Visiting the Middle East with a Toddler

Long haul flights are such a tiring experience. Being cooped up for hours on end in a confined space without fresh air,  very limited space to stretch your legs, and not much more than a television screen and frequent snacking on borderline inedible food for entertainment isn’t exactly a recipe for a fun time. Throw an exuberant, restless, boisterous toddler in the mix, and long haul travelling can be downright exhausting. Having recently returned from a family holiday to the Middle East with my husband and almost-two-year-old daughter, I can vouch for just how the arduous and strenuous the experience was, firsthand (oh, and did I mention I flew the 20-something hours each way with an overactive toddler and while pregnant and suffering from all-day morning sickness? Fun times.)  However, as tiring as the actual journey was, the trip itself was a wonderful opportunity for my husband and I to introduce our toddler to her culture, an array of sights, sounds and tastes, and the chance to meet her grandparents and extended family for the first time.

Most parents probably envisage their first overseas family holiday with toddler to involve a trip to Disneyland rather than the desert, or somewhere closer to home like Bali or New Zealand. However, don’t disregard the Middle East as a potential destination for a holiday like no other – and yes, you can most definitely do it with toddler in tow.

With political unrest, terrorism, and travel advisories, travellers often avoid the Middle East. But as you will discover, you don’t have to stay away. Complete with a rich history and culture, gorgeous mountain ranges, the most amazing desert adventures, and sunsets that rival the Greek Island’s, it means that with a bit of forward planning, a trip to the Middle East can be a fantastic cultural adventure for the whole family. So take the chance to further your horizons and experience just what the region has to offer. Here are some of my tips to help you make the most of the trip with a toddler:

 

The Do’s and Don’ts for travelling to the Middle East with a Toddler.

travelling to the middle east with a toddler

DO keep the weather in mind when deciding what to pack in your bags.

While the Middle East has a reputation as a hot, sandy desert, many countries including Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt also offer a plethora of beaches for you to enjoy. We spent much of our time in Lebanon enjoying the last of the blazing summer sun on sandy beaches along the Mediterranean shoreline. The peak Summer period from June to August can be stiflingly hot (think 50°C), while some countries endure a bitterly cold and snowy Winter. Both these extreme weather periods can make travelling with a toddler difficult (and yourself!), so try and travel in Autumn (September to November) or Spring (March to May); the more mild temperatures that won’t leave little ones feeling uncomfortable, and make the sight-seeing a far more pleasant experience for you all.

DON’T forget a car seat.

Depending on where you go, car seats aren’t a legal requirement across the Middle East nor are they overly regulated, and finding a taxi with a baby seat can be a lucky dip. Save yourself the headache and bring one with you. Plus, most airlines will generally let you use it on board for your toddler if you have booked them a seat. That said…

DON’T feel the need to bring a million toddler products with you.

Nappies, bath toiletries and products like bottles, feeding products and more can be found in baby stores in shopping malls, big supermarkets and most pharmacies. There include many American brand names, some of which we don’t have access to in Australia, although expect to pay a little more than back home. Pack the essentials to get you through the flight and first few days, then stock up on what you need once you arrive.

DO break up your flight with a stopover.

If you’re taking the most commonly used route of flying to your final destination via the United Arab Emirates, take advantage of your transit to either Dubai or Abu Dhabi (depending on your airline). It’s a long 14-odd hours from the east coast of Australia to the UAE, and chances are you’ll need a break from being cooped up in a plane as much as your toddler. There are loads of kid-friendly things to see and do in both these big cities, so make the most of the stopover and extend it for a few days.

DO speak to your doctor re vaccines.

We didn’t require any shots before we left, but let your GP or paediatrician know exactly where you are planning on visiting with your toddler to ensure the health and wellbeing of your family. It’s also wise to bring along any medications you normally keep in your emergency arsenal at home, like paracetamol and electrolyte drinks. Medications are fairly easily accessible in big cities and don’t normally require a prescription – it was easy enough for us to pick up children’s Panadol and adult allergy tablets straight from the pharmacy – but best to keep a stash in your bag for emergencies.

DON’T drink the water (in some places, anyway).

If you’re unsure, always err on the side of caution and stock up on bottled water. It’s readily available and cheap as chips. In our case, we also made the point of rinsing my toddler’s feeding utensils and toothbrush with bottled water, because I really did not want to endure a bout of toddler tummy troubles on our holiday.

DO indulge in the food, but take sensible precautions.

The food in the Middle East lives up to its reputation – it’s fresh, flavoursome, and really delicious. Some of my favourite memories of our trip included stopping at bakeries on the drive to Beirut and indulging in fresh-baked Lebanese oregano pizza or delicious sweet pastries. Don’t be afraid to let your toddler sample the local cuisine. Just choose reputable eateries, ensure your meat is cooked all the way through, and err on the side of caution and trust your gut (literally) if need be.  For fussy eaters with less tolerance for new cuisines, many of the big food chains have branches dotted all over the Middle East, and you’ll find everything from burgers and pizzas to sushi and dumplings, so they’ll never go hungry.

