Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Middle East & Africa
Dubai’s signature landmark is the Burj Al-Arab, the famous sail-shaped hotel facing the Arabian Gulf. The world’s only seven-star hotel, it’s truly the stuff of James Bond movies and superstars.
Packed with bars and restaurants, the hotel is a world within a world, with guests enjoying every luxury service you can imagine in their opulent suites.
For most of us, catching that iconic shot of the hotel jutting out to sea is the closest we’ll get to the Burj Al-Arab. Mere mortals can visit, but before you can even reach the front door you have to make a booking in advance and a hefty fee is charged to sightsee.
A better way to visit is by making a reservation at one of the hotel’s many bars or restaurants. Al Muntaha restaurant and the adjacent Skyview Bar are the venues to choose for soaring panoramic views.
Skyscrapers don’t get any taller than Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest structure on the planet. Soaring 828 meters (2,717 ft), with more than 160 stories, the building has a stepped design that narrows as it climbs syringe-like to the sky.
Burj Khalifa is part of the massive Downtown Dubai complex of offices, hotels, shopping malls, entertainment precincts and apartment buildings. Ride the elevator to the 124th-floor Observation Deck for astounding views over Dubai and the Arabian Gulf, or take a wander through the gardens and fountains of Burj Khalifa Park. Shop till you drop in Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping mall. Along with a huge variety of shops – including Galeries Lafayette, Bloomingdale's, and Marks & Spencer – the mall includes an aquarium, ice rink, Sega theme park and cinemas.
The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien constructions; they seem to rise out of the desert and pose the ever-fascinating question, 'How were we built, and why?' The oldest and biggest pyramid is that of Cheops, and you can go inside this one if you don't suffer from claustrophobia. Once they were covered in smooth white marble but that was taken for temples over the centuries, but you can imagine how even more impressive they would have been then. Climbing on the pyramids is strictly banned.The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien constructions; they seem to rise out of the desert and pose the ever-fascinating question, 'How were we built, and why?'
Palm Jumeirah juts out from the Dubai shoreline into the Persian Gulf, resembling from above a palm tree sprouting from the beach. Construction on the manmade island began in 2001, and it remains the world’s largest artificial island, with its 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) trunk and 17 fronds, all surrounded by a crescent. It is the smallest of three planned artificial islands collectively called the Palm Islands.
Since the opening of the Palm Jumeirah’s first residences in 2006, numerous luxury hotels and resorts have opened up on the islands, including the Fairmont Palm Hotel & Resort, Kempinski Hotel, Atlantis The Palm, One & Only The Palm and a Waldorf Astoria. Designer shops line the island’s Golden Mile, while an ever-expanding array of restaurants and bars keep visitors sated. Most of the island’s visitor-centric attractions can be found in and around the Atlantis, where Aquaventure Waterpark, the Lost Chambers Aquarium, Dolphin Bay and Sea Lion Point.
The harsh, lunar landscape of the Valley of the Kings is the resting place of numerous New Kingdom pharaohs, whose remains were interred in tombs burrowed into rock. The 60-odd tombs which have been discovered (which may represent only half of the total tombs in the area) are identified by number rather than the name of their original inhabitant, and a handful of tombs are closed at any one time for restoration. Nonetheless there is more than enough to see, and it is better to pick out a representative sample rather than try to see every tomb.
Grave-robbers and museums have nabbed the items which were supposed to accompany rulers into the afterlife, but you can still see the work of some of the finest artisans of the ancient world, who glorified pharaohs in frescoes and wall reliefs. Graffiti shows that this extraordinary ensemble of antiquities was already a tourist attraction for the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The self-proclaimed “most luxurious man-made marine in the world” is also the largest; the Dubai Marina is a 50-million-square-foot mega-development that began in 2003 as part of the wave of projects that transformed (and continues to transform) the desert landscape into a forest of skyscrapers.Home to a large concentration of Western expats, the Dubai Marina also houses attractions like the Wild Wadi Water Park with its 30 different water attractions, Gravity Zone Bungee Jump, Dolphin Bay and the Dubai Marina Walk, a beachfront promenade lined with more than 300 shops and restaurants. As home to some of Dubai’s poshest hotels and hippest nightclubs, it’s a neighborhood where many a visitor comes to stay or play.
Combining the thrill of an African safari with a 4-star luxury vacation, the Aquila Game Reserve is a top adventure destination in the Cape Town area. You'll see wild game in their natural environment from the vantage point of either a 4x4 offroad vehicle, horseback or quadbike, depending on your package.
Get as close as you (or your guide, anyway) dare to elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and buffalo, as well as spot some of South Africa's unique bird such as the sacred ibis and the notorious buzzard.
The star attraction of Morocco’s hippie haven has to be its eponymous beach, and the windswept coast and sandy shores certainly live up to the hype. Lined with bars, restaurants and surf shops, the beach is best known as a hotspot for surfers, windsurfers and kitesurfers, thanks to its steady, year-round winds. The shores near Diabat may be the quietest areas for a bit of relaxation.
