The Middle East…
That enormous piece of territory often overlooked as a whole and, usually, only seen as the land of the greatest and most beautiful deserts, endless bazaars of spices and the warm welcome of the Bedouins.
Moreover, most of the time, the international media only likes to share images of disasters and bad things happening in the Middle East.
This distortion of reality changes people’s perception to the extent that the whole region of the Middle East becomes a dangerous place to travel to as if it was one single country.
But, you know what? The Middle East is composed of 14 different countries that differ massively from each other, have boundaries and share borders.
Which countries are part of the Middle East?
Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Yemen
After 3 years of living and traveling around the region, based on my own experience and opinion, I have compiled a list of the 25 best places to travel in the Middle East in 2020.
These choices are based on their level of security, historical importance, and natural beauty.
My objective is to show you not only that the Middle East is a safe place to travel to, but I also want you to see the huge natural and cultural contrast between countries and the relevant role they have in our history.
If you want to know more about the region, here you can find all my articles and guides to the Middle East
25 Best places to travel in the Middle East in 2019
Please note that this list is just a personal opinion and might not match yours.
Further suggestions are more than welcome!
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Amadiya – Home to the Three Wise Men
Country – Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan)
Located in the north of Iraqi Kurdistan, only 10km away from the Turkish border, Amadiya is a lovely, very photogenic village located on the flat top of a mountain, which has no less than 5,000 years of history.
From the Assyrians to the Persians, as well as several Jewish and Christian communities, dozens of different civilizations and religions have left their footprint in this historical place.
Furthermore, Amadiya is believed to be the home of the Three Wise Man, who made a pilgrimage to Bethlehem to see Jesus Christ after his birth.
Today, Amadiya is a Muslim Kurdish village, surrounded by the most striking mountain scenery, characteristic from northern Iraq and one the most beautiful places to travel in the Middle East.
Read more: A guide to Amadiya in Iraqi Kurdistan
Esfahan – Jaw-dropping Islamic architecture
Country – Iran
Esfahan is Iran’s most amazing city and its mosques, composed of giant domes and mind-blowing ceilings with extravagant geometrical forms, are the most impressive buildings in the Middle East, without any doubt.
Being one of the most historical cities in the region, Esfahan has always been home to a large community of scholars and prestigious intellectuals and its importance and influence in this part of the world was often compared to Athens and Rome.
Today, as per Iranian standards, Esfahan is a surprisingly modern, clean and vibrant city where some of the most educated and brilliant people in the country live.
Read more: A 1-to 4-week itinerary in Iran
The Old City of Damascus
Country – Syria
Everything here is very old.
This is the first thing the hotel receptionist told me on the day I arrived in the city.
Damascus is indeed one of the most ancient cities in the world – probably the oldest country capital – established in the second millennium BC, and capital of the Umayyad Caliphate from 661 to 750, one of the most important caliphates ever, extending from Spain to Iran.
My favorite place in Damascus was Umayyad mosque, an outstanding mosque which passed from being a Jupiter Temple during the Roman era to a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist and then one of the largest mosques in the world.
Today, Damascus is a safe city and, fortunately, the Old City has remained like that during most of the war.
I visited it at the beginning of 2019 and had a real blast.
For more information, read my Syria travel guide
Baalbek – Giant Roman ruins, all by yourself
Country – Lebanon
Extending from Western Europe to North Africa and the Middle East, the Roman Empire was the greatest empire that has ever existed.
Today, most of its ruins, some of them in relatively good condition, are major tourist attractions that receive hundreds of visitors every day.
Outside of Rome, the ruins of Baalbek are among the most impressive, not only due to their dimensions and good preservation, but also because you are likely to have the ruins to yourself as, here, we are talking about Lebanon, one of the most off the beaten track destinations in the region, where you can experience the greatest Roman ruins like nowhere else, hence one of the best places to travel in the Middle East.
Read more: How to spend 2 weeks in Lebanon
The coastline of Dhofar province
Country – Oman
Stretching from south Oman all the way to the Yemeni border, Dhofar’s coastline may differ significantly from what you expect from an Omani beach.
Vertiginous cliffs, turquoise-blue waters, and empty, epic beaches characterize the beaches of southern Oman, barely discovered by the average traveler, who tends to stick to the northern part of the country.
If you are into wild, random camping and road trips, in the Middle East, it doesn’t really get better than this.
Read my travel guide to Oman
Al Balad, the colorful Old City of Jeddah
Country – Saudi Arabia
Unfortunately, very little is known about Saudi Arabia but, given that this is the home of Mecca, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Saudi is filled with ancient and historical places, and one of the best examples is Al Balad, the old part of Jeddah, established 1,300 years ago as the gateway for Muslims on their way to Mecca, mostly arriving by sea from Africa.
