Middle East Travel Guide
The Middle East is a pretty underrated part of the world. Many times, we transit through their airports but fail to take the time to discover what these countries have to offer. This region is home to some of the world's most fascinating cultures and archaeological sites, and some of the most stunning landscapes as well.
Whether you are looking for a relaxing and luxurious stay, or quench your thirst for adventure, all of this and more is available in the Middle East.
Discover our travel tips, articles, and virtual tours for the Middle East !
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Your Guide to the Middle East
Quick Facts About the Middle East
- What is considered the Middle East:
- The Middle East is not a continent but a region at the crossroads between Europe, Asia, and Africa. It is a commonly used term that is quite loosely defined.
- It includes the whole Arabian Peninsula, along with, in the north, most of Turkey, Iraq, and the Levant (which includes Israel, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, among others). In the East, Iran is also most of the time considered part of the Middle East. In the west, Egypt, geographically part of Africa, is often included in the Middle East as well. Some consider the Middle East to reach even beyond these countries, as far as Libya, Sudan, and Afghanistan.
- The three largest countries are Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt.
- Key geographic facts:
- The Arabian Desert covers most of the Arabian Peninsula, located between the Red Sea in the west, and the Persian Gulf in the east.
- The major rivers are of course the Nile River in Egypt (the longest river in the world), but also the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq – a region that is sometimes called Mesopotamia.
- The part including Turkey and the Levant is more mountainous, with the Taurus Mountain Range, and the Anatolian Plateau, a fertile agricultural region.
- Major lakes include the Dead Sea, between Israel and Jordan, Lake Van, in eastern Turkey, and Lake Urmia, in Iran.
- Arabic, along with its many dialects, is the most spoken language in the Middle East. Literary Arabic is the national language of many countries in the region, such as those of the Arabian Peninsula.
- Persian is the second most spoken language in the Middle East and the official language of Iran.
- Turkish is Turkey’s official language, and the third most spoken language in the Middle east.
- Kurdish is spoken by the Kurds, a population that lives in a region spanning parts of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, called Kurdistan.
- Hebrew is another major language of the Middle East, spoken by 80% of Israel. The remaining 20% speak Arabic.
- We can also mention Greek, spoken in the Greek part of Cyprus.
- The vast majority (85%) of the people in the Middle East are Muslims. The most followed branch of Islam is Sunni, and Shia is the second-largest.
- Judaism is mostly practiced in Israel, and 74% of the population is Jewish.
- Christianity originated from the Middle East but has become a minority religion in the region. They are spread across a few countries, including the Copts of Egypt.
The Middle East, A Region of Many Records
- The Rub-al-Khali desert, also known as The Empty Quarter, is the largest continuous sandy desert in the world. It covers a large part of Saudi Arabia, and parts of Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
- Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, is the world’s tallest building at 828 meters / 2,717 feet. It was opened on 4 January 2010 and cost 1.5 billion US dollars. At 555.7 meters / 1,823 feet, At The Top, Burj Khalifa Sky is the world’s highest outdoor observation deck. It is located on the 148th floor and opened in 2014.
- The Dead Sea, shared between Israel and Jordan, holds a few world records. Its shoreline is the world’s lowest land, with an altitude of -430 meters / -1,412 feet below sea level.
Along its shores, the Enot Tsukim Nature Reserve, in Israel, is the lowest nature reserve in the world.
The road along the Dead Sea is also the lowest road in the world. The Jordan River, ending in the Dead Sea, is the lowest river in the world.
Finally, the Dead Sea itself is the world’s deepest hypersaline lake, with a depth reaching -378 meters / 1,240 feet.
- The Masjid-Al-Haram, or Great Mosque of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, is the largest mosque in the world. It is famous for being the destination of the Hajj pilgrimage and one of the holiest places of Islam. The mosque has been continuously expanded and is now the world’s most expensive building, valued at 100 billion US dollars.
- The Al-Ahsa Oasis, in Saudi Arabia, is the largest oasis in the world. It covers an astonishing area of 85 square kilometers / 33 square miles and is home to 2.5 million palm trees.
- In the mountains of Ras-Al-Khaimah, in the United Arab Emirates, can be found Jais Flight, the longest zip line in the world. The zip wire spans 2.83 kilometers / 9,290 feet and starts from the top of Jebel Jais, the highest point in the UAE. The average speed in this zipline is 160 km/h / 100 mph. Cool place for us adventure junkies!
