12 must-visit cities in the Middle East

An enchanting cultural crossroads between East and West, the Middle East offers a layered mix of modern metropolises, complex ancient gems and archaeological sites, and some of the world’s most surreal natural landscapes. From its historic hubs to its party destinations and foodie hotspots, we’ve rounded up the top cities that beg to be explored.

Jerusalem’s Old City, Israel. Image: iStock/Jacek_Sopotnicki

Tel Aviv, Israel

For urban cool and a vibrant cosmopolitan buzz, look no further than Israel’s pleasure dome of hedonism, Tel Aviv. With a diverse and thriving cultural scene, the ‘Big Orange’ is everything you didn’t know the Middle East had to offer. Fringed by an inviting stretch of beaches, its cityscape is made up of UNESCO-listed Bauhaus-style buildings and high rises, while its burgeoning neighbourhoods brim with art galleries, outstanding cuisine – from high-end eateries and simple street food stalls alike – great bars, buzzing clubs and boutique hotels. Must dos include drinks at Armadillo Bar, Kuli Alma and Speakeasy, food at A la Rampa, Mezcal and Orna & Ella, art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and Florentin Urban Culture Tour, and clubbing on the tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard – BuXa, Alphabet, and Breakfast Club are just a few places offering a good time.

Jaffa Old Town and modern skyline, Tel Aviv, Israel. Image: iStock/Xantana

Istanbul, Turkey

Age-old Istanbul straddles two continents – Europe and Asia – and is a cultural melting pot of old and new. Formerly Old Constantinople, this one-of-a-kind city has layers of rich history and culture, most evident from its extraordinarily beautiful mosques, The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed) and Aya Sofya (once a Greek Orthodox church). For mounds of spices and Turkish delights, hit up Spice Bazaar, while Grand Bazaar boasts hand-made rugs and lanterns. If it’s a glimpse of modern-day Istanbul you’re after, head for the chic boutiques of Ni?anta?? and the nightlife of Kad?köy. The iconic Soho House group has an outpost in the heart of buzzing Beyoglu, too – Istanbul’s answer to Soho. City must-eats include meze and raki at Koço and the best baklava at Karaköy Güllüo?lu. Be sure to hit the spot with a Turkish coffee, too.

Istanbul at sunset. Photo: iStock/xavierarnau

Muscat and Nizwa, Oman

Otherworldly Oman is where you’ll catch a glimpse of authentic Arabia; experience its charms in Muscat, where mystery and modernity merge without compromising on the city’s rich heritage. There are stunning beaches and a low-rise skyline (thanks to a no-skyscraper policy), not to mention fascinating cultural sites like the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and Royal Opera House, plus authentic, time-honoured cuisine – think spices from the sea trade and grilled meats from the Arabian Peninsula. Two hours beyond the capital is the ancient city of Nizwa, which is surrounded by the Al Hajar Mountains and a true step into the past. Spend your days discovering the 17th-century Nizwa Fort and your Arabian nights visiting the Nizwa Souk.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat, Oman. Photo: iStock/Travel_Nerd

Abu Dhabi, UAE

While Dubai is the obvious choice for nomads when it comes to glamorous UAE hotspots, Abu Dhabi is the top contender giving the glitzy city a run for its money – with year-round sunshine, swanky hotels, sophisticated drinking and dining spots, striking architecture and world-class attractions, it’s easy to see why. When you aren’t marvelling at the magnificent, intricate detailing of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, or visiting the much-anticipated Louvre art museum, soak up views of the city skyline from the Corniche, or head out on a city-to-desert Jeep safari. The UAE capital is also home to a host of extraordinary five-star hotels, including The St Regis, The Ritz-Carlton, Jumeirah at Etihad Towers and Yas Viceroy among luxurious others.

