32 Best places to visit in the Middle East in 2023

The Middle East…

That enormous piece of territory often overlooked as a whole and, usually, only seen as the land of the greatest and most beautiful deserts, endless bazaars of spices and the warm welcome of the Bedouins.

Moreover, most of the time, the international media only likes to share images of disasters and bad things happening in the Middle East.

This distortion of reality changes people’s perception to the extent that the whole region of the Middle East becomes a dangerous place to travel to as if it was one single country.

But, you know what? The Middle East is composed of 14 different countries that differ massively from each other, have boundaries and share borders.

Which countries are part of the Middle East?

Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Yemen

After many years of living and traveling around the region, based on my own experience and opinion, I have compiled a list of the 32 best places to travel in the Middle East.

These choices are based on their level of security, historical importance, and natural beauty. 

My objective is to show you not only that the Middle East is a safe place to travel to, but I also want you to see the huge natural and cultural contrast between countries and the relevant role they have in our history.

1 – Amadiya – Home to the Three Wise Men

Country – Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan)

Located in the north of Iraqi Kurdistan, only 10km away from the Turkish border, Amadiya is a lovely, very photogenic village located on the flat top of a mountain, which has no less than 5,000 years of history.

From the Assyrians to the Persians, as well as several Jewish and Christian communities, dozens of different civilizations and religions have left their footprint in this historical place.

Furthermore, Amadiya is believed to be the home of the Three Wise Man, who made a pilgrimage to Bethlehem to see Jesus Christ after his birth.

Today, Amadiya is a Muslim Kurdish village, surrounded by the most striking mountain scenery, characteristic from northern Iraq and one the most beautiful places to travel in the Middle East.

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Amadiya, one of my top places to visit in the Middle East

2 – Esfahan – Jaw-dropping Islamic architecture

Country – Iran

Esfahan is Iran’s most amazing city and its mosques, composed of giant domes and mind-blowing ceilings with extravagant geometrical forms, are the most impressive buildings in the Middle East, without any doubt.

Being one of the most historical cities in the region, Esfahan has always been home to a large community of scholars and prestigious intellectuals and its importance and influence in this part of the world was often compared to Athens and Rome.

Today, as per Iranian standards, Esfahan is a surprisingly modern, clean and vibrant city where some of the most educated and brilliant people in the country live.

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Shah Mosque in Esfahan. Iran is definitely, one of the safest places to visit in the Middle East

3 – The Old City of Damascus

Country – Syria

Everything here is very old.

This is the first thing the hotel receptionist told me on the day I arrived in the city.

Damascus is indeed one of the most ancient cities in the world – probably the oldest country capital – established in the second millennium BC, and capital of the Umayyad Caliphate from 661 to 750, one of the most important caliphates ever, extending from Spain to Iran.

My favorite place in Damascus was Umayyad mosque, an outstanding mosque which passed from being a Jupiter Temple during the Roman era to a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist and then one of the largest mosques in the world.

Today, Damascus is a safe city and, fortunately, the Old City has remained like that during most of the war.

I visited it at the beginning of 2019 and had a real blast.

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The beautiful Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, one of the oldest and largest mosques in the world and one of the most beautiful places to visit in the Middle East

4 – Baalbek – Giant Roman ruins, all by yourself

Country – Lebanon

Extending from Western Europe to North Africa and the Middle East, the Roman Empire was the greatest empire that has ever existed.

Today, most of its ruins, some of them in relatively good condition, are major tourist attractions that receive hundreds of visitors every day.

Outside of Rome, the ruins of Baalbek are among the most impressive, not only due to their dimensions and good preservation, but also because you are likely to have the ruins to yourself as, here, we are talking about Lebanon, one of the most off the beaten track destinations in the region, where you can experience the greatest Roman ruins like nowhere else, hence one of the best places to travel in the Middle East.

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The ruins of Baalbek

5 – The twisting Minaret of Malwiya

Country – Iraq

Malwiya is an outstanding 52-meter-tall minaret with a peculiar spiral shape, absolutely jaw-dropping, and the most iconic building in all Iraq.

