Your top guide to traveling the middle east
Your top guide to traveling the middle east
Costs and travel insights | When to visit | Top things to do | Petra, Jordan | Burj Khalifa in Dubai | Jerusalem, Israel | Giza, the Pyramids of Egypt | Hot Air Balloon Ride over Cappadocia | Cruise the Nile | Get it all in Tel Aviv | Star gaze in wadi rum, Jordan | Roman ruins | Fall in love with Beirut, Lebanon | Souk Al-Mubarakiya, Kuwait | Musandam Fjords, Oman | Float in the Dead Sea | Top tips
With its mystic aura the middle east brings your thoughts to fairytales like Aladdin, Alibaba and Sinbad. With its mouthwatering exotic food and stunning everchanging landscape the Middle East should definitely be at the top of your list of places to visit.
Forget about the international media images. Yes of course, just like anywhere else in the world, there are countries and areas which you shouldn´t visit and some that takes a bit more planning and caution. But with 18 countries, Bahrain, Dubai, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, there is plenty to choose from.
From the beautiful deserts, buzzling bazaars with intoxicating smells from dozens of spices mixing, music lulling you into the night to their proud heritage and the very warm welcome all tourists are given the middle east will put a smile on your face and give you memories for life. Let’s jump straight in to my middle east travel guide!
COSTS AND TRAVEL INSIGHTS
If you´re travelling on a budget, destinations like Turkey and Iran are probably the cheapest countries in the region. Dorm beds go for around 10-15 USD and food and drinks come at reasonable prices. Dubai, Jordan, and Israel are not considered budget destinations and you should be prepared that, even if there are ways to make them cheaper, you will spend more money than you will in on the rest of your Middle Eastern travels. Dorm beds will go for around 25-30 USD and private rooms in hotels range anywhere from 50-120 USD per night. Checkout my Tel Aviv hostels guide if you need some further guidance on saving cash while there.
In most of the countries, the visa is available upon arrival, except in Saudi Arabia and Oman. Note that if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport, you will be denied entry into Iran, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. This, however, is usually not a problem if you fly in and out of Israel, as they don´t stamp your passport. If you travel by land across the borders, make sure to state at the border control that you don´t want a stamp and remember to say it before you hand over your passport. If not the stamp might be in the passport before you have time to blink. There is no problem entering Israel with a stamp from any of the countries in the Middle East.
Make sure to read about the customs rules before entering a country. Alcohol is illegal in some countries and as a female traveller, you might have to cover up fully, as any public showing of skin is illegal.
As health care is expensive make sure to have good travel insurance.
Most of the countries are religious, please respect the rules and customs of each country and each site. If you visit religious sites, cover-up, this goes for both men and women. No bare shoulder or knees, and in some cases arms and legs. Cover your head. Some of the religious sites will provide you with garments to cover up, but it is technically frowned upon.
Be curious! The people in the Middle East are friendly and happy to share both stories, food and the roof over their head in a way that is totally different to what we are used to in Europe and the United States. If someone invites you for a coffee, to sit down at dinner or just to try a watermelon at the beach, it is usually considered rude not to accept. However, keep your wits about you. Never accept something that doesn´t make you feel comfortable or puts you in danger. As a female traveler remember that women don´t have the same rights in some of the countries and it is not your time to be a rebel. With that in mind, the people are wonderful and as long as you do your research and follow the laws, rules and traditions you will be safe and have the most wonderful trip!
In the Middle East cash is king, unfortunately. In many countries, you can actually pay with a credit card but you are likely to be told that “the machine is broken”. Just insist that you don´t have any cash and you will find out if the machine really is broken or if they just can´t be bothered to use it.
In some countries, your only way of transportation is by renting a car. Fortunately renting a car is fairly cheap, just remember to get insurance as the roads are mostly not in great condition.
Other means of transport such as buses and trains have developed a lot in the last years and are both comfortable and safe. However, the websites have not developed so well and most of them are in Arabic. In these cases, your best option is to ask locals or just find out at the central station upon arrival. You can use Google maps to search for information about public transportation, just beware that the times might not always be exact.
In Israel, you can use this site and it’s in English!!
Food and alcohol
Except for Dubai, Jordan and Israel’s food are cheap. Even in those three countries the amount of food you receive makes the price worth it. Lunch usually fills you up for lunch and your doggy bag for dinner. Plus all middle eastern food is delicious, in my opinion. The vegetarian options are endless and so are the vegan ones. Don´t be afraid to try and don´t be afraid to ask what something is. The locals are proud of their culture and happy to share both samples and the story behind a dish, which most likely is “just like their grandmother used to make it”.
Many of the countries are Muslim countries where alcohol is illegal or restricted to certain areas. It is very important that you observe these laws, as the punishments for breaking the law can very well be imprisonment. If you are unsure, refrain. Better safe than sorry.
