There seem to be two types of people when it comes to travel in Sudan. Those who’ve never been will raise their eyebrows and ask about safety. But the few who’ve been will say Sudan is one of the nicest and safest countries they’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting.
As someone who spent several weeks in Sudan in early 2020 (in fact, I rode my bicycle solo through much of the country), I am firmly in the latter camp. Though Sudan as a country faces some deep economic and political challenges, the mood most travelers will encounter is peaceful and friendly.
Most travelers come to Sudan for the ancient Nubian archaeological sites, less developed than Egypt’s but also more relaxed and atmospheric. There is also plenty of interest in the colorful culture of this transition zone between Arabic northern Africa and the Sub-Saharan rest of the continent. And for mindful travelers with the opportunity and inclination to dig deeper, some very interesting conversations with friendly locals and expats await.
Sudan is a huge country but has only the faintest glimmer of tourism infrastructure, which is part of its charm as well as its challenge. Still, there’s no shortage of things to do and places to visit in Sudan. In this post I’ll highlight the most popular tourist attractions in Sudan, as well as a few of the low-key secrets, to help you plan your trip.
Sudan Travel Tips
Safety: Not all of Sudan is accessible to visitors. Areas like Darfur are currently off-limits due to continuing tribal conflict. Be sure to check government travel advice before planning a trip. The rest of the country is quite safe by any standards.
Costs: Sudan can be quite cheap to travel in if you’re backpacking. You can get by for just a few dollars a day. Guided tours can cost much more.
Money: ATMs and credit cards can’t be used by foreigners in Sudan (and aren’t reliable anyway). Bring cash (US dollars) and change it to Sudanese pounds in small amounts as you go. Seek out the much better black market rate by discretely asking at your hotel. Don’t change too much at once; rates fluctuate a lot and it can be difficult to change back if you end up with too much.
Language: Arabic is the official language of Sudan, and many regional languages are also spoken. Don’t expect more than a few words of English, but you can still get by with hand gestures and a smile.
Dress: Sudan is a very conservative Muslim country. Both men and women should cover shoulders and knees out of respect for the local culture. Women may want to be even more conservative by dressing in loose pants or skirt, a long-sleeve shirt, and potentially a headscarf in some circumstances. For more detail, see What Should Travelers Wear in Sudan?
Female travelers: Considering how conservative the culture is for local women, Sudanese are surprisingly welcoming and respectful toward foreign women. Harassment is uncommon, though culturally uninformed misunderstandings about the desires of western women can and do happen. Just firmly say no thanks.
Guided or independent: Many travelers visit Sudan on organized tours which certainly does make for a more relaxing trip. But it’s absolutely possible to travel Sudan independently as a backpacker or overlander, and many find it highly rewarding due to the welcoming culture.
Food: Not the highlight of a trip to Sudan. Ful (beans) is a staple, as is falafel. Limited selection of fresh fruit and vegetables is usually not hard to find. Tea is available and offered everywhere.
Transportation: Variable but decent for the region. Main roads are generally well paved. Buses are fairly orderly but usually not on a strict schedule. Traffic can be chaotic so think twice before renting a vehicle to drive yourself. Hitchhiking is common.
Weather: Generally hot, mostly dry in the desert north, with a rainy season further south from June – October.
Guidebook: There isn’t much to choose from, but the Bradt Sudan Travel Guide from 2012 is helpful for understanding the main attractions and learning the country’s history.
Now that you have a general sense for travel in Sudan, let’s get to the fun part: the most popular things to do in Sudan.
Sudan Within A Longer Trip
Some people visit Sudan as a stand-alone destination, and this makes perfect sense if you have less time. But for travelers on a more leisurely schedule, a great option is to combine Sudan with a visit to its northern neighbor Egypt.
The border between Egypt and Sudan is a relatively recent division, and much of the region’s deep history spans vast areas of both countries. Much of the landscape is similar – sandy desert bisected by the green Nile – and the language of Arabic is another common factor.
Logistically speaking, there’s only one highway serving the far north of Sudan – one of the country’s nicest areas in my opinion – and following it overland to or from Egypt flows a bit better than an out-and-back journey. The ferry crossing of Lake Nasser is scenic and interesting, and border crossings in Africa tend to be exciting affairs in any case.
