Travellers can’t seem to get enough of the Middle East. Recent reports highlight strong tourism growth in many of the region's countries – and that's despite continued unrest and the travel restrictions that have come with it.
Flights served by Middle Eastern airlines and their international counterparts continue unabated, and the wider industry is taking note of the trend: small-group operator Intrepid Travel is one of many to up its tour offerings by adding seven new Middle East options for 2018, while hotel groups including Hilton Worldwide, Hyatt and Dusit International are all expanding rapidly across the region.
Rather than being limited by travel bans, it seems travellers are seizing the opportunity to explore the Middle East’s lesser-known corners – here are five under-the-radar cities worth adding to your itinerary.
1. Amman, Jordan
Thanks in part to last year’s opening of the Jordan Trail, a spectacular 650km-long hiking trail that spans the country from tip-to-tail, the Kingdom of Jordan has never been more popular. Yet in their rush to explore the rock-cut caves of Petra and float in the Dead Sea, many travellers fly in to the nation’s capital – and promptly leave again. But this is a mistake, for the “White City” (top image) is well worth a look-in.
The Amman Citadel, which dates back to Neolithic times, and the beautifully preserved 2nd-century Roman Theatre, are both within walking distance from the centre, which can be safely explored on foot. Don’t miss the excellent Jordan Museum, nor the opportunity to sample some of Amman’s best restaurants, from rough-and-ready falafel joint Hashem to the cafés and restaurants on trendy Rainbow Street.
Opened in March 2018, the W Amman now provides a stylish spot to rest your head in Amman if you’re due for a splurge, while top-notch local operators such as Experience Jordan and Engaging Cultures can help to arrange everything from homestay experiences to hiking tours from the vibrant capital.
Jordan Trail © Svitlana Sokolova/Shutterstock
2. Muscat, Oman
Wedged between the glistening blue Gulf of Oman and the craggy peaks of the Al Hajar Mountains, Muscat is just an hour's flight (or five-hour drive) from Dubai, but couldn’t be more different from its flashy Emirati cousin.
Mindful development and religious tolerance reign in this low-slung and laid-back coastal capital, where new buildings are required to reflect tradition, and the main place of worship – the resplendent Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque – was especially designed to be accessible to non-Muslim visitors. The newish Royal Opera House and National Museum are just two examples of the cutting-edge modern Islamic architecture Muscat is becoming known for, while its well preserved 16th-century Al Mirani and Al Jalali forts are testament to the city’s tradition-steeped past.
With wild beaches, stunning wadis, and excellent hiking and dune-bashing opportunities all within striking distance, Muscat makes an excellent Oman holiday base. With a brand new international airport terminal opened in March 2018, however, you’ll need to get here soon to beat the crowds.
Muscat, Oman © PlusONE/Shutterstock
3. Baku, Azerbaijan
It’s perched on the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, yet with its limited flight links and closed border with Armenia, Azerbaijan can feel like one of the most remote countries on Earth. For intrepid visitors, the isolation only adds to the appeal of Baku, one of the world’s quirkiest capitals.
From the city’s iconic Flame Towers to its Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre, Baku has the glitz of a modern city built on oil money, yet the capital remains a living, breathing memory of its storied history, from the medieval ramparts of the Old City to the retro Baku Metro, which will transport you straight back to the Soviet era.
While Baku isn’t the world’s friendliest – or cheapest – city, it’s undoubtedly one of the region’s safest, and thanks to its fleet of purple London taxis – brought in for the 2015 European Games – getting around is a breeze. Dominated by rich Turkish and Iranian flavours, Azeri cuisine is the ultimate comfort food, and if you’re in the market for a traditional Persian carpet, you won’t go home empty-handed.
Baku, Azerbaijan © Milosz Maslanka/Shutterstock
4. Manama, Bahrain
Bahrain’s relations with Qatar may have soured of late, but that doesn’t mean the smallest – and arguably most liberal – independent Persian Gulf state is off-limits to travellers from other countries.
Named the best city in the world to emigrate to in a 2017 global survey run by internations.org, the capital Manama’s hallmarks of modern Gulf prosperity are wonderfully juxtaposed with the city’s pearling past – the UNESCO-listed Pearling Path in Muharraq offers a fascinating insight into the nation’s millennia-old industry. Anchored by the National Museum and avant-garde National Theatre, Manama also has a dynamic arts scene, and its sizeable expat population is largely to thank for the city’s plethora of quality dining options.
While land reclamation has dramatically reduced beach access in Manama, the Al Dar Islands, the city’s favourite weekend playground, are just a 10-minute boat ride from the port in Sitra. If you’re a scuba diver, you can even try your hand at pearl diving – if you find one, it’s yours to keep.
Despite being ranked the Middle East’s fourth most expensive city in the Economist’s Worldwide Cost of Living 2017 index, you can find some of the cheapest – and best – curries outside India around the Bab el-Bahrain Souk, and the city’s healthy volume of hotels helps to keep prices competitive.
Manama, Bahrain © PANYATHEP CHOMMUENG/Shutterstock
5. Zahle, Lebanon
With the FCO currently advising against travel to Tripoli, Baalbek, and parts of Beirut, the Beqaa Governorate capital of Zahle, just 55km east of Lebanon’s capital, is well worth a visit for those reluctant to test the limits of their travel insurance.
Known for its red-roofed houses and Cafes du Bardouni – a string of open-air restaurants strung along the Bardouni River – pretty Zahle is the ultimate escape from the frenetic pace of the capital. Styling itself as the "City of Wine and Poetry", the small mountainous city something of a bohemian flair, shaped by the many poets, thinkers and artists who have made it their home over the years.
Thought to be the birthplace of mezze, you won’t go hungry in Zahle. With more than a dozen wineries in the region open for tours and tastings (many of which also produce fine araks) you won’t go thirsty, either. Carve out some time to admire the city’s well-preserved architecture, particularly its 18th-century churches, and don’t leave town without climbing the 54m-high Our Lady of Zahle and the Beqaa, a 54m concrete tower offering sweeping views over Zahle and the Beqaa Valley beyond.
Zahle, Lebanon © X-VENTURE/Shutterstock
This feature is in collaboration with Wego.com.sa, a leading travel search engine and app for accommodation and flights in the Middle East and North Africa. All recommendations remain editorially independent.
Top image: Amman, Jordan © SJ Travel Photo and Video/Shutterstock