Saudi Arabia Travel Guide
Welcome to the taste2travel Saudi Arabia Travel Guide!
Date Visited: October 2019
For most of its history, Saudi Arabia was ‘the impossible country’ to visit. While business travellers and religious pilgrims were able to secure visas, tourist visas were almost impossible to obtain. On the 28th of September 2019 everything changed, with the country introducing its new, simplified, tourist e-Visa.
The launch of the e-Visa was accompanied by a media advertising blitz which appeared on social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, on the internet and on international news networks such as BBC and CNN.
Known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, overnight, the most reclusive and mysterious country in the world became one of the most accessible, with multiple-entry, 12-month visas being issued just seven minutes after submitting an application. The visa application process, which I’ve fully documented here, is very straight-forward and easy.
Why the change in policy?
Due to its oil wealth, the Kingdom had never needed to trouble itself with tourism. However, Saudi Vision 2030, a strategic plan created by the de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), calls for the country to reduce its dependence on oil by tapping extra revenue sources and privatising many government agencies. The opening of the country to tourism and the IPO of Saudi Aramco is part of Vision 2030.
The Saudi plan is not unique within the region, with similar ‘Vision 2030’ plans currently being implemented by Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar, all of which have the common goal of reducing each country’s dependence on oil revenue. Oman has a similar plan, but has given itself 10 additional years, with its Oman Vision 2040.
What’s it like to Travel in Saudi Arabia?
This guide describes a coast-to-coast road trip which I made in a rental car, driving 1,451 km from the Red Sea port city of Jeddah to the Arabian Gulf city of Dammam. Saudi Arabia is full of interesting and diverse sights.
Video: Driving into Riyadh from the west.
The Kingdom has now opened its doors to tourism and, while I didn’t meet any other travellers during my time in the country, now is a good time to visit, before the hordes arrive.
The Saudis are very warm, curious, friendly and welcoming and are rolling out the red carpet for tourists. Travelling in the country is very easy and straight-forward and is made even more agreeable thanks to excellent infrastructure, competitively priced accommodation and ample restaurants – all of which are detailed in the relevant sections below.
I arrived at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah and can attest that the immigration process was one of the most pleasant experiences anywhere in the world (see the ‘Visa Requirements‘ section below for more details).
There are some special social considerations which are unique to Saudi – these are outlined in the ‘Saudi Society‘ section below.
Breaking News – Saudi Arabia Opening the Door to More Tourists
On the 10th of January 2020, the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage (SCTH) announced that visitors can now use existing UK, US, and Schengen-area country visas to obtain a Saudi Arabia visitor visa at airport arrival halls – regardless of their citizenship.
Visitors intending to benefit from the new regulation must have previously used the visa to travel to any one of the listed Schengen countries, the UK or the US before entering Saudi Arabia.
As per the announcement: “Recipients of tourist or commercial visas to these countries can now enter the Kingdom and receive the tourist visa only through the visa upon arrival method and are not included in the e-visa”.
Located in the geographical heart of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the region, occupying 80% of the Arabian Peninsula.
Bordered by Jordan to the north, Iraq to the northeast, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on the east, Oman on the southeast, and Yemen to the south, Saudi Arabia is 95% desert and is comprised mostly of flat, barren land-forms.
An exception to this are the soaring Sarawat mountains, which run parallel to the Red Sea. The Sarawat range is home to the country’s highest peaks, including Jabal Sawda, the highest at 3,000 metres (9,843 feet) above sea level. The range drops abruptly on the western side toward the Red Sea, leaving the narrow coastal plain of Tihamah.
The country is bordered by the Red Sea to the west and the Arabian Gulf to the northeast and sits on the Arabia Plate, which separated from the Africa Plate 25 million years ago, forming the Red Sea Rift.