The minaret belongs to Al-Jami, a 9th century mosque, once one of the largest in the world, but destroyed in the 13th century.

The emblematic minaret, however, still stands and today, you can climb it to the very top through a steep spiral ramp with no handrail.

The minaret can be visited in the city of Samarra, once the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, the third caliphate to succeed the Prophet Muhammad.

Today, Samarra is a UNESCO World Heritage city, which can be easily visited on a day trip from Baghdad, a must-visit in the Middle East.

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The impressive twsiting minaret

6 – The coastline of Dhofar province

Country – Oman

Stretching from south Oman all the way to the Yemeni border, Dhofar’s coastline may differ significantly from what you expect from an Omani beach.

Vertiginous cliffs, turquoise-blue waters, and empty, epic beaches characterize the beaches of southern Oman, barely discovered by the average traveler, who tends to stick to the northern part of the country.

If you are into wild, random camping and road trips, in the Middle East, it doesn’t really get better than this.

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Dhofar coastline, somewhere near the Yemeni border – By the way, this isn’t a drone photo, but it was taken from the top of a cliff

7 – Al Balad, the colorful Old City of Jeddah

Country – Saudi Arabia

Unfortunately, very little is known about Saudi Arabia but, given that this is the home of Mecca, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Saudi is filled with ancient and historical places, and one of the best examples is Al Balad, the old part of Jeddah, established 1,300 years ago as the gateway for Muslims on their way to Mecca, mostly arriving by sea from Africa.

Today a UNESCO World Heritage site, Al Balad is a lively area filled with colorful facades and, by far, the most beautiful Old City from all the Gulf Monarchies.

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Jeddah Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site

8 – Jerusalem – The holiest place for the three main monotheist religions

Country – Israel, and Palestine

Today, Jerusalem is part of Israel but, if Palestine ever becomes an independent state, East Jerusalem, which is mostly inhabited by Arabs, will be the capital of the country.

Being one of the most important places for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, Jerusalem is a city that has perfectly combined tradition and history with a 21st-century city, meaning that you can stroll around the old city and its historical sites for days and, at the same time, enjoy the endless nightlife, food scene, and modernity of the new part of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is one of those cities that are worth spending several days in.

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The Old City of Jerusalem – Top 10 places to visit in the Middle East

9 – Golestan – Central Asia in the Middle East

Country – Iran

What if I tell you that, in a very remote part of Iran, bordering the Turkmenistan border, there is a region with an unexpectedly mystical landscape, home to a large Turkmen community who have more similarities to people from Kyrgyzstan than other Iranians.

This region is called Golestan province, one of the least visited provinces in Iran, whose main peculiarity is that most of its inhabitants are ethnically Turkmen, a Central Asian ethnicity originally from Turkmenistan.

From Central Asian food, such as plov and kurut, to the way they dress, the Mongolian features in people’s faces and a very Central Asian nomadic life, visible in their love for horses and the yurts they live in, Golestan is a different world from the rest of the Middle East.

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Khalid Nabi in Golestan province – Places to see in the Middle East

10 – Mosul, the open-air museum of Iraq

Country – Iraq

Mosul is exceptional, one of my favorite cities in all of the Middle East, and the reasons are as follow:

First of all, it is a very diverse city.

Prior to the war against the Islamic State, Mosul was inhabited by different types of Christians, Muslims and also Yazidis. It was ethnically mixed too, home to Armenians, Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians.

When ISIS took it over, however, most of them fled the city but today, many are coming back and the streets are becoming more lively than ever.

On the other hand, the Old City of Mosul is an open-air museum, packed with historical mosques and churches, all of them being in the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list.

While it’s true that most of the buildings are today largely destroyed due to the recent war, there’s a big UNESCO team working on rebuilding all its wonders, allowing you to witness an exciting moment of living history.

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The reconstructions of Al Noori Mosque

11 – Erbil – A cosmopolitan Iraqi city

Country – Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan)

Not many cities in the world have as much history as Erbil has.

