Al Ayjah Castle

Find history and scenic views at Al Ayjah Castle. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tips + Trends

Escape Sprawling Cities for Bucolic Small Towns in the Middle East and Africa

Looking to escape city life for something different? Whether it’s adventure, culture, wildlife or nature that you’re after, these small towns in the Middle East and South Africa promise to leave you feeling pleasantly surprised by their many experiences and utterly refreshed thanks to their relaxed pace of life.

The best part? They lie just a few hours drive away from major cities like Dubai and Muscat, and most offer breathtaking views on the road trip there.

As always, check for travel restrictions and closures before planning your trip.

Swap Muscat’s Souks for Coastal Charms in Sur

Drive for a little more than two hours from Muscat to find yourself in Sur, a seaside town with a rich shipbuilding heritage and plenty of coastal charm.

Begin across the lagoon in the village of Al Ayjah, where old merchant houses stand with beautiful carved wooden doors close to Al Ayjah Castle. The Al Ayjah Lighthouse, originally built by the Portuguese as a defense tower, offers fantastic views of dhows (traditional wooden boats) in the sea.

To learn more about Sur’s maritime heritage, make your way across the Khor Al Batah Bridge to visit the country’s oldest functioning dhow-building yard. It’s a pleasant walk offering plenty of photoworthy views over the lagoon.

Next, head to the Sur Maritime Museum, where exhibits include maps and navigation instruments, as well as photographs of the area’s shipbuilders, sailors, captains and the ports they visited. The area is like an open-air museum of Omani dhows. Don’t miss Fatah Al Khair, a magnificent restored wooden ship that’s more than 70 years old and is permanently placed on land.

The town stands in the shadow of the 300-year-old Sunaysilah Castle, which served to defend Sur through its four round towers. Enjoy a sunset stroll in the company of Omani families at Sur Corniche.

Swap Cairo’s Buzz for Sun-Kissed Adventures in Ain Sokhna

yacht on the red sea
By land or by sea, explore the region. (Photo: Getty Images)

Drive just under two hours from Cairo to soak in the surf, sun and sea in the beach town of Ain Sokhna. Rent a yacht at the harbor and go deep-sea fishing in the Red Sea, with equipment and cooked lunch available at an extra cost. You might even spot a dolphin or two if you’re lucky.

The area’s azure waters also offer excellent conditions for snorkeling, diving and underwater photography. Up for a challenge? Try kitesurfing at one of the schools on the coast.

Easily reached by cable car, Porto Sokhna is Egypt’s first mountain resort and includes a golf course, cinema, shopping malls and restaurants. If you’re interested in a bit of history, visit the fourth-century monasteries of St. Anthony and St. Paul, two hours away by car.

Swap Dubai’s City Life for Mountain Adventures in Hatta

mountains surround boats on hatta dam
Go for a boat or kayak ride at Hatta Dam. (Photo: Getty Images)

A 90-minute drive transports you from Dubai’s skyscraper-studded cityscape straight to Hatta, a village with farmland, hills and wadis surrounded by jagged peaks in the heart of the Hajar Mountains.

You’ll find plenty of opportunities to get active here, like mountain biking and hiking in the Hatta Mountain Conservation Area, horseback riding to Hatta Lake in the foothills, kayaking in the turquoise waters of Hatta Dam, or archery and ax-throwing at the Hatta Wadi Hub.

The museum at the Hatta Heritage Village in town offers a chance to look at reconstructed traditional lodgings — barasti huts and homes with large courtyards — and learn about rural life and customs through pottery, jewelry, traditional attire, weaponry and more. It’s a pleasant walk through the village up to the old watchtowers and Hatta Fort, all from the late 1800s.

Swap Cape Town’s Sights for the Eclectic Vibe of Kalk Bay

kalk bay harbour boats
Get a taste of the seafaring life at Kalk Bay Harbour. (Photo: Getty Images)

For a cool hipster-meets-seaside vibe, drive 35 minutes from Cape Town to the former fishing village of Kalk Bay on the False Bay coast.

Walk along the Kalk Bay Harbour and visit the beautiful red-and-white lighthouse and see the wharf’s resident seals. You’ll spot colorful fishing boats bringing in their daily catch — the market here is a favorite place for locals to buy freshly caught fish.

If you’d rather have your fish served cooked, sit down at Harbour House. You’ll enjoy breathtaking harbor views through the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows as you tuck into a seafood dinner.

At Casa Boho, browse vibrant homewares, including ceramics, throw blankets and carpets. At the Kalk Bay Modern gallery, admire contemporary art and crafts exhibits including photography, sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, textiles and more created by artists from the continent. Don’t miss the gallery’s collection of contemporary aboriginal San or Bushman art, one of the largest in South Africa.

Afterward, get a coffee and baked goods at the popular Olympia Café, a restaurant and deli that is something of an institution in Kalk Bay.

Swap Abu Dhabi’s Modern Architecture for Date Palms in the Al Ain Oasis

While Abu Dhabi has plenty of interesting cultural sights and museums to explore, for some downtime surrounded by sublime landscapes, do the two-hour drive west to the garden city of Al Ain. Here you’ll find date plantations, parks, watchtowers, forts and archaeological sites in the lush backdrop of the Al Ain Oasis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Within the fertile Al Ain Oasis, wander along traditional falaj irrigation channels, enjoying the shade of more than 147,000 date palms and the sweet fragrance of orange, banana and fig trees. The visitor center offers information and interactive exhibits about traditional farming and irrigation techniques.

The archaeological sites of Bida bint Saud, Hili Archaeological Park and the 5,000-year-old tombs at Jebel Hafeet offer fascinating insights into the history of this area since the Neolithic period and are a short drive away.

Don’t miss sunset from the viewpoint at Jebel Hafeet, the country’s second-highest peak, easily reached by one of the most scenic mountain roads in the UAE.