Saudi Arabia Travel Guide – Everything You Need to Know

Tourism in Saudi Arabia is experiencing a transformative journey, with the Kingdom opening its doors to international visitors like never before. This vast and diverse country offers a captivating blend of modernity and tradition, from the futuristic city of Riyadh to the historical treasures of Jeddah and the natural wonders of the Arabian Desert. With its rich cultural heritage, stunning landscapes, and a growing array of tourist attractions and entertainment options, Saudi Arabia has become an emerging destination for travelers seeking unique experiences and a glimpse into the heart of the Arabian Peninsula.

What’s the Best Time to Visit? 📅

The best time to visit Saudi Arabia as a tourist depends on your preferences and the experiences you seek, as the country has diverse climates and attractions. Here are some considerations for different seasons:

  1. Autumn (September to November): Autumn is generally considered the best time to visit Saudi Arabia. The weather is pleasantly mild, making it ideal for outdoor activities and sightseeing. This is an excellent time to explore cities like Riyadh, Jeddah, and Al Khobar.
  2. Spring (March to May): Spring is another favorable season for visiting Saudi Arabia. The temperatures are moderate, and the landscape comes alive with colorful blooms in many regions. This is an excellent time for outdoor adventures and desert excursions.
  3. Winter (December to February): Winter is the peak tourist season in Saudi Arabia, particularly in the southwestern region of Asir and the mountains around Abha, where temperatures are cooler, and tourists come to enjoy the pleasant weather.
  4. Summer (June to August): Saudi Arabia’s summers are scorching hot, with temperatures often exceeding 100°F (38°C) or more, especially in the central and eastern regions. Coastal areas like Jeddah have more moderate temperatures, but it can still be very hot. Summer is not recommended for outdoor activities due to extreme heat.
  5. Ramadan: Keep in mind that during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the entire country observes fasting from sunrise to sunset. Many restaurants and attractions may have limited hours during the day, but vibrant iftar (breaking the fast) festivities can be experienced in the evenings.
  6. Hajj and Umrah Seasons: If you plan to visit Mecca and Medina, be aware that the Hajj pilgrimage season (Dhu al-Hijjah) varies each year and brings a surge of Muslim visitors to the holy cities. The Umrah pilgrimage season is year-round but can be busy during specific periods.
  7. Desert Adventures: For those interested in desert adventures like sand dune bashing and camel treks, consider the cooler months of autumn, winter, or early spring to avoid the extreme summer heat in the desert.

It’s essential to check specific weather conditions for the regions you plan to visit and to stay informed about any cultural or religious events that may affect your travel plans. Additionally, be aware of local customs, dress codes, and etiquette, especially in conservative areas and during religious observances.

What’s the Best Way to Get Around? 🚌

Getting around Saudi Arabia as a tourist can be facilitated by a range of transportation options. The choice of transportation depends on your itinerary, budget, and preferences. Here are some ways to get around Saudi Arabia:

  1. Domestic Flights: Saudi Arabia has an extensive network of airports, making domestic flights a convenient option for covering long distances. Airlines like Saudia, Flyadeal, and Flynas operate flights between major cities, including Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, and others.
  2. Public Buses: The Saudi Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) operates intercity and intracity bus services. This is a cost-effective way to travel between cities and towns.
  3. Taxis and Ride-Sharing: Taxis are readily available in Saudi cities, and ride-sharing services like Uber and Careem are also popular. Negotiate fares in advance for longer journeys.
  4. Car Rental: Renting a car is a convenient option for exploring Saudi Arabia, especially if you plan to visit remote areas. Major car rental companies operate at airports and in cities.
  5. Trains: The Saudi Railway Organization operates train services connecting major cities like Riyadh, Dammam, and Al-Hofuf. The Haramain High-Speed Railway connects Mecca and Medina.
  6. Local Transportation: In cities like Riyadh and Jeddah, you can use local buses, metro systems (in Riyadh), and trams (in Al-Madinah) to get around within the city.
  7. Camel and Horse Riding: In some desert areas and historical sites, you may have the opportunity to experience traditional transportation methods like camel and horse riding.
  8. Walking: In urban areas, you can explore on foot, especially in city centers and along corniches. Be prepared for the heat and dress modestly.
  9. Limousines: Limousine services are available in many Saudi cities and offer a more comfortable and private way to travel.
  10. Cruise: If you plan to visit the coastal areas of Saudi Arabia, consider taking a cruise to explore the Red Sea or the Arabian Gulf.
  11. Ferries: Ferries operate between some coastal cities, providing an alternative way to travel.
  12. Helicopter Services: Some companies offer helicopter services for a unique perspective on Saudi Arabia’s landscapes.

