Looking to tour your way around the Middle East but not entirely sure what the capital of each city is? Here we take you on a tour around the Middle East, its capital cities, and the highlights we recommend you visit.
Bahrain – Manama
Population: 1.7 million
Manama is one of the smallest of all the capital cities, and Bahrain is the smallest country in the Middle East. This wealthy island nation sits in the Arabian Gulf, to the east of Saudi Arabia, connected by the 25km long King Fahd Causeway.
Known for being far more liberal than its neighbour, the city boomed in population post-independence from Britain in the 1970s. The city highlights include the Nahrain National Museum, Al Fateh Grand Mosque, several iconic skyscrapers, and the Bahrain WTC.
The city is serviced by Bahrain International Airport (BAH) on adjacent Muharraq Island by national carrier Gulf Air.
Egypt – Cairo
Population: 9.5 million (metro area 21.7 million)
The huge metropolis of Cairo is the largest in the Middle East and in Africa (in fact, one of the largest in the world!). Located near the Nile Delta, the origins of what is now the modern city centre of Cario date back to the first Millenium. It has an incredible and long history.
The city’s famous landmarks include the Egyptian Museum, Tahrir Square and the Cairo Tower, but perhaps most famous are the Pyramids of Giza, which sit 10 miles to the southwest of the city.
The city is serviced by Cairo Internal Airport (CAI), and the country’s national carrier is Egypt Air.
Learn more about visiting Egypt with Kids here and see our detailed guide to Cairo with Kids
Iran – Tehran
Population: 9.3 million (Metro area 16 million)
The third most populous city after Cairo & Istanbul, Tehran is the largest city in Iran. Although the capital of Iran has changed many times over the centuries, Tehran has seen mass migration from all over Iran since the 20th century.
The city of Tehran was substantially rebuilt in the 1920s and 1930s and again saw rapid development in the 1960s and 1970s. Its most iconic landmark is Azadi Tower.
Tehran is serviced by Imam Khomeini Airport (IKA) internationally, a hub for Iran Air and Mahan Air.
The current Iran-US conflict leaves us in the difficult position of removing Iran from our recommended family-friendly places to visit in 2022. You can read more from our Iran fact file here.
Iraq – Baghdad
Population: 7.5 million
Located along the banks of the Tigris River, Baghdad’s history is believed to date back to the 8th Century AD. During the Islamic Golden Age, it was believed to be the largest city in the world; however, it was destroyed during the Mongol Empire.
The modern-day city of Baghdad has seen huge unrest in the past two decades with the US-led invasion in 2003 and frequent insurgent attacks. Reconstruction works and attempts to resume tourism have been severely hampered.
Iraq has remained too politically unsettled for us to add it to our list of recommended countries for families to visit. Notwithstanding, there are some utterly beautiful parts of the country, and tour group opportunities are opening up beyond Iraqi Kurdistan to the Republic of Iraq in 2022.
Baghdad is serviced by Baghdad International Airport (BGW), home to the national airline Iraqi Airways.
Israel – Jerusalem
Population: 0.96 million
The status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is still disputed under international law as both Israelis and Palestinians claim it as their capital. Although most foreign embassies are located in Tel Aviv, the US Embassy relocated to Jerusalem in 2018. You can read more about Jerusalem’s conflicted status as the capital here.
The city’s history can be dated back some 5000 years to the early Bronze Age, with a long and checkered history of occupation since. It is one of the most religiously significant cities in the world, home to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus is believed to have risen from the dead and al-Aqsa Mosque where Muslims believe Muhammad descended to heaven.
There is no international airport in Jerusalem, most international travellers come from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV); the cities are 67kms apart.
Jordan – Amman
Population: 4.1 million
Amman is the capital and largest city of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. With a history believed to date back some 7,000 years, there are traces of its ancient past dotted all over the city, though much of the city was destroyed by an 8th-century earthquake.
The city’s population has swelled since Jordan gained independence in 1946. Conflicts dating back to the 1960s saw an influx of Palestinian refugees, and in recent years, the Syrian population of the city has vastly increased.
The Amman Citadel is one of the city’s most popular attractions, along with the Jordan Museum and Roman Theatre. Rainbow Street is the hub of city nightlife.
Amman is serviced by Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), 30kms south of the city; the country’s national carrier is Royal Jordanian.
