Ten Iconic Sites to See on an Africa and Middle East Vacation

Landmarks & Icons

Wild African elephant in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

The most outstanding sites on an Africa and Middle East vacation are numerous and should not be missed. What’s on your bucket list?

My intention here is to highlight the top 10 iconic sites in Africa and the Middle East natural or otherwise that are my favourites that I have personally experienced and have what I call the “Wow Factor.” Over time, I have visited over 80 countries in the world and, by the way, there are officially 195 altogether. I am sure you will agree that to whittle down the choice to 10 sites is bordering on the insane. However, after giving this some thought, I have only selected those (in no particular preferential order) that are generally known and cherished… let’s see if they coincide with yours.

1. Table Mountain – Cape Town, South Africa

If you are in Cape Town on a South Africa vacation, you absolutely cannot miss the presence of Table Mountain. It dominates the city skyline just as does the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Corcovado Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. A UNESCO World Heritage site, literally hovering over the city and now officially recognized as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, it is South Africa’s most photographed landmark. The rocks on the mountain are over 600 million years old, making Table Mountain one of the oldest mountains in the world. Table Mountain offers fantastic views of Cape Town, Table Bay, and Robben Island to the north, and the Atlantic seaboard to the west and south. Apart from its size, 3 kilometres/2 miles from side to side, it has a flat top with edges consisting of steep cliffs (just like a table). When it is covered by a cloud bank which sometimes it is, this is referred to as the “tablecloth.” The Table Mountain Cableway takes passengers from the lower cable station to the plateau at the top of the mountain. The cars rotate 360 degrees, allowing you to have panoramic views of the city as you ascend or descend. Once up there, apart from gazing in awe at the views, you can also hike along one of the walking trails or simply visit the shops or the restaurant.

Stunning view of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa
Stunning view of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa

2. Victoria Falls – Southern Africa

My first sight of Victoria Falls was from a hotel situated on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zambia. All I could discern was foam rising above the river. However, I could feel the power of the falls even then. Victoria Falls is a huge waterfall dividing two countries, Zimbabwe and Zambia. It was the explorer, David Livingstone, who, when he first laid eyes on it in 1855, named the falls in honour of Queen Victoria. But the falls also has another name given to it by the indigenous local people – “The Smoke That Thunders,” a more apt description really. It is the not the highest or the widest falls in the world but it has the largest amount of falling water. Whether you stay on the Zambia side in Livingstone or the Zimbabwe side in the town of Victoria Falls, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter. To get right up to it, you can join an organized guided tour or you can experience it on your own. One thing I will tell you is that the spray from the falls can rise up to 800 metres/2600 feet. This means you are not going to just get wet, but soaked, so wear something waterproof or rent a raincoat. Two activities that will give you another perspective on the falls are a cruise on the Zambezi River (which gets fairly close, but not too close to be dangerous) or a flight on a helicopter or microlight plane which lasts anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.

Aerial view of Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe
Aerial view of Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe

3. Mount Kilimanjaro – Tanzania

At 5,895 metres/19,341 feet, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is the highest mountain in Africa. You can view this magnificent snow-capped mountain from Amboseli National Park just over the border in Kenya, and, at the same time, enjoy a Tanzania safari. Amboseli is home to some of the largest elephant herds. However, if you are the adventurous, fit and energetic type, you can, as many others have done, climb Mount Kilimanjaro. There are six official trekking routes that attract visitors from around the world. Despite its fame, Kilimanjaro is often underestimated because it can be walked and is therefore not technically a climb. However, many mountaineers dispute this saying that the high elevations, low temperatures, and occasional high winds make the mountain very physically demanding. For the average person, it takes between five to nine days to complete the round trip. Statistics show that less than half of all climbers actually reach the summit. Unbelievably, the fastest ascent-descent was by a Swiss-Ecuadorian mountain guide who ran to the top and back in 6 hours and 42 minutes in 2014!

Related Article:
Climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

Three giraffe with Mt Kilimanjaro in background in Amboseli National Park, Kenya
Three giraffes in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, with Mt Kilimanjaro in the background

4. Ngorongoro Crater – Tanzania

One of my favourite game reserves in Tanzania is the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area, which was formed when a giant volcano exploded and then collapsed around two to three million years ago. Looking down from the rim of this huge crater, and it is a crater, you might wonder where the animals are, due to the highly visible lush undergrowth. However, the crater is teeming with all kinds of wildlife as it is home to a permanent population of more than 30,000 animals. It hosts some of the highest densities of lions in the world and is a good place to see the endangered black rhino. The crater also hosts leopards, elephants, and buffalo. From an ecotourism point of view, some of the local activities include tree planting projects, encouraging Masai women to sell their handicraft products, introducing water harvesters to accumulate rainwater, and supporting local food producers. The Great Migration, one of the most incredible natural phenomena in the world, passes through Ngorongoro, moving south in December and then returning north in June, something special to be experienced on an Africa and Middle East vacation.

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

5. Namibia Sand Dunes

The Namib Desert stretches for more than 2000 kilometres/1200 miles along the Atlantic coasts of Angola, Namibia, and South Africa. Geologists consider the Namib Desert to be one of the oldest in the world and many of the dunes found here have developed over millions of years. Located in the southern part of the Namib Desert and part of Namibia’s Namib-Naukluft National Park is Sossusvlei, a salt and clay pan surrounded by its world-famous red sand dunes. These immense sand dunes are among some of the highest in the world. The colours vary depending on the age of the dunes, with the oldest being the brightest. They shimmer in the sunlight and the more intense the colour, the older the sand dune. The largest dune has been nicknamed “Big Daddy” and stands over 300 metres/980 feet tall. The Namib is almost completely uninhabited by humans except for several small settlements and indigenous groups. Most of the desert wildlife you see here, on an Africa and Middle East vacation to Namibia, is small animals that live on little water. Never underestimate the beauty of Namibia. Perhaps a good way to appreciate this country is with a balloon ride.

