Middle East and North Africa: 10 spectacular sights off the beaten track

Gavin Thomas

written by
Gavin Thomas

updated 03.04.2018

The Middle East and North Africa have plenty of world-famous attractions – Petra and the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings and the souks of Marrakesh, the minarets of Istanbul and the skyscrapers of Dubai – but there are so many other spectacular sights, a little further off the beaten track, which still receive only a trickle of visitors. We round up ten of the best.

1. Aït Benhaddou, Morocco

Nestled in the rugged fringes of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco’s deep south, the fortified kasbah of Aït Benhaddou is one of the country’s most arresting sights. Towering mud-brick houses packed tightly together against a rocky bluff offer a quintessential image of traditional Arabia, and although tourism is now well established, Aït Benhaddou retains a powerful aura of timelessness.

Chances are it might all look strangely familiar too, given the village’s numerous film credits which include appearances in over twenty blockbusters ranging from Lawrence of Arabia to The Mummy.

Need to know: Aït Benhaddou is around four hours’ drive from Marrakech, which has plentiful air connections from across Europe. There’s accommodation in the village, plus a wider selection of places in the nearby town of Ouarzazate.

Ait Benhaddou fortified city in Morocco  © Shutterstock

Aït Benhaddou © Natalia Schuchardt/Shutterstock

2. Timgad, Algeria

Timgad is the most astonishing Roman archeological site you’ve probably never heard of. Founded by Emperor Trajan as a military outpost against marauding Berbers, Timgad was destroyed in the fifth century and then miraculously preserved for centuries under a thick layer of sand.

Now meticulously excavated, the scale of the ruins is jaw-dropping, the sprawling gridplan as perfectly preserved as if it were built yesterday, presided over by the towering Arch of Trajan. Beyond, the remains of buildings stretch as far as the eye can see, including temples, baths, basilica and a huge theatre, still in use, with seating for over three thousand people.

Need to know: The nearest international airport is at Algiers, from where it’s around 400km to the town of Batna, close to the site.

Timgad, Algeria

Timgad © WitR/Shutterstock

3. Matmata, Tunisia

Matmata is a classic example of the remarkable troglodyte villages of southern Tunisia, with a fantastic warren of houses dug out of the ground, surrounded by weirdly cratered desert scenery.

Like Aït Benhaddou, the area has also been made famous in film, with several Star Wars scenes being shot around here and the nearby town of (this might sound familiar) Tataouine. Note that Matmata lies right on the border of the area currently considered safe to visit in Tunisia: check latest travel advice carefully before visiting.

Need to know: Fly into Tunis, from where it’s a six-hour drive to Matmata.

Matmata, Tunisia

Matmata © Asta Plechaviciute/Shutterstock

4. Dahshur Pyramids, Egypt

Tourists have been trudging the well-worn track to the great pyramids of Giza, at Cairo, for over a thousand years. Only a tiny fraction of visitors, however, make it to Cairo’s other pyramids, at Dahshur.

There are a number of monuments here, ranging from enigmatic piles of rubble through to the magnificent Red Pyramid, eclipsed in size only by the great pyramids at Giza, and the beautifully preserved Bent Pyramid, with its curiously angled summit.

Need to know: Dahshur is easily reached from Cairo, one of Africa’s major airline hubs and with plentiful accommodation in all price ranges.

If you have chosen Egypt as your next travel destination, check out our guide to the best things to do in Egypt and find plenty of ideas for your holiday here.

Dahshur, Egypt

Bent Pyramid, Dahshur © Gurgen Bakhshetyan/Shutterstock

5. Wadi Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan

The sensational Wadi Rum tends to hog the headlines when it comes to Jordan’s natural wonders, but the Wadi Dana Biosphere Reserve is just as impressive, and a lot less visited.

Protecting a vast swathe of pristine mountains, wadis and desert around Jordan’s spectacular Rift Valley, the area boasts an eclectic mix of European, African and Asia flora and fauna, including the rare sand cat and Syrian wolf. Most of all, however, it’s the landscape which inspires: a majestic wilderness of rugged red rock, sand and sky.

Need to know: Start at Amman, which has air connections across Europe, Asia and Africa. The Wadi Dana Eco-Camp makes a perfect base for exploring the park.

Find out more about the great sights and places to visit in Jordan with our guide to the best things to do in Jordan.