Kuwait – Kuwait City
Population: 3.2 million
The largest city and capital of Kuwait, Kuwait City serves as an important trade port in the Arabian Gulf. The city’s history is much newer than most in the region, believed to date back to the 17th century. The city saw great expansion due to the discovery of oil from the 1940s to the 1980s.
Believed to be one of the world’s hottest cities, the oil-rich economy has seen great modernisation, albeit it has not grown as much as its neighbours such as Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, choosing not to transform into a major international tourism hub city.
The city’s (and country’s) only airport is Kuwait International Airport (KWI), serviced by Kuwait Airways.
The city’s skyline is marked by a series of glimmering skyrises. Highlights include the Kuwait Towers, Souq Mubarakiya and Al Shaheed Park.
Lebanon – Beirut
Population: 2.4 million
Beirut is one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities, dating back over 5,000 years, and it has been the set of government for Lebanon since 1943. Once known as “the Paris of the East”, like many Middle Eastern cities, the past decades have been plagued with conflict.
Much rebuilding has occurred since the Civil War ended in 1990, but the conflict remains to this day with neighbours Israel and Syria and internal issues. The Beirut port explosion and crippling economic crisis have lead to a dramatic decrease in tourism since 2020.
Landmarks of note include the Church of Saint George Maronite and Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque that sit side by side in Downtown Beirut, the Corniche Beirut pedestrianised promenade and the Raouche Rocks (Pigeon rocks).
The city is best accessed by Rafic Hariri International Airport (BEY).
We recommend at present, you check with your foreign office on the current safety status of visiting Beirut.
Oman – Muscat
Population: 1.6 million
The sprawling coastal city of Muscat sits at the end of the Hajar Mountains that dominate the cityscape, connecting with the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman.
Unlike many of the cities along the Arabian Peninsula, the vibrant city of Muscat has kept modern buildings to a minimum and retains an old-world charm like no other.
Highlights of Muscat include the Muttarah Souq, the Royal Opera House Muscat, many museums and forts and the utterly beautiful Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.
Muscat International Airport (MCT) serves as an international hub with competitively priced airfares on its national carrier Oman Air.
Palestine – Ramallah (East Jerusalem)
Population: 60,000 est
Ramallah in the central West Bank is the current administrative base for the Palestinian National Authority. It sits 10km to the north of the divided city of East Jerusalem. It is considered to be Palestine’s most affluent and cultural city.
We appreciate that the discussion of Palestinian statehood may upset some readers. We have attempted to best explain the current situation in an impartial manner, we are not seeking political debate.
It is possible for families to visit Palestine, albeit they have a very underdeveloped tourism industry due to ongoing decades of conflict. There are no current international airports in Palestine, you must cross to Palestine from Jordan or Israel.
Qatar – Doha
Population: 950,000 (metro area 2.38 million)
One of the region’s modern and most rapidly developing cities, Doha will shortly host the FIFA Football World Cup in 2022. Adding to an already booming construction industry, Doha is a vastly growing city with a largely expatriate population.
The growth of Qatar Airways, based out of Hamad International Airport (DOH), has also seen a boom in tourism numbers to this city, striving to balance traditional culture with modernisation and growth.
Highlights of visiting Doha include the Museum of Islamic Art, MIA Park, Souq Waqif and the Katara Cultural Village.
You can catch our complete guide to Doha with Kids here, along with detailed guides to visiting Qatar and other city information here.
Saudia Arabia – Riyadh
Population: 7.5 million
The largest city on the Arabian Peninsula, Riyadh is the political and administrative capital of Saudi Arabia and one of the world’s largest financial centres. It’s also one of the world’s largest growing cities with a large migrant population.
The city is serviced by King Khalid International Airport (RUH) located 35kms north of the city, with the country’s national carrier Saudia (Saudi Arabian Airlines).
Learn more about visiting Saudi Arabia with Kids here, and our guide to the up-and-coming tourism spots of Saudi Arabia.
Syria – Damascus
Population: 2.4 million (metro area 2.7 million)
Situated in the southwestern corner of the country, the “Pearl of the East” has certainly lost much of its shine as a tourist destination since the Arab War of 2011 and the subsequent decade of civil war.
Syria’s capital is now considered the largest city since the decline in Aleppo after years of battle.
