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 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.
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.
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.
Riyadh is Saudi Arabia’s largest city and its capital. Established as early as the pre-Islamic era under the name Hajr, it is a city rich in history and historical sites. As the capital of a wealthy country, it is home to several examples of cutting-edge architecture as well.
The Masmak Fortress, once stormed by King Abdul Aziz in his quest to retake the kingdom, stands as a testament to the bravery of the first rulers of modern Saudi Arabia. Restored to its original state, the museum inside the fortress recounts the events of 1912. Photos of old Riyadh hung on the walls.
When King Abdul Aziz was crowned ruler of Saudi Arabia, he constructed the Murabba Palace to serve as his residence and the seat of the government. However, he soon realized that the mud-brick complex may not hold out to an invasion. Instead of demolishing it completely, he moved to a more secure abode and turned his former home to a museum.
Many years later, oil brought much prosperity to the kingdom. Able to finance the construction of skyscrapers that could rival those dominating the skyline of Dubai, the house of Saud went on to build the Kingdom Centre, the highest building in Saudi Arabia.
A shopping mall occupies the first floors of the building, while the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh takes residence on the upper floors.
What makes the Kingdom Centre a tourist destination is the sky bridge on at the 99th floor of the tower. Visiting the sky bridge at dusk or after dark allows you a breathtaking view of the city.
The Burj Al Faisaliyah is another wonder to behold. This sleek, pointed skyscraper features a high-class shopping center filled with world-renowned brands, a restaurant encased in a golden ball at the top of the tower, and a viewing deck right below.
Rub’ al Khali (The Empty Quarter)
Imagine a desert the size of France or Texas. The empty landscape stretches over the horizon with only the massive sand dunes to break the dizzying expanse. With little or no vegetation available, travel could be a challenge – which only makes those itching for adventure all the more eager to come and conquer this immense sea of sand.
This is the Rub’ al Khali, or the “Empty Quarter.” With its area of 650,000 square kilometers (250,000 square miles) covering the greater part of Saudi Arabia, it is recorded as one of the biggest deserts in the world.
It is also one of the world’s most oil-rich sites. The world’s largest oil field, the Ghawar Field, is located here.
The Rub’ al Khali is also home to the rare and beautiful Arabian oryx, a graceful white creature that – when seen from the side, with its long sharp horns appearing as one – can be mistaken for that magical mythological animal, the unicorn.
To access the desert from Saudi Arabia, a permit must be secured from the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development. The permit could be easily arranged through the travel agencies operating in the kingdom. The journey to the Empty Quarter usually begins in Najran, or at the sleepy towns of Sharurah or Wadi al-Dawasir.
While the desert could be harsh to outsiders, one must remember that the Bedouins call this harsh place home.
Closer to Yemen than to the rest of Saudi Arabia, the city of Najran has more in common with the Yemeni region than with the royal house of Saud. This oasis city has towering mud-brick houses known as qasr – much like the ones found in Yemen’s Shibam district. There is also a souk at the city center next to an old fort.
The ties between Najran and the Yemeni kings are historical and traditional. When the Yemeni kings first decided to cover in cloth the Kaaba (the cube-shaped building in Mecca that is considered Islam’s most sacred site), the cloth they used was woven in Najran.
The city was also an important stop in the ancient incense trade route, through which the Mediterranean world linked with the East for its spices, textiles, gold, animal skins and, of course, incense.
Today, Najran is a popular site for archeology. It features excavation sites from which bronze, glass, and pottery artifacts have been found. Some of these finds are on display in the Najran museum.
In Al-Ukhdood, a collection of ruins south of the city, ancient carvings and inscriptions can be seen.
The Eastern Province
The Persian Gulf area possesses some of the largest oil deposits in the world. Lucky for those who live along the coast, the petroleum industry has turned their small, backward fishing villages into thriving towns.
The urban centers along the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia are also home to thousands of foreign workers. Most of them work for Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company.
The towns of Dammam, Dhahran and Al Khobar form the Dammam Metropolitan Area. Each town has a distinct character, which sets it apart from the others. For example, Dammam is home to a sizable Asian population, which makes the town look a little less Arabic in the eyes of tourists. Dhahran, meanwhile, is like a self-contained American city. Al-Khobar, once a hamlet of Dammam, boasts a waterfront rivaling those of Jeddah.
The Dammam Metropolitan Area has everything – diving spots and white-sand beaches at Half-Moon Bay, glitzy hotels and family centered amusement parks.
Still, the desert remains the backdrop of everything. The oasis town of Al Hofuf was once a caravan stop in the region. A visit there will give you an insight on how life was in the Eastern Province before oil was discovered.
Yanbu’ al Bahr
Oil refineries, petrochemical complexes, and large manufacturing centers dominate the skyline of Yanbu al’ Bahr. Decreed as the kingdom’s mega-industrial city along the Red Sea coast, the city barely registers a blip on any tourist map.
Unknown to many tourists, this city holds museums, stadiums, and even world-class recreation parks to keep the locals from getting bored. There is also a stunning waterfront, where people bask under the sun or go fishing to their heart’s content.
And beneath its pristine waters, Yanbu al’ Bahr hides a treasure only a few know of. Considered as the third best diving site in Saudi Arabia, the city boasts of coral reefs that host rare aquatic animals.
There’s a place called Barracuda Beach, where barracudas are known to congregate. The Coral Gardens feature a shallow pit where coral blooms enchant even the most seasoned divers.
Hello fellow travelers! My name is Mary and I am the main author of Traveling East. Just like any other travel enthusiasts, traveling has also been our passion! For inquiries, suggestions or anything travel related, please feel free to send us an E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.