Enchanting, mystical, and dramatic, Saudi Arabia is often overlooked in favor of other Middle Eastern destinations, but this stunning kingdom makes for an incredibly diverse and exciting travel experience. Of course, with so much to see and do, ensuring that you get the most out of your trip isn’t easy, but this guide will help you do exactly that.
Where to Go
There are 13 different provinces in Saudi Arabia, each one with its own unique charm. Most visitors tend to fly in to either Riyadh or Jeddah, but, from each of those cities, making your way around the country to explore different regions is surprisingly simple.
Some of the country’s most popular regions to consider visiting are:
- Nejd – this is the central highland region and while it may be home to the country’s capital, it’s also considered to be one of the most conservative parts of the country
- The Eastern Province – oil has played a huge role in Saudi Arabia’s development over the years, and the Eastern Province is at the heart of the country’s oil production, meaning cities that ooze glitz and glamor
- Hejaz – this region borders the Red Sea and in addition to being exquisitely beautiful, it’s also home to a number of larger cities
- Asir – known for its temperate climate and the gorgeous Farasan islands, Asir is home to some of the most ancient villages in the country
- The Empty Quarter – the Empty Quarter is pretty different from the rest of Saudi Arabia, simply because this area is home to one of the largest sand deserts on the planet, making a 4WD vehicle a must for exploring this vast expanse of land
Things to Do
Whether you’re into history and culture, nature and wildlife, or shopping and relaxation, Saudi Arabia really does offer it all.
With Saudi Arabia being home to two of the holiest sites in the Islamic religion, most visitors tend to flock to these areas first. Mecca is home to the Grand Mosque, while Medina is where you will find the Prophet’s Mosque, although both can only be viewed from a distance by non-Muslims. Maintaining the integrity of these areas is crucial to the kingdom, which is why you will find religious police patrolling these sites to ensure that all is well.
Another fascinating historical site to visit is Medain Saleh. These sandstone mountains date back thousands of years, and is where the ancient Dedan people have carved temples and created important burial sites. Both Timna and Shiban are also ancient cities worth a visit, with both of them nestled between vast orchards of bananas, limes, and pomegranates.
For those of you who want to experience the country’s wildlife and natural beauty, the Asir region is the place to go. With its unique climate and coastal mountains, this is really the only part of Saudi Arabia where lush and diverse vegetation grows, enabling it to support a wide range of different animals. From leopards to baboons to gazelles, Saudi Arabia’s wild side will definitely impress.
Saudi Arabia boasts multiple large expanses of water, making watersports a popular pastime here. The Obhir Creek, which sits just north of Jeddah by the Red Sea, is a great area for this, with everything from waterskiing to sailing to swimming available here.
With such stunning marine life, scuba diving is something else that many visitors are eager to try their hand at. However, keep in mind that not only does the Red Sea contain quite a few venomous fish species, but the hospitals in Saudi Arabia are not well-equipped to deal with diving-related accidents.
If you prefer to enjoy the water from a distance, rather than splashing your way through it, Saudi Arabia is home to some incredible beaches that are perfect for some rest and relaxation. With coastlines by both the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, the beaches around the country are pretty diverse.
With its azure waters and subtropical feel, the Farasan Al Kabir Beach tends to be a popular spot and is also a good diving area. The Haql Shipwreck Beach boasts a 20-year old shipwreck as its focal point, although its crescent-shaped bay is also extremely picturesque. Half Moon Bay Beach is known for its white sands and clear waters, along with a wide range of family-friendly entertainment. If you would prefer something a little less crowded, Umluj Beach is one of 104 small islands that each boast pure white sands and very few tourists, which is why it has been nicknamed the Maldives of Saudi Arabia.
With the major cities of Saudi Arabia being wonderfully cosmopolitan, there is so much shopping to be done. Many would say that shopping is a national pastime, and Jeddah is one of the best places to head to for some retail therapy.
The Red Sea Mall features 240,000 square feet of retail and entertainment, and is also home to the very first movie theater in the city. The Corniche Commercial Center is also great for international brands, with 11 floors of stores to browse. If you are looking to treat your skin to some pure indulgent luxury, head on over to Prince Majid Road, where you will find the very first OROGOLD store in Saudi Arabia – perfect for a quick VIP facial and some skincare product demonstrations!
While the sleek malls are always tempting, the traditional souks are definitely a must-visit too. Expect to be doing plenty of haggling here and you will be able to come away with some fantastic bargains.
What to Eat
The local cuisine in Saudi Arabia is full of flavor and spice. Chicken and lamb tend to be the most common meats served up around the country, with vegetables, rice, and pitta bread also accompanying many meals.
