BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN THE MIDDLE EAST

hassan II mosque casablanca morocco

I lived in The Middle East for 3.5 years and travelled extensively around the area and found all the best places to visit and things to do! From swimming in wadis to being at the top of the world’s tallest building, or wandering around busy souqs or admiring beautiful mosques, there are certainly so many awe-inspiring places to keep you entertained! Come on a journey with me as I show you all the best places to visit in The Middle East!

First let’s look at some common questions people ask about The Middle East:

Where is The Middle East?

But firstly. The term ‘The Middle East’ can sometimes be a bit vague and for different people this can include different countries. So what area exactly are we covering? The Middle East is a trans-continental area which spans Western Asia all the way to Egypt. All the Arab countries east of Egypt, as well as Israel, Iran and Turkey are considered part of The Middle East. Some people however consider all 22 countries in the Arab world to be a part of The Middle East even though some area out of the geographical region. This includes the Arab countries of North Africa: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. In this article we will include all the Middle Eastern countries as well as the Arab countries of North Africa. Out of respect I will only mention countries that are safe to visit at the moment.

Isn’t The Middle East just a load of desert?

Absolutely not! Whilst yes there is a lot of desert in The Middle East there is a lot more to just sand. There are many historical and archeological wonders in this part of the world, as well as some fantastic architecture and stunning natural landscapes!

Is The Middle East safe?

Many people have a misconception that The Middle East is a dangerous place. Whilst some countries in The Middle East have had a lot of political unrest, many are very politically stable and safe to visit.

What are the safest countries in The Middle East for female solo travellers?

Many Middle Eastern countries are safe to visit even for female solo travellers. If like me, you really don’t like it when the local men come up to you and try to chat you up, I can say that Iran, Oman and Israel are the best countries to go to. From my own personal experience I can say that I never experienced any unwanted attention from males in these three countries and so for me that made me feel very safe there. Not once did any male look at me in an intimidating way or make me feel uncomfortable in these countries. The locals were all very kind, respectful and friendly and I have never heard any negativity from anyone who has also travelled around these countries.

Beirut (Lebanon) is very liberal and feels almost Mediterranean, the locals also speak good English and French and I felt safe there. Generally the oil-rich Gulf countries (UAE, Qatar etc) are very safe too and have lots of ex-pats. Providing you follow the strict laws here you should be very safe here, as punishments for crimes are particularly harsh in these countries.

Countries like Tunisia and Egypt are a little bit more challenging for female solo travellers, especially if you clearly look Western. The locals will approach you more, either to flirt with you or to try and rip you off when you want to buy something. Even though many parts of Tunisia are quite liberal, if you are in Tunis souq you will most likely feel a little intimidated by all the men here. I even bought a headscarf to cover my head so I would receive less attention as many people were staring at me (even though I was wearing a long top and long loose skirt) which made me feel a little uncomfortable.

I felt very safe in Jordan and the Jordanian people are very lovely, except do watch out for the Jack Sparrow scammers at Petra. They will try to harass you and invite you to their cave etc. Do not fall for it. Their plan is to make you fall in love with them, have a ‘long-distance’ relationship when you go back home, and then they will slowly start to ask for you to send them money. Do not engage in conversation with these Jack Sparrows: they are all in on the big scam to get money from Western girls.

I don’t advise female solo travellers to go out alone after dark in Middle Eastern countries. Even if you are dressed appropriately, if you are a female walking on the street alone after dark (even if it is only 8pm!) people may assume you are a prostitute. Some things in Middle Eastern cultures can be hard to get your head around if you are coming from a Western culture, so you can read this article to learn more about travelling solo as a female around Middle Eastern countries.

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What should I wear in The Middle East?

As most Middle Eastern countries are Arabic, please dress appropriately and respectfully. This means covering from your shoulders to your knees. Some countries like Iran by law you need to wear a headscarf as a woman and be completely covered from your wrists to your ankles, whereas others like Lebanon are a lot more laid-back and many women dress very European.

If you will be visiting a more stricter Muslim country such as Iran, on your bottom half you will need to either wear a long loose skirt, very loose-fitting trousers, or a long top or cardigan over your trousers/leggings. Wearing tight trousers or leggings, even though your skin is covered, is not allowed as the outline of the buttocks can still be seen. If you are wearing trousers or leggings make sure you have something on the top that will ensure  the outline of your buttocks can not not be seen, as this could get you some unwanted attention.

When is the best time of year to visit The Middle East?

For the Gulf countries (UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait etc), definitely avoid visiting during the summer months of May to August. Temperatures here at this time can exceed 50 degrees Celsius! It is really not pleasant and the majority of residents avoid going outside in the summer as much as possible. The cooler winter months are much more pleasant, with February often being the favoured month to visit due to it’s pleasant temperatures. For this reason the UAE makes the perfect winter destination if you want to escape and get some winter sun. Click here to read my Dame Traveler article on why Dubai makes the perfect winter destination!

