From the dusty streets of Khartoum to the ancient Pyramids of Meroe; here are the best places to visit in Sudan (when it’s safe again).

“Sudan is not really a country at all, but many. A composite of layers, like a genetic fingerprint of memories that were once fluid, but have since crystallized out from the crucible of possibility.”

Jamal Mahjoub, British-Sudanese Writer.

The sun broke over the pyramids. It was a chill desert morning, but soon enough, the relentlessly rising sun would turn the Nubian sands into a baking furnace. I picked my way quietly through the campsite, following camel tracks and footprints to the brow of a ridge overlooking one of Africa’s greatest – yet tragically underappreciated – ancient sites.

Almost a thousand kilometres south of the Egyptian border, the Pyramids of Meroe were built by the Kingdom of Kush in the 3rd century BC. While Egypt has 118 pyramids, there are as many as 200 pyramids in the Meroe area of Sudan alone. The contrast with overtouristed sites like the Great Pyramids of Giza was stark, and aside from our small tour group camped out around the edge of Meroe, there were just a few camel herders setting off as the sun rose.

This was November 2022, and as Sudan slowly recovered from its Civil Wars, guides like Abdelslam had hope that tourism could boom in places like Meroe. Abdelslam had a big vision for his tour company, and as we looked at a dusty map of Sudan in the visitor’s centre by the pyramids, he pointed out the best places to visit in this vast African nation. “The next time you visit,” he said. “You need to see the Red Sea. We could even organise a tour of Darfur. A 10-day trip. It’s no longer a conflict zone!”

The next year I did return to Sudan, this time for a liveaboard diving trip out of Port Sudan. I was blown away by the underwater world of Sudan’s Red Sea coast, and again, I was astounded at the lack of tourists. But two weeks after I flew home from Sudan, in April 2023, Port Sudan’s harbour became clogged with refugees as a coup threw the already unstable nation into chaos.

Abdelslam’s dream will have to wait, and I truly hope that Sudan resolves its conflicts. For now, the country sadly remains unsafe to visit, but it won’t always be that way. Until then, you’ll need to be inspired from your armchair, as I explore the best places to visit in Sudan.

Places to visit in Sudan

I’ll be frank. Sudan is not a place to visit right now. As I wrote this article, The Guardian reported on the “Death, disease and despair” blanketing besieged cities in Darfur. The International Rescue Committee has recorded 14,700 conflict-related deaths since fighting broke out in April 2023 and the United Nations Refugee Agency notes the displacement of 8.6 million Sudanese. It would be foolish to visit Sudan right now, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) advises against ALL travel to the country.

I feel awful for the guides and locals whom I met during my two trips there, who have all lost their livelihoods, possibly more. But one day, when the bombs have ended, travel will resume, and I truly hope that others get to see the incredible places, history and culture that Sudan has to offer.

The author wearing Sudanese garb, somewhere in the Nubian Desert.

1. Khartoum

Khartoum is the dusty, chaotic Sudanese capital. The city was founded as an outpost on the confluence of the White and Blue Nile Rivers in 1821, by the Ottoman governor of Egypt. It grew rapidly until its destruction at the hands of the British in 1885, as the Maddhist War swept across Sudan. The city was rebuilt (the centre of Khartoum was laid out in the shape of a Union Jack) and when Sudan gained independence in 1956, it became the capital.

I distinctly remember the giant egg-shaped building gifted to Sudan by Colonel Gadaffi. Khartoum was home to the National Museum of Sudan, although this was almost destroyed in fighting in 2023, the Omdurman Souk (on the other side of the river, in the twin city of Omdurman) was always a highlight, as were the livestock fairs and Nubian wrestling matches.

Khartoum was always the main entry point to Sudan, and generations of travellers and journalists stayed at the Acropole Hotel, a truly storied institution run by a Greek family. In a sign of the rapid decline in safety though, the Acropole Hotel closed its doors in 2003, as reported by the New York Times.

The outskirts of Sudan are home to rustic markets.

2. Pyramids of Meroe

“The pyramids of Meroe are 3000 years old,” said Abdelslam, my guide on the tour through Sudan. “This was a great city, and these were the graves of the elite. But now is not the time to be talking about ancient civilizations. We will talk later, now the time for taking pictures!”

A four-hour drive north from Khartoum – following the green banks of the Nile River – brings you to one of the world’s least appreciated ancient wonders. Stretching across the Nubian Desert, hundreds of sandstone pyramids dating back to the 3rd century BC rise from the undulating landscape. These are the Pyramids of Meroe, built in the same Nubian style as the better-known pyramids over the border in Egypt, but criminally unknown.

