Saudi Arabia Travel Guide

The desert kingdom, best-known in the west for its oil wealth, is opening up, and not just to the millions of Islamic believers that come to Mecca on pilgrimage each year. Offering five-star luxury, Jeddah and Riyadh are two ultra-modern cities with plenty to see and do.

There is also the historic side of Saudi Arabia, in towns that appear to travel back in time. Habalah and Madain Saleh serve as a reminder that beyond the sleek glass and metal towers in the country’s main cities, Saudi is a country with a long and glorious past.

When to Go

Saudi Arabia has an extremely dry, hot desert climate with temperatures that vary considerably depending on location, with seasonal changes less pronounced. October to April is the most pleasant time of year, when it is cool yet still sunny. Temperatures rise between May and September, especially along the western Red Sea coastline, the hottest and most humid part of the country.

Getting There & Away

Jeddah in particular is well-connected to the Middle East and beyond given its status as hub to the holy cities—two huge terminals are dedicated to receiving Hajj pilgrims, so everything is very well set up. Riyadh is less well served, but still has flights to the rest of the region as well as destinations in Europe and North America courtesy of Saudi Arabian Airlines.

Many of the roads are good, particularly those around Jeddah and Riyadh along with routes to Mecca and Medina. Inner city travel is best done by taxi or bus. Women might prefer the former option given the inconvenience of segregation laws that apply here.

Health & Safety

Saudi has made headlines in recent years for brutal terrorist attacks against westerners, particularly in the capital Riyadh. These still occur, and although rare, present a real danger.

Another potential safety threat exists in disobeying the strict laws in the country including bans on homosexuality, alcohol, adultery and visits to Mecca and Medina by non-Muslims. All are punishable by prison sentences or in the worst case scenario, death. The best advice is to avoid the holy cities unless you’re a believer and wait until you get home for any naughty business. Health services are of a high standard in Jeddah and Riyadh, but less so outside these two main cities.

Food & Hospitality

Saudi has some of the world’s finest hotels, both international and locally-owned, meaning that if you’ve tapped into the country’s vast oil wealth, a visit here is going to be extremely comfortable, if a little expensive. Budget travelers can get by, but might feel a little left out.

Typical Middle Eastern food is widely available along with western fast food and a Saudi take on the burgers and donut culture. Muslim travelers to Mecca will be glad to know that after a day of fasting, a quick and easy solution to those hunger pangs exists in the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet that has been built within the walls of the world’s holiest Islamic city.

Itineraries

  • Four days at the holy sites of Mecca and Medina (Muslims only).
  • Three days shopping and sightseeing in Jeddah and along the Red Sea coastline.
  • Two days of pampering in the capital Riyadh.
  • Two days sightseeing in Madain Saleh.

Additional time

  • One day visiting the ancient settlement of Habalah.
  • One day at the cool summer capital of Taif in the hills.

Highlights

Mecca: the highlight of any trip to Saudi is to witness the holiest site in Islam during the Hajj, or holy pilgrimage, a once in a lifetime experience for any Muslim. Non believers are strictly forbidden.

Jeddah: economic hub of the kingdom on the Red Sea featuring plush hotels, the highest fountain in the world and great shopping in the new malls and Old City.

Riyadh: the capital of Saudi and home to Kingdom Tower, an ultra-modern structure with spectacular views of the surrounding desert.

Madain Saleh: site of more than 100 well-preserved ancient tombs that rise out of the desert to create a scene of awe-inspiring beauty.

Habalah: a cable car ride to an old Arabian settlement of houses featuring intricate carvings, a throwback to the old days in the desert kingdom.

Activities

Go on a pilgrimage: for any Muslim, a visit to Saudi Arabia will be all about visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, whether during the holy month or not.

Sightseeing: Saudi’s old Arabian heritage and Islamic architecture is among the holiest and finest in the region.

Shopping: with old bazaars and ultra-modern malls, Jeddah and Riyadh are both great places to shop.

Camel riding: made up of approximately 98 percent desert, the huge Saudi landscape is best travelled on four legs rather than four wheels.