From its stunning coasts along the Red Sea, to its vast dunes and magical expanses of sand, to its populous cities of skyscrapers and megamalls, Saudi Arabia is a nation that offers visitors a vast range of sites and venues to see. As the Kingdom irons out the details of its first-ever tourist visa, rumored to be issued by the end of this month (which means it will probably fall around the time of the country’s National Day, September 23), we’re taking a look at some of the country’s top destinations:
1. Al-Balad, Center of Jeddah
In the heart of the old city is Al Balad, founded in the 7th century and historically the center of Jeddah. Now a UNESCO's World Heritage Site, Al Balad is known for its historical coral buildings and traditional souks. On the gates of one of the oldest cemeteries in the neighborhood is a sign that reads “Our Mother Eve.” There is a tomb believed by many to be the burial place of Eve (as in Adam and Eve). Stroll through its streets to take in the still awe-inspiring architecture, colorful shops, old mosques, cafes, and centuries-old history.
2. Taif, Outside Jeddah
A 3-hour drive outside the city of Jeddah is Taif, also known by locals as “The City of Roses,” due to the many nearby orchards that hold the most fragrant of roses. The main city of Taif has a few key locations worth checking out, from its historic wall to its museums. If you venture outside the main city, you’ll also discover Taif’s cool mountains, which are home to an unlikely group that draw in tourists all year round: wild baboons! Visitors have been warned to not feed them, though, as they have become dependent on humans for food, moving closer to villages and cities, so while there, keep this in mind.
3. Al Hada, Mecca Province
Located 2,000 meters above sea level in the mountainous region of Saudi Arabia’s Mecca Province is Al Hada, a favorite destination for locals and holidaymakers that overlooks the striking Tihama plains and is surrounded by majestic mountains. The city is renowned for its winding roads and climate that varies from 45 to 20 degrees Celsius, depending on the time of the year. It is also popular for the range of activities it offers, from picnics to walks in its park, hikes to mountain climbing, fresh fruits sold by the roadside to a wide variety of rose-based products. Al Hada also has some of the country’s best honeys, as well as almond and olive plantations.
4. Rawdat Khuraim, North of Riyadh
One of its must-see locations is the famous King’s Forest, or Rawdat Khuraim, a green oasis in the middle of the desert. It is known as the King’s Forest because King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz has a private farm there where he usually goes for a spring retreat. Rawdat Khuraim has been described by many as a beautiful expanse of wildlife about 100 kilometers, and is home to a diversity of flora and fauna. Indeed, it serves as a sanctuary for various rare species such as gazelles and is a haven for ornithologists. The location is divided into two sections: one area that is accessible to public and the other, the wildlife park, with restricted entry in order to preserve the nature and wildlife. The best time to visit is spring, as in the summertime vegetation becomes sparse due to the scorching heat.
5. Fifa Mountains, Southernmost Jizan
Fifa Mountains, also known as Jebel Fayfa, Feyfa, or Faifa, if fondly referred to by locals by its several nicknames, such as “Neighbor of the Moon,” “Heavens of the Earth,” and “Magical Fifa,” and it’s easy to see why. Rising 2,600 meters above sea level, this lush green stretch of stunning peaks is located in the southernmost region of Jizan close to Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen, part of Al-Sarawat mountain range that runs parallel to the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Located just 60 kilometers from the Red Sea, Fifa attracts around one million visitors each year to its slopes. Not only is it green and serene, it features beautiful terraces built over centuries in order to allow agriculture to develop in this fertile but steep land.
6. Farasan Islands, Off The Coast Of Jazan
On the Red Sea, off the coast of the port city of Jazan, are the Farasan Islands, an archipelago comprising 84 islands boasting stunning coral reefs and pristine stretches of shoreline. Its main island is called Farasan as well, and around 300 kilometers southwest of Farasan lies the Eritrean port of Massawa. Every, year visitors make the journey to the islands using the free daily shuttle service or speed boats departing from Jizan, to enjoy clear blue waters, white beaches, abundant marine life, stunning terrains, and historical sites. The islands are home to a large number of birds such as the osprey, sooty falcon, pink-backed pelican, red-billed tropic bird, white-eyed gull, crab plover, and flamingos, and the main island is a natural reserve for Arabian gazelles.
7. The Sharaan Nature Reserve, Al Ula
Although still under development, Sharaan is a destination many in the Kingdom are looking forward to visiting. It was announced last year as part of a series of major strategic projects being carried out by the Royal Commission of For Al Ula (RCU), designed to be a 925-square kilometer space in the middle of Al Ula’s rocky landscape and archaeologically rich surroundings. The project also includes the establishment of a fund entitled The Global Fund for the Arabian Leopard that will be used to ensure that Sharaan becomes a suitable area for releasing and reintroducing the Arabian Leopard, as well as protecting it. The park already has some impressive residents, such as Nubian ibexes, red-necked ostriches, and Idmi gazelles.