Today a UNESCO World Heritage site, Al Balad is a lively area filled with colorful facades and, by far, the most beautiful Old City from all the Gulf Monarchies.
Traveling to Saudi Arabia is getting easier than ever and here you read my tips for Saudi.
Jerusalem – The holiest place for the three main monotheist religions
Country – Israel, and Palestine
Today, Jerusalem is part of Israel but, if Palestine ever becomes an independent state, East Jerusalem, which is mostly inhabited by Arabs, will be the capital of the country.
Being one of the most important places for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, Jerusalem is a city that has perfectly combined tradition and history with a 21st-century city, meaning that you can stroll around the old city and its historical sites for days and, at the same time, enjoy the endless nightlife, food scene, and modernity of the new part of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is one of those cities that are worth spending several days in.
Read more: A travel guide to Palestine
Golestan – Central Asia in the Middle East
Country – Iran
What if I tell you that, in a very remote part of Iran, bordering the Turkmenistan border, there is a region with an unexpectedly mystical landscape, home to a large Turkmen community who have more similarities to people from Kyrgyzstan than other Iranians.
This region is called Golestan province, one of the least visited provinces in Iran, whose main peculiarity is that most of its inhabitants are ethnically Turkmen, a Central Asian ethnicity originally from Turkmenistan.
From Central Asian food, such as plov and kurut, to the way they dress, the Mongolian features in people’s faces and a very Central Asian nomadic life, visible in their love for horses and the yurts they live in, Golestan is a different world from the rest of the Middle East.
Read more: A guide to Golestan province in Iran
Erbil – A cosmopolitan Iraqi city
Country – Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan)
Not many cities in the world have as much history as Erbil has.
With almost 30,000 years of history, according to historians, and, today a UNESCO World Heritage site, Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, a city with plenty of tradition, filled with plenty of ancient bazaars, epic cafés, and historical sites.
Nevertheless, the awesomeness of Erbil doesn’t end up here and, in fact, what may surprise you is that, as well as a classic Middle Eastern Muslim city, this is also a real pro-Western metropolis and a regional business hub where a large expat community lives and, as a consequence, has some of the most awesome nightlife in the Middle East.
Read more: Things to do in Erbil
Petra – One of the 7 wonders of the world
Country – Jordan
Even though this is likely the most touristic site in the region, it would be a sin not to consider one of the 7 wonders among one of the best places to visit in the Middle East.
Petra was founded in the VI century B.C. by the Edomites but, it didn’t prosper until the Nabateans (a group of nomadic Arabs) took over the place and built the city by carving it from the rock, making it become an important trading hub.
The architecture of Petra leaves you breathless and, besides admiring the Treasury and the Monastery, I recommend getting off the path, going hiking and taking the trails less traveled.
Beirut – The most culturally diverse and liberal city in the Middle East
Country – Lebanon
Beirut is the capital of Lebanon, a city that suffered one of the longest contemporary Civil Wars (25 years, ending in 1991). Today, among all the destroyed buildings, Beirut brags about being one of the safest cities in the region. With unbelievable economic growth and the rapid rise of the middle class, Beirut is the most liberal and westernized city in the Middle East (outside of Israel).
I love Beirut because of its deep, rich and contrasting history. It’s composed of dozens of districts that differ massively from each other: The hipster district of Gemmayzeh, Hezbollah areas like Bourj al-Barajneh, the student neighborhood of Hamra, old Palestinian refugee camps, the Armenian district of Bourj Hammoud, several Christian areas and much, much more! Beirut is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.
From the deepest underground parties to the most glamorous clubs, from local eateries to the best fine dining restaurants in the region, Beirut is a city adaptable to any kind of traveler and budget.
Read more about it here: Beirut travel guide
The green, rolling hills of Jizan
Country – Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is a massive country and, as such, it has quite a few geographical areas, the most dramatically different being Jizan, a province bordering the country of Yemen.
Asian-like terraced fields, greenery, and monkeys comprise the mountain villages of Jizan, miles away from Saudi Arabia stereotypes, plus the people there are culturally Yemeni, from the food they eat to the way they traditionally dress.
Jizan can’t be more off the beaten track.
For more information, read my 2-week itinerary for Saudi Arabia.
The Dead Sea – The lowest point on Earth
Occupying territory in both Israel & Palestine and Jordan, the Dead Sea is the lake with the highest salt density in the world and also, the lowest point on Earth, 430 meters below sea level.
Such is the high concentration of salt that animals and plants can’t live in it, hence the name.