With almost 30,000 years of history, according to historians, and, today a UNESCO World Heritage site, Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, a city with plenty of tradition, filled with plenty of ancient bazaars, epic cafés, and historical sites.

Nevertheless, the awesomeness of Erbil doesn’t end up here and, in fact, what may surprise you is that, as well as a classic Middle Eastern Muslim city, this is also a real pro-Western metropolis and a regional business hub where a large expat community lives and, as a consequence, has some of the most awesome nightlife in the Middle East.

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Erbil main square – Visit the Middle East

12 – Petra – One of the 7 wonders of the world

Country – Jordan

Even though this is likely the most touristic site in the region, it would be a sin not to consider one of the 7 wonders among one of the best places to visit in the Middle East.

Petra was founded in the VI century B.C. by the Edomites but, it didn’t prosper until the Nabateans (a group of nomadic Arabs) took over the place and built the city by carving it from the rock, making it become an important trading hub.

The architecture of Petra leaves you breathless and, besides admiring the Treasury and the Monastery, I recommend getting off the path, going hiking and taking the trails less traveled.

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The Monastery, Petra – Things to do in the Middle East

13 – Beirut – The most culturally diverse and liberal city in the Middle East

Country – Lebanon

Beirut is the capital of Lebanon, a city that suffered one of the longest contemporary Civil Wars (25 years, ending in 1991). Today, among all the destroyed buildings, Beirut brags about being one of the safest cities in the region. With unbelievable economic growth and the rapid rise of the middle class, Beirut is the most liberal and westernized city in the Middle East (outside of Israel). 

I love Beirut because of its deep, rich and contrasting history. It’s composed of dozens of districts that differ massively from each other: The hipster district of Gemmayzeh, Hezbollah areas like Bourj al-Barajneh, the student neighborhood of Hamra, old Palestinian refugee camps, the Armenian district of Bourj Hammoud, several Christian areas and much, much more! Beirut is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.

From the deepest underground parties to the most glamorous clubs, from local eateries to the best fine dining restaurants in the region, Beirut is a city adaptable to any kind of traveler and budget. 

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Beirut – Travel in the Middle East

14 – The green, rolling hills of Jizan

Country – Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a massive country and, as such, it has quite a few geographical areas, the most dramatically different being Jizan, a province bordering the country of Yemen.

Asian-like terraced fields, greenery, and monkeys comprise the mountain villages of Jizan, miles away from Saudi Arabia stereotypes, plus the people there are culturally Yemeni, from the food they eat to the way they traditionally dress.

Jizan can’t be more off the beaten track.

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The terrace fields Jizan is famous for

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15 – Maaloula, a Christian town in Syria

Country – Syria

Maaloula is a Christian town located north of Damascus (Syria) with an intriguing history, both ancient and contemporary.

On the one hand, this is one of the very few places in the world where they speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, making it such a unique place.

Now that tourists are a rare thing to see, if you visit The Convent of Saint Serge and Bacchus, you are likely to meet the priest, who will certainly be more than happy to recite some words in Aramaic.

The recent history of Maaloula, however, isn’t so fortunate, since it was taken by Al Nusra (similar to ISIS) during the war, the legacy of which is still very visible in the many destroyed buildings. In fact, the nuns running the Monastery of Saint Tekla are the ones who were kidnapped by the Muslim extremists, a sad event in which even the Pope intervened.

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The photogenic town of Maaloula

16 – The Dead Sea – The lowest point on Earth

Country – Jordan, Israel and Palestine

Occupying territory in both Israel & Palestine and Jordan, the Dead Sea is the lake with the highest salt density in the world and also, the lowest point on Earth, 430 meters below sea level.

Such is the high concentration of salt that animals and plants can’t live in it, hence the name.

Swimming in the Dead Sea is totally fine and, due to the high density of the water, sinking is almost impossible. I’ve only been to the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea and, along the coast, there are several hotels and resorts where you can chill on their beaches and have a mud bath.

