In the world tourism map, Saudi Arabia has a little or no presence and until recently, visas were granted either for business or pilgrimage to the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. But, with the new visa regime for 49 countries, Saudi Arabia is finally opening its doors to international tourists. The kingdom has also relaxed its strict restrictions and dress code for female visitors, allowing women to travel unaccompanied. For those intrepid travellers who are curious, the country offers ancient ruins rivalling Jordan and a rich culture defying stereotypes. Here is the list of 17 must-visit places in Saudi Arabia that may surprise you if planning to visit the country for a holiday.
Mecca, the most sacred city for Muslims is the best place to visit in Saudi Arabia. At Masjid Al-Haram, pilgrims feel overwhelming spiritual experience when they first lay their eyes on Kaaba. However, the city is only accessible to Muslims. A visit to Mecca is a lifelong dream of every Muslim living outside the Kingdom. A pilgrimage to this place is a religious obligation for all financially and physically capable Muslims. It is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and dotted with religious monuments. It is a modern city with the heart of a traditional Arabian village. There are immense ongoing construction projects and wherever you look, there are men wandering the streets dressed in two simple white cotton sheets.
Also Read: Historic Mosques to Visit in Mecca
Medina is also known as the ‘city of the Prophet’. It is the place where Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was given refuge after being exiled from Mecca. He lived, propagated the message of Islam, built a mosque and fought crucial battles here. It is also the place where he was finally laid to rest. Pilgrims from all over the world come to visit Medina to learn about the life and teachings of the Prophet (PBUH) but the central area of this sacred city is off-limits to non-Muslims. Prophet’s time here was extremely significant in Islamic history which can be understood by the fact that the Islamic calendar starts from the year 622 when he migrated to Medina. Medina just like Mecca is centred on a grand mosque, the Prophet’s Mosque (Masjid-e-Nabawi). The mosque is surrounded by luxury hotels and various eating outlets, and rest of the Medina sprawling from there.
3. Madain Saleh | Al-`Ula, Madina Region
If you have time to visit just one place in Saudi Arabia, Madain Saleh should be your choice. Though not well-known as Petra, it was Nabateans’ second-largest city that played a crucial role in their mysterious empire. A UNESCO world heritage site, these monumental stone-hewn tombs are some of the last and well-preserved remains of the lost kingdom. Add to this, the breath-taking scenery and rich history and you have a destination worth exploring. Madain Saleh is not only about the tombs of the ancient Nabatean people, but there is also much more for tourists to explore. The nearby town of Al-Ula is scattered with golden rock formations, an old mud village, lush citrus farms museums, and ruins and tombs of Khuraibah. However, there is a catch. The ruins are closed until the end of 2020 for restoration. It will be partially accessible from December 2020 until March 2021 for those attending the Winter at Tantora festival, which brings numerous concerts and pop-up restaurants to the region.
4. Najran | Najran Province
The vibrant city of Najran on the Yemeni border offers a remarkable experience in Saudi Arabia for travellers. With a unique history, architecture and culture that blends in with neighbouring Yemen, Najran pleases even the most disinterested traveller. It is said that the land got its name from the first man who settled in the region, Najran ibn Zaydan ibn Saba ibn Yahjub ibn Yarub ibn Qahtan. It was once the hub for textile and material making and Kiswa, the cloth for Kaaba, was made here at first. Najran was also an important stopping place on the Incense Route.
Also Read: The Snowfall Destinations of Saudi Arabia
5. Al Khobar | Eastern Province
A pleasant seaside city on Kingdom’s eastern coast, Al Khobar is popular for its relaxed beaches, award-winning architecture and cool shopping outlets. There are plenty of things to indulge, keeping you busy on a weekend if you decide to visit the city. It is one of the most attractive cities of Great Dhahran. Al Khobar boasts some of the finest restaurants and is quite ideal for gourmet lovers. There is a vast corniche, called Khobar Corniche along the waterfront where you can take a stroll in the evening while enjoying the great views.