Swimming in the Dead Sea is totally fine and, due to the high density of the water, sinking is almost impossible. I’ve only been to the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea and, along the coast, there are several hotels and resorts where you can chill on their beaches and have a mud bath.
Liwa Oasis – The purest and wildest image of the Gulf
Country – United Arab Emirates
Around 500 years ago, a group of Bedouins tapped underground, freshwater recourses to cultivate dates and, as a result, several villages and settlements appeared in the area, which we currently call Liwa, the birthplace of the Nahyan family, the current ruling family of Abu Dhabi and the UAE.
Since then, and over the years, the cultivation of dates in Liwa has been a key factor in the region’s economic development
Liwa is located in the south of UAE, next to Saudi Arabian border and on the edge of the Empty Quarter, a huge desert spread across UAE, Yemen, Oman, and Saudi Arabia and considered the largest (continuous) sea of dunes on Earth, whose end can’t even be seen from the furthest horizon.
In addition, in Liwa you can also find the only real Bedouins in the UAE and the Moreeb dune, one of the highest dunes in the world (300m).
Read more: A guide to Liwa Oasis
The Citadel of Aleppo
Country – Syria
Along with Damascus, I also visited Aleppo at the beginning of 2019.
Before the war, Aleppo used to be the largest and most touristic city in the country.
Being a few thousands years older than Damascus, the Citadel and Old City of Aleppo have been mostly destroyed by the Civil War but after the liberation of the city in 2017, the reconstruction has already begun, Syrians are moving back and shops are, very slowly, reopening.
I am pretty sure that, in a matter of years, the beautiful city of Aleppo will return to its maximum splendor.
For more information, read my guide for visiting Syria.
Dahab – The most backpacking friendly place in the Middle East
Country – Egypt
Dahab is a lovely touristic beach town inhabited by Bedouins in the Sinai peninsula, which is considered the most backpacking-friendly place (and probably the only one) in the Middle East.
For decades, Dahab has attracted travelers from all over the world for having some of the best diving in the country. In Dahab, one comes for two things: either scuba diving or doing literally nothing, as it has this laid-back atmosphere that consists of going to the beach, smoking weed and eating at the several seafood restaurants.
Besides, due to the massive drop of the Egyptian Pound, in Dahab, you could easily rent a full apartment (2 beds with Wi-Fi) for less than 9USD a day.
Jerash – Massive and highly accessible Roman ruins
Country – Jordan
If making a trip to Lebanon to visit the ruins of Baalbek sounds too hardcore for you but you still want to travel to the Middle East, perhaps you should consider visiting Jerash, another of the greatest Roman ruins outside of Italy, constructed in some of the most fertile valleys in the region, today comprising green, rolling hills filled with olive and fig trees.
The location, therefore, is not a coincidence because, when it was built around 2,000 years ago, the Romans wanted to make it a great city due to the richness of the land.
Musandam – The Norway of the Middle East
Country – Oman
A rocky desert land composed of stunning fiords, cliffs and one of the largest varieties of wildlife in the Middle East, Musandam (often called the Norway of the Middle East) is a piece of territory within the UAE that belongs to Oman.
It’s located north of UAE, projecting into the Strait of Hormuz.
Musandam is a pretty common destination among expats living in Dubai but still, the area remains pretty untouched. Along the coast, you find several beaches only occupied by the local Omanis, who like to gather with their families for barbecues during the weekends. Expect several families to invite you to join them.
In Musandam, you could also rent an abra (a local traditional boat) to sail around the fiords and observe the wildlife. Meeting dolphins is almost guaranteed and, if you are into snorkeling, you can see that the deep and dark waters of Musandam are also home to coral, turtles and manta rays, among other things.
Read more: A guide to visiting Musandam in Oman
Hebron – The most troubled city in Palestine
Country – Palestine
Hebron is the city where the Tomb of the Patriarchs stands, the place where Abraham, Jacob and Isaac are buried.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs is one of the holiest places for both Muslims and Jews.
This means that both religions are sharing an important holy place but, on top of that, Hebron also happens to be the only city in Palestine where Jewish settlements are within the city itself.
The situation is quite sensitive, as there have been endless confrontations between the local Palestinians and the settlers.
In the old part of the city, the local Palestinians have built a fence that serves as a roof to prevent the settlers who live in the upper floors throwing garbage to them.
To add more tension to the conflict, during the holy month of Ramadan in 1994, a Jew entered the Tomb of Patriarchs (in the mosque inside), opened fire and killed 29 Muslims during prayer time.