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The Dead Sea from Jordan side and Palestine at the other side – Best places to travel in the Middle East

17 – Liwa Oasis – The purest and wildest image of the Gulf

Country – United Arab Emirates

Around 500 years ago, a group of Bedouins tapped underground, freshwater recourses to cultivate dates and, as a result, several villages and settlements appeared in the area, which we currently call Liwa, the birthplace of the Nahyan family, the current ruling family of Abu Dhabi and the UAE.

Since then, and over the years, the cultivation of dates in Liwa has been a key factor in the region’s economic development.

Liwa is located in the south of UAE, next to Saudi Arabian border and on the edge of the Empty Quarter, a huge desert spread across UAE, Yemen, Oman, and Saudi Arabia and considered the largest (continuous) sea of dunes on Earth, whose end can’t even be seen from the furthest horizon.

In addition, in Liwa you can also find the only real Bedouins in the UAE and the Moreeb dune, one of the highest dunes in the world (300m).

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Bedouin in Liwa Oasis – Places to travel in the Middle East

18 – The Citadel of Aleppo

Country – Syria

Along with Damascus, I also visited Aleppo at the beginning of 2019.

Before the war, Aleppo used to be the largest and most touristic city in the country.

Being a few thousands years older than Damascus, the Citadel and Old City of Aleppo have been mostly destroyed by the Civil War but after the liberation of the city in 2017, the reconstruction has already begun, Syrians are moving back and shops are, very slowly, reopening.

I am pretty sure that, in a matter of years, the beautiful city of Aleppo will return to its maximum splendor.

For more information, read my 8-day itinerary for Syria

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The Old City & Citadel of Aleppo

19 – Madain Saleh, like Petra but more epic

Country – Saudi Arabia

Similar to Tabouk, have you ever been to Petra, in Jordan?

Imagine the wonders of Petra but in the desert of Saudi Arabia.

That’s Madain Saleh (or Hegra).

Hegra was an ancient city founded by local tribes in 3000 BC, but it was not until the 2nd century BC that the Nabateans made it a great city, in a fear of the Romans conquering Petra, so it could serve as the new capital. 

Still, the Romans conquered both cities, Hegra and Petra, but the more than 100 tombs carved from the giant desert rocks remained, today found in the middle of nowhere.

Unlike Petra, however, the tombs of Madain Saleh are spread out across a vast desert but as part of the visit, you can tour around with a pretty cool Vintage Jeep.

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Epic Hegra

20 – Dahab – The most backpacking-friendly place in the Middle East

Country – Egypt

Dahab is a lovely touristic beach town inhabited by Bedouins in the Sinai peninsula, which is considered the most backpacking-friendly place (and probably the only one) in the Middle East.

For decades, Dahab has attracted travelers from all over the world for having some of the best diving in the country. In Dahab, one comes for two things: either scuba diving or doing literally nothing, as it has this laid-back atmosphere that consists of going to the beach, smoking weed and eating at the several seafood restaurants.

Besides, due to the massive drop of the Egyptian Pound, in Dahab, you could easily rent a full apartment (2 beds with Wi-Fi) for less than 9USD a day.

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Dahab at sunset – Travel to the Middle East

21 – Jerash – Massive and highly accessible Roman ruins

Country – Jordan

If making a trip to Lebanon to visit the ruins of Baalbek sounds too hardcore for you but you still want to travel to the Middle East, perhaps you should consider visiting Jerash, another of the greatest Roman ruins outside of Italy, constructed in some of the most fertile valleys in the region, today comprising green, rolling hills filled with olive and fig trees.

The location, therefore, is not a coincidence because, when it was built around 2,000 years ago, the Romans wanted to make it a great city due to the richness of the land.

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Jerash, one of the finest Roman ruins to travel in the Middle East

22 – Musandam – The Norway of the Middle East

Country – Oman

A rocky desert land composed of stunning fiords, cliffs and one of the largest varieties of wildlife in the Middle East, Musandam (often called the Norway of the Middle East) is a piece of territory within the UAE that belongs to Oman.

It’s located north of UAE, projecting into the Strait of Hormuz.

