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7 Best Cities for Architecture in the Middle East

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2 months ago

I have been going to the Middle East since I was a kid and, in many ways, this region has always been my second home. From the cradle of civilization to the crossroads of empires, countless groups of people and mighty kingdoms have left their mark on the urban landscapes of the Middle East.

From Byzantine foundations to Persian mosaics, I love that so much architecture in the Middle East reflects these layers of history. But, in my opinion, certain cities stand out for more than just their aesthetic beauty. They tell a story of new ideas and cultures coming together, and, in short, are living, breathing museums of human ingenuity.

Here are the 7 best cities for architecture in the Middle East.

7. Dubai, United Arab Emirates

It feels controversial to include Dubai on this list. But it also feels controversial to exclude Dubai from any conversation about architecture in the Middle East. Ultimately, I can’t win and there is no correct answer here… Welcome to the Middle East!

If the other cities on this list are steeped in the history of the Middle East, Dubai’s architecture embodies the bold ambitions of the future of the Middle East.

The last 25 years has seen Dubai push the boundaries of global architecture. I know absolutely nothing about engineering, but I do know that Dubai’s skyscrapers have somehow managed to combine a tasteful luxury with clear functionality. Everywhere you go in Dubai, you can feel the energy of a city looking forward.

The Burj Khalifa – otherwise known as the tallest building in the world – is the clearest commitment to Dubai’s architectural vision.

I recommend both admiring the Burj Khalifa from the Dubai Fountain (there are shows every 30 minutes) and from the inside. If you are keen to get to the observation deck, there are countless options. Dubai is one of the most visited cities in the world, so make sure you book in advance!

However, when I think of Dubai, it is the iconic sail-like Burj Al Arab that first comes into mind. With opulence, exclusivity and a uniquely Emirati design, nothing compares to the Burj Al Arab hotel. If your budget allows it, I imagine staying here is an experience like no other.

6. Basra, Iraq

Basra is famous for its unique shanasheel architecture.

You’re probably thinking: what is shanasheel? This unique design refers to the intricate carved wooden screens, windows and balconies that are a feature of Old Basra. The shanasheel lets the cool air in, but provides a degree of privacy and shade from the Basra sun.

If you have traveled across the Middle East and North Africa, you will recognize shanasheel everywhere from Morocco to Aleppo. But according to many, Basra is the original home of shanasheel.

The main streets of Old Basra are particularly photogenic, with many of the old shanasheel falling into disrepair. Walking the streets of Old Basra is easily one of the top things to do in Basra.

I won’t sugarcoat it: parts of this area are slightly abandoned and the stench of sewage does slightly ruin the experience. The good news is that UNESCO is currently working with the Iraqi government to restore the district!

Beyond exploring the streets, don’t miss the Al Hassoun Museum and restaurant. A rare opportunity to step inside a shanasheel home, this museum-restaurant is home to an incredible array of Iraqi collectibles. The restaurant onsite is a great place to try many Iraqi traditional foods, including the unique breakfast dish of Bagila bil Dihin or the Iraqi limo chai basrawi drink.

If you are thinking of visiting Basra, you will want to make sure you read our guide on everything you need to know before visiting Iraq in 2024 and our ultimate guide for visiting Basra.

5. Shibam, Yemen

Often called the ‘Manhattan of the Desert’, Shibam is one of Yemen’s main showstoppers.

Nestled in Yemen’s jaw-droppingly beautiful Hadhramaut region, the ancient city of Shibam is famous for its mud-brick skyscrapers. Shibam was a historic trade hub along the ancient Arabian incense routes. These trade routes brought both wealth and innovative design to the city.

Don’t forget to look up: many of these mud skyscrapers often reach over eight stories high!

Shibam is a walled city and its almost immediately apparent how genius the mud skyscraper is. Despite the often-scorching heat of southern Yemen, the alleyways of Shibam are incredibly cool.

If you are lucky enough to visit Yemen, take whatever time you can to explore the alleyways, rubbing shoulders with goats, antique stores and thousands of years of mud-brick ingenuity.

4. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

The historic gateway to the holy city of Mecca, Jeddah’s Al-Balad district is easily one of the most beautiful places to visit in Saudi Arabia.

With coral-stone buildings and grandiose wooden balconies, Al-Balad fuses Persian, Ottoman and Swahili influences in a quintessentially Saudi manner.

I particularly love the iconic tower houses of Al Balad with their turquoise window shutters.

While there is no shortage of places to visit in Jeddah, I recommend visiting Al-Balad during both the day (for photography) and evening. In my opinion, after dark is when Al-Balad truly comes to life, as the streets fill up with families enjoying the many cafés and restaurants.

Every time I recommend people to visit Saudi Arabia, I am always met with 101 questions: is it safe? Can women travel to Saudi Arabia? Do I need to wear a headscarf? It’s no secret the Kingdom is changing drastically, and, in my opinion, there is no better time to visit Saudi Arabia. Let me go even further: I think Saudi Arabia is the best place to visit in 2024.

I always try to stay within walking distance to Al-Balad. Keep an eye open for new boutique hotels in Al-Balad. At the time of writing, I think the Grand Hotel is the best option within walking distance of Al-Balad.