It’s also possible, though less common, to continue south through Sudan to Ethiopia overland. The transition from desert to savanna to mountains must be experienced gradually to be fully appreciated.
For those who seek out the least-visited of rarely visited countries, Eritrea is right next door to Sudan and has even fewer visitors and more red tape. Travel in Eritrea is difficult because of the many restrictions on foreigners, and crossing the border overland from Sudan may well be impossible. However, those who’ve been report that it’s a fascinating country to visit.
Now that we’ve covered some travel tips and ideas for structuring your trip, let’s get into all the things to do and places to visit in Sudan.
Khartoum and Omdurman
The capital city of Khartoum feels almost like its own country. In this relatively progressive place you’ll find more women on the streets, some even without headscarves, and foreigners won’t usually get much of a second look. The city is cramped and bustling in some places and surprisingly modern in others, with an overall friendly and polite vibe.
The most highly recommend thing to do in Khartoum is technically in Omdurman, the older and grittier city right next door. Every Friday before sunset sufi mystics dance and chant in a highly charged ecstatic atmosphere at the Hamed-al Nil tomb.
In Khartoum proper, the National Museum and the confluence of the Niles are both worth a visit and relatively nearby each other. For more ideas, see this more detailed guide to things to do in Khartoum.
Pyramids at Meroë
Sudan technically has more pyramids than Egypt, though they’re smaller and often less well preserved. If you’re going to see one pyramid site in Sudan, make it the pyramids of Meroë.
Usually visited as a day trip from Khartoum or en route from Atbara, this site is the best preserved and also the most popular pyramid site in Sudan (meaning you might have to share with a handful of other tourists).
The pyramids here are in varying stages of disrepair and reconstruction, revealing a complex history of both building and excavating. While chatting with one of the site’s archaeologists I was surprised to learn that a fair amount of their effort goes into simply holding back the desert sand that threatens to sandblast the remaining structures, destroying them faster than they can be preserved.
The pyramids at Meroë can be reached easily by public transit from either Khartoum or Atbara. Just ask to be let off at Bajrawia village. Coming back is trickier, and is usually done by hitchhiking. It’s possible to camp at the pyramids if you’re prepared with your own gear.
Note that Meroë is the ancient city (you can still wander around the ruins, which are near the pyramids), and NOT the same as Merowe, an area near Karima.
Naqa and Musawwarat
These two Meroitic archaeological gems are a bit harder to get to than most of Sudan’s other tourist attractions, requiring some kind of private transportation. They lie 26 km (Naqa) or 30 km (Musawwarat) east of the highway from Khartoum to Atbara on sand and dirt track, sharing the same road for the first 15 km after leaving the highway.
Their locations can be found on the iOverlander app, but it’s probably best to go with an experienced guide/driver who can navigate the faint and sandy desert tracks.
If you can manage to get there, the temples at these sites are among the nicest in Sudan. Naqa is home to the temples of Amun and Apedemak (the latter notably depicting the queen with the same size and power as the king), as well as the small but surprisingly intricate Roman Kiosk.
At Musawwarat Es-Sufra, which dates from the 3rd century BC, you can wander the extensive labyrinthine Great Enclosure and visit the well-preserved Lion Temple. The old reservoir is usually dry these days, but standing there you can almost imagine how it would have looked and felt when the now-barren desert was teeming with life centered around this ancient temple complex.
Atbara has a bit of a gritty feel compared to the gentler towns further west and north. There’s not too much to do in this industrial and railroad town, besides the usual chatting and wandering, but many travelers will pass through on their way along the Nile toward the Meroë Pyramids and Khartoum.
The “new bus station” in the southeast corner of town (still north of the river) is surprisingly nice and orderly, with buses leaving every hour or so for Khartoum throughout the morning.
Karima: Pyramids, Jebel Barkal, Nuri
Across a long empty stretch of desert from Atbara is the town of Karima. The town is more relaxed than Atbara, though it can feel a bit less friendly than the smaller towns further down the Nile due to the area’s relative popularity with tourists.
The area around Karima is home to three of Sudan’s tourist attractions.
Jebel Barkal and Temple of Mut
Jebel Barkal is a small mountain popular for its great views and for sunset climbs (bring a light for the way down). At its base there is a cemetery and ancient ruins of the Temple of Mut.
