There are often a lot of misconceptions surrounding the Middle East, but if one thing’s for sure, it’s the fact that more and more travellers are looking to explore this fascinating part of the world. Recent figures suggest tourism to the Middle East is steadily increasing year on year, and it’s estimated the region will receive 150 million annual international visitors by 2030.
The appeal of some of the Middle East’s most popular destinations is easy to see. Whether you’re after ancient historical sights, natural wonders, outstanding beaches or exciting cities, you’ll find somewhere that fits the bill. Read on for our top six suggestions for your first trip to the Middle East.
Tel Aviv, Israel
Perfect for: a beach and city break in one
Often compared to Rio de Janeiro, Tel Aviv combines a cosmopolitan city with a spectacular beachfront location. The city runs the length of the coast, which means you’re never far from the sand. During the day, it’s packed with sun worshippers and watersports enthusiasts, while in the evening it’s buzzing with beach volleyball games and fairy-lit beach bars.
There aren’t many big-name sights here, which means you can spend your time flitting between coffee shops, street food stands and cocktail bars. Don’t miss the Imperial Cocktail Bar, which has been voted the best in the Middle East. It’s tiny, so make sure you book ahead.
Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt
Perfect for: world-class snorkelling and diving
Nowhere in the Middle East does sun, sea and sand quite as well as Sharm El Sheikh. Egypt’s premier beach resort is set on the shores of the Red Sea and is home to some of the best snorkelling and diving in this part of the world. The crystal-clear waters give way to rainbow-coloured coral reefs and all sorts of weird and wonderful tropical fish. Loads of the hotels here have their own diving schools, so it’s really easy to get up and running.
Sharm El Sheikh has plenty to offer away from the water, too. Most of the action takes place around Na’ama Bay – a lively hub of shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Perfect for: glitz and glamour
If it’s a little bit of luxury you’re after, look no further than Dubai. All towering skyscrapers and larger-than-life shopping malls, this futuristic city is like nowhere else on the planet. It’s oh-so-easy to spend your time here indulging in boozy brunches and lounging beside immaculate hotel swimming pools, but scratch the city’s modern surface and you’ll find plenty of history and culture waiting to be discovered.
Head into the old town, and have a wander around the incredible Gold Souk to watch locals and travellers barter for goods. But be sure to set aside time for a trip out into the desert. Tackle the huge sand dunes in a 4×4 vehicle or experience a magical night camped out under the stars.
Perfect for: sightseeing and shopping
With one foot in Asia and one in Europe, Turkey’s chaotic metropolis offers up the perfect introduction to the Middle East. One moment you can be checking out the elaborate Mosques in the old town, the next drinking espresso martinis on a stylish rooftop bar.
Of course, no visit here is complete without a trip to one of Istanbul’s world-famous shopping bazaars. The Grand Bazaar is the biggest and best. Here, a whopping 4,000 stores are packed into more than 60 streets. Don your best poker face, and get ready to haggle for everything from clothes and jewellery to homeware and spices. You might also need to buy an extra suitcase to bring everything home in.
Perfect for: getting off the tourist trail
Sandwiched between the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, little Oman is starting to creep onto the radar of savvy travellers. And for good reason. It might not have the world-famous sights of Egypt or the glitziness of UAE, but that’s precisely its appeal. If you’re after a taste of the authentic Middle East, you’re in the right place.
Kick off your trip in the capital, Muscat, before heading out to explore further afield. The country boasts some outstanding scenery, including rugged mountains, untouched desert and its very own Grand Canyon. Then there’s the 3,000-kilometre Indian Ocean coastline, with its secluded beaches and great snorkelling opportunities.
Perfect for: natural wonders and ancient history
A firm favourite of adventurous backpackers and history buffs, Jordan is a great option if you’re looking to cram in plenty of sightseeing. Base yourself in the capital city, Amman, and spend some time checking out the Roman ruins and getting your fill of falafel, hummus and baklava.
When it comes to exploring, you’re just an hour’s drive away from the Dead Sea. Floating on top of the mineral-rich waters, nearly 400 metres below sea level, is an experience not to be missed. If you’ve got a bit more time on your hands, venture further south to the ancient city of Petra. This Unesco World Heritage Site is one of the world’s most impressive archaeological sites, thanks in part to the fact it’s half carved into a cliff face.