3. Tel Aviv, Israel

Israel’s economic and cultural powerhouse, the scientific and tech capital of the Middle East and the second-largest city in the Levant (after Amman), Tel Aviv has it all.

Beyond the start-up world and Tel Aviv’s pulsing nightlife, the city’s soul lies with its immaculate collection of over 4,000 Bauhaus buildings. The UNESCO World Heritage ‘White City’ is the largest collection of Bauhaus architecture in the world. In short, Tel Aviv is one of the best cities for architecture in the world.

Many Bauhaus architects from Germany sought refuge in the then-newly developing Tel Aviv in the 1930s and 1940s amid the Nazi clampdown on modernism.

Known for its functional simplicity, horizontal dimensions and flat roofs, Bauhaus architecture was perfectly suited to the socialist and egalitarian ideals of early Tel Aviv.

Before you head to the beach or indulge in Tel Aviv’s mind-blowing breakfast scene, there’s one thing I recommend everyone visiting Tel Aviv do: an architecture walking tour. The Bauhaus Centre on Dizingoff Street organizes regular tours in English, or you can pick up an audio-tour and do it yourself.

The Bauhaus Centre also has an excellent concept and design store which is my favorite place for Tel Aviv souvenirs.

Dizingoff Square is the heart of Bauhaus Tel Aviv and is the world’s only Bauhaus public square. If you are an architecture nerd like me, try to stay in one of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus beauties.

The best Bauhaus hotel in Tel Aviv is unquestionably the Hotel Cinema right on Dizingoff Square and the former site of one of Tel Aviv’s first theatres, the Cinema Ester.

2. Damascus, Syria

As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it comes as no surprise that Damascus boasts countless architectural styles.

Beyond being one of the most beautiful places to visit in Syria, Damascus’s landmark Umayyad Mosque is a microcosm of Damascus architecture and design.

First built in 706 C.E. by the Umayyad Caliphate, the Umayyad Mosque is one of the earliest examples of Islamic architecture. What I find most interesting is that the Umayyad Mosque was built on top of a former Roman Temple and Christian basilica. These layers of history are easily identified in the design: the church bell-tower turned minaret, the Roman-columns inside the prayer hall.

In short, the Umayyad Mosque offers the history of Syria in one building. The interior and the exterior reveal the rich layers of history that characterize Damascus.

The Old City of Damascus is one of the few historic centres in Syria that has survived Syria’s tragic civil war. Wandering the bougainvillea-clad alleyways of Old Damascus, try your best to spot Ottoman influences. For example: a window shutter or tile sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in Istanbul. Beyond the architecture, I would also keep my eyes open for some unique Syrian street food!

Visiting Syria in 2024 is not your regular vacation. But, don’t worry, we have all your concerns and questions covered. If you are interested in arranging a bespoke tour to Syria, please reach out: we have years of experience. We’ve also got you covered on the Christian, Islamic and modern sides of Damascus.

1. And the best city for architecture lovers in the Middle East is…

Cairo, Egypt!

Where to begin. Home to over 20 million people, Cairo is one of the great mega-cities of our planet: both dizzying and dazzling.

It’s no surprise that Cairo is the best city for architecture in the Middle east. Cairo effortlessly fuses ancient Pharaonic designs with the Islamic styles of the Abbasids and Seljuks. Turning to the modern heart of Cairo, the broad avenues of Downtown Cairo showcase everything from African modernism to Art Deco.

Cairo’s 9th century Ibn Tulun Mosque is often considered a prime example of early Abbasid architecture. Modelled on the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq, the Ibn Tulum Mosque is famous for its winding minaret, drawing from a fusion of pan-Islamic design elements. If you are visiting any of Cairo’s historic mosques, I recommend dressing conservatively (although most will have a headscarf to borrow).

I always recommend climbing Bab Zuweila, one of old Cairo’s historic gates. After a few stairs, you will have an extensive vantage point looking at a string of Seljuk-era minarets and madrasas.

Here, you can really appreciate the interplay between Cairo’s architecture and her citizens. As the sound of bustling markets and call to prayer bellow between centuries-old structures. If you are heading this way, it’s worth mentioning that some of Cairo’s best street food can be found in the surrounding streets!

You can easily spend one day in Downtown Cairo. The main streets here, Qasr el Nile and Talaat el-Harb, ooze the confidence of post-colonial Cairo with a stunning display of grand architectural styles. 

From the Art Deco design of the Cinema Radio and Cinema Metro to the neo-Pharaonic innovation of the Shar HaShamayim Synagogue, downtown Cairo is a tour de force of twentieth-century architecture.

Only a few blocks away from Downtown Cairo lies the quiet, charming streets of Garden City, modelled on the British garden village.

I find the buildings in Garden City completely unique, somehow combining 1950s Art Deco with soft wood and those quintessential yellow hues of Cairo.

Keep an eye open for newer monuments in Cairo, like the Monument of the Unknown Soldier. Drawing from the legitimacy of the pharaohs in shape and size, this pyramid-esque memorial is covered in Arabic calligraphy.

I find it fascinating how this memorial aims to commemorate modern Egypt’s wartime identity within an ancient Egyptian design.

So there you have it: the 7 best cities for architecture in the Middle East. Book your flights and get ready to see the beauty of the region.

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