Arab world’s best travel destinations
With its combination of cultural and natural attractions, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has long held a powerful allure for tourists, making tourism an important source of revenue and growth. In 2011, the industry contributed an estimated $107.3 billion, representing 4.5% of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP) and accounted for 4.5 million jobs, almost 7% of total employment, according to the World Bank.
Like many other sectors, tourism suffered deeply as a result of conflict and political turmoil in the region. The threat of terrorism has kept tourists away from prime destinations in Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon. The Arab Weekly has selected prime tourist attractions and top restaurants in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Morocco.
The pyramids in Giza province, south-west of Cairo, are indisputably the top attraction in Egypt. They were built over the span of three generations — by Khufu, his second reigning son Khafre and Menkaure.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu is an awe-inspiring 139 metres high, making it the largest pyramid in Egypt. Once in Giza, tourists are in close proximity to the Egyptian Museum, which houses tens of thousands of artefacts, the Saqqara pyramids and also Fatimid Cairo, which is near downtown Cairo.
Diverse marine life and hundreds of Red Sea coral reef sites make Sharm el-Sheikh a magnet for divers and eco-tourists. The tourist economy of the Sinai peninsula city has grown quite rapidly over the last few decades, resulting in the emergence of first-class resorts and posh nightlife. Naama Bay, a wide horseshoe-shaped bay, offers a great promenade along its palm tree-lined beach.
Few sites in Egypt are more impressive than Karnak. It is the largest ancient religious site ever built, consisting of three main temples, smaller enclosed temples and several outer temples located about 2.5km north of Luxor.
One of the most famous structures of Karnak is the Great Hypostyle Hall, a hall area of 5,000 sq metres with 134 massive columns arranged in 16 rows.
L’Aubergine: This is a modern-looking restaurant in which visitors can enjoy romantic meals by candlelight. Restaurant prices are not high. It serves beer and the finest lentil soup in Cairo. The restaurant also has vegetarian options.
Rangoli: This is a wonderful restaurant that serves Indian food. The staff are very friendly and apart from the delicious meals the restaurant serves, Rangoli’s location is more than charming.
The Lantern Room is described by many visitors as a lovely place. Restaurant service is flawless. It is a rewarding experience, especially after visiting tourist attractions in Luxor.
Voted the Arabic Capital of Tourism for 2016, Byblos is one of the world’s oldest and continuously inhabited cities. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Byblos boasts a pretty fishing port with an ancient harbour, a medieval town centre, a Crusader-era castle and Phoenician ruins. It is on the Mediterranean coast, 40km north of Beirut and has always been a main tourist attraction in Lebanon. In addition to offering a big choice of seafood and traditional Lebanese restaurants, the city is particularly lively in summer when its old centre becomes an open sky bar to the beat of its international music festival.
A compound of crystallised caves sculpted by water and time, Jeita Grotto offers one of the world’s most amazing agglomerations of stalactites and stalagmites. Located in the Nahr al-Kalb valley 20km north of Beirut, it consists of two caves, an upper gallery and lower “water cave” through which a 6,230-metre river runs, and is only accessible by boat. It is a must see for visitors in Lebanon and featured as a finalist in the New Seven Wonders of Nature competition.
Nestled in the heart of the Shouf mountains at 900 metres above sea level, the Beiteddine Palace complex is Lebanon’s best example of early 19th-century Lebanese architecture. It was built by Mount Lebanon’s ruler Emir Bashir Shihab II and remained the seat of the emirate until it was suppressed by the Ottomans in 1842. The palace includes an impressive outer courtyard and inner patios, the harem area and its magnificent baths and the beautifully restored vaulted stables where a permanent exhibition of Byzantine mosaics is displayed.
Abdel Wahab: One of the top restaurants offering traditional Lebanese cuisine from the multiple-dish Mezze to grilled kebabs and Arabic deserts. Found in the heart of Beirut’s Monot street in the posh neighbourhood of Ashrafieh, it offers the perfect introduction to Lebanese gastronomy.
Mayyas Lebanon is rich with restaurants offering exquisite Armenian cuisine. Mayyas is a favourite Armenian food place in the heart of the city in a very rustic road in Ashrafieh. The venue is nicely decorated and visitors are always warmly greeted.
Le Phenicien: A remarkable seafood restaurant with two main outlets, in Beirut and in the southern port city of Tyre, offering a variety of fish and seafood platters, in addition to the traditional Lebanese siyadieh and the famous paella. It is in Beirut’s smart area of Horsh Tabet, just off the old fishing port in Tyre.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Petra is indisputably the most famous attraction in Jordan.