Free and literally right beside the road, these are certainly worth a visit especially if you haven’t yet been to the Meroe Pyramids. They’re quite well preserved (please don’t climb them in order to keep them that way) and clustered in a small easy-to-reach area.
On the east side of the Nile and a bit of a drive outside of town, these pyramids are quite deteriorated but said to be atmospheric. Personally I skipped them since I had already seen the nearby Karima pyramids and was headed to Meroë next, but for pyramid connoisseurs they are easy enough to get to and worth a visit.
Dongola was among my favorite towns in Sudan for its relaxed and friendly vibe. The refreshing breeze coming off the Nile probably didn’t hurt either. Wandering the streets and markets there felt pleasant and welcoming in a way I’ve rarely found anywhere on the African continent, making the simple errand of shopping for food an attraction in itself.
Otherwise, there isn’t too much else to do in Dongola besides relax and recover from a few days in the desert.
Old Dongola, not to be confused with the present-day town of Dongola, lies about 50 miles upstream (south) and is an archaeological site. Notable for its more recent history – relatively speaking compared to some of Sudan’s ancient sites – it contains the ruins of a number of Christian churches from the 7th – 14th centuries AD.
The Throne Hall, Church of the Granite Columns, and Muslim cemetery are some of the most prominent ruins at Old Dongola.
The temple of Soleb is a relatively well-preserved Egyptian temple built in the 14th century BC. It lies on the west bank of the Nile across from the village of Wawa, about 3/4 of the way from Dongola to Abri.
Most travelers will need to hire a small boat to take them across the Nile, which can supposedly be done at the small guesthouse in Wawa (check the iOverlander or Maps.me app for location). This may take a bit of time though, as you’ll need to track down the owner first. There’s also an informal homestay on the Soleb side for those wishing to spend the night near the temple, but you should bring your own food.
Kerma is a town on the east side of the Nile just north of Dongola. Its main attractions are two “deffufa” (burial mounds) and a small museum. There are one or two small guesthouses in town; check Maps.me and iOverlander to find them.
Abri is a pleasant small town on the banks of the Nile in northern Sudan. Few travelers make it this far north unless continuing to Egypt, and the town feels relaxed and gentle. The best thing to do in Abri is sit by the Nile and rest up before or after a few days of desert travel.
The Nubian Guesthouse is where most travelers to Abri stay. The owner speaks good English, and there’s hot water and wifi. Rooms are available for moderate prices and camping is allowed in the courtyard for a few dollars.
There’s not much reason to visit the far-north border town of Wadi Halfa unless you’re crossing between Egypt and Sudan. Still, it’s an interesting transit town where you can watch the ferries come in from Aswan and Abu Simbel, and out on the highway you’ll see a trickle of large trucks on their way to and from Egypt via Lake Nasser.
If you just arrived in Sudan from Egypt, head downtown for plenty of cheap hostels and some places to buy a local SIM card.
Kassala is a market town in the east of Sudan, near the border with Eritrea. It’s not as commonly visited as the towns and archaeological sites along the Nile, but if you have the time and enjoy traveling off the beaten path it’s worth the 7 hour bus journey from Khartoum.
Kassala is known for its ethnic blend as tribes from near and far come to trade at the market, and for its dramatic location at the base of the distinctive Taka Mountains.
Port Sudan is the place to go if you want to see the Red Sea from Sudan. It’s Sudan’s second-largest city (after Khartoum) and only port city, connected to Khartoum by both weekly train and busy paved road.
Among tourists it’s best known for its small but interesting scuba diving scene, though I’ve heard that only those with experience should dive here as instruction and safety standards can be questionable.
Dinder National Park
On the way south to the Ethiopian border, Dinder National Park offers a completely different environment from the sandy desert of the north. Best visited during the dry season (November to May), it draws visitors looking to spot wildlife and relax in the peaceful environment. To explore the park fully you’ll want a 4wd vehicle and ideally a guide and driver.
As you can see, Sudan is home to a wealth of historic sites and interesting experiences. For travelers who enjoy getting off the tourist trail and exploring on their own, Sudan will be an adventure to remember and learn from for many years to come.
More Africa Travel Resources
If you’re curious about things to do in Sudan, you might also be interested in these:
- 12 Essentials From My Africa Packing List
- How to Travel Mindfully in Challenging Places
- Must-Know Cultural Tips for Visitors to Uganda
- Where to go Hiking in West Africa
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