Long relatively inaccessible to tourism, this kingdom of oil, sand, and Islamic history, steeped in culture and tradition, has in recent years been opening up to and even promoting tourism. And it has much to offer, from the bustling cities of Riyadh and Jeddah to the tranquil beauty of the Arabian Desert to the the holiest sites in Islam, such as the cities of Mecca and Medina, visited by millions of Muslims every year for their Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages (with a range of Umrah packages available it's never been easier to embark on a journey to this fascinating country).
Beyond religious tourism, there is much to explore in a country with a vibrant arts and culture scene, with museums and galleries showcasing rich Saudi history and heritage. For adventure-seekers, the Red Sea coast is a paradise for diving and snorkelling, while the Al-Hajar Mountains offer stunning hikes and breathtaking scenery.
For those looking toward the culinary, traditional dishes are sure to tantalize your taste buds, such as kabsa (chicken with savory spiced rice, the national dish), mandi (another tasty meat-rice dish), and one you might be more familiar with: roast-meat shawarma, also found in various other places in the Middle East.
Whether you're looking to explore the country's rich cultural heritage or relax in the warm sun, there´s has something for everyone in this a hospitable land of diversity where visitors can enjoy both modern and traditional experiences. And here´s a quick look at its most visited cities:
The kingdom´s bustling capital and largest city (pop. 7.7 million) isn´t all about towering skyscrapers but also historical fortresses and other remnants of the past, steeped in history and culture, it´s a blend of the modern and the traditional. One of its top attractions is the 99-storey Kingdom Centre, which affords stunning views of the city from its observation deck. For a taste of history, head to the late-19th-century Masmak Fort, a beautiful example of traditional Najdi architecture that played a pivotal role in the country's unification. If you're looking to explore the country´s vibrant culture, visit the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, which showcases it along with history and heritage through interactive exhibits and artefacts. And for a taste of traditional Arabian hospitality, head to the local souks, where you can haggle for everything from souvenirs to spices to textiles.
Nestled on the coast of the Red Sea, this port of 5.3 million with a unique blend of old and new offers a a more liberal air; a great culinary scene; and a wealth of attractions and experiences, from the UNESCO World Heritage Al-Balad district, with its beautifully preserved traditional architecture and bustling souks, to the modern King Abdullah Sports City, which boasts world-class facilities and hosts major international events. For a taste of its vibrant arts scene, head to the Jeddah Sculpture Museum, which showcases a stunning collection of contemporary sculptures by local and international artists. And for those seeking adventure, the nearby coral reefs and crystal-clear waters of the Red Sea offer some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world. It´s also known as the "Gateway to Mecca," as it´s just under an hour´s drive inland from here - thus a great starting point for a journey of spiritual and cultural exploration for those embarking on the hajj or umrah.
Accessible to Muslims only, the kingdom´s third largest city (pop. 2.1 million) is Islam´s holiest thanks largely to its status as the 6th-century birthplace of the prophet Mohammed and the place where it´s held that the Quran was revealed to him by Allah, in the Hira cave of atop the 642-metre-high mountain Jabal al-Nur outside the city. The city´s most noteworthy landmark -is the 7th-century Masjid al-Haram (Great Mosque), the world´s largest, and built around a stone building called the Kabah (held to have been originally built by the biblical prophet Abraham and whose current iteration also dates from the 7h century). Others include various sites relating to early Islam; the Abraj al-Bait hotel-and-shopping complex which includes the world´s fourth highest skyscraper, and the Museum of the Two Harams.
Out in the Western Province an eight-hour drive or two-hour flight from Riyadh, Saudi´s fourth largest city (pop. 1.5 million) is also Islam´s second holiest after Mecca, and known as the "City of the Prophet" because it became Mohammed´s capital and eventually the "cradle of Islamic culture and civilisation"; in addition it´s the site of his tomb and the second mosque he had built (also the second largest in the Islamic world), Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (the Prophet´s Mosque, above). The interior of this, too, is off limits to non-Muslims, but the rest of Medina´s rich history, fascinating culture, and stunning architecture is open to all. In addition to strolling through the busy markets and sampling delicious local cuisine, visitors can check out the 12-year-old Al-Madinah Museum with its archaeological collections, visual galleries, and rare images of the old city. And if you have time, take an overnight trip up to Hegra (aka Mada´in Salih), the first of Saudi Arabia's current half dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, an archaeological site dating from the ancient kingdom of the ancient Nabataeans of the 1st century BCE, when it was the realm´s second largest city after Petra (now in Jordan).