When traveling in Saudi Arabia, especially in more conservative regions, be mindful of local customs and dress codes. Additionally, consider the varying climates across the country and plan your clothing and travel accordingly. Always stay informed about local regulations and traffic rules, and prioritize safety during your journey.

What’s the Official Language?

The official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic. Here are some basic Arabic words and phrases that can be helpful for tourists:

Greetings:

  1. Hello – مرحبًا (Marhaban)
  2. Good morning – صباح الخير (Sabah al-khair)
  3. Good evening – مساء الخير (Masa’ al-khair)
  4. Goodbye – وداعًا (Wada’an)

Common Phrases: 5. Yes – نعم (Na’am)

  1. No – لا (La)
  2. Please – من فضلك (Min fadlik)
  3. Thank you – شكرًا (Shukran)
  4. Excuse me / I’m sorry – عذرًا (Adhran)
  5. How are you? – كيف حالك؟ (Kayfa halak?)
  6. I don’t understand – لا أفهم (La afham)
  7. Help – مساعدة (Musa’adah)
  8. What is this? – ما هذا؟ (Ma hatha?)
  9. How much is this? – بكم هذا؟ (Bikam hatha?)
  10. Where is…? – أين…؟ (Ayna…?)
  11. I need… – أحتاج… (Ahtaj…)
  12. Can you help me? – هل يمكنك مساعدتي؟ (Hal yumkinuk musa’adati?)

Numbers: 18. One – واحد (Wahid)

  1. Two – اثنان (Ithnan)
  2. Three – ثلاثة (Thalatha)
  3. Four – أربعة (Arba’a)
  4. Five – خمسة (Khamsa)

Food and Drinks: 23. Food – طعام (Ta’am)

  1. Water – ماء (Ma’)
  2. Coffee – قهوة (Qahwa)
  3. Tea – شاي (Shay)
  4. Bread – خبز (Khobz)
  5. Meat – لحم (Lahm)
  6. Vegetables – خضروات (Khudrawat)
  7. Spicy – حار (Har)
  8. Delicious – لذيذ (Lazez)

Directions: 32. Left – يسار (Yasar)

  1. Right – يمين (Yamin)
  2. Straight ahead – مباشرة (Mubashirah)
  3. North – شمال (Shamal)
  4. South – جنوب (Junub)
  5. East – شرق (Sharq)
  6. West – غرب (Gharb)

While these phrases can be helpful for communication, English is commonly spoken in many tourist areas and major cities in Saudi Arabia. However, making an effort to learn some basic Arabic phrases can be appreciated by locals and enhance your travel experience in the country.

Where to Stay? 🏨

Saudi Arabia offers a wide range of accommodation options for tourists, catering to various budgets and preferences. Here are some types of places to stay when visiting Saudi Arabia:

  1. Hotels: Saudi Arabia has a plethora of hotels, ranging from luxurious 5-star properties to more budget-friendly options. Major cities like Riyadh, Jeddah, and Mecca offer a wide selection of hotels, many of which provide modern amenities and services.
  2. Resorts: The coastal regions of Saudi Arabia, especially along the Red Sea, are known for their upscale resorts. These resorts often feature beautiful beachfront locations, swimming pools, water sports facilities, and other recreational activities.
  3. Serviced Apartments: In addition to traditional hotels, you can find serviced apartments in Saudi cities. These apartments offer a more home-like environment with kitchen facilities and are suitable for extended stays.
  4. Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter: If you’re visiting Riyadh, consider staying in the Diplomatic Quarter (DQ). It offers a range of accommodations, including hotels, serviced apartments, and boutique properties, in a green and peaceful setting.
  5. Historic Hotels: Some cities, like Jeddah, have beautifully restored historic hotels in the old town areas, providing a unique blend of tradition and comfort.
  6. Bed and Breakfasts: In more rural or remote areas, you may come across small bed and breakfasts or guesthouses that offer a more personalized and local experience.
  7. Desert Camps: For those exploring the desert regions, you can stay in desert camps, which offer an authentic experience of the Arabian desert, complete with traditional Bedouin-style accommodations.
  8. Budget Accommodations: If you’re traveling on a tighter budget, look for budget hotels and hostels, which are available in many urban centers.
  9. Online Booking: Use online booking platforms like Booking.com, Airbnb, and Agoda to find and book accommodations in advance. This can help you compare prices and read reviews from other travelers.
  10. Reservations during Peak Seasons: During the peak tourist seasons, especially during Hajj and Umrah, it’s essential to book accommodations well in advance due to high demand.