Carved in pink sandstone cliffs, the city is nicknamed the “Rose City”. Dating back to 300BC, Petra was the capital of the Nabatean kingdom and accessed via a narrow canyon called Al Siq.
Baptism Site in Bethany
The site is where tradition says Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan river. In 2015, the United Nations’ cultural agency added the site to the World Heritage List.
At 410 metres below sea level, the Dead Sea is the Earth’s lowest point on land. Jordan’s Dead Sea coast is one of the most spectacular natural and spiritual landscapes in the world, with several outlets for skin treatment. The Dead Sea remains one of the most visited places in Jordan.
Fakhr El Din: One of the leading proponents of Arab cuisine and a popular destination to many Jordanians. It is in the Second Circle area of Amman and has a capacity of 170. Reservations are required.
La Maison Verte: A Grumpy Gourmet-award winning French restaurant known for its Entrecote Cafe de Paris, steaks and seafood. Located in an affluent district of Amman, the restaurant offers an exquisite taste of French cuisine in an elegant European atmosphere.
Romero: Winner of the International Award for Tourist, Hotel and Catering Industry and Top Ten Restaurant, Grumpy Gourmet Award. Opened in 1979, Romero has since become the best Italian restaurant in Amman.
Archaeological site of Volubilis
Founded in the third century BC on the Atlas mountains close to Meknes, Volubilis is a standing witness of the Roman civilisation in North Africa. The Romans used it as a central administrative centre for this part of Roman Africa. The city has mesmerising floor mosaics and the striking arches of the basilica courthouse are still standing next to the pillars of the God Jupiter Temple. The ruins remained unscathed until an earthquake hit the region in the 18th century. Some of the city’s sites were demolished to provide stones for the construction of the palaces of King Moulay Ismail in Meknes.
Bab El-Mansour gate
Bab El-Mansour is by far the most impressive of all imperial Moroccan cities’ gates and one of the most iconic monuments of the imperial city of Meknes. Named after the architect El-Mansour, the gate was completed, in 1737. It was built from marble columns taken from Volubilis ruins and is adorned with top-quality zellige mosaics and inscriptions across the top. The gate, which is in the heart of the ancient medina of Meknes, is used as an arts and crafts gallery.
Hassan II Mosque
Hassan II Mosque is Morocco’s most modern monument and the seventh largest mosque in the world and its 210-metre minaret is the world’s tallest. The landmark monument of Casablanca was partly built on the Atlantic and on land. Designed by French architect Michel Pinseau, the mosque was completed in 1993 with an estimated cost of $650 million. The mosque reflects the long-lasting legacy of the Alaoui dynasty that has been ruling Morocco for almost four centuries. Its beautiful mosaics, sculpted plaster mouldings, stone and marble floors, carved wood ceilings and horseshoe-shaped arches are simply breathtaking.
Basmane Restaurant: Located on the Corniche of Morocco’s economic capital city of Casablanca, it is a unique experience where food lovers can indulge in the finest Moroccan cuisine in an authentic Moorish atmosphere while being entertained by belly dancers. From steaming different sorts of tagines to lamb skewers, customers are spoiled for choice.
Grand Café de la Poste: Located in the heart of Gueliz in Marrakech, this posh restaurant features a décor of the 1920s, taking visitors back to the French colonial era with a Moorish touch thanks to its wooden blinds, marble tables and semi-tiled walls with Arabic inscriptions. The restaurant offers a mix of Moroccan and French cuisine and its beautiful terrace draws both locals and expats.
Saveur de Poisson: Only a short walk from the iconic five-star Al Minzah Hotel in Tangiers, the charming seafood restaurant offers a four-course menu at a fixed price. Customers have no choice but to wait for the four courses served in large tagines, starting with fish soup. The main course depends on the catch of the day. Roasted pine nuts with seasonal strawberries covered in local honey is a mouth-watering dessert that helps visitors digest the main course. A thrilling food experience in Tangiers, the “bride” of the north.
United Arab Emirates
Ferrari World Abu Dhabi
The first Ferrari theme park, located on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, figures high on the agenda of the global traveller to the UAE for a truly enjoyable and unforgettable experience. Ferrari World Abu Dhabi is an engineering marvel in itself, and apart from the world’s fastest and steepest roller coaster rides, to advanced racing simulators, the other attractions which will appeal to all ages and interests are themed stores and restaurants, live entertainment and fine dining experience.
