The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s best kept secrets. Officially opened to tourism in 2019, KSA is one of the most interesting destinations for adventurous travellers. From vast deserts that hold ancient ruins, to sweeping modern cities and glittering coastlines, Saudi Arabia has risen rapidly as a safe and comfortable place to see sites that are little known in the west.
The country has a rich heritage and history that has been exceptionally well preserved. Saudi Arabia shows some of the earliest traces of human activity in the world.
The desert offers intensity in tent cities!
The Kingdom as we know it today was created in 1932 when King Ibn Saud united four regions into a single state. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been a monarchy ruled by the House of Saud.
Although still relatively unexplored by western visitors, Saudi Arabia is a vast country full of culture and excitement that will delight visitors. The capital, Riyadh, is a bustling metropolis of over 7 million people located in the centre of the an-Nafud desert. Jeddah, the second largest city in Saudi Arabian with over 4 million residents, is a cosmopolitan port city on the beautiful Red Sea. The holy cities Medina and Mecca are also located in Saudi Arabia, best-known for being the main destinations of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages.
Here’s a Pro-tip: Non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the holy precinct around Mecca and Medina. Access to these areas is tightly controlled. Don’t worry, however, there are so many more sites to see!
You’ll receive your ‘just deserts’ in KSA!
Here’s another pro-tip: The currency in KSA is the ‘Saudi Riyal’. There are about five Riyals to the GBP but the rate fluctuates so check from a reputable source before exchanging funds.
This mostly unexplored land of adventure has so many urban and historical sites spanning across cities and deserts. Here are my favourites:
- Mada’in Saleh – one of the most talked about tourist sites in the world (also known as Hegra), this incredible Nabatean pre-Islamic city was proclaimed as the Kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Once the second city of the empire behind Petra, Mada’in Saleh is a wonderful site to explore. What at first just appears to be sandy rock formations are in fact 2,000-year-old Nabatean buildings and tombs. These ruins are considered one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest treasures.
So mysterious, you’ll be Petra-fied!
- Al Ula Old Town – this mudbrick ghost town is over 2,000 years old and was once an essential settlement along the pilgrimage road from Damascus to Mecca.
- Jabal Ikmah is referred to as the largest open-air library in the KSA. There are ancient inscriptions carved onto the rock face that have given researchers detailed information on the culture, beliefs and the way of life of ancient civilisations.
- Red Sea Diving – Just a short distance from Jeddah (so you are out of town), diving in the Red Sea is a magical experience. The waters are clear and the fish are colourful. In Jeddah other water sports, including jet skiing, paddle boarding, kayaking and sailing are a great way to enjoy the sunshine and warm breezes.
- Al-Balad – This is Jeddah’s old town and it is a beautiful place to explore. Enjoy cafes, small shops and coffee houses in the warren of small lanes where the history of the Arabian Peninsula comes alive.
- Jeddah Corniche – this paved walkway on the seafront in Jeddah is a favourite place for families to stroll in the evenings when the cool breezes from the Red Sea deliver a delightful temperature. Vendors offer ice cream, snacks, coffee and soft drinks while you admire the cityscape and also King Fahd’s Fountain which blasts water from than 1000 feet in the air.
- Quad biking – Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s most expansive deserts where you can ride quad bikes through landscapes that have more in common with the moon than the English countryside. I recommend visiting at sunset for a truly unforgettable experience.
- Desert Evening – Many hotels can organise a group evening in the desert where you will experience Bedouin culture including reclining in tents, eating traditional foods, listening to Bedouin music and viewing the beautiful stars of the Milky Way Galaxy in all of their glory.
Here’s another pro-tip: Renting a car is a great way to get around the Kingdom and explore different sites. Saudi Arabia has excellent roads and highways but remember that the Saudis drive on the same side of the road as the Americans. This is easy to forget when you are on your own in this great expanse.
Saudi Arabian local foods are mostly based on rice, halal meats, and spices. Food is very much part of the cultural experience of visiting Saudi Arabia. Jeddah, however, has virtually every type of food imaginable, including a selection of the world’s most popular fast food outlets. Here are my favourite restaurants in Jeddah that demonstrate the best on offer:
- Al Qalzam Fisheries – this restaurant has perhaps the freshest fish and seafood in Jeddah. Situated right on the corniche, this restaurant serves wonderful food that is lightly seasoned and beautifully presented.
- Byblos – Located close to the Corniche with excellent Red Sea views, this Lebanese restaurant is very popular. There is no wonder, it has remarkable food served mezza-style. This is a treat anytime of the day or night.
I’d walk a mile for a camel Kabsa!
- Aromi – based in the opulent Qsar Al Sharq hotel (A Waldorf Astoria property), this Italian restaurant serves fresh and tasty flavours that you’ll find nowhere else except Italy. This restaurant also offers fine dining with a delightful view of the Red Sea.
The nightlife in Saudi Arabia is centred around cafes, shisha bars and night-time shopping rather than clubs and bars due to the country’s religious beliefs. Alcohol is not served in the Kingdom. Here’s an interesting fact: almost 50% of the population of KSA is under 25, so the social scene is vibrant. These are my favourite nightspots in Jeddah:
- Sofa Lounge – Enjoy a relaxing shisha water pipe while drinking coffee or sweet mint tea. This lounge is friendly, comfortable and inviting
- Quintessentially Lounge – this upscale venue features cigars and the Argeelah (a type of Shisha) with a great view of King Abdulaziz Road where the traffic is heavy with street-cruisers at night.
- Gold Cinema – Movie theatres are new in KSA, having only been opened a few years ago. Gold Cinema is great for its relaxing couches, good food and up-to-date movies. Visiting a Saudi cinema is definitely a cultural experience.
Riyadh, the capital of KSA, has a dramatic skyline at night
When it comes to accommodation, Saudi Arabia has some of the most luxurious venues in the world. Here are my favourite places to stay in Jeddah:
- Narcissus Resort & Spa Obhur Jeddah – This 5-star hotel is opulent and has excellent service. Modern and luxurious, you will feel like royalty when you stay here. With several restaurants and a beautiful spa, this is a great choice.
- Ritz-Carlton Riyadh – Although part of a chain, the luxury of this hotel and its beautiful location on the Southern Corniche will keep you coming back for more. This is the perfect hotel to keep you busy with state-of-the-art facilities like tennis courts, a health club, outdoor pool and spa.
- Rosewood Jeddah – the Rosewood is one of my favourite luxury hotel chains in the world. The Jeddah Rosewood doesn’t disappoint with its beautiful design and artwork. This is a modern and ultra-comfortable place to stay when you visit Jeddah.
Saudi Arabia is not on the bucket list of most travellers in the west, but it should be. KSA is a beautiful, safe and welcoming location which has so much to offer visitors!