Wadi Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan

Wadi Dana Biosphere Reserve © Firebird007/Shutterstock

6. Shouf Biosphere Reserve, Lebanon

Trees are company at the Shouf Biosphere Reserve, devoted to the national emblem of Lebanon, the majestic cedar. The reserve protects around a quarter of all the country’s surviving cedar forests, dramatically backdropped by the craggy Barouk Mountains, which soar here to heights of almost two thousand metres.

There’s also plentiful wildlife including birds (200-odd species), wolves and elusive Lebanese jungle cats, plus further forests of juniper and oak. It’s magical at any time of year, but particularly in winter, when the snows fall, turning the great cedars (some of them believed to be two thousand years old) a ghostly white.

Need to know: The reserve can be visited as a day-trip from Beirut, which has plentiful air connections and accommodation.

Shouf Biosphere Reserve, Lebanon

Shouf Biosphere Reserve © David Dennis/Shutterstock

7. Nemrut Dağı, Turkey

If you like weird, you’ll love Nemrut Dağı. Here is one of the region’s most outlandish sights: a series of huge decapitated stone heads dotted across the flanks of a remote mountain at an elevation of over two thousand metres.

Hacked from the grandiose mountain-top tomb built here by famously megalomaniac King Antiochus I (died 34 BC), the statues represent assorted deities, plus Antiochus himself, with a few lions and eagles thrown in for good measure. Visit at sunrise or sunset for the most memorable views of the site, with the rudely truncated heads seeming to stare into the far distance in stony, enigmatic silence.

Need to know: The nearest international airport is at Ankara. The mountain can be approached from various directions with Adıyaman and Malatya being the two nearest large towns, both with a fair number of hotels.

Nemrut Dağı, Turkey

Nemrut Dağı © Waj/Shutterstock

8. Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia

The world-famous Nabatean city of Petra in Jordan sees plenty of visitors, but few make it to the remains of Mada’in Saleh, another spectacular Nabatean settlement which once rivalled Petra itself in scale and magnificence.

Around 130 great rock-cut tombs survive from the ancient city, sculpted into a sequence of rock outcrops that bulge up from the sands, their exquisitely carved facades offering a haunting memory of a vanished civilization amidst the surrounding desert wastes.

Need to know: The nearest international airport is Medina, served by numerous Middle Eastern airlines (the airport is open to non-Muslims, unlike the town of Medina itself). Stay in the nearby town of Al Ula, which has several hotels.

Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia

Mada’in Saleh © cpaulfell/Shutterstock

9. Liwa Oasis, United Arab Emirates

Think of the UAE and you probably think of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, of skyscrapers and shopping – and if you think of sand, it’s probably going to be on a hotel beach. Despite the mega-cities springing up around the coast, however, much of inland UAE remains undeveloped and, in places, remarkably empty, lapped by the edges of the great Rub’ al Khali desert, the fabled “Empty Quarter”.

For a real taste of the Emirates in the raw, head to the vast Liwa Oasis, a 100km-long ribbon of green palms, hemmed in by gigantic dunes and offering mesmerizing desert landscapes and adventures including the chance to tackle the spectacular Tal Moreeb (“Scary Hill”), sometimes claimed to be the world’s highest dune.

Need to know: Liwa is accessed from Abu Dhabi, which is served by numerous international airlines.

Liwa Oasis, United Arab Emirates

Liwa Oasis © dvoevnore/Shutterstock

10. Saiq Plateau, Oman

There’s a touch of Shangri-La about Oman’s Saiq Plateau, hidden clandestinely in the depths of the Jebel Akhdar range at the heart of the forbidding Hajar mountains. Encircled by barren and seemingly impenetrable heights, the mountaintop plateau is an area of surreal greenness, with spectacular terraced gardens clinging to the sides of vertiginous cliffs, and quaint hanging villages poised improbably above the abyss.

Peaches, grapes and pomegranates all grow here in the temperate Mediterranean climate, while the entire plateau seems to turn a spectacular pink during the famous rose harvest in April – a surreal splash of colour and fecundity in one of Arabia’s great wildernesses.

Need to know: Oman’s capital, Muscat, has air connections from across Arabia, Europe and Asia. There are several hotels on the plateau itself, including a couple of luxurious options, and a further selection in the nearby town of Nizwa, one of Oman’s most interesting destinations.

Saiq Plateau, Oman

Saiq Plateau © Wolfgang Zwanzger/Shutterstock

For more inspiration in this region, discover how to visit Tel Aviv on a budget.

This feature is in collaboration with Wego.ae, 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: Nemrut Dağı, Turkey © Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock.

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