The pyramids, thought to be burial chambers, were at the centre of the Kushite Kingdom, which flourished for centuries along the River Nile. In the 19th century, an Italian treasure hunter named Giuseppe Ferlini blew the tops of many of the pyramids in his fruitless search for gold, and I just hope they don’t suffer more damage in years to come. The Pyramids of Meroe are currently UNESCO World Heritage-listed, but as well as bombs, the Smithsonian Magazine reported in 2020 that the site is at risk of flooding due to climate change.

The Pyramids of Meroe are one of the best places to visit in Sudan, and one of my greatest memories will always be the morning sunrise after camping out around the archaeological site. At the time of my visit, Meroe was home to Sudan’s first luxury glamping tents, although it remains to be seen if these will survive.

3. Merowe

Merowe (not to be confused with the Pyramids of Meroe, which are found to the south) is a town in Northern Sudan, situated approximately 330 kilometres north of Khartoum near the Nile River’s fourth cataract. It is associated with the ancient city of Napata, a significant Nubian settlement that once served as the capital of the Kingdom of Kush.

The ancient city of Napata was a central hub in Nubia from around 800 BCE to 350 CE, serving as a key centre of political and economic activity. The area’s importance grew following the collapse of the 25th Dynasty in Egypt, when Nubian kings, who had once ruled as pharaohs over Egypt, retreated south to Napata and later to Meroë.

Napata’s significance is marked by its extensive necropolis at nearby Jebel Barkal, a sacred mountain once believed to be home to the god Amun. The site includes a large number of pyramids and ruins of temples that date back to this era, illustrating a period when Nubian culture and power were at their zenith. The Pyramids of Meroe are thought to have been the burial chambers for the nobles who lived in Merowe.

You’ll need a four-by-four to get around Sudan!

4. Old Dongola

Old Dongola is an intriguing archaeological site on the east bank of the Nile. Another little-known piece of ancient history, Old Dongola is located 500 kilometres north of Khartoum and until the 2023 conflict, was tentatively listed to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This site served as the capital of the Makurian state, one of the three Christian Nubian kingdoms, from the 6th to the 14th centuries. Old Dongola offers a fascinating glimpse into a period when Christianity flourished in the region, long before the spread of Islam in Nubia.

During its Christian era, Old Dongola was renowned for its churches, monasteries and palaces, which showcased a unique style of Nubian architecture. One of the most notable structures is the Old Dongola Cathedral, which was initially built in the 5th century and underwent several renovations and expansions over the centuries.

Another significant ruin is the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which is located on the outskirts of Old Dongola. This monastery contains many well-preserved murals and texts, providing crucial insights into the religious and cultural life of medieval Nubia.

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5. Wadi Halfa

I had great plans for an epic overland trip which I hope to complete when the conflict in Sudan is resolved. My vision was to travel from Cairo to Khartoum, only using public transport. I’d travel south through Egypt, cruising down the Nile River to Abu Simbel, where ancient Egyptian tombs are carved into the rock on what’s now the border with Sudan.

From here, it was once possible to take a ferry across Lake Nubia, thereby crossing the border into Northern Sudan. The first town over that border is Wadi Halfa, a veritable oasis in a desert of shifting sands and Nubian ruins. One day, I hope to see what Wadi Halfa has to offer, but I’ve heard from other travellers that there’s an excellent array of ancient sites to explore before heading south into Sudan.

The Nubian Desert is vast.

6. Kerma

350 kilometres south of Wadi Halfa is Kerma, another of Sudan’s significant archaeological sites. This ancient city was the capital of the Kingdom of Kerma, which thrived from around 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE, making it a contemporary of ancient Egypt and a central power in Nubia during the Bronze Age.

The Kingdom of Kerma is notable for its unique social structure, craftsmanship, and monumental architecture, including the Deffufa, a large mud-brick temple structure that dominates the site. This enigmatic building stands as one of the largest and oldest of its kind in Africa and is a testament to the ingenuity and skill of the Kerma culture. The site offers a rich collection of pottery, grave goods, and other artefacts that illustrate the complexity and artistic achievements of the Nubians.

Excavations at Kerma have uncovered extensive burial grounds and evidence of large, organized communities. These findings suggest that Kerma was a highly sophisticated society with advanced forms of governance and a complex social hierarchy, rivalling its more famous Egyptian neighbours in cultural and political power.

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7. Nuba Mountains

The Nuba Mountains, located in the south of Sudan, are a vast contrast to the deserts of the north. Home to rugged hills, valleys, and rich savannahs, the mountains are particularly noted for their isolation, which has preserved many unique aspects of the Nuba peoples’ way of life, including their languages, traditions, and agricultural practices.