Exploring Sossusvlei by hot air balloon, Namibia
Exploring Sossusvlei by hot air balloon, Namibia

6. The Pyramids and the Sphinx – Cairo, Egypt

The Great Pyramids of Giza on the outskirts of Cairo are the only remaining one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World. They are 4000 years old and are amazing because of their extraordinary shape, perfectly made structure, and sheer size. They were constructed by thousands of workers and their purpose was to be the burial tombs for deceased pharaohs. There are actually 3 pyramids in Giza. The Great Pyramid of Cheops is the oldest and largest, with an estimated 2.3 million blocks used in its construction. It is possible to go inside this pyramid, while on an Egypt tour, by entering a long, low and narrow corridor that leads to the exquisitely built Great Gallery and central chambers. However, any treasures that existed here are long gone. The Pyramid of Chephren, similarly to the Cheops Pyramid, has an internal burial chamber that can be entered as well as a funerary temple outside of the pyramid that leads to the Sphinx. The legendary Sphinx which lies not far from the Giza pyramids is a large limestone statue with the body of a lion and the head of a human believed to be one of the ancient pharaohs. The Sphinx measures 74 metres/289 feet in length.

Giza Pyramids and Sphinx, Cairo, Egypt
Giza Pyramids and Sphinx, Cairo, Egypt

7. Petra, Jordan

Petra is an amazing site, not to be missed on a Jordan vacation. It is reached via the Siq, a narrow gorge, 1 kilometre/half a mile long flanked by high cliffs. At the end of this gorge, you dramatically arrive at the Treasury Building, carved out of the rock face in the first century AD. After this, you enter a valley where you will find a great expanse of land containing hundreds of rock-cut tombs. Roughly 500 still exist. This historical and archaeological city in southern Jordan was established as early as the 4th century BC as the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom (nomadic Arabs), with a population of around 20,000 inhabitants. It is the number one attraction on trips to Jordan and remained unknown to Europeans until it was rediscovered in 1812. It is carved into the rose-coloured rock face and is a vast complex. Highlights include a Roman-style theatre, obelisks, temples, colonnaded streets, and the Ad-Deir Monastery which is situated on top of a rock face and reached by climbing 800 steps. Also located here are the Petra Archaeological Museum and the Petra Nabataean Museum.

Siq Leading to the Treasury Building, Petra, Jordan
Siq leading to the Treasury Building in Petra, Jordan

8. Wadi Rum, Jordan

Wadi Rum, also known as The Valley of the Moon, is a valley located in southern Jordan that is cut into sandstone and granite rock, a very special place on an Africa and Middle East vacation. The region has served as a backdrop for many famous films including Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Red Planet (2000), Prometheus (2012), and The Martian (2015). Archaeological evidence including rock paintings and temples suggest that Wadi Rum, the largest wadi (valley) in Jordan has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The area is very isolated and has remained relatively untouched by humans with the only permanent inhabitants being Bedouin nomads. Wadi Rum offers many climbing and trekking opportunities as well as camel and horse safaris.  While on a Jordan vacation, visitors can also enjoy staying at accommodations out under the stars or wandering through canyons and waterholes experiencing Jordan’s history through 4,000 year-old rock drawings. Four wheel drive vehicles and jeeps are mainly used to tour the valley.

Wadi Rum viewed from Lawrence's Spring, Wadi Rum, Jordan
Wadi Rum viewed from Lawrence’s Spring, Jordan

9. Masada, Israel

Masada is situated in the Judean Desert and overlooks the Dead Sea. It is a historical mountaintop fortress and the site of the heroic defiance by Jewish Zealots who rose up against the Roman Empire in 66 AD and took their own lives rather than surrender to the Romans when defeat seemed inevitable. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is of symbolic importance due to the determination and heroism of this event. The hill on which Masada is located is extremely high but you can take a cable car ride, on your Israel vacation, or walk up the Snake Path. Once on top of Masada, you will experience outstanding views over the Dead Sea and the surrounding desert. There is a tourist centre which offers a movie about the story of Masada, a model of the site, and an exhibit of the archaeological findings. A sound and light show is presented on some summer nights on the western side of the mountain.

Ruins of King Herod's palace at Masada Fortress, Israel
Ruins of King Herod’s palace at Masada Fortress, Israel

10. Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia is a very unusual area which can be described as a wonder of nature with its fantastic landscapes and underground features. It is known for its moon-like landscape, fairytale chimneys, underground cities, and long deep gorges and cave churches and houses carved into the rocks. During the Roman era, the region served as a shelter for the early escaping Christians who also used the underground cities as hideouts. The fresco-adorned rock-cut churches, the Goreme Open-Air Museum, the country’s largest open-air museum and the subterranean refuges are the most famous sights. On a Turkey vacation, you can stay in a cave hotel hewn out of rock. Cave hotels are literally built into the side of mountains and Cappadocia has several to choose from. They are just as comfortable as a standard hotel… and perhaps cozier.

Colourful hot air balloons flying over the valley at Goreme National Park, Cappadocia, Turkey
Colourful hot air balloons flying over the valley at Goreme National Park, Cappadocia, Turkey