Located in al Ain, a 90-minute drive from Abu Dhabi, Jebel Hafeet is 1,240 metres high and the drive up the majestic rocky mountain on its winding highway makes for an exciting day. Al Ain, an oasis boasting cool, shady walkways and a 3,000-year-old falaj irrigation system, is also famed for hot water springs at the foot of the mountain. It is one of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited settlements, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Dubai’s Historic District
Shindagha, Bur Dubai, Deira and Al Fahidi historic districts around Dubai’s old creek, which functioned as a natural port, are being revamped to showcase the emirate’s history and heritage centred on fishing, pearl diving and trade. The 1.75km-long water front will have about 50 museums covering various aspects of life in Dubai, such as the seafaring tradition and Bedouin way of life, in addition to boutique hotels, restaurants, traditional bazaars and art galleries.
18 degrees in Abu Dhabi features Eastern Mediterranean cuisine and seasonally changing menus. Located on Hyatt Capital Gate Abu Dhabi’s 18th floor, the dining room has a spacious seating style featuring traditional and high bar tables, booth seating and an outdoor terrace. The award-winning restaurant’s menu is crafted by sous chef Michele Mueller, who cooked for several dignitaries, including US President Barack Obama, the Emir of Qatar and Mick Jagger.
Pierchic, a high-end Mediterranean seafood restaurant, offers a modern, stylish and elegant dining space, which maximises the views of the Arabian Gulf and the Dubai coastline. What is unique about Pierchic is that it is on a pier at Al Qasr, Madinat Jumeirah, facing the iconic Burj Al Arab. A dress code recommendation is to dress with a touch of white and visitors are set for a truly chic affair!
Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, at the Intercontinental Dubai Festival City, is famed as much for world-class French menus and gastronomic creations as for its magical interiors and setting with plush pink damask chairs, Murano glass chandeliers and walls adorned in mother of pearl. As for the culinary journey of discovery Reflets presents, it is headed up by the renowned three-Michelin star chef Pierre Gagnaire. Guests can indulge in Reflets’ private and romantic waterfront setting for an unforgettable night of elegance and enjoy select beverages, recommended by the restaurant’s resident sommelier.
Chott el Djerid, the largest salt lake of the Sahara desert, offers a moonscape view filled with mirages and beaming white sand, and Matmata, the one-of-its-kind Berber town. Matmata is enigmatic in the sense that all houses are built underground, inviting the visitors to lose themselves in a maze of passageways from one room to another. Both Chott el Djerid and Matmata were featured in Star Wars films.
Dubbed the jewel of the Tunisian coast, Djerba island is situated off south-eastern Tunisia. It is endowed with mesmerising sun-drenched beaches and beautiful weather. It is the place, in mythology, where Ulysses, on his epic journey, set foot only to have his companions lose the desire to go home preferring to stay on the island. One can enjoy the resorts offering traditional hammam (bath) or thalassotherapy, in addition to a variety of water sports.
Hammamet is a dreamy resort spot, particularly known for jasmine, the scent of which fills the town’s streets. The place is popular for its beautiful sandy beaches and water sports. It has garnered a reputation of being the town of artists and writers, combining Moorish mystique with Mediterranean charm. The town is dotted with a medina, of a maze of alleyways and souks filled with rug sellers and artisan products. It is home for the Great Mosque of the Kasbah, North Africa’s oldest mosque.
Dar el Jeld is a beautiful restaurant in the heart of the medina where the art of traditional culinary meets the art of architecture. Hosted in an old Arabic-style house, it specialises in savoury Tunisian dishes served in traditional pottery. Food is offered with musicians playing traditional Tunisian malouf.
The Factory Situated in the historic Kobet el-Hwe, the old summer palace of Tunis Beys, The Factory is partly set on the beach and in the waters of the Mediterranean. It accommodates the pleasure of enjoying tasty food while admiring the panoramic view of the sea.
Dar Zarrouk: If tired and hungry while roaming the streets of Sidi Bou Said, Dar Zarrouk is the restaurant to seek to enjoy a peaceful afternoon or night embracing the iconic views of the coastal town. Overlooking the hill, Dar Zarrouk offers a splendid view of the Sidi Bou Said port and Tunis Bay. The restaurant will treat you to the finest of the Tunisian cuisine, which combines taste and tradition.