Musandam is a pretty common destination among expats living in Dubai but still, the area remains pretty untouched. Along the coast, you find several beaches only occupied by the local Omanis, who like to gather with their families for barbecues during the weekends. Expect several families to invite you to join them.

In Musandam, you could also rent an abra (a local traditional boat) to sail around the fiords and observe the wildlife. Meeting dolphins is almost guaranteed and, if you are into snorkeling, you can see that the deep and dark waters of Musandam are also home to coral, turtles and manta rays, among other things.

Khor Najd – Places to visit in the Middle East

23 – Hebron – The most troubled city in Palestine

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Country – Palestine

Hebron is the city where the Tomb of the Patriarchs stands, the place where Abraham, Jacob and Isaac are buried.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is one of the holiest places for both Muslims and Jews.

This means that both religions are sharing an important holy place but, on top of that, Hebron also happens to be the only city in Palestine where Jewish settlements are within the city itself.

The situation is quite sensitive, as there have been endless confrontations between the local Palestinians and the settlers.

In the old part of the city, the local Palestinians have built a fence that serves as a roof to prevent the settlers who live in the upper floors throwing garbage to them.

To add more tension to the conflict, during the holy month of Ramadan in 1994, a Jew entered the Tomb of Patriarchs (in the mosque inside), opened fire and killed 29 Muslims during prayer time.

Since then, the area is strictly controlled and, both Jewish and Muslim prayer areas are strictly separated. Abraham is buried in the middle of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, right between the synagogue and the mosque, so the members of both religions can see his tomb from their prayer room.

Hebron checkpoint
The checkpoint for those few Arabs who live in the Jewish settlement – Places to visit in the Middle East

24 – Qadisha Valley – Lovely Christian mountain villages

Country – Lebanon

If you either want just to relax, eat good food, visit beautiful Christian monasteries or to go hiking, the Kadisha Valley in Lebanon will always be the perfect place for you.

Kadisha means ”holy” and owes this name to the fact that this valley is home to some of the most ancient communities of monastic Christians in the Middle East.

In case you don’t know it, monasticism is a way of life for which the person (in this case the Christian monks) renounces to everything to devote himself completely to spiritual work. The valley is full of natural caves, difficult to access, that once served as places of isolation for the monks living lives devoted to Christ.

Kadisha is a really unique place to visit in the Middle East.

Qadisha Valley, located in the north of the country – Travel to the Middle East

25 – The Mesopotamian Marshes

Country – Iraq

Another great place to visit in the Middle East are the Arab Marshes, a wetland ecosystem located in south Iraq, sort of an aquatic landscape located in the Iraqi desert.

It occupies an area of 10,000km2, inhabited by water buffaloes and all sort of animals and plants.

The Marshes are also home to a distinct cultural group: the Marsh Arabs, who populate the different islands, living in their sarifas, a peculiar house entirely made of reed.

The Marshes can be visited from the southern city of Nasiriyah and the best way to experience it is on a boat tour.

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A Marsh Arab

26 – Manama – Drugs and rock & roll

Country – Bahrain

In case you’ve never heard of it, Bahrain is a tiny country (one of tiniest in the world actually) located in the Persian Gulf, between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and Manama is its capital.

To make it short, Bahrain is the only Arab Gulf Monarchy that has run out of petrol, or at least, can’t rely on the petrol income anymore.

In desperation, looking at alternative ways of gaining income, Bahrain became the party place in the Middle East, where concerning prostitution, alcohol, and parties, in general, are more permissive than in any other Gulf country.

Connected to Saudi Arabia by a bridge, every week, thousands of Saudis cross the border to have fun and enjoy a relative level of freedom.

Besides, this is the only place in the Middle East where I’ve seen two homosexuals making out in the middle of the street.

Manama is also home to many Western expats, who hang out in a popular area called Adliya, which has plenty of bars and wall paintings and makes one forget that he or she is in the Middle East.

Bahrain is, unequivocally, one of the most surreal places to travel and visit in the Middle East.

