From deep-desert safaris in the Sahara to snow-skiing in Lebanon, from hiking the high valleys of central Jordan to diving and snorkelling the Red Sea, there aren’t too many activities that you can’t do in the Middle East.
- Best Desert Safaris
Wadi Rum, Jordan, and Sharqiya Sands, Oman; October–May
- Best Diving & Snorkelling
Red Sea, Egypt and Jordan; year-round
- Best Hiking
The Jordan Trail, from Dana Biosphere Reserve to Petra; March–May and September–November
- Best Sailing
Felucca trip, from Aswan to Luxor; year-round
- Best Skiing
The Cedars, Lebanon; December–April
- Best Sea Kayaking
Kaş, Turkey; May–September
- Best Archaeological Digs
For details on archaeological digs in Israel that welcome paying volunteers, try the Biblical Archaeology Society (www.digs.bib-arch.org/digs) or the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (www.archaeology.huji.ac.il/news/excavations.asp).
- Best Hot-air Ballooning
Cappadocia, Turkey, and Luxor, Egypt
- Best Canyoning
Mujib Biosphere Reserve, Jordan, and Snake Gorge, Oman
- Off-Road Driving
Hajar Mountains, Oman; year-round
Planning Your Trip
When to Go
The Middle East is an excellent year-round activities destination, although some activities will require planning to make sure you’re here at the right time.
Summer (especially from June to September) is the ideal time to enjoy diving, snorkelling and other water sports. It's also the best time to visit the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
The rest of the year is likely to be better for most other activities. From June to September, and especially in July and August, desert expeditions in the Sahara, Arabian Peninsula and Wadi Rum may be too hot for comfort (and, particularly in the case of the Sahara, may even be impossible). The best time to be in the desert also happens to be your best bet for finding snow in Lebanon and Iran: December to March is the best period if you're here to go snow skiing.
Hiking is possible year-round, although punishing daytime temperatures mean you should avoid the middle of the day if hiking in summer. The most comfortable hiking conditions are September to November and March to May.
What to Take
There are few requirements for most activities and those operators who organise activities (such as diving and snorkelling) will provide the necessary equipment. Bicycles and mountain bikes can be rented in the Middle East, but serious cyclists may want to bring their own bicycles and spare parts. Most hikers head out onto the trail under their own steam, but even those who plan on joining an organised hike in the region with a guide will usually need to bring their own equipment.
Feature: Personal Equipment Checklist
- Sturdy hiking boots
- A high-quality sleeping bag – any time from October through to March can see overnight temperatures plummet in desert areas
- Warm clothing, including a jacket, jumper (sweater) or anorak (windbreaker) that can be added or removed
- A sturdy but lightweight tent
- Mosquito repellent
- A lightweight stove
- Trousers for walking, preferably made from breathable waterproof (and windproof) material such as Gore-Tex
- An air-filled sleeping pad
- Swiss Army knife
- Torch (flashlight) or headlamp, with extra batteries
Cycling & Mountain Biking
The Middle East offers some fantastic, if largely undeveloped, opportunities for cyclists. Unlike in Europe, you’re likely to have many of the trails to yourself. However, the heat can be a killer (avoid June to September), and you’ll need to be pretty self-sufficient, as spare parts can be extremely scarce. One of the highlights of travelling in this way is that locals in more out-of-the-way places will wonder what on earth you’re doing – an ideal way to break the ice and meet new friends.
In Israel, many cycling trails go through forests managed by the Jewish National Fund (www.kkl.org.il); click ‘Cycling Routes’ on its website. Shvil Net (www.shvilnet.co.il) publishes Hebrew-language cycling guides that include detailed topographical maps.
The Arava region in Israel is popular for mountain biking, while mountain biking also has great potential in Jordan and Oman, but there's very little in the way of organised expeditions.
In Iran, Esfahan to Yazd is an increasingly popular route for European cyclists. Consider avoiding the main highways and taking the secondary routes, which are much better suited to cycle touring. Cycling traffic is light and few locals ride, but a steady stream of overlanders brave the traffic en route between Europe and Asia. We're not sure we'd be going any further east than central Iran right now, but that has more to do with the security situation than it does with cycling conditions.
An expedition into the deserts of the Middle East will rank among your most memorable experiences of the region – the solitude, the gravitas of an empty landscape, the interplay of light and shadow on the sands. Various kinds of desert expeditions are possible, although they represent very different experiences. Camel trekking is environmentally friendly and slows you down to the pace of the deserts’ traditional Bedouin inhabitants, but you’ll be restricted to a fairly small corner of the desert. Travelling by 4WD allows you to cover greater distances but is usually more expensive.
