Mentions of Saudi Arabia usually conjure up mixed feelings in people. The tales of the Arabian Nights with their lush exoticism are tied to the desert lands and rich cities of Saudi Arabia, as well as grim stories of social and political repression. But if you can get past the misgivings (and manage to obtain a notoriously difficult to get travel visa), Saudi Arabia will most definitely surprise you. The home of natural wonders like deserts with dunes the size of buildings, exotic animals, and inspiring historical sites, Saudi Arabia is definitely not the most liberal and accepting travel destinations, but worth a bit of effort if you don’t mind conforming to local norms and customs. So here are top 5 sights in Saudi Arabia.
Visiting Saudi Arabia
The easiest and most surefire way to get a visa in Saudi Arabia is if you sign up for a guided tour. If you are an Israeli citizen or if you have stamps from Israel on your passport, you will not get a visa. One of the most important things to keep in mind when visiting the country is to respect local customs when it comes to dress code, behavior and religion, but you will be fine if you exercise common sense. Unless you are a Muslim (and you can prove it), you cannot enter holy sites such as Mecca or Medina.
Saudis escape the scorching summer heat by retreating to the considerably cooler summer resort city of Abha. After the sand dunes of the Empty Quarter, Abha is literally a breath of fresh mountain air, cool mist and the smell of green grass. Abha is close to very interesting attractions like the Habala Hanging Village and the Turkish Fort, within a couple of hours of travel.
Madain Saleh is a truly fascinating archaeological site that is not even nearly appreciated as much as it deserves. Few locals visit it (because of religious reasons), and tourists need to pay for a permit in order to be allowed on the site (hotels and tour agencies can take care of that). Madain Saleh is a Nabatean city carved into rock, much like Jordan’s Petra.
The Empty Quarter
You’ll never see as much sand in one place anywhere in the world like in the Empty Quarter – after all, it is the longest uninterrupted strip of sand in the world. This inhospitable land is inhabited by nomads, but unless you are a very well experience desert driver, don’t even think about entering the deserts on your own. If you’re fine with the paved roads, then these will lead you to oasis towns. In any case, the sanest way to visit the Empty Quarter is by joining a tour.
Jeddah’s Old Town
The old quarter of Jeddah is one of the most fascinating sights in the country, and one that seems in a completely different plane of existence than the rest of the city. Once you enter the old town, you will find yourself in a maze of souqs, old dusty buildings and traditional coral houses which look like something straight out of Scheherazade’s tales.
National Museum, Riyadh
This sprawling, modern structure is undoubtedly one of the best museums in the Middle East, although it is a bit tricky to visit (separate timetables for women, for men and for families). The eight floors contain fascinating displays on Arabia’s culture, history and art.