With few wind-free days, Essaouira beach is better suited for water sports than swimming and sunbathing, but there are still sunbeds and umbrellas available for rental during the summer months. In addition to kitesurfing and windsurfing lessons, Berber horse and Arabian camel rides are possible and popular along the beach. You’ll likely also see travelers enjoying quad buggy rides along the coast and local children playing soccer in the sand.
The Abu Dhabi Corniche stretches along the northwestern shore of the island city, a popular spot for beachside recreation. The 5-mile (8-kilometer) stretch of attractive waterfront includes walking paths, cafes, playgrounds and bicycle rentals, and no matter what you decide to do along the coast, you’ll have an excellent view of Abu Dhabi’s skyline. In the evenings, the promenade is the perfect place for a stroll.
The Corniche’s crowning jewel is its public white sand beach. With numerous lifeguards on duty during swimming hours and floating fences keeping swimmers within 130 feet (40 meters), the Corniche Beach is great for families traveling with children. Come on a weekday, and you’ll usually find an umbrella.
More Things to Do in Middle East & Africa
Not to be outdone by Dubai’s Burj Al Arab, Abu Dhabi opened its own seven-star hotel in 2005. The Emirates Palace, managed by the Kempinski Group, sits just outside the city on its own private stretch of white sand beach. The domed, sand-colored palace is dotted with verdant gardens, water fountains and sparkling pools.
The 302 rooms and 92 suites—many finished in gold and marble—feature state-of-the-art entertainment systems paired with Arabian furnishings fit for a sheik. Here’s an idea of just how extravagant the 3 billion dollar property really is: 11 pounds (5 kilograms) of pure edible gold gets incorporated into the hotel’s desserts each year—desserts made in 128 kitchens. The marble in the hotel comes from 13 different countries and 1,002 chandeliers provide the light. Visitors who don’t want to splurge on a room can experience the property with a meal at one of 10 restaurants, a drink at one of the four bars or a rejuvenating treatment at the Anantara Spa.
Opened in 2001, Marina Mall is Abu Dhabi’s biggest and best shopping complex, encompassing 1.3 million square feet (122,000 square meters) of retail space. A major destination for fans of luxe shopping, the complex houses more than 400 shops and 48 restaurants. Standouts include an IKEA, Carrefour supermarket and a Manchester City FC store.
For non-shopping travelers, the mall houses an ice rink, nine screen VOX Cinemas, a 32-lane bowling alley, Fun City arcade and family entertainment center, musical fountains and a viewing platform for people watching.
The Great Sphinx of Giza is the greatest monumental sculpture of the ancient world and measures a massive 240 ft (73 m) long by 66 ft (20 m) high. It is generally believed to have been built around 2,550 BC but may well be even older. Legends and superstitions abound about the Sphinx, and the mystery surrounding its long-forgotten purpose is almost as intriguing as its appearance.
These days the Sphinx has been given a new role as part of a nightly Sound and Light show telling the history of Egypt with the Sphinx as narrator. Several times each evening, colored lights bounce off the pyramids as the story of an ancient world is told.
Famously one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was the world’s first ever lighthouse, constructed in the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy I. An incredible architectural achievement of its time, the lighthouse took over two decades to complete and, at 450 feet (137 meters) tall, ranked among the world’s tallest structures for centuries after. It stood as a commanding force in Alexandria’s harbor for hundreds of years before being destroyed by a series of earthquakes that sent huge stones into the bay.
Today, almost nothing remains of the former world wonder, although the seaside Citadel of Qaitbay was built in its place using lighthouse ruins in 1480. The well-preserved medieval fortress offers visitors great views of Alexandria’s skyline and out to sea, plus the knowledge of its location’s historical significance.
Mount Nebo is 817 meters (2,680 feet) above sea level, and thus more than 1km (0.6 mi) above the neighboring Dead Sea. It is a site holy to both Christians and Jews: Moses is said to have died on or near the mountain some time after God had showed him the Holy Land from its summit.
You can still enjoy the prophet’s view today – gaze out over the sea lying under a saline haze, the ancient city of Jericho and, if you’re lucky, all the way to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. On Siyagha (one of the mountain’s twin peaks), you can see the remains of mosaics from a Byzantine monastery.
This 120-acre conservation center in the heart of Kenya’s largest city provides a natural breeding ground for one of Africa’s most graceful animals. As part of a concerted effort to increase numbers for these endangered species, giraffe calves are bread, born and raised in this protected environment before being introduced to the wild at the age of two. Visitors can sit in on talks about the center’s conservation activities and efforts, then climb a raised platform to pet and feed giraffes before taking to the 1.5-kilometer nature trail for guided birding or a tree identification tour.
