Madain Saleh

The ancient crossroad of conquerors and traders, explorers and settlers remains the most important tourist destination in Saudi Arabia.

Madain Saleh was a thriving town established by the Nabateans in late antiquity. The forgotten Nabatean civilization, whose legacy lies in the cities, tombs, and temples it has carved directly into stone cliffs, shares the same architecture style with its more renowned counterpart up north – Petra.

Access to the site is fairly difficult, and many Muslims refuse to enter the place, believing it to be cursed because a Quranic passage tells of its being a perished nation: “A violent calamity seized them and they were left prostrate on the ground in their homes.”

Nonetheless, it is a valuable archeological site, and is one of the places in Saudi Arabia that is open to non-Muslim tourists. In 2008, it was proclaimed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Taif

Taif is the summer capital of Saudi Arabia.

Its biggest attraction is its temperate climate. The city center, with its lively souks is bisected by tree-lined boulevards and rows of ivory-colored buildings fit for the king’s.

The greenery is so breathtaking, one would mistake the place as something far removed from the deserts lying just beyond the mountains.

Taif is known for its produce. Sweet figs, grapes and pomegranates grow in the carefully tended orchards. Plantations of pink roses stir the air with heavenly fragrances.

It is said that to be in Taif is to be a step closer to paradise – because Mecca is just an hour’s drive away.

Jeddah

Free, cosmopolitan, liberal – these are some of the adjectives that best describe the city of Jeddah.

Long recognized as the commercial heart of the kingdom, souks and malls here compete side by side for shoppers.

The Corniche along the Red Sea coast hosts a dozen resorts, hotels and beaches. It is also where King Fahd’s Fountain, one of the largest in the world, is located. So liberal is the atmosphere in this area that the mutawa’een – religious police – are forbidden to patrol some of the beach compounds.

For a taste of the old Jeddah, check out the Al-Balad district, which retains its old charm. The Souq al Alawi is known for its coral houses, whose street-level floors have been turned into kiosks and stalls for a thriving local market.

The Naseef House belonged to one of the great merchant families of the Jeddah. Now turned into a museum, the house preserves the artifacts of its once influential owners.

Asir National Park

Many tourists expect Saudi Arabia to be a land of scorching deserts and graceful minarets – and it is. However, behind those burning mountains, there also lie swathes of green forests with temperatures that drop below freezing point.

The Asir National Park is just one of Saudi Arabia’s hilly woodlands that are open for tourists. Located southwest of Abha, the spectacular scenery rewards tourists who walk the extra mile to reach the place.

The National Park is also the last natural habitat of the critically endangered Arabian leopard.

Close to the Asir National Park is the city of Abha. Rising 2,200 meters (7,200 feet) above sea level, its moderate climate attracts tourists all over the gulf coast. Popular tourist destinations include the village of Rijal Almaa, where houses made of stone and quartz still stand 400 years after they were constructed.

For fun things to do, paragliding has become one of the favorite activities in Abha. Launch spots have sprouted north of the city, with designated landing areas close to the Red Sea coast.

Dir’aiyah

Ancient and almost forgotten, Al Dir’aiyah was the original home of the Royal Saud family. The town also served as the capital of the first Saudi state from 1744 to 1818.

Largely abandoned, most of the mud structures here are in a state of disrepair – but in 2010, the UNESCO declared the entire town a World Heritage Site, and now restoration efforts are underway.

The Salwa Palace was the official residence of the first emirs and imams of the first Saudi state. Now restored to its former glory, it is the largest palace in the old town.

The Imam Mohammad bin Saud Mosque was once a center of religious education in the Middle East. One of its more prominent imams, Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab gave lessons that would become the foundation of the Wahhabi sect today.

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