When choosing accommodation in Saudi Arabia, consider factors such as location, security, and amenities. It’s advisable to prioritize safety and security, especially if you’re not familiar with the area, and to follow any specific guidelines provided by your government or local authorities. Additionally, respect local customs and dress codes when staying in Saudi Arabia, especially in more conservative regions.

What to Eat? 🍽️

Saudi Arabian cuisine offers a diverse array of flavors and dishes that are a must-try for tourists seeking an authentic culinary experience. Here are some must-try Saudi Arabian foods:

  1. Kabsa: Saudi Arabia’s national dish, Kabsa, is a flavorful rice dish cooked with fragrant spices and typically served with chicken, lamb, or fish. It’s often garnished with almonds and raisins.
  2. Mandi: Similar to Kabsa, Mandi is a rice dish but is distinguished by its slow-cooked, tender meat (usually lamb) and aromatic spices.
  3. Mutabbaq: A savory pastry filled with ingredients like minced meat, vegetables, or cheese, folded and fried to perfection.
  4. Shawarma: Thinly sliced marinated meat (often chicken or beef) served in flatbread with tahini sauce, vegetables, and sometimes pickles.
  5. Falafel: Deep-fried balls or patties made from ground chickpeas or fava beans, usually served in pita bread with tahini sauce and vegetables.
  6. Harees: A hearty dish made from ground wheat and meat (typically chicken or lamb), slow-cooked to a porridge-like consistency and served with ghee (clarified butter).
  7. Kunafa: A sweet and crunchy dessert made from shredded phyllo dough layered with nuts and soaked in sugar syrup. Variations include cheese-filled Kunafa.
  8. Jareesh: A dish made from crushed and fermented wheat grains, often served with yogurt or a meat stew.
  9. Jareesh Soup: A hearty soup made from Jareesh (crushed wheat), meat, and aromatic spices.
  10. Dates: Saudi Arabia is famous for its high-quality dates. Try various types, including Ajwa and Sukkari, and savor the natural sweetness.
  11. Samboosa: Deep-fried triangular pastries filled with a mixture of meat, vegetables, and spices.
  12. Roz Bukhari: A comforting dish of slow-cooked black lentils and rice, often served with chunks of meat and a tomato-based sauce.
  13. Saleeg: A creamy rice dish made with milk, served with a white chicken sauce and flavored with cardamom.
  14. Muhalla: A traditional dessert made from date paste and tahini, often sprinkled with sesame seeds.
  15. Arabic Coffee (Gahwa) and Dates: Enjoy a traditional cup of Arabic coffee, often accompanied by sweet dates as a gesture of hospitality.
  16. Jallab: A popular non-alcoholic drink made from dates, grape molasses, and rosewater, often garnished with pine nuts and raisins.
  17. Mint Tea: A refreshing and aromatic beverage made from black tea leaves and fresh mint leaves, typically sweetened with sugar.

While dining in Saudi Arabia, you’ll find a blend of traditional and international cuisine, and many restaurants cater to various dietary preferences. Be sure to explore local markets and street food vendors to experience the full range of Saudi Arabian flavors and specialties.

What to See? 🔍

Saudi Arabia offers a wealth of cultural, historical, and natural attractions for tourists to explore. Here are some must-see places in Saudi Arabia:

  1. Mada’in Saleh (Al-Hijr): Also known as the Al-Hijr archaeological site, Mada’in Saleh features well-preserved Nabatean tombs and rock-cut structures, similar to Petra in Jordan. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a captivating glimpse into Saudi Arabia’s history.
  2. Al-Ula: A picturesque desert oasis, Al-Ula is home to stunning rock formations, including the famous Elephant Rock and the Maraya Concert Hall, the largest mirrored building in the world.
  3. Riyadh: The capital city of Saudi Arabia offers modern attractions like the King Abdulaziz Historical Center, Masmak Fortress, and the National Museum. Don’t miss the Kingdom Centre Tower for panoramic views.
  4. Jeddah: Explore the historic old town of Al-Balad with its intricate architecture and visit the iconic King Fahd Fountain, one of the world’s tallest fountains. The Corniche along the Red Sea offers beautiful views.
  5. Mecca (Makkah): As the holiest city in Islam, Mecca attracts millions of pilgrims each year. While non-Muslims are restricted from entering the city center, you can visit the outskirts and appreciate its significance from afar.
  6. Medina (Al-Madinah): Visit the Prophet’s Mosque (Al-Masjid an-Nabawi), one of the holiest sites in Islam, and explore the historical and spiritual aspects of the city.
  7. Abha: Located in the southwestern Asir region, Abha offers lush landscapes, green mountains, and a cool climate. Explore Asir National Park, the Habala Village, and the Asir Province Palace.
  8. Taif: Known for its cool climate and scenic beauty, Taif is famous for its rose gardens and the historic Shubra Palace. It’s a great place to escape the heat of other Saudi cities.
  9. Hofuf (Al-Hofuf): Explore the picturesque Al-Qara Mountain and the nearby oasis, visit the Ibrahim Palace, and wander through the old market (Souq Al-Qaisariya).
  10. Red Sea Coast: Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coastline offers stunning coral reefs and underwater marine life. Cities like Jeddah and Yanbu provide access to the Red Sea for snorkeling, diving, and beach activities.
  11. Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali): This vast desert, one of the largest in the world, offers mesmerizing sand dunes and unique desert landscapes. Guided desert safaris and camel trekking experiences are available.
  12. Al Khobar: Located on the Arabian Gulf, Al Khobar offers a more relaxed coastal experience with a vibrant dining scene, shopping malls, and the Half Moon Bay for beachgoers.
  13. Jubail: Explore the picturesque beaches, the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu’s industrial city, and the scenic King Fahd Coastal City.
  14. Asir National Park: This park in the Asir region is known for its stunning mountain scenery, including the towering Jabal Soudah peak, the highest point in Saudi Arabia.
  15. Diriyah: Visit the historic Turaif district in Diriyah, a UNESCO World Heritage site, to explore the birthplace of the Saudi state and its rich history.

Saudi Arabia’s attractions are diverse, ranging from historical sites and cities to natural wonders and cultural landmarks. When visiting, be sure to adhere to local customs and dress codes, especially in more conservative areas, and respect the cultural significance of religious sites.

What to Do? 📸

When visiting Saudi Arabia as a tourist, there are several must-do activities and experiences that will allow you to immerse yourself in the country’s rich culture, history, and natural beauty. Here are some of the top things to do in Saudi Arabia:

  1. Visit Mada’in Saleh: Explore the ancient Nabatean city of Al-Hijr (Mada’in Saleh), a UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for its rock-cut tombs and archaeological wonders.
  2. Experience Hajj and Umrah: If you’re a Muslim, consider participating in the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, two of the holiest cities in Islam.
  3. Wander Al-Balad: Discover the historic heart of Jeddah in Al-Balad, where you can stroll through narrow streets, admire traditional architecture, and visit historic souks.
  4. Explore Riyadh: Spend time in the capital city, Riyadh, where you can visit the King Abdulaziz Historical Center, the National Museum, and the vibrant Al-Masmak Fortress.
  5. Visit the Prophet’s Mosque: In Medina, visit the iconic Prophet’s Mosque (Al-Masjid an-Nabawi) and the Quba Mosque, two of the holiest sites in Islam.
  6. Experience Desert Safaris: Embark on desert safaris in the Arabian Desert, where you can enjoy sand dune bashing, camel rides, and breathtaking desert landscapes.
  7. Sample Local Cuisine: Savor traditional Saudi Arabian dishes like Kabsa, Mandi, Shawarma, and various sweet treats such as Kunafa and dates.
  8. Attend a Traditional Festival: If your visit aligns with a local festival or cultural event, don’t miss the opportunity to experience the vibrant traditions and celebrations.
  9. Explore the Red Sea Coast: Enjoy water activities like snorkeling, diving, and boat trips along the stunning Red Sea coastline in cities like Jeddah and Yanbu.
  10. Discover Al-Ula: Explore the stunning rock formations, ancient ruins, and unique architecture of Al-Ula, including the Maraya Concert Hall.
  11. Visit Taif: Escape the heat in Taif’s cooler climate and explore the city’s rose gardens, Shubra Palace, and the scenic Al Hada Road.
  12. Hike in Asir: Hike the lush, green mountains of the Asir region and visit attractions like Jabal Soudah and Habala Village.
  13. Explore Diriyah: Discover the historic Turaif district in Diriyah, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and explore the birthplace of Saudi Arabia.
  14. Experience Local Markets: Shop at local souks and markets to buy traditional handicrafts, textiles, spices, and other souvenirs.
  15. Stargazing: Enjoy clear skies and breathtaking celestial views in the desert regions, which offer excellent conditions for stargazing.
  16. Relax in Al Khobar: Unwind in Al Khobar on the Arabian Gulf coast, where you can enjoy the beaches, dine at seaside restaurants, and explore the city’s vibrant culture.
  17. Visit Historical Palaces: Explore historical palaces like the Masmak Palace in Riyadh and the Ibrahim Palace in Hofuf to learn about Saudi Arabia’s royal history.