Major sites of interest in Damascus include the Ummayad Mosque, Al Azem Palace and the National Museum of Syria.
At this present time, it is still not on our list of recommended family destinations in the Middle East. We have more facts and information for potential visitors here.
Türkiye (Turkey) – Ankara
Population: 5.3 million (metro area 5.7 million)
OK, this may surprise you in more than one way! Yes, we consider Türkiye – or Turkey as most know the country by its anglicised name – to be part of the Middle East, though it straddles the European and Asian continental plates.
And no, the capital is not the populous Istanbul on the Bosphorous but, in fact, Ankara, a town with a population of “only 5 million” sitting north of Istanbul. It was established as the capital in 1923 following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
The city is serviced by Ankara Esenboğa Airport (ESB), which is not nearly as large as IST in Istanbul, largely servicing domestic passengers, but some international Middle East airlines fly directly.
You can learn more about Istanbul with Kids here – or take a complete tour through what to expect in Turkey with Kids
United Arab Emirates – Abu Dhabi
Population: 1.5 million
One of the most mistaken places in the Middle East is the UAE capital. Dubai is one of the biggest urban city centres and business hubs, in fact, many even believe Dubai is a country! But Abu Dhabi, further to the west, is the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
In Abu Dhabi, you will find Qasr al Watan, the Presidential Place and home to the country’s ruling Al Nayhan family. The seven Emirates of the UAE united in 1971, and whilst each has its own set of laws, they are united by the Federal Supreme Council, of which the ruler of Abu Dhabi has always been elected as the leader.
The national carrier Etihad Airways flies from Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).
You can see our complete family guide to the United Arab Emirates here, as well as our detailed guide of things to do in Abu Dhabi
Yemen – Sana’a
Population: 3.9 million (est)
Yet another sad and politically difficult situation. Sana’a is still officially the capital of Yemen under the Yemeni constitution. However, it has been under Houthi control since 2014. The seat of Government control was moved to the coastal city of Aden in March 2015.
The Old City of Sana’a, at some 2,300m above sea level in the mountains, is one of the highest capitals in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, noted for its unique architecture dating back 2,500 years.
Sana’a International Airport (SAH) reopened for the first time in 6 years in May 2022. Yemenia currently flies only to Jordan.
Sadly Yemen is another country we cannot recommend for family travellers at this time, but you can read more here about the current situation for tourists to Yemen.
Population numbers are estimates taken from various online sources, including the UN Publication “the World’s Cities in 2018”, macrotrends.net and data.worldbank.org. Note, that many countries do not conduct a census, and different sources categorize cities and metropolitan areas differently. All quoted populations are only relative estimates.
A few more frequently asked questions about cities in the Middle East
The largest city by population (including surrounding urban areas) is Cairo.
The top 10 largest Middle East cities as at the latest available information in early 2020 are:
1. Cairo (Egypt) 20.9 million
2. Istanbul (Turkey) 15.07 million
3. Tehran (Iran) 9 million
4. Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) 7.07 million
5. Baghdad (Iraq) 6.7 million
6. Ankara (Turkey) 5.4 million
7. Alexandria (Egypt) 5.2 million
8. Izmir (Turkey) 4.2 million
9. Amman (Jordan) 4.0 million
10. Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) 3.9 million
This very open question refers to a vast area of land with differing laws, religions and cultures. Whilst, in recent decades the Middle East has seen significant levels of armed conflict, and political unrest, not all areas of the Middle East are dangerous to visit.
We always suggest checking with your country’s foreign office to find out exactly how safe each country and region you are looking to visit is, noting the situation can rapidly change.
We also suggest family travellers check out our article “Is the Middle East safe for Family Vacations” where we dive into these issues in much more detail.
I bet everyone will have a different take on this, depending on your travel interests.
We had our go at trying to pick out the places we think family travellers will enjoy best in this guide to “the Top 20 Middle East holiday destinations.“
This is a common misconception. Whilst most (13) Middle Eastern countries are also considered part of the Arab World (22 nations), several other major ethnic and religious groups make up the Middle East, notably Judaism and Christianity.
In our country guides you can learn more about the religion and ethnicity of each of the countries we focus on.
This guide was first published in 2020 and updated in 2022 for more recent population statistics.