- The World, off the coast of Dubai, is the world’s largest man-made archipelago. It consists of 300 islands taking the shape of a world map. The project was put on hold after the financial crisis hit the UAE. Today, the project has resumed and the first 5-star hotel opened on one of the islands. As of today, only a handful of islands are developed.
- The Suez Canal in Egypt is the world’s longest ship canal, with a length of 193 kilometers / 120 miles. The canal opened in 1869 and 120,000 people died during its construction.
- Still in Egypt, the Sphinx of Giza, next to the famous pyramids of Giza, is the world’s largest sculpture made of a single piece of stone. The sculpture, representing a lion’s body with a man’s face, was made around 2500 BC. It is 73 meters / 241 feet long and 20 meters / 72 feet high.
10 Handpicked Middle East Highlights
10 fantastic places and experiences in the Middle east, in no particular order.
- Discover Petra in Jordan, one of the most prominent archaeological sites in the Middle East. Petra was built around 300 BC and was the capital of the Nabateans. Walking through the narrow gorge to arrive in front of the gorgeous Khazneh, or Treasury is a highlight of a trip to Jordan.
- Venture into the Empty Quarter and be blown away by the vastness of this sea of sand. It is most accessible from Oman or Abu Dhabi. Experiencing the beauty of the Arabian Desert is unforgettable and should not be skipped if you travel in the region.
- Visit Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. The city of Dubai clearly has made a name for itself in the whole world and has a lot to offer no matter what traveling style you fancy. It is also the perfect base to discover the desert.
- Discover the fabulous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and be dazzled by its size and architectural beauty, with its 82 domes made of pure white marble.
- Take a hike on Socotra Island, Yemen, off the Horn of Africa, and discover mind-blowing landscapes and botany treasures such as the iconic dragon tree, and giant desert roses. Its exceptional biodiversity and percentage of endemism led UNESCO to declare it a World Heritage Site in 2008.
- Explore the Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan, and get a feel of what it’s like to be on Mars. Don’t believe me? The Hollywood movie The Martian, with Matt Damon, was filmed there! Whether or not you liked the movie, you will definitely be awestruck by the grand, colorful landscapes of Wadi Rum.
- Fly a hot air balloon in Cappadocia, Turkey, and watch the sunrise above the unique desert landscapes and their fascinating Fairy Chimneys. If you have time, don’t hesitate to go hiking in the region as well.
- Take a walk in the city of Shiraz, Iran, and get immersed in the Persian civilization. Watching the sunrise in the prayer room of the Nasir-Ol-Molk Mosque is an unforgettable experience, as the sunlight breaks through the incredibly colorful stained glass windows.
- Approach the Pyramids of Giza, in Egypt. How not to mention these archaeological masterpieces? The Pyramids of Giza are one of the most famous and iconic sites in the world. No matter how touristy they have become, they simply can’t be missed.
- Let yourself float in the Dead Sea, in Israel or Jordan. The exceptional salinity of the Dead Sea (8 times saltier than usual sea water!) makes it much easier to float at the surface. You could just be there in the water reading your newspaper, floating effortlessly. A cool and fun experience.
When to Go to the Middle East
The climate of a large part of the Middle East (Arabian Peninsula, Levant) is marked by extremely hot summers (July, August), with temperatures reaching 45 to 50 degrees Celcius / 113 to 120 Fahrenheit. In this scorching heat, any sightseeing is very difficult.
The best season to visit the Middle East is spring, between, March and May. This season, the weather is still lovely but the temperatures are down to more acceptable levels, compatible with sightseeing and outdoor activities.
For a large part of autumn, the summer heat is still present and starts becoming more manageable in November. In winter, the temperatures are still pleasantly warm, but can also get cold depending on the region (mountainous regions for example).
For more precise information, do refer to the individual country guides to see when is the best time to visit these destinations!
Traveling to the Middle East
The Middle east clearly doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to travel safety! From war-torn Syria and Yemen to terrorist attacks, the situation in Iraq, and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, there is no shortage of scary news from this part of the world.
While it is true that some parts of the Middle East should absolutely not be visited by travelers because the danger is real, it is also true that many parts of the Middle East are perfectly safe to travel. If you are planning to travel in the region, make sure to check the official safety advisory for the country you are visiting.
Here are some pieces of advice related to safety when visiting the Middle East:
- Don’t photograph or film any military/police installations. It could get you into big trouble.
- Never go hike in the wilderness on your own. Always have a guide with you and use a reputable agency.
- Avoiding crowds is always best, to stay on the safe side.
- Don’t show too many signs of affection in public.
- Keep yourself informed of the latest official safety warnings and don’t ignore them.