Where to Go
Wadi Rum in Jordan has many calling cards: the orange sand, the improbable rocky mountains, the soulful Bedouin inhabitants who are the ideal companions around a desert campfire, and the haunting echoes of TE Lawrence. When you add to this the ease of getting here and exploring – it’s accessible from major travel routes and is compact enough to visit within a short time frame – and the professional operators that run expeditions here, it’s hardly surprising that Wadi Rum is the desert experience that travellers to the Middle East love most. Everything is possible here, from afternoon camel treks to 4WD safaris and hikes lasting several days.
Other deserts where expeditions are possible include Egypt's Western Oases, for 4WD safaris into the Sahara from Bahariya Oasis and Siwa Oasis. If the security situation permits, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is good for overnight, two- or three-day camel treks.
Israel is another possibility, with the Negev desert a wonderful place to explore, as are the wild wadis and untamed mountains around the southern end of the Dead Sea on the Israeli side of the border.
The Empty Quarter, the largest sea of sand in the world, lies at the heart of the Arabian Peninsula and can be accessed from Saudi Arabia and Oman. The Liwa Oasis in the UAE, the Sharqiya Sands in Oman and Khor Al Adaid in Qatar are the main areas of accessible sand dunes served by desert camps and offering activities.
Diving & Snorkelling
The Red Sea is one of the world’s premier diving sites. Snorkellers heading out for the first time will be blown away by this dazzling underwater world of colourful coral and fish life, extensive reef systems and the occasional shipwreck. For experienced divers, there are plenty of sites to escape the wide-eyed newbies and see underwater landscapes that are both challenging and exceptionally beautiful.
Most dive centres offer every possible kind of dive course. The average open-water certification course for beginners, either with CMAS, PADI or NAUI, takes about five days and usually includes several dives. The total cost starts from around US$300; prices depend on the operator and location. A day’s diving (two dives), including equipment and air fills, costs US$75 to US$150. An introductory dive is around US$80. Full equipment can be hired for about US$30 per day.
The best bases for diving and snorkelling are in Sharm El Sheikh, Dahab, Nuweiba or Hurghada in Egypt; Aqaba in Jordan; Eilat in Israel; and in various points in the Arabian Peninsula including Yanbu in Saudi Arabia, and Khasab, Muscat and Salalah in Oman.
Snorkelling and scuba diving is also possible at many points along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, such as in Marmaris, for example, although what’s on offer doesn’t come close to the Red Sea.
For something a little different, try diving or snorkelling in the Gulf from Iran. Qeshm island is the better option, while Kish Diving Center is a good operator.
Hiking is one of the most rewarding activities in the Middle East, with memorable trails in Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Oman. Day hikes are possible everywhere, but there are some intriguing longer-haul options as well.
Solo trekking is possible, but taking a guide is a good idea as much for translation skills along the route as the actual navigation. In remote regions, especially near borders, you may stumble across military/police/security areas; an Iranian guide or a few phrases of Farsi should hopefully smooth over any misunderstandings.
One and two-day walks are possible in many areas, particularly the northwest and around Tehran. For Tehran, nearby Darband is a good start. Further afield, Kelardasht and Masuleh make good launch pads for mountain walks. Day and overnight desert treks can be easily arranged from Yazd.
But perhaps the most popular and rewarding route (in spring and summer) is through the historic Alamut Valley, once home to the Assassins, including a trek taking you across the Alborz Mountains and down to the Caspian.
With almost 10,000km of marked trails, Israel has some fabulous trekking possibilities, from the alpine slopes of Mt Hermon to the desert wadis of the Negev. In the Negev Desert, two spots stand out: Makhtesh Ramon, the Middle East’s largest crater, and En Avdat National Park, where you can trek through canyons and pools. The Upper Galilee and Golan are also excellent.
At many national parks and nature reserves (www.parks.org.il), basic walking maps with English text are handed out when you pay your admission fee. The website www.tiuli.com, run by Lametayel, Israel’s largest camping equipment store, has details in English on the hiking options around the country (the Hebrew website is much more extensive).
The long-haul Jordan Trail runs from the northern Jordanian border to the Red Sea in the south. Our favourite stretch runs from Dana Biosphere Reserve to Petra (five days).
In Lebanon, the Qadisha Valley offers the pick of the hiking possibilities as you trek from one monastery to the next, although security can be an issue – ask locally before setting out.