Middle Eastern countries outside of the Gulf do experience much cooler winters. You will find snow in Iran, Lebanon and Jordan in the winter. They do also get extremely hot during the summer, so spring and autumn are often ideal times to visit. Do bear in mind if you visit Middle Eastern countries during the heat of the summer you will still be required to dress modestly, which still means wearing a headscarf and being covered from head to toe in Iran, so I would avoid visiting during the hotter months.

BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Now let’s take a look at all the best places to visit in The Middle East!

United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Many people will visit the UAE on a 1 or 2 day stopover before continuing their journey, and many choose to make the UAE a holiday in it’s own right. The most popular place in UAE being of course Dubai. Dubai is an incredibly futuristic city and has the biggest and the best of everything (or it is building it if it is not yet the biggest and the best!). From the world’s tallest building Burj Khalifa, to The Dancing Fountains, the iconic kite-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel, Old Dubai, The Lost Chambers at Atlantis The Palm there is so much to do here. Here you can find all the iconic photography spots in Dubai!

Alternatively, Abu Dhabi also has some very impressive architecture such as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Emirates Palace and The Louvre. You’ll also find really unique places such as the Eastern Mangroves and the Al Wathba Fossil Dunes. Click here to read the article I wrote on the popular travel website We Are Travel Girls which explains all the best things to do in Abu Dhabi!

Abu Dhabi and Dubai are only one hour apart from each other. A taxi can be quite expensive, in which case you can take the coach for a fraction of the price! There is space for luggage and there is free wifi onboard! Click here to learn how to take the bus from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and vice versa.

Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi both have lots of ex-pats and so there are many international restaurants, bars and clubs and high-end hotel resorts here. You will also find some hostels and reasonably priced hotels if you are on a bit of a budget. If you fancy a change and want to splurge, why not stay a night or two in a luxury desert hotel?

Whilst Arabic is the official language almost everyone here speaks English, including taxi drivers, which certainly makes things a lot easier for tourists.

abu Dhabi sheikh zayed grand mosque photography

Oman

Right next door to the UAE is Oman, but the two countries couldn’t be any more different. Oman is modest, the people are humble, and the landscape is much more varied. You will find wadis (canyons filled with water), sinkholes, incredible mountain ranges and a rather unique city at the bottom of the country very close to the border of Yemen called Salalah.

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Salalah experiences a phenomenon every summer known as ‘khareef’. The rest of the Gulf is experiencing unpleasantly hot temperatures whereas Salalah is experiencing a monsoon season. There will be lots of rain which turns the mountains into a sea of green and the temperatures are so pleasant. Of course many people in the Gulf flock to Salalah during this season as a respite from the heat so it is a very busy time. For that reason you should book accommodation/transport etc a few weeks in advance. Click here to read all you need to know about Salalah as well as a 2 day itinerary for you to follow!

The capital city of Muscat is a lively place and has some beautiful places to visit such as Sultan Qaboos Mosque and Mutrah Corniche. There are also some stunning hotels dotted along the coast, including my favourite Muscat Hills Resort which is traditional barasti beach hut accommodation on the most stunning beach not far from Muscat!

The people in Oman are very kind and after several visits this remains one of my favourite countries. Here you can really get an insight into the culture of the local people and get some beautiful photographs of the varied landscape. I have included a travel itinerary for Oman here. I really hope you will visit Oman – it is one of the best places in The Middle East to visit.

Iran

You have to go to Iran with an open mind and an open heart, I visited Iran twice and totally fell in love with this country. Do not believe everything you read in the media. The people of Iran are some of the kindest open-minded people I have met! Certainly a different story to what we are lead to believe. Before you visit Iran though, there are several important things you need to know in order to be allowed in the country. This includes mandatory travel insurance and accommodation must be booked prior to travelling to Iran. Click here to find out the 10 things you need to know before you visit Iran!

The city of Isfahan definitely shouldn’t be missed on your trip to Iran. The architecture here is some of the most impressive Islamic architecture in the world! You’ll see incredibly intricate and beautiful mosques, as well as a large bazaar and stunning bridges spanning the now empty Zayanderud River.

Shiraz is also somewhere you must visit when in Iran. Here you will find the famous Pink Mosque as well as the Pink Lake. The ancient cities of Persepolis and Necropolis are also nearby and worth a visit to understand the history of this country.

As the tourist visa situation for Iran can prove quite challenging (and pricey!), especially for Americans, Brits and Australians, luckily there is a part of Iran that you can go to without having to get a visa! This is the island of Qeshm, located between the coast of Iran and Oman. Qeshm is very unique and different to the rest of Iran, with a much more Arabic vibe. Many Iranians here actually speak Arabic and look at lot more Arabic than Iranian due to the mix of cultures in the past. Qeshm has so many natural attractions, from the mangroves to canyons and caves, to the Stars Valley that was created 2 million years ago! Click here to find out more about the local attractions in Qeshm!

