Things to Do in Middle East & Africa
When you think of the United Arab Emirates, it’s usually about sand dunes, towering skyscrapers, or the sparkling Arabian Sea. In the mountains of Ras al Khaimah, however, travelers can venture up the rugged slopes of rocky Jebal al Jais, which at 6,207 feet is the UAE’s tallest peak. Leave the rush of the city behind as you snake your way up the mountain, where the surrounding cliffs and rock-strewn plains make it seem like the surface of the moon. The view of the city from the top is spectacular—particularly at sunrise and sunset—and sleeping beneath the desert stars is a popular visitor activity. So, too, is renting a sports car and hugging the mountainous curves, or booking an afternoon picnic lunch enjoyed right on the mountainous slopes. The last section of the road to the summit has lately been closed for construction, but plans are to not just improve the road, but also create the world’s longest zipline that runs for 1.4 miles. There has also been talk of putting a resort and golf course up on the mountain, but for the time being it’s a desert escape that’s peaceful and undeveloped.
Perhaps Egypt’s best-known diving and snorkeling site, the Blue Hole is a coral-fringed submarine sinkhole just north of Dahab in the Sinai. Dropping vertiginously to depths reaching 426 feet (130 meters), with a dramatic tunnel at 183 feet (56 meters), it’s popular with submarine enthusiasts, from technical divers to snorkelers.
If you want to understand the complex history of Tunisia, a visit to the National Bardo Museum (Musée National du Bardo) is a good place to start. The country’s top museum – one of the largest in Africa – is housed within a fifteenth century Hafsid palace and displays a collection of archaeological artifacts and works of art spanning the totality of Tunisia’s history.
The highlight of the impressive collection is the collection of well preserved Roman mosaics – one of the best collections in the world. Other notable pieces include early Islamic ceramics, rare Phoenician artifacts and an ornate baptismal font dating back to the end of the sixth century.
Located just south of the city, Nairobi National Park is Kenya’s first game reserve and the only protected area in the world that sits so close to a nation’s capital. Visitors to the vast wildlife park are likely to spot black rhinos, lions, giraffe, and zebra, as well as some 400 bird species.
In the heart of Ethiopia’s highlands, 11 rock-cut churches stand as a testament to the country’s rich heritage and architectural mastery. Commissioned by King Lalibela in the 13th century, the monolithic construction was one of the first landmarks to receive UNESCO-listed status, making it a must for first-time visitors to Ethiopia.
During the last years of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese constructed a massive fort to protect the port of Mombasa. Designed by Giovanni Battista Cairati, Fort Jesus is one of the best preserved examples of Portuguese military architecture from the era, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Today, Mombasa’s most visited attraction houses the Fort Jesus Museum. The collection includes archaeological finds not only from Fort Jesus, but from nearby sites as well. Highlights include a collection of ceramics from the Kenyan coast and what’s left of the San Antonio de Tanna, a Portuguese gunner that sank not far from the fort in the late seventeenth century.
A short stroll from Manger Square in Bethlehem lies another sacred site – the Milk Grotto, so called as it was allegedly used by Mary to nurse the baby Jesus. Legend has it that the Holy Family hid out in the grotto during the Massacre of the Innocents, before fleeing to Egypt, and that while nursing, a drop of Mary’s milk hit the ground, turning the cave white.
A church has stood on the spot since the 5th century and today, a small Franciscan chapel stands watch over the entrance to the Milk grotto, now a shrine to the Virgin Mary. The cave itself, sculpted from white chalk rock, has become a magnet for women looking to conceive, with many believing that drinking the powdered rock (on sale at the grotto) will enhance their fertility. The display of notes and baby photos sent to the grotto from around the world seem to testify to its powers.
Built on the site of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the longest surviving Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the 15th-century Citadel of Qaitbay (Fort Qaitbey) is a postcard-pretty sea fort. The battlements offer sweeping city views, the small museum houses maritime relics and aquariums, and three pillars likely date from the lighthouse.
Valley of the Kings is a treasure trove of archaeological wonders, containing dozens of tombs filled with art and hieroglyphics. See King Tutankhamun’s tomb—the most famous sight in the valley—then tour the temples of the sons of Ramses II and of Amenhotep III and others to marvel at the centuries’ old art and artifacts.
One of the most mysterious Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (and the only one still standing), the Pyramids of Giza—the Great Pyramid of Khufu, Pyramid of Khafre, and Pyramid of Menkaure—still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Seeing these 4th-dynasty pyramids and their guardian Great Sphinx rising from the Giza Plateau is a must on any trip to Cairo (and the reason many travelers find themselves in Egypt).
More Things to Do in Middle East & Africa
Mosi-oa-Tunya, or 'the Smoke Which Thunders,' refers to the iconic Victoria Falls that give this national park in Zambia its native name. Located along the upper Zambezi River, Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park houses half of the waterfall, as well as 41 square miles (66 square kilometers) of protected land rich with biodiversity.
Most visitors come to see the falls, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the world’s largest curtain of falling water. There are a host of clearly marked and well-kept paths that wind through towering forests, and from the Zambian side of the falls, visitors can cross Knife-edge Bridge for spectacular views of the main falls. Outdoor adventurists can make the steep descent into the Boiling Pot and watch whitewater rafters board for a wild ride on the Zambezi River.
While the waterfalls are certainly a highlight of the national park, there’s also an entire section dedicated to wildlife-spotting, where travelers can book a game drive. Depending on the time of year, it’s possible to spot zebras, giraffes, antelope, warthogs, many species of birds and rare rhinos. The national park also serves as an important point for elephants to cross the Zambezi River, so they’re often sighted as well.
