Home to culture and traditions that go back millenniums, the Middle East is a destination underdog growing in popularity among travelers, adventurists, and naturally: history buffs, who love the fusion of religion, art, ancient tradition, and modern way of life.
Nestled between North Africa, Southern Europe, and Asia, the countries that comprise the “Middle East” have changed over time. Popular countries to visit include Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. With Qatar now ranked as the 30th most peaceful country in the world and Kuwait, UAE, and Oman not far behind, travelers are flocking to the region while it still feels “off the beaten path”.
If you want to visit the area, know that many Middle Eastern countries require more research than your typical weekend vacation. So we’ve created this guide mapping out popular activities and tours in the Middle East and logistics to consider when planning.
Trek across an entire country on the Jordan Trail, hike the Zagros mountains in Iran, or visit the ancient Egyptian pyramids and sphinx. The Middle East mixes adventure with intriguing history and UNESCO sites that are picture-perfect and full of thrills. Some of the most popular adventure activities to consider for your trip include sand boarding, camel riding, hiking, and canyoning.
The Middle East is where you want to be if you are intrigued by ancient civilizations and well-preserved archaeological sites. Search for petroglyphs in Wadi Rum, explore the ancient city of Petra, take photos outside of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, and stop by the port city of Jaffa. Whether you’re visiting world famous temples or market shopping, touring metropolises, or exploring the prophet Mohammed’s burial site (Al-Masjid an-Nabawi), there is so much culture to learn about.
Adventurous foodies visit the Middle East in droves: once you taste the local fare, you might discover a new favorite food. Sample falafels, shawarma, and hummus throughout many Arab countries, hashi (baby camel), Qatar’s own sweet coffee: Qawha, or traditional baklava right from the experts. Which will you try first?
Sea & River Tours
You can’t make a trip to the Middle East without floating in the Dead Sea or cruising along the Nile River. Mediterranean beach lovers should definitely make a stop in Tel Aviv too, and if you are a fan of diving or snorkeling, the Red Sea, Sea of Oman, or Saudi Arabia’s Farasan Islands offer plenty of marine life to explore.
Planning Your Trip
Planning a trip to any new country isn't easy, let alone a region where countries' rules, visa regulations, levels of safety, and cost differ greatly. Use these tips to help you get organized when planning for your tour of the Middle East.
Best Time To Visit the Middle East
The Middle East is ideal to visit between November and April if you want relief from the summer heat. February is also a great time to catch cultural festivals. Before you finalize dates and book tours though, be sure to check that your visit doesn’t overlap with a religious holiday.
Before you plan a date, also check travel warnings as some countries may issue reciprocal action in response the current executive travel orders implemented by the U.S. government.
What To Look For in a Tour to the Middle East
When booking your tour check that accommodations and transportation (including domestic flights) are included in the package (or inquire about how much it costs to add on). Search for testimonials on reputable travel sites and thoroughly review the tour operator's expedition package and fine print.
Lastly, double check that your passport and booking dates meet any visa prerequisites. Your tour guide is not responsible if you can't get into the country and may not refund your money. Most tour operators recommend your passport be valid for at least one year after your intended tour dates.
Typical Tour Costs
Booking an all-inclusive tour might give you initial sticker shock, but upon review may be quite reasonable in pricing. Longer tours (15-20 days) can cost around $5,000-8,000 while shorter excursions are about $3,000. Remember that most tour prices will be based on double occupancy and won't include gratuity.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
The Middle East’s desert climate makes packing a little difficult. From blistering hot days to cold nights, you’ll have to rely on layers to keep up with weather. Additionally, because of much of the area’s conservative culture, long pants, long dresses, shoulder coverage, and full-coverage beachwear is appropriate attire. If you have the choice, opt for flowing rather than form-fitting clothing, which will help ventilation on hot days, but cover you up at night or when visiting religious and cultural sites.
Other Tips for Travel in the Middle East
- Visas: Some destinations may grant visas upon arrival while others will require an extensive visa application process. If visiting Iran, for example, expect to be without a passport for at least 6 months for visa review. Be sure to closely research visa deadlines and requirements for your trip at least one year in advance. Lastly, note that some countries may deny entry if they see a previous passport stamp to Israel or Iraq.
- Currency & payments: Each country has their own currency. Most areas will have ATMs and accept credit cards. You should carry cash for bottled water, market shopping, and gratuity.
- Transportation & accommodations: Unless in a metropolis or tourist-friendly town, it is recommended to arrange lodging and transportation with your tour operator. Smaller towns may offer few options for housing and onward travel.
Health & Safety
Before your trip to the Middle East, be sure to be up to date on routine vaccinations. The CDC offers in-depth information, organized by country, and can provide the latest vaccine requirements and recommendations for your itinerary.
If you require medication, carry a doctor's note and the original medicine bottles. While more advanced Middle Eastern cities may have good medical care, smaller towns may not even have a pharmacy. If medication is a concern, bring a full supply for the duration of your trip.
While some countries are deemed more peaceful than others for Westerners, solo travelers, and women, the Middle East is generally much safer than the media portrays -- especially in touristic areas. This does’t ignore the glaring fact that some are still suffering and recovering from war, in low-peace areas, or in the midst of political crisis.
Women should take care to dress conservatively, couples refrain from displaying public affection, and travelers note that no pork and alcohol is allowed in most areas. As long as you stick with your guide and are respectful of local laws, you’ll find it easy to enjoy your time there.
Again, be sure to check travel advisories before planning a trip to the Middle East, as circumstances and regulations may change.