Things to Do & Must-See Attractions 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the central place of worship for citizens of the United Arab Emirates. This massive white structure is the largest mosque in the country, accommodating roughly 40,000 people. Inside you’ll find white marble columns with mother-of-pearl engravings, expansive Iranian carpets, and intricate crystal chandeliers.
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.
From mind-bending optical illusions and mirror mazes to interactive puzzles and forced-perspective photo ops, the Curious Corner of Chamarel is a museum unlike any other in Mauritius. It’s full of fun exhibitions for the Instagram age that challenge your perceptions and make you smile.
Located near Sal’s northeastern coast, the Pedra de Lume Salt Crater is a popular attraction where visitors can see beautiful pink- and white-hued salt pans against a mountainous backdrop. Though some evidence of the crater’s industrial past remains, the area it is now a wellness center where you can swim and float in the salty water.
The Coral Beach Nature Reserve in Eilat is home to a unique coral reef with more than 100 types of coral and 650 species of fish, making it a popular spot for snorkelers. It is the only coral reef in Israel, and one of the most densely populated in the world.
Running parallel to the beach, the reef is over a kilometer in length and can be accessed right from the beach via a pier. Once underwater, trails are marked by buoys, and spectacular underwater gardens created by unique and colorful coral are immediately revealed. Along the way, snorkelers will spot a variety of fascinating tropical fish, including the parrot fish, butterfly fish, nocturnal fish, and many more besides.
The Delaire Graff Wine Estate, near Stellenbosch, is a beautiful winery destination in the Cape Winelands region
Laurence Graff, a diamond dealer of many years, bought the Delaire Estate in the early 2000s. The estate was re-opened as Delaire Graff in 2009, and now features not only the winery but also world-class dining, luxury lodges, a spa, an excellent art collection, a diamond boutique, and picturesque botanic gardens.
Delaire Graff Estate is a luxury destination where you're tempted to stay for a few days, but you can also visit for a day to sample the estate's wines. Sip Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, rose and sparkling wines, and both white and red blends.