The race car–themed Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi features 20 rides and attractions—everything from the toddler-friendly carousel of Ferrari prototype cars to cutting-edge racing simulators that will please older kids and teens. The largest indoor theme park in the world is also home to the world’s fastest roller coaster, the Formula Rossa, a hydraulic-powered thrill ride that sees visitors strapped into a Ferrari Formula One-like coaster car and launched at speeds of up to 150 miles (240 kilometers) per hour.
Between April and July 1994, countless Rwandans were murdered by Hutu extremists, who terrorized the country in an attempt to wipe out the Tutsi population. More than 250,000 victims are buried at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which aims to provide a context for the slaughter and educate visitors about prevention of future genocide.
On the grounds of the L'Ormarins farm in Franschhoek, home to Antonij Rupert Wines, is the Franschhoek Motor Museum. This collection of more than 200 cars is the personal collection of Johann Rupert, who runs the wine estate. The cars span more than 100 years of car-making history, and the models on display (a selection that rotates periodically) are in impeccable condition.
In addition to the cars, the Franschhoek Motor Museum also showcases some historical motorcycles and bicycles, as well as motoring memorabilia. There are four buildings on the estate which hold cars, each grouped by its make.
A centerpiece of Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum (Museum of Egyptian Antiquities) has been a mecca for Egyptologists since it opened and houses some of the world’s greatest ancient relics. While some collections are moving to the new Grand Egyptian Museum, it remains a must-see for anyone interested in ancient Egypt.
Stationed in the heart of Accra, this bustling market’s kinetic vibe has an energy that’s uniquely its own. Whether it’s discarded car parts, fresh produce, pots, medicine, plants or giant land snails, Makola Market sells practically everything under the sun.
The market also holds some historical significance. Established in 1924, Makola was the first wholesale and retail spot in Accra, making it a staple of both community and commerce. In 1979, it was destroyed by the government in hopes of improving local economy, but was quickly brought back to life by citizens eager to trade. Today, Makola is one of the most popular markets in Accra and travelers claim it’s possible to get just about anything, from anywhere, in its hundreds of hot, crowded stalls.
The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building on the planet, soaring 2,717 feet (828 meters) high with more than 160 stories set in a stepped design that narrows as it climbs, syringe-like, to the sky. The design is patterned after the repetition of a single geometric shape, meant to echo Islamic art. Bringing a new meaning to the term skyscraper, the building is part of the massive downtown Dubai complex of offices, hotels, shopping malls, entertainment precincts, and apartment buildings.
In 1925, the British government built the Manhyia Palace as a home for Prempeh I upon his return from exile in the Seychelles, and it remained a royal residence for Prempeh I and Prempeh II until the early 1970s.
Today, the Asantehene’s Palace houses the Manhyia Palace Museum, opened in 1995 to display the residence’s original furnishings and royal memorabilia, including Asanteman’s first television and wax statues of several kings and queens of Ashanti. Besides the museum collection, the building itself is a good example of traditional Ashanti architecture from the turn of the century.
While Mauritius might be known for its world-class beaches and temptingly turquoise waters, the island offers more adventure than just snorkeling, swimming, and diving. In Black River Gorges National Park on the island’s southwestern tip, 18 miles of hiking trails are embedded in a canopy of what’s regarded as the island’s last pristine section of forest. Between deforestation and invasive species, there was once a time when the forests seemed in danger of disappearing. In 1994, however, when Black River Gorges became the island of Mauritius’ only national park, it provided a 25 square mile home for endemic plants and wildlife still found in the forest today. When hiking the trails in the forested uplands, remember to look up in the rustling branches for pink pigeons and Mauritius kestrels that flit their way through the trees. There’s the chance you might spot mischievous monkeys when hiking to a viewpoint or waterfall, and while it’s still possible to see the coast from the various hilltop viewpoints, the cobalt shores seem miles away from this green, protected sanctuary.
The Philae Temple (Temple of Isis) was once set on a holy island in the Nile River, the site of many pilgrimages. Although projects to dam the Nile once threatened the existence of both the island and the temple, UNESCO worked to rescue and preserve the ancient monument, damming the island itself with a high surrounding wall until the Philae Temple could be moved in sections to a new location: the higher, nearby Agilka Island.
Visit the temple to learn about the temple's history, as well as Isis, who was a very important goddess in ancient times. She was known as the Mother of God, giver of life, and protector and healer of kings.
This massive crater in the heart of Mauritius measures more than 980 feet (300 meters) in diameter and some 260 feet (80 meters) deep. Known for its humid climate and expansive 360-degree views, Trou aux Cerfs volcano is a favorite spot among travelers seeking out natural beauty and quiet tranquility. While this dormant volcano hasn’t erupted in lifetimes, experts say it’s primed to blow any time in the next thousand years—a fact that lends a bit of edge to an otherwise peaceful excursion. Travelers can wander the scenic paths surrounding Trou aux Crefs Crater and take in epic views of incredible island countryside.
Some believe the Grand Bassin, a natural lake at the top of another nearby volcano, is an extension of the Ganges River, so travelers can sometimes find Hindus from throughout Mauritius worshiping at its sacred waters.
The massive, white Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the central place of worship for citizens of the United Arab Emirates, accommodating roughly 40,000 people. Highlights inside include white marble columns with mother-of-pearl engravings, expansive Iranian carpets, and intricate crystal chandeliers.