A little note on dining out – while children are happily welcomed at restaurants, it can sometimes be hard to find a high chair, or somewhere offering a children’s menu. Pack a foldable booster seat (like this one) if your tot won’t fit in a regular chair, and be prepared to share your adult meal.

Middle eastern food. eating out with kids in lebannon

DO consider a travel stroller that’s compact and easily folded up.

We chose to bring our Mountain Buggy Nano pram with us, as it was permitted to be taken on-board as carry-on luggage. It was handy to use when in transit, walking from one terminal to another, and it was a godsend when we landed and waited in endless immigration and customs queues. Plus, holidays mean lots of walking around taking in the sights, so a compact stroller is perfect if you find yourself needing to be on your feet a little longer than intended. It’s also a great place for your tot to nap while you’re out and about, or, as mentioned above, doubling up as a seat when out for meals and high chairs are sparse.

DO your hotel research.

Almost all hotels are accommodating when it comes to kids, but I strongly recommend asking if they have a cot or trundle bed readily available when making your booking (or just look it up on Out & About Baby). We were lucky enough to be staying with family for the bulk of our trip, but had to go back and forth with a few hotels to ensure a cot would be provided before we made a booking for our few days of sight-seeing in Beirut.  We ended up staying at Le Gray which is one of the better hotels with a cot and kids food on the room service menu.

DON’T worry about the language barrier.

English is commonly spoken across the region as a second or third language, and people are more than happy to help tourists.

DON’T assume the worst.

Let’s face it, the Middle East isn’t necessarily the top of the travel list for parents planning a family holiday, and the global news coverage of the last few years haven’t exactly helped the region’s reputation. It’s normal to feel apprehensive, but having been there myself within the last few months, I can vouch for the fact that you can have a safe, fun, family holiday with a toddler. Just take precautions like you would on any other holiday, and check DFAT’s Smart Traveller website before you book and go for trouble-spots that are best avoided.

DO give it a go!

While it might appear to be a daunting idea, a trip to the Middle East with kids is most certainly doable and, more so, enjoyable. It may require a bit more preparation, but the chance to experience an array of cultures and history stretching back thousands of years is an amazing trade-off well worth the research and forward planning.

 

Fun spots for toddlers in Lebanon:

visiting the middle east with a toddler

We spent much of our time in Lebanon visiting family and enjoying the last of the blazing summer sun on sandy beaches along the Mediterranean shoreline. Given its central location on the Mediterranean coast, Beirut serves as the ideal base for day trips to surrounding seaside towns and mountain ranges, all less than two hours away by car. Though it takes equal parts courage and patience to be driven through the city’s notorious traffic as you head into the countryside, it’s worth the stress.

Lebanese Marine and Wildlife Museum. Jieta Grotto Road, Jieta. 

Containing more than 2000 species and over 5000 specimens of marine and wildlife, the Lebanese Marine and Wildlife Museum contains the largest collection of mummified sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, fossils, birds, reptiles, and mammals, in addition to a handful of unknown deep sea creatures from in and around the Mediterranean. The museum is a great destination for kids and families looking to explore the natural wonders of Lebanon.

Saint-George Yacht Club and Marina. Zaytouna Bay, Beirut (image above). 

Located next to the old St George Hotel and only minutes from Beirut’s commercial and administrative district, it provides easily accessible relaxation for both locals and tourists alike. In addition to three adult pools, there is a dedicated children’s pool and playground area, plus a poolside bar and restaurant that serves meals, snack and drinks. Open from 9am to 6pm daily.

Waves Aqua Park. Mar Roukouz, El Metn, Beirut. 

Deemed as one of the biggest water parks in all of Lebanon, Waves Aqua Park and Resort covers a ground of 60,000 square meters. The sprawling space, covers water activities ranging from lounge-worthy wave pools and lazy rivers to more thrilling fall slides that go up to a height of 21 meters. And when you are ready to refuel there are several cafes and restaurants spread around the park offering striking views of the Mansourieh Valley as you dine.

Byblos

About 30 minutes north of Beirut is Byblos (Jbeil, in Arabic), one of the world’s oldest continually-inhabited cities, first settled by the Phoenicians between 8800 and 7000 BC, and now, unsurprisingly, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Explore layer-upon-layer of history by strolling through lively Ottoman-era souks towards an imposing 12th-century Crusader castle where a climb to the top provides panoramic views of pine-covered mountains sloping into the sea and the faint outline of Beirut’s skyline on the horizon.

Middle east with a toddler

Baalbek, Bekaa Valley 

A 90-minute drive into the Bekaa Valley takes you to Baalbek, one of the world’s best preserved and largest ancient Roman temple compounds and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Make the most of a visit by hiring an independent tour guide (they’ll be waiting at the site entrance, and charge reasonable fees) to learn about the history of the pilgrims who worshipped here and the purpose of each structure, including the imposing Temple of Bacchus. The energy is as spiritual as it is mysterious, considering that to this day no one quite knows how builders were able to move and assemble stone blocks weighing as much as 300 tons. Don’t forget to grab a delicious pastry or two from the Patisserie Al Jawhari nearby.

Visiting the Lebanon with kids

Laura Jilwan

Mama of Scarlett + bump #2, lover of coffee, prolific abuser of emojis. Exercise? I thought you said extra fries.