Also Read: What are the Best Places to Visit in Makkah?
6. The Farasan Islands | Red Sea
Located just off the coast of the southwestern part of Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea, Farasan Islands are an archipelago of 84 coral islands with only three of the islands that are permanently inhabited. If you are heading to the Kingdom for a holiday, it is one of the must-visit places in Saudi Arabia that you should not miss. Farasan Island might be the world´s most surprising beach destination but beautiful nonetheless. It is also a great diving destination and offers private beaches and sand for every kind of traveller. A heaven for bird watchers, the islands have mangroves and prevalent Gazelle species as well as numerous historical sites on the main island.
Also Read: Top 15 Amazing Places to Visit in Madinah
7. Al Soudah | Abha Region
Situated on the Sirwat Mountains — 28 km west of Abha, the mountainous landscape of Al Soudah is a departure from the endless dunes you see elsewhere in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It boasts lovely views of the countryside and serene greenery which is the highlight of any trip to this region. It also serves as an excellent location for paragliding and in fact, a paragliding competition is held here every summer during the Assir festival. Covered in dark trees growing all over the mountain, Al Soudah is also known as the Green Mountain. Visitors can go trekking on the hills that are covered with thick vegetation and enjoy the panoramic view from the top.
8. Al Wahba Crater | Harrat Kishb
Located 700 km from Riyadh towards the city of Taif, Al-Wahba Crater is the result of an underground volcanic explosion. Measuring 1.3 km across and 200 m deep in the middle of the desert, it is a protected site under the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD) of Saudi Arabia. Al Wahba Crater is almost similar to Barringer Crater situated in the Arizona desert of the United States. With lava fields, an oasis and salt pans, this crater can easily be explored by foot and makes for an unforgettable experience. Climbing this crater almost feels like landing on the moon or climbing to the top of Mount Everest. Al-Wahba Crater is undoubtedly one of the most famous destinations in Saudi Arabia that must not be missed during your trip to the Kingdom.
Also Read: Jabal Al Nour – The Mountain of Light
9. Asir National Park | Abha
Asir region is the epicentre of the culture and heritage of Saudi Arabia. It is also home to the very first national park in the country. With majestic mountains, lush forests and coastal plains of the Red Sea, the Asir region must be included in your Saudi Arabia itinerary. Covering an area of 4,500 sq. km, Asir National Park stretches from the desert in the east to the Red Sea coast. It is also home to the critically endangered Arabian leopard but you’re unlikely to find one as they live in the inaccessible mountainous ridges. However, what you’re likely to witness here is the abundant greenery, Hamadryas baboons and majestic eagles soaring over the sky.
Also Read: Mina (The Beautiful City of Tents)
10. Al Lith | Makkah Province
Located 275 km south of Jeddah, Al Lith is a small town surrounded by crystal-clear blue waters and is a popular diving destination in the country. Those who want to go diving to the Farasan Banks ecosystem depart from this port. With clear waters, astounding wrecks and abundant marine life, this is Saudi Arabia’s best diving destination and should not be missed if diving is what you’re looking for. The region is especially popular during March and June when whale sharks pass through this area. If sun and white sandy beaches are your ideas for a holiday, this remote island in the Kingdom is worth a visit.
11. Edge of the World | Northwest of Riyadh
One of the most amazing places in Saudi Arabia, visit Jebel Fihrayn, also called the Edge of the World, for the most spectacular views. It is a part of the 800 km long Jebel Tuwaiq Escarpment and when you look from the edge to the horizon, the plains appear to continue endlessly. It is located just two hours from Riyadh and must be visited if you’re planning to go to Riyadh. It is always a good idea to explore the capital city and its various cultural sites, from traditional souks of Taiba and Souq Al Zal to the newly renovated Diriyah that is the ancestral home of the ruling Al Saud family. Edge of the world is one of the best places to visit in Saudi Arabia and equally popular among tourists and locals who like to visit the place on the weekends.
