The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been shrouded in intrigue and mystery being closed to all but religious tourists for years. But with tourist visas now available, intrepid travellers can finally explore this enigmatic country full of interesting cultural and historical sites. Here are the best places to visit in Saudi Arabia.
On the glistening shores of the Red Sea, the port city and commercial capital of Jeddah is the second-largest city in Saudia Arabia and the traditional gateway to Mecca. A blend of old and new, the ancient city of Jeddah is where the mother of humanity, Eve, is believed to have been laid to rest but is now characterised by tall skyscrapers and a laid-back seafront promenade, lively, traditional souqs and untouched coral reef. Be sure to check out the ‘floating’ mosque, sculpting an iridescent silhouette along the water’s edge.
In the north-west sits the desert town of Ha’il, once a stop on the camel caravan route of the Hajj and home of the famously generous poet Hatim al’Tai. Just outside of the city, you’ll find one of the country’s five UNESCO heritage sites, Jubbah, famous for its well-preserved rock-carvings, some of which are thought to be over 10,000 years old. Also check out the flea market and Aarif Castle, a mud fortress which has 360-degree views over Ha’il and used to be the location where people watched for the new moon to signal the beginning and end of Ramadan.
Ta’if is known as the City of Roses, famous for its roughly 700 farms growing roses in the region, the smell of which is said to perfume the whole city. You can tour a local rose factory to get an insight into production in the region but Ta’if also has some historic buildings such as the architectural treasure house of Shubra Palace, converted into a heritage museum and a bustling souq in the city centre, where you can buy local products like honey and rose water.
Considered the second holiest city in Islam, Medina is where Muhammad established the Muslim religion and where his body is entombed, so it is a very sacred area where only Muslims are permitted to enter. Medina is home to The Prophet’s Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world, and the second built by the Prophet Muhammad. Pilgrims who perform Hajj will visit this Mosque for its significant connection to the life of the Prophet but tourists can view Medina from the outskirts, with a short hike up Mount Uhud to see the sunset over the holy city.
This remote ancient desert town is filled with mud-brick and stone houses and is home to the first UNESCO heritage site in Saudi Arabia, the monolith of Mada’in Saleh, also known as Hegra or Southern Petra. You’ll notice its resemblance to the rock-hewn architecture in Jordan, and in fact, this site was built after Petra by the Nabateans as their second-largest settlement. From the ruins of the Old Town to the overarching canyons at the Ragasat Mountains, known locally as the ‘Dancing Mountains’, date farms and 131 monumental tombs that are thousands of years old, AlUla is set to be one of the most popular historic sites in the country.
The holiest city in Islam and the birthplace of both the Prophet Muhammad and of the Muslim religion itself, Mecca is where Muhammad is believed to have received the first revelations from Allah that went on to become the Koran. Strictly off-limits to non-Muslims, the city almost triples in population during the Hajj pilgrimage, where devotees from around the world travel to the Great Mosque of Makkah, home to the Ka’bah, one of Islam’s holiest sites and where all Muslim prayer is directed.
The modern-day city of Buraydah is surrounded by thick palm orchards, which make it feel like you’re stepping back in time to how old Buraydah used to look with its mud houses and mosques visible amongst the sea of green palms. Home to the largest date market and festival in the world, there is also a lively camel market on the outskirts of the city (also the largest in the world!) where you can see thousands of camels, goats and sheep traded every day - a true feast for the senses.
Riyadh is the largest city in Saudi Arabia and one of the wealthiest cities in the world. One of the best things to do in Riyadh is to check out the National Museum, but there are plenty of historical sites to peruse like the Masmak Fortress, stormed in 1902 by King Abdul Aziz and his men in their reconquest of Riyadh. Also, see the formidable Murabba Palace, which he set out to construct to be harder to conquer after his success at Masmak Fortress. This modern city surrounded by desert boasts both traditional souqs and bazaars, fancy shopping malls, 4,000 mosques and the UNESCO site of Dir’ayah.