As Saudi Arabia launches a new tourist visa that opens the country up to global travellers like never before, we select the 10 most amazing things to do on your visit to this surprisingly diverse destination – from diving some of the world’s most untouched reefs to soaking up authentic Arabian history in Jeddah.
- EXPLORE A MARS-LIKE DESERT
- DISCOVER YOUR VERY OWN DESERTED ISLAND
- DIVE IN THE UNEXPLORED RED SEA
- HIKE IN ASIR NATIONAL PARK
- RECONNECT WITH NATURE IN THE FIFA MOUNTAINS
- TAKE OTHERWORLDLY PHOTOGRAPHS AT THE HARRAT RAHAT LAVA FIELD
- GO ON A SCENIC MOUNTAIN ROAD TRIP
- VISIT A 2,000-YEAR-OLD GHOST TOWN REMINISCENT OF JORDAN’S PETRA
- TAP INTO RIYADH’S VIBRANT FOOD SCENE
- SOAK UP HISTORY IN THE OLD CITY OF JEDDAH
EXPLORE A MARS-LIKE DESERT
You don’t have to venture far from the bustling capital city, Riyadh, to see spectacular scenery. Just an hour north-west of the capital lies dramatic rocky desert reminiscent of Utah’s desolate stretches. Here, the imposing tower structure of Qadmat Al-Saqtah (better known as Faisal’s Finger) rises up 200 metres from a Mars-like landscape. Discover the many different aspects of the rock on a four-wheel-drive around the base, followed by a desert picnic.
More intrepid explorers can take in magnificent views along the hiking trails and even rock climb their way to the top of the tower.Donec Massa Integer
DISCOVER YOUR VERY OWN DESERTED ISLAND
Lauded for their crystal-clear waters and pristine white sands, Umluj’s beaches are Saudi Arabia’s answer to the Maldives.
With a snorkel in tow, zoom out on a boat to one of 104 islands (you might just find one all to yourself), and spot the burst of marine life through the translucent waters, from clown fish and turtles to playful dolphins. The Red Sea Project, which regulates environmentally-friendly tourism, will be developed next to Umluj, so you can rest assured that your visit will be low impact and that the area’s natural beauty will be protected.
DIVE IN THE UNEXPLORED RED SEA
While parts of the Red Sea become increasingly crowded, Saudi Arabia’s reefs remain some of the least explored in the world. Claiming the longest coastline on the Red Sea, Saudi offers an abundance of dive options.
Dust off your PADI certification (or take a course with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors at home before you go) and explore ethereal underwater spots such as the Boiler Wreck, which multitudes of moray eels call home and where a coral tunnel leads to a five-metre-deep pool illuminated by the sun.
Thousands of small reefs also pepper the Farasan Banks where great walls of black corals act as a dramatic canvas for clown fish, tuna and hammerhead sharks.
HIKE IN ASIR NATIONAL PARK
Saudi Arabia’s first national park is a green wilderness spanning 1,600 square kilometres from the desert in the east to the Red Sea coast. Its verdant valleys are home to charming villages, including the ‘hanging village’ of Al Habala, which sits precariously on a ledge 400 metres down a steep cliff and is accessible only by rope.
A series of hiking trails weave through striking juniper forests – along the way keep an eye out for Hamadryas baboons, eagles and the critically endangered Arabian leopard (this is one of the last places in the world they’re found).
RECONNECT WITH NATURE IN THE FIFA MOUNTAINS
Set in the lofty Jizan region, the Fifa Mountains have an unusually moderate climate and as a result they are abundantly green. A trip to the top of the peaks is rewarded with sweeping views over ancient fortresses and lush terraced landscapes, where coffee and maize are grown. Avid hikers can follow the series of lightly used paths criss-crossing the area – a favourite with the locals for folding back into nature. Cure any aching muscles with a soak at the nearby Al-Khoubah natural hot springs at the end of the day.
TAKE OTHERWORLDLY PHOTOGRAPHS AT THE HARRAT RAHAT LAVA FIELD
Intrepid travellers will be impressed by a trip to Harrat Rahat, Saudi Arabia’s largest lava field, with more than 500 active – though currently dormant – volcanoes. It’s just a short drive from Medina. So close, in fact, that when a lava flow last erupted in 1256 it came within four kilometres of the city, with its eastern neighbourhoods eventually expanding and being built over the top of the hardened black flow. The spectacular, otherworldly landscape will have you frantically filling up your camera roll.
GO ON A SCENIC MOUNTAIN ROAD TRIP
The road to Taif runs through the mountainous Al-Hada region, an impressive route of switchbacks that snake up a rocky escarpment high into the clouds. Taif is located in an agricultural area renowned for it grapes, pomegranates, figs, roses and honey, so stock up while you’re there. A detour to the mountain village of Al-Shafa, which lies 2,200 metres above sea level and grows most of the area’s fruit, is also well worth it for the views.
VISIT A 2,000-YEAR-OLD GHOST TOWN REMINISCENT OF JORDAN’S PETRA
History buffs should make for the Al-Ula area in north-western Saudi Arabia, a desolate, terracotta labyrinth of prehistoric landmarks, including a tightly packed maze of a town made up of 800 mud-brick and stone houses. Wander through its narrow corridors and see the ghostly remnants of ancient Arab architecture. Not far from Al-Ula is Mada’in Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the second largest city built by the Nabateans who also constructed Petra. But where Petra is overcrowded and swarming with tourists, Mada’in Saleh is eerily quiet, the low foot traffic preserving its impressive structures.
TAP INTO RIYADH’S VIBRANT FOOD SCENE
Foodies will feel right at home in Riyadh, where there’s everything from sky-high fine dining to bustling street-market stalls. The Globe, a three-storey glass orb 240 metres up the Al Faisaliah Tower, has the best seats in the city (if not the country) for dinner, plating up modern French dishes with an Arabic twist such as crispy polenta and ratatouille served with spiced labneh. For something more down to earth, Bistro by Tao is a popular brunch spot, strung with clouds of cherry blossom and pastel-hued bird cages. Ricotta pancakes with honeycomb butter hit the sweet spot, while diners with more savoury tastebuds should opt for pancakes filled with traditional spiced ful (fava beans). For indulgent street food, head to lively Tahlia Street and track down some yughmish, a leavened bread filled with juicy spiced meat.
SOAK UP HISTORY IN THE OLD CITY OF JEDDAH
Jeddah is best known as a gateway for pilgrims heading to Mecca and Medina but as the largest sea port on the Red Sea (and the second largest city in Saudi Arabia) it’s worth a visit in its own right. Visit the historical area of Al-Balad, with its quaint coral buildings, to see the traditional face of Arabia. Dedicate at least one afternoon to exploring the winding alleys of bustling Souq Al Alawi, where vendors hawk authentic Arabian art and jewellery and where the rich smell of spices soaks the air. Pick up some fresh hibiscus tea, or karkade, while you’re there – a popular local brew which is consumed hot in the winter and cold in the summer.