Since then, the area is strictly controlled and, both Jewish and Muslim prayer areas are strictly separated. Abraham is buried in the middle of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, right between the synagogue and the mosque, so the members of both religions can see his tomb from their prayer room.
Read more: A guide to visiting Hebron in Palestine
Qadisha Valley – Lovely Christian mountain villages
Country – Lebanon
If you either want just to relax, eat good food, visit beautiful Christian monasteries or to go hiking, the Kadisha Valley in Lebanon will always be the perfect place for you.
Kadisha means ”holy” and owes this name to the fact that this valley is home to some of the most ancient communities of monastic Christians in the Middle East.
In case you don’t know it, monasticism is a way of life for which the person (in this case the Christian monks) renounces to everything to devote himself completely to spiritual work. The valley is full of natural caves, difficult to access, that once served as places of isolation for the monks living lives devoted to Christ.
Kadisha is a really unique place to visit in the Middle East.
Manama – Drugs and rock & roll
Country – Bahrain
In case you’ve never heard of it, Bahrain is a tiny country (one of tiniest in the world actually) located in the Persian Gulf, between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and Manama is its capital.
To make it short, Bahrain is the only Arab Gulf Monarchy that has run out of petrol, or at least, can’t rely on the petrol income anymore.
In desperation, looking at alternative ways of gaining income, Bahrain became the party place in the Middle East, where concerning prostitution, alcohol, and parties, in general, are more permissive than in any other Gulf country.
Connected to Saudi Arabia by a bridge, every week, thousands of Saudis cross the border to have fun and enjoy a relative level of freedom.
Besides, this is the only place in the Middle East where I’ve seen two homosexuals making out in the middle of the street.
Manama is also home to many Western expats, who hang out in a popular area called Adliya, which has plenty of bars and wall paintings and makes one forget that he or she is in the Middle East.
Bahrain is, unequivocally, one of the most surreal places to travel and visit in the Middle East.
Luxor – The greatest open-air museum
Country – Egypt
Established on the shore of the great Nile river and surrounded by both mango plantations and desert, Luxor is the world’s greatest open-air museum.
This is the place where the most well-known pharaohs come from, like Tutankhamun for example, and most of the temples are either in excellent conditions or perfectly restored.
From large and epic tombs to temples constructed on a giant scale, all of them dating from between 3,200 B.C. and 1,500 B.C, Luxor is an unmissable place to travel in the Middle East.
Read more: How to visit Luxor independently, in 2 days
Salalah – Coconuts, pineapples, and tropical rain
Country – Oman
What if I tell you that there’s a place in the Persian Gulf where it rains, which it’s full of green meadows and the locals sell coconuts and pineapples?
This place is called Salalah, a city found in the most southern part of Oman, very close to the Yemeni border.
Salalah, and the region of Dhofar, is an area that experiences a monsoon season.
This season is called Khareef and occurs from July till September. During this season, Salalah becomes a beautiful and lush green, which attracts visitors from all over the country, as well as Saudi Arabia and UAE, who want to run away from their disgustingly hot and humid weather.
Bethlehem – Take a look at the Wall of Separation between Israel and Palestine
Country – Palestine
Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus.
However, unless you are an ardent Christian, the most interesting part of Bethlehem is to get a close feeling of the consequences of the Israeli occupation as, after the Second Intifada, in 2001, Israel built an 8-meter wall that would finally isolate the West Bank from Israel.
The wall, however, was built within Palestinian territory, hence the Israelis stole some of their land.
Literally, it passes by the center of the city and it is decorated with plenty of Pro-Palestinian paintings, including a real work from the famous Banksy, the white pigeon.
For more information, read my travel guide to Palestine
Qeshm Island – The most authentic Persian Gulf culture
Country – Iran
Located in the Persian Gulf, right in the Strait of Hormuz, between Oman and Iran, Qeshm is an island with amazing geological formations, as well as very rich wildlife.
This is what most travelers come here for but, in my opinion, the most interesting part of the island is to get immersed in the local culture, as this is the only place that has been able to preserve the fast-disappearing Persian Gulf culture, today only visible here and in a few other places in Oman.
Unlike the rest of Iran, people here are Sunnis, from the conservative branch actually, Wahabis, but, since they have a great Iranian influence, they are quite laid back.
Qeshm is a different world from the rest of Iran and it can be seen not only in the religion, the architecture and their food, which is mainly based on seafood but also in the way their women dress, in such colorful abayas and niqabs, like nowhere else you have ever seen.
Read more: A guide to Qeshm Island
That was my list of the best places to travel in the Middle East for next year. Have you been to any? If you have more recommendations or suggestions, feel free to post them in the comments section!