If you still end up confused when looking at a local menu, here are some of the must-try dishes that Saudi Arabia is famous for:
- Kabsa – this is the country’s national dish, simply consisting of chicken and rice cooked with specific spices
- Jalamah – a rich, slow-cooked lamb dish
- Martabak – bread-like and pancake-like at the same time, this is a popular dish in many parts of Asia
- Saleeg – this traditional dish consists of a creamy short-grain rice topped with roasted meat – many would say that it’s the Saudi Arabian version of risotto
- Shawarma – marinated and spit-roasted meat that has been coated in a delectable marinade
- Maamul – small, bread-like bites filled with dates, pistachios, or other sweet treats
While Arabic coffee is a great way to end your meal, laban is another drink that perfectly accompanies the spices used in just about every dish. This cooling and creamy drink is made from strained yogurt and always proves to be ultra-refreshing on a hot Saudi Arabian day.
Where to Sleep
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Saudi Arabia is not afraid of luxury, and many of the country’s hotels definitely offer some of the finer things in life.
With elegant rooms, butler service, and a relaxing wellness spa, the five-star Fairmont Riyadh is always a popular choice for those seeking indulgence. Its proximity to the airport also makes it super-convenient.
For those visiting Jeddah, the Ritz-Carlton Jeddah will not disappoint. This is another five-star hotel that sits on the Al Hamra corniche, with the sparkling Red Sea providing a stunning backdrop. The rooms are lavish and sophisticated, and the hotel also has two world-class restaurants for guests to dine at.
If Makkah is your destination, then book yourself a room at the Raffles Makkah Palace. This hotel only offers suites, each one with marble flooring, a spacious living room, 24-hour butler service, and spectacular skyline views.
One of Saudi Arabia’s greatest appeals is its rich culture, but this can also be a stumbling point for many first-time visitors. Cultural etiquette is strong here, and there are many rules and codes of conduct that you will need to follow in order to avoid any trouble.
The one that most Western tourists struggling to come to grips with is the gender segregation. Pretty much all aspects of the country are segregated by gender, from separate banks for men and women to separate sections for each gender in restaurants.
If you plan on traveling to Saudi Arabia with someone of the opposite sex who you are not married to or related to in any other way, you may find things a little more difficult. Technically, it would be against the law for the two of you to go anywhere together in public, with the punishments for men being pretty serious.
While you may want to venture out scantily-clad in order to get yourself through the intense heat of the day, this is a huge no-no. Although woman visiting Saudi Arabia don’t need to wear the full traditional dress, modest outfits are still a must – to do otherwise would be considered a serious offence.
Men also need to watch what they wear – shorts should never be worn in public, and don’t even think about going outdoors without a shirt on.
Chances are that you are used to snapping away on your camera or smartphone when visiting a new destination, but you need to be very careful about this in Saudi Arabia. Technically, photography isn’t permitted, and if you happen to point your camera at any locals, this could land you in a great deal of trouble. Government buildings, royal palaces, and any other important buildings shouldn’t be photographed either.
Of course, with the increase in popularity of the smartphone, the country is starting to adapt. Many parts of the country now unofficially accept photography, with officials turning a blind eye, but you should always still seek permission before snapping away.
Just like in many other parts of the world, social customs are important in Saudi Arabia. While the locals tend to be pretty relaxed, they can also get quite passionate when it comes to certain topics, so don’t feel worried if you see them gesturing with what looks like aggressive body language.
Locals are extremely welcoming to tourists, and are more than happy to answer questions about their culture. However, be wary if the conversation moves over to politics – if anything you say about the king, the government or the royal family is misinterpreted to be negative, this could spell big trouble for you.
If you happen to be visiting during the fasting month of Ramadan, keep in mind that you will be required to follow all of the restrictions that come with this. This means no eating, drinking, or smoking during daylight hours. While some hotels are happy to still provide food to tourists during the day, breaking any of these rules in public can quickly find you in hot water with the authorities.
Since many of the local businesses close down during this month, or only operate with very limited hours, tourists often choose to plan their trip outside of this period. On the other hand, visiting during Ramadan can be extremely enriching with the nightly festivities and parties when locals break their fast. The exact dates for Ramadan vary each year based on astronomy, so make sure that you check this in advance before booking your trip.
With Saudi Arabia now issuing electronic visas for visitors that are arriving from 49 different countries, traveling to the kingdom has never been easier. While there may be quite a bit to get used to when it comes to cultural etiquette and social norms, the sheer volume of fascinating things to do and places to see around the country will make every visit here so rewarding.