You can see my 10 day itinerary for Iran here. I recommend you to stay in boutique hotels during your trip around Iran to really experience the traditional Iranian houses and the beautiful internal courtyards they have. This article goes into more detail about the traditional Iranian guest houses.

Iran really is a fascinating varied country and I believe it is definitely one of the best places to visit in The Middle East.

Israel and Palestine

Like Iran, most people might think a trip to Israel and Palestine is quite controversial. I don’t however like the politics of a country to influence whether I visit there or not. I was very interested to visit The Holy Land and was very glad I did.

Israel is very expensive mind (more expensive than London!). It is a fascinatingly varied country, from liberal Tel Aviv to the holy city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is very busy and you will find many sights of importance to Jews, Christians and Muslims here, scubas The Wailing Wall, The Dome of the Rock, and the place where Jesus was buried. Even if you are not Christian, a walk along the Via Dolorosa – the path Jesus took carrying his cross to be crucified, is something I highly recommend.

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You can also float in The Dead Sea and head across to the Salt Island Tree – the only living thing in The Dead Sea!

Many Christian sites are in Palestine, such as the spot in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. From Palestine you can cross over the border to Jordan.

Jordan

Due to Jordan being full of Instagrammable places in recent years it has become a very popular country for tourists to visit. Floating in The Dead Sea, exploring the chaotic capital of Amman, sleeping under the stars in the desert or visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site of The Lost City of Petra – Jordan is a fantastic country full of history and stunning landscapes.

A popular thing for tourists to experience in Jordan is glamping in a bubble tent in Wadi Rum. This is a really fun and once-in-a-lifetime experience! You can also hike (and swim!) through Wadi Mujib or even go to Jordan River to see where Jesus was baptised by John The Baptist.

The country of Jordan is relatively small which makes it a popular place for road trips or for short trips away. Politically Jordan is probably The Middle East’s most stable country and they have a very good Government and King.

the treasury instagrammable places Petra

Egypt

The mighty Pyramids of Giza are the main reason tourists come to visit Egypt. They are located very near to Cairo, and despite Cairo not being the tidiest city in the world there are still lots of interesting things to do such as Khan El Khalili market, Coptic Cairo, going on a felucca ride along the River Nile or heading up the Cairo Tower. For something a little less touristy but far more eye opening, head to Garbage City – an area of Cairo literally built on garbage.

Head down to Aswan to see the impressive archaeological sites including the Temple of Abu Simbel.

the pyramids of Giza Cairo Egypt

Lebanon

Despite the long 25 year Civil War Lebanon suffered, Lebanon is a country at peace and it’s capital Beirut in particular has reinvented itself. Beirut is now one of the safest cities in The Middle East! It also prides itself as being the most liberal and open minded city in the region. Beirut has a very Mediterranean feel and strolling along The Corniche you will find it hard to believe you are still in The Middle East!

Beirut is unlike any other city in The Middle East: you’ll see women in skimpy tops next to veiled women, buildings with bullet holes in alongside fancy new high-rise buildings, churches next to mosques, and you can go up to the mountains skiing in the morning and be back on the beach in Beirut by the afternoon! There’s certainly few places that are so diverse as this! Click here to discover why Beirut is a great place for female solo travellers to visit! Beirut actually makes a great destination as a girls trip away as it is an incredibly lively city and is known around the world for it’s infamous party scene!

Turkey

Another destination that is very popular on social media is Turkey, particularly Istanbul, Cappadocia and Pamukkale. Istanbul is a vibrant city and is certainly where east meets west as the city spans Europe and Asia. You’ll find so many Instagrammable spots in Istanbul, from the coloured houses of Balat to beautiful rooftop cafes, Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque, as well as Galata Tower and the Umbrella Street in trendy Karakoy. If you’ve only got a couple of days in Istanbul check out my 2 day itinerary that features all the best photo spots!

A visit to the magical landscape of Cappadocia is incredible with all the balloons in the air at sunrise rising above the fairy chimneys. And a trip to the stunning baths at Pamukkale should definitely not be missed!

Tunisia

Tunisia is a beautifully varied country that is very underrated. Sadly due to the terrorist attacks a few years ago a lot of tourists stopped visiting Tunisia. There are so many beautiful spots to discover here though, from the iconic white and blue seaside town Sidi Bou Said to the ancient Roman baths at Carthage to the rooftops above Tunis souq. Click here to view the best photo spots in Tunisia.

sidi bou said sunset

Morocco

Morocco is one of the places in the Middle East that is very popular for travellers to visit. Marrakech and Chefchaouen in particular are popular destinations here, however Casablanca is also worth a quick stop because of it’s impressive mosque: Hassan II, one of the largest mosques in the world.

hassan II mosque casablanca morocco

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