The most famous ride at Dubai’s Aquaventure Waterpark has to be the Tower of Neptune. First, you’ll scale a Maya pyramid before plunging 60 feet down a clear tunnel through a lagoon filled with real sharks. Seriously, real sharks. With 40 acres’ worth of water slides and swimming pools, Atlantis The Palm’s Aquaventure Waterpark is huge.
Home to the world’s largest slide tube, the world’s first dual slide within a slide, and the Middle East’s longest zip-line circuit, you can even go swimming with the lagoon sharks if you’re feeling brave.
Among the palm trees there are 11 swimming pools, a six-person raft adventure, and a play area for little kids on Splashers Island. There’s also 700 meters of private beach to enjoy, and a mile-long lazy river ride which you can float along in a tube. Keep a lookout for tunnels, rolling rapids, and wave surges along the way.
The Giftun Islands are a popular excursion from Hurghada, offering snorkeling, diving, sunbathing and a welcome retreat from the mainland bustle.
Offshore reefs provide spectacular drop-offs for experienced divers, hiding moray eels and fish in amongst the corals. Closer to shore, the coral reef snorkeling is superb.
The islands are famous for their pristine protected beaches, and a resort on the larger island provides all the facilities you need for a day by the sea, along with tours and windsurfing.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest in the United Arab Emirates and eighth largest in the world, rises majestically from Abu Dhabi and serves as the central place of worship for citizens of the emirate. The massive white structure can accommodate around 40,000 people and is home to the world’s largest marble mosaic in the courtyard and the world’s largest carpet which is within the main prayer hall.
Thousands of workers from three dozen design companies worked to make the mosque a reality, resulting in the most expensive mosque on earth. White marble was imported from 28 different countries to complete the mosque, as well as chandeliers from Europe—the world’s most valuable—and carpets from Iran.
The mosque offers free admission. Visitors should wear loose-fitting clothing, including a long skirt or pants and long-sleeved shirts. Women must wear a head scarf within the mosque, so please bring your own as they are not provided at the mosque.
It’s only fitting that a city as extravagant as Abu Dhabi has a theme park to match its extravagance, and in this case, that theme park is Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. The race car-themed park features 20 rides and attractions—everything from the toddler-friendly carousel of Ferrari prototype cars to cutting-edge racing simulators that will please older children 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 where you’re strapped into a Ferrari Formula One-like coaster car and launched at speeds up to 150 miles per hour (240 kilometers per hour).
Car enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the 1920s ode to Italian racing inside the Cinema Maranello or the Racing Legends, an exhibit featuring key moments in the history of Ferrari racing. Expect to dine on primarily Italian food if you choose to eat in the food court.
Located on the Corniche Breakwater, the Emirates Heritage Club runs a reconstructed traditional village demonstrating the lifestyles and traditions of the cultures native to the Arabian Peninsula. If you’ve ever wondered what Abu Dhabi was like before the discovery of oil transformed it into a pocket of extreme wealth, you’ll get a glimpse here. Come in the morning before it gets too hot to explore the open-air museum. Enter a traditional goats’ hair tent and learn about the ancient falaj irrigation system that allowed desert dwellers to begin cultivating crops. Local craftsworkers conduct workshops in traditional metalwork, pottery, spinning and weaving. The traditional mosque is a far cry from the palatial white marble Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, demonstrating just how far the United Arab Emirates have come. Be sure to stop by the gift shop during your visit. You’ll be able to pick up local herbs and spices as well as items made by the local artisans working in the village.
Measuring 4,150 miles (6,680 kilometers) from end to end, the Nile River is the world’s longest and arguably the most important in the region. Egypt’s some 83 million residents, living along the edge of the pitiless Sahara Desert, have always relied on the waters of the Nile for basic sustenance.
More than 240 riverboats sail up and down the waters of the Nile River between Luxor and Aswan, and cruising on one of them tops many an Egyptian travel itinerary. Along the way, you’ll make stops at a few of the countless temples dotting the shore, including the Temple of Edfu, built in honor of the god Horus and better maintained than any other Pharaonic structure along the river, and the Temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek.
At Aswan, marvel at the controversial Aswan High Dam, a feat of engineering responsible for harnessing the Nile and creating the world’s largest artificial lake.
Philae was a holy island in the Nile River where the ancient Egyptians built a temple to the goddess Isis. With the projects to dam the Nile - first with the Aswan Dam, then later in the 1960s with the High Aswan Dam - the island became increasingly submerged and the temple threatened. As part of UNESCO's project to rescue the ancient monuments threatened by the river damming, the island was itself dammed, surrounded by a high wall, until all the water was gone and the building could be cut into sections and moved. The project took 10 years.
Now the temple is on the higher, nearby Agilka Island and worthy of a visit. Isis was a very important goddess in ancient times. She was known as the Mother of God, giver of life, protector and healer of kings and her temple was once the site of many pilgrimages.