On the Red Sea, the vibrant capital and heart of the Eastern Province as well as Saudi Arabia´s fourth largest city (pop. 1.5 million) is essentially an oil boomtown - the centre of the country´s petroleum industry - just a century old, yet has much to offer visitors: thriving culture (including the kingdom´s first street-art exhibition, in Al-Khobar´s Bayoonya district), impressive modern architecture, bustling markets (especially don´t miss the "Love Market"), luxurious shopping malls, tranquil parks (don´t miss King Fahad Park, Saudi Arabia´s largest, and home to an amusement park as well as lovely landscaping), lovely beaches, and a suprisingly active nightlife. Other attractions include the a local Heritage Village of Saudi culture and the Aljowharah Museum of history There are older historical sites to be found locally, as well, such as early-16th-century Tarout Castle on the island of the same name, connected by causeway to the town of Al-Qatif, just a 20-minute drive from Dammam, the island is also home to a half dozen village such as Al-Deyra, with an atmsopheric medieval quarter.
With a moderate climate and lovely natural surroundings due to its location on the slopes of the southwestern Hijaz mountains (and reachable in just over an hour from Mecca and an eight-hour drive or 2½ flight from Riyadh), this city has a history stretching back to at least the 6th century. The area is an agricultural breadbasket (and known for its roses), and the city is a popular destination for visitors looking to get away from the scorching heat of the kingdom´s larger cities, and there are a number of appealing nearby mountain resorts. Its marquis attraction is the Shubra Palace, originally built in 1858 and rebuilt/expanded into its current form in 1905, and was later used by the Saudi royal family until 1995, when it was turned into a heritage museum. A few kilometres north of Taif, don´t miss a day trip to the Souk ´Okaz, a traditional market dating back to pre-Islamic times, and the early-16th-century Ottoman fort nearby.
The capital and largest city of the Asir region (pop. 235,000, metro area 1.1 million) in the southwestern part of the country (and most easily reached from Riyadh by a flight of just over two hours), this hidden gem at an altitude of more than 2,200m is an off-the-beaten-path paradise for nature lovers and cultural enthusiasts alike. Like Taif it enjoys a moderate climate, a rich history, and a vibrant culture, with its mountainous scenery providing an ideal backdrop for adventure seekers. Explore historic hillttop fortresses such as Shamasan, trek through lush forests, and savour its mouthwatering local cuisine.
With a population of around 858,000, the most important of the Eastern Province´s Al-Ahsa region (a 3½-hour drive from Riyadh) is most notable for its historical core, Al-Koot, whose landmarks including the 15th-century fortified Ibrahim Palace, the Al-Mulla House of an 18th-century governor, and one of the country´s most beautifl souks, Al-Qaisariah. On the natural side, outside town you´ll find the spectacular Jebel Al-Qarah (above), a flat-topped massif some 2,000m tall which among other things harbours some interesting caves to explore, it´s now included in a cultural park called Land of Civilisation,. and is also part of what´s considered the world´s largest desert oasis (8,544 hectares/33 square miles).
Up in the northwest near the Jordanian border (and a 2½-hour flight from Riyadh), this city of 667,000 is another hidden gem, set amidst awe-inspiring landscapes and offering impressive historical sites along with fascinating social and culinary culture - a unique blend of history, natural beauty, and cultural significance. Highlights in town include the mid-16th-century Tabuk Fortress and the Twaheen Souq, especially known for its patterned rugs. The city also makes the perfect base for exploring the riches of the surrounding region, the land of Moses and Lawrence of Arabia. Amongst archaeological sites in the region are the ancient Nabataean city of Al-Bada´ and the Bronze-Age settlement of Tayma, whilst natural wonders include the dramatic Al-Disah and Tayeb Al-Ism valleys, the Al-Nabk Protected Area and the Farasan Islands Marine Sanctuary. And lets not forget the beatuful beaches and charming towns of the 700km Red Sea coast. Finally, the local cuisine is especially noteworthy due to the influence of next-door Jordan as well as seafood from the Red Sea.