Rolling Along With Kids
The blend of the old and the new is evident throughout the fascinating city of Cairo. Steeped in so much history, a visit to the Egyptian Museum is a must when exploring Cairo. Opened in 1902, artefacts discovered at the Valley of the Kings and Luxor now call this museum home.
Next take the metro train to Coptic Cairo's Hanging Church. The metro is a fantastic way to get around the city and is surprisingly clean! I especially loved travelling in the women only metro carts marked with the red stickers. The Hanging Church is partly suspended above the Babylon Fortress and the current building dates back to the 7th century. It is thought to be one of Egypt’s oldest places of Christian worship. Next door to the Hanging Church is the Coptic Museum which is home to a huge collection of Egypt’s Christian antiquities.
Throughout Cairo you will come across many mosques but if you only have time to visit one, make it Al-Azhar Mosque. It was the first mosque in Cairo and is home to Al-Azhar University, one of the world’s oldest continuously running universities. It is free to visit and although most of the mosque is closed to visitors, tourists are allowed inside the prayer hall and the white marble courtyard.
Once you have explore the historic sights of Cairo, visit Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar nearby to the Al-Azhar Mosque. The souk is amazing to wander through and a perfect spot to haggle for some gifts for home. Cairo has something to offer every tourist and is a wonderful city to explore for days.
by Sally from Passport and Plates
Beirut is an amazing city, with tons of cool cafes, art pieces, architectural designs, and more. Parts of it feel like a little slice of Europe and it's easy to just wander without a map, getting lost through the streets. This is where churches and mosques sit side by side and where drool-worthy street food stalls neighbour popular restaurants. What I love most about Beirut is that it's truly a city that has something for everyone. Whether you're interested in food, culture, shopping or all three, Beirut is guaranteed to leave you delighted.
By: Christian Lindgren from Unusual Traveler
Damascus the capital of Syria and one of the world’s oldest city with a history going back to 3rd millennium BC. While Syria has been in a brutal war for more than 7years, Damascus has been spared from the worst fighting. All the historical sites around Damascus remain more or less untouched.
Now in late 2018, the tourist visa has become easy to obtain and there are foreign tourists visiting Damascus daily especially that it’s now completely safe to visit this part of Syria. The must visit site around the city is the historic neighbourhood of Bab Tuma. You can walk around the old souq (market), visit the Umayyad Mosque.
By: Claudia Tavani from My Adventures Across The World
Amman is one of the nicest places to visit in Jordan, and altogether one of the nicest destinations in the Middle East. The city is packed with interesting sights for all tastes. There are some incredible archeological sites such as the Roman amphitheatre and the Citadel - the latter is best visited in the late afternoon, to enjoy the incredible views of the city as the sun sets (note: there is a stunning view of the Roman amphitheatre from there!). Beautiful mosques abound. The markets are scattered around town and they offer anything - from local foods to souvenirs and anything else one may possibly want. Beautiful hidden gems abound. One of them is Duke's Diwan - a beautifully kept historic townhouse built in 1924 and which was subsequently used as a post office, as the seat of the ministry of finance and even as a hotel. Darat al-Funun, on the hillside north of downtown Amman, is a gorgeous complex which includes a gallery of modern art and a lovely café to take in the views of the city and relax while sightseeing. When it comes to food, you can't go wrong with Hashem: a favorite of locals and tourists alike, it offers the best of Middle Eastern street food - moist, soft and warm falafels, delicious hummus and baba ganouj and much more.
By Jo Cahill from Over The Edge Of The Wild
Jerusalem is a city with a very long and very meaningful history, and that history is apparent everywhere you look in the Old City. From the ancient city gates carved into stone, to the cobbled streets, where vendors of spices and fabrics and hummus call out to sell you their wares. It’s a city of hustle and bustle, where life is constantly in motion, and it’s not hard to imagine it as it was hundreds, or thousands, of years ago.
As a city, Jerusalem has more than enough attractions to keep you busy for weeks, teaching you more than you could ever have thought possible about history, faith and humanity. Those are all important sites to visit and lessons to learn, but my cannot-miss location in this most ancient of cities is a hummus restaurant called Abu Shukri on the Via Dolorosa (not to be confused with imitators in other parts of the city). It is widely acclaimed for serving the best hummus in Jerusalem, and the accompaniments of bread, tomatoes and pickle are also delicious.
With the media’s saturation of stories relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict, it would be easy to fall into believing that Jerusalem is a city to avoid. By doing so, though, you would be in danger of missing what I believe is one of the most special places in the world.
By: Audrey Chalmers from Gumnuts Abroad
Istanbul is not only our favourite city in the Middle East, but quite possibly the world. Jam packed with mosques, churches, palaces, centuries old buildings and bazaars, it’s one of the world’s great cities. Situated on either side of the sparkling Bosphorus Straight, it’s unique in that it straddles two continents - Europe and Asia.
Istanbul has over 2,500 years of history, culture, and traditions that gives the city a lovely mystical atmosphere. And nowhere in the world does the call-to-prayer sound as hauntingly beautiful. We love to sit on a park bench and let the soul-stirring tones wash over us as the sun sets behind the magnificent Blue Mosque. Most of Istanbul’s top sights are found in the area known as Sultanahmet. And it’s common to see tourists rushing around trying to see them all in one day. This isn’t fun for anyone and you need several days to see all the best attractions. Our favourites are the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Ayasofya and Basilica Cistern. For shopping fun, you can’t miss the colourful and chaotic Grand Bazaar. You can skip the long ticket lines at the top attractions by taking a tour, hiring a private guide or (our pick) by buying a museum pass.
By Corinne Vail at Reflections Enroute
Bursa, a relatively lesser-known city in Turkey, doesn't bring in the amount of tourists as some other places like the beaches on the Mediterranean or Istanbul, but it's a pretty amazing city and well worth a visit. Its first claim to fame is the city where the Ottoman Empire was born, and because of this and its location on the silk route has been inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
In the middle of the city, is the old caravanserai or Koza Han was where the camel caravans used to spend the night or a few days trading silk for spices, textiles, and copper. Today you can still visit the old covered bazaar, Kapilicarsi, located next to the most important building of the city the Uli Cami, or Great Mosque.
Bursa is also home to the famous Turkish puppet art, called Karagoz, and there is a museum that highlights these handmade shadow puppets. However, my favorite thing to come out of Bursa is Iskender Kebab. This is a dish that today is eaten all over the country. It is doner meat on diced pita squares, then covered with tomato sauce and butter. It is one of the must-try dishes in Turkey.
It is easy to get to Bursa by bus or by rental car, and its hospitality and sights will captivate you.