dubai at christmas

You’ll find holiday cheer around you in Dubai. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tips + Trends

Movies Under the Stars, Santa in a Dhow: 5 Middle East and Africa Holiday Escapes

Across the Middle East and Africa, the holidays are marked by celebrating orange-pink sunsets on the beach, holiday shopping under the glow of fairy lights and watching movies beneath starlit skies. The pleasant weather and abundant daylight during the holiday season make this an excellent time to embrace the festive spirit and explore.

Before you pack your bags and set off on a getaway, check the most current travel rules and regulations in your city. It’s also best to check schedules and programs for all events in advance.


Enjoy festive foods, decorate a gingerbread house, hear live music and shop for Christmas ornaments at Dubai’s annual Christmas market in Madinat Jumeirah. Join Santa on an abra, a traditional wooden dhow boat, on the canals of Madinat Jumeirah and admire the heritage-style architecture decked out in festive decor.

Most restaurants in the area offer Christmas brunches and dinners in December. While you’re there, visit the fascinating Theater of Digital Art to experience the works of Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh and other artists through immersive multisensory and virtual reality installations.

There’s no better time of year to put on your hiking boots and drive 90 minutes to the foothills of the Hajar Mountains in Hatta. Here you’ll find marked trails with a range of hikes (from beginner to difficult) that bring you across secret wadis (valleys), ruins, abandoned settlements and jagged peaks — with mountain goats for company. Need more of an adrenaline rush? At the Hatta Wadi Hub, go mountain carting, zorbing or horseback riding, or walk over a wadi on a suspended footbridge.


amman ruins
Explore Amman at the holidays. (Photo: Getty Images)

Amman is especially beautiful in December, with Christmas trees appearing in cafés and malls and many Christmas markets and tree lighting events springing up around the city. The Boulevard in Abdali is among the most popular spots to get into the holiday spirit, with live entertainment, snow slides, a gigantic Christmas tree and stalls selling baked goods and handmade gifts.

During the day, go on an art walk around the hipster neighborhood of Jabal al-Weibdeh, which serves as a canvas for murals painted by young avant-garde artists. Home to cafés, boutiques, art studios and murals, it offers an interesting look into the evolution of Jordanian society through the lens of art and culture.

To rest your legs, sit down at the charming Rumi Café (choose a table in the lovely outdoor area). Visit Dar Al-Anda, a gallery housed in two restored villas from the 1930s, where you’ll find modern art, photography and sculptures, as well as multisensory exhibitions and events.

Leave the city behind to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan, a 60-minute drive from Amman. The archaeological site, where the Bible says Jesus was baptized, consists of churches, chapels, caves, a monastery and pools.


dhow boats with holiday lights
Boats are aglow with holiday lights in Cairo. (Photo: Getty Images)

At the stately Cairo Opera House, expect holiday-themed productions such as “The Nutcracker” by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. Spend some time at Loft Gallery to browse or buy antique furniture, rustic home accessories, vintage designs and all manner of curiosities, displayed in a 1930s-era house.

Enjoy Cairo’s Christmas concerts at venues like the Cairo Jazz Club, treat yourself to a Christmas dinner at JW Steakhouse at the Cairo Marriott Hotel, or choose a Middle Eastern Christmas dinner with belly dancing at Bab El-Sharq or a festive Italian meal with live music and beautiful views over the Nile at Vivo, both at The Nile Ritz-Carlton.

In the mood for holiday shopping? Shop the sales and pose for photos by the massive Christmas trees at the Mall of Egypt and Cairo Festival City Mall.

Cape Town

Join in Cape Town’s annual four-day Kirstenbosch Carols by Candlelight celebration, singing carols and enjoying live entertainment on lawns illuminated by thousands of glow sticks. Welcome the holiday season on the first Sunday of December with live concerts, stalls selling Christmas treats and holiday shopping at the Festival of Lights on Adderley Street. Visit the V&A Waterfront for concerts, Christmas shows and events for children, as well as grand New Year’s Eve celebrations.

To enjoy Cape Town’s fantastic weather, spend a day among 2,500 species of indigenous flora at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Wander through the sculpture garden; walk the spectacular Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway, known as “the Boomslang” (tree snake), a bridge suspended over and among the treetops; and relax with tea and home-baked cakes at the Kirstenbosch Tea Room (or preorder a picnic).

Watch a movie under the stars at the Galileo Open-Air Cinema — check their schedule for Christmas movie screenings.


zanzibar beach bar
Chill out in Zanzibar for the holidays. (Photo: Getty Images)

Soak in the sights, sounds and smells of Zanzibar on a wander around the mazelike alleys of Stone Town. At the Princess Salme Museum, founded by historian Said el-Gheithy, learn about the life of a pioneering Arabian princess from the late 19th century, believed to be the first East African woman to pen a memoir.

For holiday gifts, make a quick stop at the Cultural Arts Centre Zanzibar to browse traditional and modern art, handicrafts, jewelry and more by local artists and craftspeople, and participate in community-run workshops.

Stroll by the Indian Ocean at the beautiful Forodhani Gardens and settle down on one of the benches to people-watch. Stay until after sunset when vendors at the Night Market set up shop, and indulge in samosas, Zanzibari pizza, seafood and meat skewers, coconut bread and fresh sugarcane juice.