Feature: Best Long-Distance Hikes
- Lycian Way Fethiye to Antalya along Turkey's Mediterranean coast.
- Jordan Trail Jordan north to south.
- Sinai Trail Cross the Sinai with the Bedouin.
- Israel National Trail (Shvil Yisra’el) Travel 940km through Israel’s most-scenic areas.
- Nativity Trail It's 160km from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
- Abraham Path Planned trans–Middle Eastern trail is operational from Nabus via Jericho to Hebron.
- Lebanon Mountain Trail Runs along Lebanon's rocky spine.
The rocky trails of the Middle East lend themselves to exploration by horseback. There aren’t many operators out here, least of all ones whom we recommend, but it is possible to visit some of the region’s iconic attractions in this way. These include the following:
Sailing & Boat Trips
From the Nile to the Mediterranean, cruising the waters is a wonderfully laid-back way to travel.
Drifting down the Nile aboard a felucca (traditional sailing boat) is one of the quintessential Middle Eastern experiences. Although trips are possible elsewhere, most take place between Aswan and Luxor and possibilities range from day trips to five-day expeditions with stops at some lesser-visited riverside temples en route. Cairo is also possible for sunset trips.
With its whitewashed villages, idyllic ports and mountainous backdrop, Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean coasts are ideal for yacht cruising, especially given its proximity to the Greek islands.
The most romantic option is to sail along the coast in a gület (traditional wooden yacht). The most popular excursion is a four-day, three-night trip from Fethiye to Kale. Other possibilities include everything from day trips to two-week luxury charters and you can hire crewless bareboats or flotilla boats, or take a cabin on a boat hired by an agency. Ask anywhere near the docks for details; the following towns have the largest number of options: Kuşadası, Bodrum, Fethiye and Marmaris.
‘Snow sports in the Middle East’ probably sounds like it belongs in the tall-tales-told-to-gullible-travellers category, but not if you’re Lebanese, Iranian or Turkish. The skiing can be excellent, if highly localised.
There are more than 20 functioning ski fields in Iran. The season is long, the snow is often powdery and untracked and, compared with Western fields, skiing in Iran is a bargain.
All the resorts have lodges, chalets and hotels, which charge from about US$50 to US$150 for a room. Ski lifts cost as little as US$10 a day. You can hire skis, poles and boots, but not clothes, at the resorts. Contact or visit the very helpful Iran Ski Federation (www.skifed.ir) for details of all the slopes.
The season in the Alborz Mountains (where most slopes are located) starts as early as November and lasts until just after No Ruz (late March). There is good downhill skiing available near Tabriz and ski resorts can be found nearby at Ardabil, Hamadan and Bijar. Skiing is also possible in the Zagros Mountains, with smallish fields at Sepidan north of Shiraz, and Chelgerd, west of Esfahan.
In the 1970s Beirut was famous for the fact that you could swim in the Mediterranean waters of the Lebanese capital in the morning, then ski on the slopes of Jebel Makmel, northeast of Beirut, in the afternoon. No sooner had the guns of civil war fallen silent than the Lebanese once again reclaimed the slopes from the militias, and their infectious optimism has seen the ski resorts going from strength to strength.
The Cedars is Lebanon's premier ski resort. The ski season takes place here from around December to April, depending on snow conditions. Equipment can be rented from a number of small ski shops at the base of the lifts.
For more on skiing in Lebanon, contact Ski Lebanon (www.skileb.com) for information, packages, trips and accommodation bookings.
Close to İstanbul, Uludağ National Park, centred on the Great Mountain (2543m), is Turkey's most popular ski resort. The season runs from December to April in most years.
Any Red Sea resort worth its salt – from the expensive package-tour resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh to the chilled, backpacker-friendly Dahab (both in Egypt) – will let you indulge your passion for water sports from windsurfing to waterskiing. Many of Turkey’s Mediterranean beach resorts also offer ample opportunities for waterskiing, windsurfing, tandem paragliding or parasailing.
More specifically, important water-sports locations include the following:
Eilat, Israel Arguably the Middle East’s water-sports capital, with waterskiing, parasailing and a host of other water-borne thrills on offer.
Moon Beach, Sharm El Sheikh Egypt’s best windsurfing spot.
Alaçatı, Turkey Also brilliant for windsurfing.
Hurghada, Egypt Good for kitesurfing.
Aqaba, Jordan A good range of sports.
Kaş, Turkey The region's best spot for sea kayaking.
Muscat, Oman Great opportunities to learn to sail.