In many of the countries you can drink the water from the tap, it is just not very tasty. Unfortunately, you will have to buy most if your water in plastic bottles. In some countries, like Israel and Egypt, there are water dispensers available in most hotels and hostels where you can refill for free.
WHEN TO VISIT
The Middle East is hot! Extremely hot! Temperatures in the summer can peak at around 40 C or 104 F and it is humid. The most endurable season is from November to May.
TOP THINGS TO DO
1. PETRA JORDAN
The lost city of Petra, one of the seven wonders of the world and 100% bucket list-worthy. Most travelers spend 1-3 days here. 1 day, if you just want to check it off your list and 3 if you really want to explore and get off the beaten track. Petra is an entire city carved out of rose-colored stone. It sits in a desert valley, 6 kilometers long with 15 different excavated sites and still 85 % of Petra is still covered. The entrance ticket is 70 USD for one day and only another 7 USD extra per additional day.
2. BURJ KHALIFA IN DUBAI
The skyscrapers of Dubai are impressive, to say the least, and still, there is one that is taller and more impressive than all of the others, Burj Khalifa. The tallest building in the world is not for the faint of heart. The building took six years to finish and is an astonishing 830 meters tall glass building. It glistens in as the rays of the sun hit it and it is a perfect sunset view excursion on one of your Dubai itinerary days. You can find prices and information here and I recommend booking your Burj Khalifa ticket in advance as the spots fill up quickly.
3. JERUSALEM, ISRAEL
One of the holiest cities in the world, where Jews, Muslims and Christians all come together. The whole city is filled to the brim with history and religion. You should take a walking tour the Western Wall and the UNESCO world heritage site Temple Mount with the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock as well as walk down Via Dolorosa, considered the path Jesus took carrying the cross on his back to his own crucifixion. Visit the Old City, Machane Yehuda Shuk (shuk meaning market), filled with spices, food from all the corners of the Middle East, souvenirs, leather, ceramics and an incredible vibe like no other. Make sure you try some of the best traditional Yemenite food, jachnun and malawach. In Jachnun bar. you will find outstanding hangover food for sure! And yes, of course, Jerusalem has a party scene. It is not all religion and history. As the market closes it turns into the most amazing street art scene. Don’t miss out.
4. GIZA, THE PYRAMIDS OF EGYPT
With three million visitors per year, the Pyramids of Egypt are amongst the top-visited tourist attractions in the world. If you can, make your visit during the off-season, but even if you can´t, make sure not to miss out. It is every bit as mind-blowingly magnificent as you imagine. It is part of the original seven wonders of the world, and you will need plenty of time to explore. The budget option is to stay in downtown Cairo and take the Cairo Metro to the pyramids. There is an entrance fee of around 20 USD and plenty of guided tours for those who want. Beware of scams both when it comes to tours and taxi drivers! In all fairness, I wouldn´t recommend taking a tour, as you would want to be able to spend time on the things that interest you, instead of the things making extra money for the tour companies.
5. HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE OVER CAPPADOCIA
Yes you have seen it all over social media, yes it looks amazing, yes it is amazing. The hot air balloon ride starts at 140 USD, but it is worth it. And even if you can´t afford the ride, Cappadocia is the most magical of places and I recommend 2-3 days here. There are so many beautiful walks and hikes around Goreme, the main town in the region, on top of that there is horseback riding through the most fairytale-like landscapes, Hamman baths, incredible local Turkish foods and strong Turkish coffee. If I would choose just one place in Turkey to visit, it would be Cappadocia. Whatever you do, don´t miss the sunrise over the valley!
6. CRUISE THE NILE
Marvel at Egypt’s ancient treasures, while cruising down the most famous river in the world. Yes, it is considered a luxury thing to do, luckily there´s a budget way! You travel between the southern cities of Luxor and Aswan at a slow pace, taking in the beautiful scenery of the Egyptian landscapes. To score the budget version of the cruise you actually have to be in Egypt, meaning you can´t plan this from abroad. Be flexible and stay calm and a luxury 3-5 day cruise will be at your feet within a few days before departure as you´ll be able to grab the last minute offers.
7. GET IT ALL IN TEL AVIV
Tel Aviv, this wonderful, vibrant, eclectic seaside city is like nothing else. Join the extremely fit Tel Avivians in a sunset run along the beach promenade, devour in street food or let your palette find new levels at chefs’ restaurants, go surfing or sailing. Visit one of the many lively markets or go shopping. Try a traditional Israeli eggplant sandwich, Sabich at Sabich Tchernikovsky. Get the full Tel Aviv experience at Port Said, They don’t accept table reservations, so be prepared to wait! Join the graffiti tour of TLVNights, where augmented reality and original artworks made by the cities most prominent artists tell you the history of Tel Aviv in the most unique way. It is really a one of a kind experience that you don´t want to miss out on!
Or you know, just become one with the Telavivian vibe. The people are friendly, the beach is long, the food is amazing and the nightlife is next level. You´ll want to stay longer than you first planned.