Bahrain party
A particular wall painting in Bahrain – Best places to visit in the middle east

27 – Luxor – The greatest open-air museum

Country – Egypt

Established on the shore of the great Nile river and surrounded by both mango plantations and desert, Luxor is the world’s greatest open-air museum.

This is the place where the most well-known pharaohs come from, like Tutankhamun for example, and most of the temples are either in excellent conditions or perfectly restored.

From large and epic tombs to temples constructed on a giant scale, all of them dating from between 3,200 B.C. and 1,500 B.C, Luxor is an unmissable place to travel in the Middle East.

The statue of Ramses II in Luxor temple – Visit the Middle East

28 – Palmyra, today the most off the beaten track ruins

Country – Syria

Not so long ago, the Roman ruins of Palmyra used to receive hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.

Dating back to the second millennium BC, it has been inhabited for more than 4,000 years before becoming part of the Roman Empire during the first century AD.

It used to be an important trade caravan route and its wealth allowed them to build monuments such as the Temple of Bel and the Great Colonnade.

Nowadays, the city of Palmyra is a ghost town, a direct consequence of the battle against ISIS but the archaeological area has re-opened for tourists, always escorted by a member of the Syrian Army.

The Temple of Bell is practically all ruins but Palmyra is a big complex and many of its marvels are still standing.

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The remains of the Temple of bEL

29 – Salalah – Coconuts, pineapples, and tropical rain

Country – Oman

What if I tell you that there’s a place in the Persian Gulf where it rains, which it’s full of green meadows and the locals sell coconuts and pineapples?

This place is called Salalah, a city found in the most southern part of Oman, very close to the Yemeni border.

Salalah, and the region of Dhofar, is an area that experiences a monsoon season.

This season is called Khareef and occurs from July till September. During this season, Salalah becomes a beautiful and lush green, which attracts visitors from all over the country, as well as Saudi Arabia and UAE, who want to run away from their disgustingly hot and humid weather.

Salalah Khareef
The greenery of Salalah during the Khareef – Things to do in the Middle East

30 – Bethlehem – Take a look at the Wall of Separation between Israel and Palestine

Country – Palestine

Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus.

However, unless you are an ardent Christian, the most interesting part of Bethlehem is to get a close feeling of the consequences of the Israeli occupation as, after the Second Intifada, in 2001, Israel built an 8-meter wall that would finally isolate the West Bank from Israel.

The wall, however, was built within Palestinian territory, hence the Israelis stole some of their land.

Literally, it passes by the center of the city and it is decorated with plenty of Pro-Palestinian paintings, including a real work from the famous Banksy, the white pigeon.

The separation wall of Bethlehem – Must visit the Middle East

31 – Qeshm Island – The most authentic Persian Gulf culture

Country – Iran

Located in the Persian Gulf, right in the Strait of Hormuz, between Oman and Iran, Qeshm is an island with amazing geological formations, as well as very rich wildlife.

This is what most travelers come here for but, in my opinion, the most interesting part of the island is to get immersed in the local culture, as this is the only place that has been able to preserve the fast-disappearing Persian Gulf culture, today only visible here and in a few other places in Oman.

Unlike the rest of Iran, people here are Sunnis, from the conservative branch actually, Wahabis, but, since they have a great Iranian influence, they are quite laid back.

Qeshm is a different world from the rest of Iran and it can be seen not only in the religion, the architecture and their food, which is mainly based on seafood but also in the way their women dress, in such colorful abayas and niqabs, like nowhere else you have ever seen.

32 – Wadi Bajda, authentic Saudi Bedouin life

Country – Saudi Arabia

Have you ever visited the Wadi Rum in Jordan?

The Wadi Rum is a beautiful, red-sand-dune desert that stretches across Jordan and north of Saudi Arabia too, in the region of Tabouk.

However, while in Jordan, Wadi Rum has become an extremely touristic place, on the Saudi side, the Saudi Bedouins living there are still genuine and authentic, allowing you to live witness what traditional life is like in Saudi.

Amazing rock formations and camel farms, all without a single tourist around.

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Saudi Bedouin milking a camel

Original Article Joan Torres Against the Compass