Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, it is rich in attractions and adventures. For Muslims, the cities of Mecca and Medina rich in Prophetic significance, have no equal. The carved temples of Madain Saleh, known as the second Petra, and the sophisticated rock art at Jubbah are the Kingdom’s greatest pre-Islamic treasures. Saudi Arabia has opened up its doors to international tourists with a new visa regime for 49 countries.
Top experiences in Saudi Arabia
Riyadh is the birthplace of modern Saudi Arabia, where old-world charm meets 21st-century vision. Riyadh Province – also known as Al-Wosta – is home to the country’s capital: a modern metropolis with a thriving financial and business centre, and a growing cultural scene. It’s a city rich in history, boasting myriad forts, palaces and museums, and some of the country’s most colourful souks.
The wider region also offers a wealth of attractions: Ad Diriyah, northwest of the city and the original capital of the first Saudi state is a must-see. Its Al Turaif quarter, a carefully restored mud-brick district that was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010, offers a glimpse into the country’s extraordinary heritage, while the Al Bujairy district is perfect for families, with its twisting lanes, restaurants and cafés.
Those in search of tranquillity can head north of the city to the Edge of the World, where the sprawling Tuwaiq escarpment offers heart-stopping views over the arid plains below.
The Edge of the World is aptly named. Reached through winding desert trails that run along a ridge of the Tuwaiq escarpment, this spectacular spot offers uninterrupted views across the barren valley floor and to the horizon, from the edge of a sheer precipice. These starkly dramatic views earned the site its nickname, and have helped turn it into one of Riyadh’s most popular tourist destinations.
The Edge of the World, or Jebel Fihrayn as it is also known, is located about 90 kilometres from Saudi’s capital and roughly a 90-minute drive. It forms part of the vast Tuwaiq cliffs, which stretch over more than 600 km through central Saudi, and once overlooked an ancient trade route used to cross the Arabian Peninsula from Yemen into the Levant and Persia.
Hikers can choose from a range of routes to get to the top, but with rugged terrain, steep climbs and loose gravel, good walking shoes are advised. As you traverse the path, keep an eye out for fossils – a holdover from when the region was part of an ocean bed – and for camels and the remains of riverbeds crossing the valley below.
It typically takes between 15 and 30 minutes to reach the cliff edge, however, there are plenty of opportunities along the way to stop and enjoy the view. Gates out of the site close at 6 pm, so make sure you leave enough time for the return drive home or, instead, opt for a night of camping in the Acacia valley and savour the atmospheric sunset and star-studded night sky.
Getting here requires an SUV with good GPS, and ideally as part of a larger group of vehicles. Alternatively, several leading tour companies offer daylong excursions to the site, including the option to camp overnight. The best time to visit is during the cooler winter months, when the skies are clear and the temperatures more manageable.
The Ad Diriyah’s Al Bujairy district is already welcoming visitors. Once home to religious scholar Mohammed bin Abdul Wahab, its maze of twisting streets lead to low-lying mud huts that have been transformed into sparkling heritage sites, including Diriyah Museum, a former palace with exhibits on Saudi history and the restored Al Zawiha Mosque. Look for the colourful geometric patterns that decorate the walls and heavy wooden doors of the district’s buildings, and enjoy streetside demonstrations of traditional crafts, such as weaving and calligraphy. Numerous cafés and restaurants are dotted around, offering authentic local fare, alongside trinket-rich gift shops that are ideal for browsing.
The carefully renovated Saad bin Saud Palace, built in the traditional Najd style, and Burj Faysal wall tower are a snapshot of the city’s storied past, as is the Diriyah Wall, once its last line of defence.
Set aside a day to explore centuries of Arabian prehistory, history, culture and art at the Kingdom’s biggest and most entertaining museum. Housed within striking modernist architecture and flower-wreathed gardens, the National Museum exhibits everything from Neolithic rock art, to replicas of the buildings of old Jeddah, as well as transporting visitors on a magically interactive tour of the ages.
Go on weekdays for a less crowded experience, and take your time exploring the museum’s eight halls.
Close to Riyadh’s National Museum you’ll find the beautiful Murabba Palace, the former home and court of King Abdul Aziz, founder of modern Saudi Arabia, and a monument to the city’s captivating past.
Constructed outside the walls of the old city of Riyadh, on what had previously been used as farmland during the winter months, Murabba Palace marked the first major expansion of the city as the country teetered on the brink of a new era of prosperity. The palace, where the King lived from its completion in 1938 until his death in 1953, was built in the traditional Najdean style, with vast palm frond layered walls and ceilings and rooms arranged around a breezy central courtyard.
Plan your visit in spring or winter, and you can wander the palace’s rolling green gardens, which spread over several hectares. But the real treasures are inside, where you’ll find plenty of memorabilia in the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center, including personal belongings of King Abdulaziz – right down to his spectacles – as well as photographs of meetings he conducted with statesman all over the world. Tear yourself away from the multimedia displays, and you can also see a Rolls-Royce that was presented to the King by Winston Churchill in 1946.
As you tour the two-storey building, look out for the King’s personal lift – the first in the country when it was installed in 1948 due to his arthritis, which had made it impossible for him to use the stairs. History aficionados will revel in the palace’s archives, which, thanks to its role as the hub of the country’s administrative decisions at the time, include a trove of historical documents relating to a pivotal point in Saudi Arabia’s history, as well as recordings of the King’s speeches.
E-Visa / Tourist Visa
Saudi Arabia is opening its doors. The new visa system is a historic milestone in opening Saudi Arabia to tourism.
Tourists from eligible countries can apply for a tourist visa online through fast and easy-to-use e-Visa portal (https://visa.visitsaudi.com) ahead of their trip, or upon arrival in Saudi Arabia through visa kiosks at immigration.
Tourists from other countries should apply for a consulate visa through Saudi embassies and consulates.
Applying for a tourist visa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is easy. If you are from one of the 49 eligible countries, you can apply through the e-Visa website. Other countries need to apply through their nearest Saudi embassy or consulate.
All Visit Visas: including e-Visa, Visa-on-Arrival and Consulate Visa:
• The fee for the visa is SAR 440. This includes the base fee (SAR 300) and health insurance (SAR 140). However, additional charges apply for VAT and payment processing.
• The validity of the visa depends on its type. A single entry visa allows you to stay for a total length of one month, while the multiple entry visa allows you to stay in Saudi Arabia for up to three months.
• A multiple entry visa is valid for a maximum of three months, regardless of whether you leave and re-enter the country during that period of time.