Abu Dhabi. Image: iStock/Extreme-Photographer

Beirut and Byblos, Lebanon

Beirut is one of the oldest cities on earth, once nicknamed the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. It’s a city that doesn’t let its war-torn reputation get in the way, with a beauty that’s still evident today as it embraces its age-old history whilst making it new. Growing in confidence, it’s a decadent Mecca for foodies, party-goers and art-lovers, with bucket loads of energy and soul. After dining at Liza Beirut – an ultra-elegant restaurant with intricate all-white interiors and a classic Lebanese menu – hit up Mar Mikhael Street and Gemmayze, which have Brooklyn-esque bar scenes. The lavish 19th-century townhouse, Bustros Palace is a must-see, while must-dos include an authentic cooking class at Tawlet and dinner at Baron Beirut. For a change of pace and scenery, Byblos is an ancient UNESCO gem set by the sea, with a medieval town centre and old souk.

Downtown Beirut, Lebanon. Image: iStock/ramzihachicho

Petra and Amman, Jordan

Jordan is a country of contrasts, from ancient cities and sprawling desert to the Dead Sea and modern metropolises. Known as the ‘Rose City’ thanks to its red-coloured sandstone rock, Petra is an inspiring place for history buffs and nomads alike. This archaeological heaven has a history dating back as far as 300 BC, boasting monumental architectural marvels, including Petra’s defining moment – the walk along the Siq to the remarkable wonder that is the Treasury. Then there’s Amman, which in total contrast has become increasingly trendy, with a host of cool cafés, bargain markets, lively start-ups and family-run ‘cook and dine’ experiences. Browse Souk el-Joumea or Florhmakt market during the day, then head to Sufra for delicious authentic cuisine before happy hour with a sunset at Cantaloupe or books@café.

The Treasury, Petra, Jordan. Image: iStock/PocholoCalapre

Kuwait City, Kuwait

Kuwait City is a slick metropolis on the shores of the Persian Gulf. From its famous landmark Kuwait Towers to one of the largest shopping malls in the Middle East, The Avenues, this small city is a fascinating place with lots to offer. But it’s not all cutting-edge modernity: eat authentic food at the Mubarakiya souk, visit the imposing Grand Mosque and take a ferry to the Heritage Village of Failaka Island. And, of course, no visit would be complete without a trip to the desert, where you can explore by quad bike or more traditionally, by camel. Then, as the sun sets, head to Al Shaheed Park where you’ll get to witness the impressive skyline come to life with colour, all before dining at Mais Alghanim, which serves up some of the best authentic cuisine in the city.

Kuwait City, Kuwait. Image: iStock/Eyef Dee

Doha, Qatar

Authentic Islamic culture and luxury live side by side in Doha; traditional markets and souks co-exist alongside modern shopping malls, while age-old Qatari architecture sits between innovative skyscrapers. The spiritual hub of the city is Souq Waqif, an atmospheric labyrinth of market stalls selling everything from spices to embroidered robes. Head up the Tornado Tower for a birds-eye view of city, before visiting the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by the architect who created the Louvre’s glass pavilion. When you aren’t dining on Middle Eastern meze in The Pearl – Doha’s answer to The Palm in Dubai – enjoy a drink at one of the world-class five-star hotels that have popped up thanks to the city’s rapid development (think Shangri-La and Four Seasons).

The Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar. Image: iStock/LordRunar

Manama, Bahrain

Manama combines traditional souks and UNESCO World Heritage Sites with beautiful beaches, contemporary architecture and wildlife. So, whether you’re keen to discover the old or the new, Bahrain’s capital has it covered. Work your way around Manama Souk, which is a maze of small streets and alleys famous for its pearls and gold (you’ll find shisha, nuts and spices, plus pottery shops too). Then, uncover the layers of history at the UNESCO Qal’at al-Bahrain fort, an archaeological treasure dating back to 2,300 BC, before visiting the Al Fateh Grand Mosque. To cool off from the midday heat, head for one of the beaches to unwind, or take a trip to the Al Dar Island, with its quiet lagoons and buzzing bays.

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