It may not be top of your list of dream vacation destinations, but Saudi Arabia has lots to offer and is only a very short flight from the UAE. From exploring Jeddah’s historic old town to buying modern art at Riyadh’s burgeoning art scene, here’s our pick of the best places to visit in Saudi Arabia.
1. Edge of the World
This is by far one of the most beautiful places to visit in Saudi Arabia, and one of the most popular places to visit in Riyadh. The Edge of the World refers specifically to an outcrop of rock along the Tuwaiq Escarpment. The plateau juts out from the rock wall and those standing on the edge get truly incredible views of the red-colored valley rock below – hence you feeling like you’re on the Edge of the World! There’s some excellent but tough hikes around the area and we recommend you hire an accredited driver and guide.
2. Al Masjid an Nabawi (The Prophet’s Mosque)
Al Masjid an Nabawi mosque is one of the largest mosques in the world. It was built in 622AD by The Prophet Mohammed, and is the second most holy site in Islam (after the Great Mosque in Mecca). It actually houses The Prophet’s tomb under the mosque’s iconic deep green dome. After many expansions, Al Masjid an Nabawi mosque is a huge structure and can hold more than a million worshippers. Unsurprisingly, its Islamic importance makes it one of the most popular places to visit in Saudi Arabia. There are separate entrances for men and women, so make sure you find the right one and dress very, very respectfully.
3. Mecca (or Makkah)
The birthplace of The Prophet Mohammed is, obviously, the most holy site in Islam. Millions of people gather here every year to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. If you didn’t already know, it is forbidden for non-Muslims to enter Mecca. If you are Muslim, you can visit Mecca any time to perform the Umrah pilgrimage. The focal point is, of course, the Al Masjid al Haram (the Great Mosque) which surrounds the Kaaba.
4. Al Balad Jeddah
The Al Balad historical village is – as you’d imagine – very different from the new Saudi Arabia that dominates much of its busy cities. It dates back to the 7th century and was once Jeddah’s city center. It is a beautiful area with some seriously hidden gems when it comes to architecture. Things to do in Al Balad include visiting the many souks (including a spice and jewelry souk), visiting the Al Naseef House Museum and spotting the beautiful door and window covers that the area is famous for. They’re an instagrammer’s dream!
5. Al Naseef House (Beit al Nassef)
Housed in one of Al Balad’s oldest mansions is the Al Naseef House Museum. It has various exhibitions and also acts as a cultural center with visiting speakers. One of the more popular exhibits is a photographic exhibition depicting the life of the King Abdulaziz (also known as Ibn Saud), the founder of Saudi Arabia. The views from the rooftop are stunning, especially at sunset. The house was known for a long time as The House with the Tree because it was believed that the Neem tree in the courtyard was the first tree in Jeddah.
6. Mada’in Saleh (Al Hijr)
This archaeological site is one of the best places to visit in Saudi Arabia. It is not as well known as Petra in Jordan but arguably just as impressive. Both are home to Nabatean tombs and stunning buildings carved into the desert’s red rock. Highlights of Mada’in Saleh include the Nabatean Well, Al Mahjar tombs and Qasr Al Saneh. At the time of writing the site is closed for refurbishment and is expected to reopen next year. We recommend you check with officials before planning any trip here – it’s about a 10 hour drive from Riyadh!
7. Farasan Islands
This archipelago sits around 50km from the city of Jizan and is another of the most beautiful places to visit in Saudi Arabia. You reach it on a free free twice-daily ferry from Jizan (book tickets at the Maritime Company for Navigation in central Jizan). Due to the limited sleeping options for travelers, many people just hop over to these gorgeous islands for the day. Or if you’re into scuba diving this is one of the best places in Saudi Arabia to dive. The Farasan Banks are a collection of smaller reefs with a few larger islands with busy shallows. The diving is generally good all year round and the best way to experience it is on a liveaboard. Do thorough research and make sure you get the right travel insurance.
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8. Explore Riyadh’s art scene
The recent changing political environment in Saudi Arabia has led to an explosion of galleries, artists and organizations tasked with boosting the country’s cultural profile. One of the larger ones to visit is SAMA Creatives Hub, a huge gallery space with exhibitions, a bookstore and store selling art supplies. It’s very visitor-friendly and also holds special events for kids. If contemporary art is your thing, head to Mono Gallery. It focuses on Saudi and Middle Eastern artists. To make a day of it, add Hewar Art Gallery, ATHR, and Naila Art Gallery to your list of things to do.
9. Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali)
Drive south for around three hours from Riyadh and you’ll hit the edge of one of the country’s most beautiful – but unforgiving – natural wonders. The Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali) is a monster of a desert and covers more than 650,000 sq km. While it might be empty of human life other than the odd visitor, it is home to plenty of wildlife and an awful lot of moving sand. Do not visit this incredible landscape alone; book a tour with a reputable company and take plenty of supplies for the trip.
10. Kingdom Tower Riyadh
The huge Kingdom Tower can be seen from almost anywhere in Riyadh. It is 41 stories, and almost 1,000ft tall. There’s not much to do there other than designer shop until you drop, or visit Riyadh’s Four Seasons Hotel, but it’s one of most popular places to visit in Riyadh for locals, especially during the summer.
*This article was published May 2019. Prices and information correct at the time of publication but may be subject to change and/or availability. Always check with the airline before flying.