12. Taif | Mecca Province
Famous for its rose and rosewater, Taif is a lovely city in the mountains towards the western part of Saudi Arabia near Mecca. The city turns into the unofficial capital of the Kingdom when the King relocates here during hot summer. Situated 1,700 m above sea level, the pleasant climate of Taif is its biggest attraction and a visit seems like a breath of fresh air compared to the humid Mecca. This region is also renowned for its agriculture with a large part of pomegranates, grapes and rose production. It is a family-friendly city with numerous gardens and open spaces that are packed with people in the evening enjoying the cool and pleasant climate.
13. Al Qassim | Qassim Province
Al Qassim is a land of palm trees and festivals. Visit this part of the Kingdom if you want to experience the rich cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia. The northern towns of Buraidah and Unaizah are the two destinations that can be covered in the Qassim region for its rich cultural heritage and history. The land is particularly fertile with ancient farmlands that grow several fruits and vegetables including dates. The annual date festival takes place in the autumn and is a sight to behold. But no matter which time of the year you plan to visit, you’re sure to find an ongoing festival in the city. There are also lovely & unique mosques and souks to explore, making it a wonderful place to spend some days.
14. Yanbu | Madinah Province
Yanbu’s history goes back to 2,500 years when it was an important point on the spice and incense route from Yemen to Egypt and the Mediterranean region. Today, it is fastly emerging as an attractive tourist destination in the country, thanks to its amazing diving site and white sandy beaches as well as numerous hotels and beach resorts. At first glance, one wouldn’t see the area in attractive light with its backdrop of refineries and petrochemical plants but that’s just the new Yanbu that sits 15 km south of the old city. The old Yanbu has a rich history of 2,500 years and popularly known as the place where the Lawrence of Arabia stayed. Yanbu’s old town is a popular place in Saudi Arabia and worth a visit with its laidback atmosphere, historic houses, and open desert giving way to the crystal-clear blue waters.
Also Read: The Best Tourist Spots to Visit in Yanbu
15. Neom – Land of the Future | Tabuk Province
This $500 billion futuristic mega-project near the Red Sea in the north-western corner of Saudi Arabia is the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Analysts and investors are sceptical about its feasibility but the region is already renowned for its natural wonders and quite popular amongst domestic tourists. Officials are planning several projects to cater to adventure-enthusiasts. Wadi Tayib Ism, a narrow valley between the two cliffs is the highlight of the region. It is believed by the locals that Prophet Moses (RA) landed on this valley after crossing the Red Sea from Egypt. The area also offers excellent diving opportunities. Currently, the hotels and restaurant options are limited but residents are quite welcoming to travellers.
16. Umluj – Saudi Arabia’s ‘Maldives’ | Tabuk Province
With picturesque islands and charming beaches as well as great archaeological and historical treasures, Umluj stretches 147 km north of Yanbu in western Saudi Arabia. It is partially off-limits due to government’s Red Sea Project focusing on tourism development but it’s worth hiring a local boatman to explore the shallow waters and coral reefs around the islands that will remind you of the Maldives. Dolphins can be spotted here in the winter. Infrastructure isn’t too great but the local hospitality is truly unmatched. Get your diving or snorkelling gear if you’re on the adventure side. The kingdom has recently loosened the social restrictions for the women like allowing them to drive or travel abroad without the permission of a male guardian, but for those women who are travelling alone, the trip isn’t without hiccups. Female tourists are expected to dress modestly.
17. Hail | Ha’il Region
The capital of the Hail Province, Hail lies in the north-western part of Saudi Arabia and acts as a base for exploring the extensive rock site at Jubbah. It played an important role in the history of Saudi Arabia as the crossroad of trade, especially through the Hajj season, when camel caravans passed through this area. It was the capital of the Al Rashid tribe, which was the main challenger to Al Saud’s claim for regional power. Aarif Castle will remind you of what is left of the Al Rashids while the Qishlah, built by King Abdul Aziz is a reminder of who finally won. While you’re here, it’s worth exploring the souk close to Qishlah, which is the last remnant of the traditional flea market in the region.