8. STAR GAZE IN WADI RUM, JORDAN
A night in the desert, breathtaking desert scenery and more stars than you thought was possible. Sit around the campfire in the Bedouin desert camp, listen to the stories from locals and travelers around the world, watch the red sand glow as the sun rises around the place in the desert. The beauty is breathtaking so be prepared to not get too much sleep your first night there.
9. ROMAN RUINS
Ephesus in Turkey, Jerash in Jordan and Baalbeck in Lebanon, the roman ruins in the Middle East are plenty and well preserved. My favorite is Baalbek a UNESCO World Heritage site, known as the city of temples. It is speculated to be the most ancient building in the world. Another one I really enjoyed is Mada in Saleh in Saudi Arabia, considered to be the “second Petra” with one of the largest and most impressive tombs there is to see.
10. FALL IN LOVE WITH BEIRUT, LEBANON
With a perfect mix of culture and religion, delicious food, beautiful weather, interesting architecture and a fascinating history Beirut is a place easy to fall in love with and it should definitely be on your list of countries for this trip. For a local street food tour and cool dive bars hit Al Hamra Street. The best falafel in town is served at the 40-year-old, hard to find a snack bar, Tabbara Beirut. There´s no website, no address, just ask the locals!
11. SOUK AL-MUBARAKIYA, KUWAIT
The Middle East is all about the open-air markets. Ok, maybe not all about it, but it´s a big part of the culture and Souk Al-Mubarakiya in the heart of Kuwait city is the biggest and best one there is. The souk is 2000 years old and the smells, the haggling, the merchandise, the food – everything really just takes you back in time!
12. MUSANDAM FJORDS, OMAN
I don´t know how to describe this other than WOW, just WOW! If you mention fjords, most people will immediately think about Norway or New Zealand, few will think of Oman. But let me tell you, you should! With winter temperatures at about 23 °C /73 °F it is more than a pleasant way to discover this miracle of nature. Paddle, kayak, make close encounters with dolphins and just prepare to be amazed.
13. FLOAT IN THE DEAD SEA
No trip to the Middle East is complete without a trip to the Dead Sea. At the lowest point on earth, between Israel and Jordan runs this hypersaline lake, with a salt content of over thirty per cent, meaning that no aquatic life can survive in it. It also means you will float. But really float. Bring some water sport boots as the bottom is sharp, a book, choose your designated photographer and head out for something you haven´t tried before! I cannot stress this enough, do not, and I really mean not, get salt in your eyes. It was the most unbearable pain and I really thought my eyes would fall out. Move with caution, don´t splash and don´t shave before heading there.
TOP TRAVEL TIPS
1. Be respectful at historically, culturally or religiously important sites. The sites are of great importance to the locals and/or pilgrims and you should treat them as such.
2. If you are not sure if you want to buy something at the market, do not start talking to the vendors. Kindly say no thank you and resist engaging in talking further, otherwise, you will leave with highly overpriced items that you didn’t even want.
3. Dress conservatively, the Middle East is predominantly Muslim and you should aim to dress conservatively to respect local customs, this goes for both men and women. No shorts, no crop tops or sleeveless shirts. This doesn´t apply in Israel, unless in religious cities or at sites.
4. Always remember while you’re in the Middle East that there aren’t just customs and traditions to respect—there are also laws that might be very different from what you’re used to. And breaking things could end up sending you to jail, or worse. Do your homework before entering a country and remember that alcohol is forbidden in some of Muslim countries.
5. Ask before taking a photo of someone, their belongings or even their stall at a market. While we snap photos of everything left and right in the West, things aren´t exactly the same in the Middle East. This doesn´t mean that it isn´t allowed or frowned upon, it just means that you should ask first.
6. Respect the local religion. As you are traveling through religious countries make sure you are aware of any ongoing holidays and customs. In some cases, it just means everything is closed, and by everything I mean everything. In other cases, it means it would be highly offensive to eat or even drink, like for example during Ramadan. In other cases, like Yom Kippur in Israel, you are not allowed to drive. The holidays are many and the rules are strict, so make sure you familiarize yourself with them!
7. Keep physical contact to a minimum, especially if you are a woman. While it is something common in the West, physical contact in Muslim countries have a different meaning and can be considered an invite or an insult and I would strongly recommend you refrain from it.
8. If you are a woman, sit at the family section at the restaurants. This isn´t applicable in all countries, but in some of the Muslim countries there is one section for men and one for women and families and you don´t want to end up in the wrong section.
9. Never refuse coffee in a restaurant. If it’s offered, it is on the house and it is considered rude to end the meal without having a coffee. If you don´t drink coffee, ask for tea. Don´t worry about the glasses, yes, the tea or coffee comes in glasses, they are tiny, more like a shot, and really delicious. Usually also served with something sweet on the side, what´s not to like?
What is the first thing you want to do when traveling the middle east? Let us know in the comments below.
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