Remember to respect local customs and adhere to cultural norms throughout your visit. It’s also important to stay informed about safety conditions and adhere to local laws and regulations to ensure a memorable and enjoyable trip to Saudi Arabia.

Culture and Safety 🦺

When traveling to Saudi Arabia as a tourist, it’s essential to be aware of the cultural norms and safety considerations to ensure a smooth and respectful visit:

Culture:

  1. Dress Modestly: Saudi Arabia follows conservative dress codes. Women should wear an abaya (a long black cloak) in public, and men should wear modest clothing. While non-Muslim women are not required to cover their hair, it’s advisable to carry a headscarf to cover if needed.
  2. Respect Religious Sites: Mecca and Medina are off-limits to non-Muslims, and there are strict rules governing access. Follow these rules and be respectful of religious customs and practices in other areas.
  3. Greeting Etiquette: When greeting someone, use the right hand, as the left is considered unclean. Common greetings include “Salaam alaykum” (peace be upon you) and “Marhaban” (hello).
  4. Public Behavior: Public displays of affection, including holding hands, are generally not allowed in public. Alcohol and public consumption of pork products are strictly prohibited.
  5. Friday Prayer: On Fridays, during the midday prayer (Jumu’ah), many businesses and services close temporarily, and there may be restrictions on movement.
  6. Ramadan: During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. As a sign of respect, tourists should not eat, drink, or smoke in public during daylight hours.

Safety:

  1. Travel Advisories: Check your government’s travel advisories for Saudi Arabia before your trip. Stay updated on any safety concerns and follow their recommendations.
  2. Respect Local Laws: Familiarize yourself with Saudi laws and regulations, which can be strict. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking it.
  3. Carry Identification: Carry identification at all times, as you may be asked for it by authorities. Keep copies of your passport and visa in a separate location.
  4. Respect Security Measures: Be prepared for security checks and screenings, especially in public places and government buildings. Cooperate with security personnel.
  5. Stay Hydrated: The desert climate can be extremely hot. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and avoid excessive sun exposure.
  6. Traffic Safety: Be cautious when crossing roads and obey traffic rules. Road safety can be a concern, so use seatbelts and exercise caution while driving.
  7. Health Precautions: Check if any vaccinations or health precautions are required before your trip. Medical facilities in Saudi Arabia are generally of high quality.
  8. Emergency Contacts: Know the local emergency numbers, contact information for your embassy or consulate, and have a plan for emergencies.
  9. Local Customs: Respect local customs and traditions. Ask for permission before taking photos of people, especially women and religious figures.
  10. Online Communication: Be aware that internet usage and online communication may be monitored. Avoid posting sensitive or controversial content.

While Saudi Arabia is opening up to tourism, it’s still a conservative country with strict rules. It’s important to exercise cultural sensitivity, respect local customs, and follow the laws and regulations to ensure a safe and enjoyable visit. Additionally, staying informed about the latest developments and security conditions is crucial for your safety.

Conclusion

In conclusion, a visit to Saudi Arabia offers tourists an extraordinary opportunity to explore a land of contrasts and timeless beauty. From the futuristic cities to the ancient historical sites, and the warm hospitality of its people, Saudi Arabia promises an enriching and diverse travel experience. As the Kingdom continues to open up to international visitors, it beckons travelers to discover its unique culture, natural wonders, and vibrant future.