There are countless different ethnic groups, each with its own language and customs in the Nuba Mountains. The Nuba people are renowned for their music, dance, and wrestling traditions, which are central to their social and ceremonial gatherings.

As with all of Sudan, the Nuba Mountains have been affected by conflict, which has challenged their traditional lifestyles and brought international attention to their plight. Nevertheless, the resilience and culture of the Nuba people endure.

Sudan is home to diverse groups of people.

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8. Port Sudan

Port Sudan is where I boarded the M/Y Andromeda for a week-long dive trip along Sudan’s Red Sea coastline in March 2023. A few weeks later, Sudan descended into conflict, and now Al Jazeera describes the country’s largest seaport as a “Red Sea refuge for many fleeing Sudan’s violence”.

Port Sudan remains the main Red Sea entry/exit point to Sudan, as it has been since its founding by the British in 1905. Home to deep-water harbours, before my dive trip commenced, I had the chance to visit Coptic Christian churches, a souk packed with the freshest mangos I’ve ever eaten, and a mad fish market on the coast.

If I wasn’t diving, I probably would never have visited. Port Sudan was largely a hub for Liveaboards, and there are wrecks (like the SS Umbria, which was scuttled near the harbour in 1940 by its Italian captain) and marine national parks within easy reach of the coast. More on the dive sites below!

The fish market in Port Sudan is a raw place!

9. Sanganeb Atoll Marine National Park

“Sudan is not like Egypt,” said Mohammed, one of the dive leaders on the M/Y Andromeda during our first briefing. “We only have five or six dive sites, but they are excellent. It’s not like Egypt where there are many boats. Here, we are alone.”

It was the isolation (and the chance to see hammerhead sharks) which drew me to dive in Sudan, and I was not disappointed. One of the major dive sites is Sanganeb Atoll Marine National Park, a coral reef in the Red Sea, about 25 kilometres off the coast of Port Sudan. This UNESCO World Heritage site protects an isolated coral reef structure that supports a phenomenal range of marine life, including over 124 species of fish, sharks and an array of coral species.

Above water, the park’s most famous feature is the Sanganeb lighthouse, built by the British in 1906, which I had the chance to climb for panoramic views of the Red Sea.

The famous Sanganeb lighthouse.

10. Shaab Rumi Reef

Shaab Rumi Reef is another of Sudan’s internationally renowned diving destinations. It gained fame in the 1960s when Jacques Cousteau, the famous French oceanographer, chose it for his revolutionary Conshelf Two experiment, aimed at exploring the possibilities of humans living underwater.

Today, divers can visit Shaab Rumi to explore the remnants of Cousteau’s underwater habitat, which includes the famous ‘Precontinent II’ underwater station. You can swim through the underwater ruins of one of the marine world’s most curious human experiments. It’s really quite something!

The site is surrounded by an almost circular barrier reef that creates a large, shallow lagoon, making it ideal for novice and experienced divers. The outer reef is home to dramatic drop-offs and walls, teeming with vibrant coral formations, huge schools of barracuda, jackfish, and the occasional pelagic visitors such as sharks.

One of Sudan’s little-visited atolls.

11. Bir Tawil

Bir Tawil is one of the few places on Earth where human curiosity and the complexities of national borders create a truly unique situation. This terra nullius, meaning ‘no man’s land’, is an unclaimed territory approximately 2,060 square kilometres in size, located between Egypt and Sudan. Unlike most border disputes, Bir Tawil is unusual because both countries insist that the land belongs to the other, due to a border discrepancy between the straight political boundary established in 1899 and the administrative boundary redrawn in 1902.

Bir Tawil is a lawless land, and it was the focus of my first trip to Sudan in 2022 with Young Pioneer Tours. This small patch of land is primarily desert, featuring a mountainous, arid landscape with little vegetation or water sources. It’s packed with gold though, and the nomadic Abadba tribe stopped us from visiting and threatened to kidnap us if we strayed into their territory!

Bir Tawil’s unusual geopolitical position ensures that it’s been the subject of competing micronationalist claims for decades. In 2014, Jeremiah Heaton claimed to have visited and founded the Kingdom of North Sudan. In 2017, Syash Dixit proclaimed the Kingdom of Dixit, and in 2019, a group of tourists – some representing micronations like the Principality of Islandia – were detained by local tribes after trying to plant flags in the sand.

The closest our tour group got to Bir Tawil.

Read more: How Many Countries in North Africa? Everything You Need to Know.

Map of the best places to visit in Sudan

Here’s a map of the best places to visit in Sudan:

There you have it, the best places to visit in Sudan? What’s going on your Sudan bucket list when the country is safe to visit?