Of the 22 countries which comprise the Arab League, Saudi Arabia is the second largest (in terms of area), after Algeria. The majority (90%) of Saudi citizens are ethnically Arab, with most being descendants of tribal Bedouins. The remaining 10% of the population are Afro-Asian. Saudi society is largely urban, with 80% of Saudis living in ten major urban centres, which are:
1 Riyadh – population 6,506,700
2 Jeddah – 3,976,400
3 Mecca – 1,919,900
4 Medina – 1,271,800
5 Hofuf – 1,136,900
6 Taif – 1,109,800
7 Dammam – 975,800
8 Buraida – 658,600
9 Khobar – 626,200
10 Tabuk – 609,000
Outside of these centres, the country consists of large expanses of empty, arid desert.
The country is also home to a large, mostly-male, Muslim, workforce of expatriate ‘guest workers’, from Egypt, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. It’s estimated that these immigrants comprise 37% of the total Saudi population. Additionally, there are an estimated 100,000 Westerners in Saudi Arabia, most of whom live in private compounds.
It’s estimated that there are around 800,000 camels roaming the deserts of Saudi Arabia. All highways are lined with camel-proof fences to prevent these desert nomads from straying onto the highways. In many places you can stop your car, approach the fence and find yourself surrounded by a small herd of curious, friendly camels. Not once was I spat at!
The camels of Saudi Arabia are dromedaries, which is the largest of the three different types of camel. The species’ distinctive features include its long, curved neck, narrow chest and a single hump.
Saudi Arabia is an autocratic, absolute monarchy, with the King serving as head of state and head of government. The first King of Saudi Arabia was King Abdulaziz (known in the West as Ibn Saud), who, in 1902, conducted a raid on Al Masmak fort in Riyadh, defeating the Ottomans. From Riyadh, King Abdulaziz reunited all Saudi lands, forming modern day Saudi Arabia.
Since his rule, all Saudi Kings have been sons of King Abdulaziz. Following is a list of Kings of Saudi Arabia (1932 – present):
- King Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud) – ruled from 1932 – 1953
- King Saud (Saud bin Abdulaziz): ruled from 1953 – 1964
- King Faisal (Faisal bin Abdulaziz): ruled from 1964 – 1975
- King Khalid (Khalid bin Abdulaziz): ruled from 1975 – 1982
- King Fahd (Fahd bin Abdulaziz): ruled from 1982 – 2005
- King Abdullah (Abdullah bin Abdulaziz): ruled from 2005 – 2015
- King Salman (Salman bin Abdulaziz): ruled from 2015 – present
Due to the autocratic nature of the government, national elections and political parties are not permitted. Politics in Saudi Arabia takes places within the Royal family and between the Royal family and the rest of Saudi society. The Saudi government is rated by various international agencies as ‘authoritarian’.
The current ruler of Saudi Arabia is King Salman. His son, 34-year old, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), is considered the de-facto ruler and has recently led many, modernising, reforms within the country, which has made him very popular among younger, more progressive Saudis.
Reforms have included the introduction of regulations restricting the powers of the religious police, who are now largely confined to their barracks. The removal of the ban on female drivers in June of 2018, the weakening of the restrictive ‘male-guardianship‘ system which requires a female to obtain permission from their male guardian for activities such as getting a job, travelling internationally or getting married.
MbS has also stated that woman no longer need to cover their hair or wear the all-covering Abaya, although almost all women continue to wear the abaya as this has been the cultural norm for generations. While the abaya remains the norm, a small number of woman are choosing not to cover their hair. While largely popular at home, MbS has as also engendering a number of controversies, including the 2017 arrest of members of the Saudi royal family and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, which resulted in international condemnation.
Saudi society could generally be described as deeply religious, conservative, traditional, and family-oriented. There are many limitations and prohibitions on behaviour and dress which are strictly enforced both legally and socially, often more so than in other Muslim countries.
However, many of the traditional restrictions have been lifting recently, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), including allowing women to drive, removing the requirement for woman to cover their hair (I would estimate 20% of woman are currently choosing not to cover their hair) and even talk of removing the requirement of woman wearing the all-covering Abeya.
Some of the considerations when travelling in Saudi Arabia include the following:
All establishments stop their operations during prayer times, which is five times a day. Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim country that imposes such a requirement.
If you’re at a shopping mall, an announcement will be made 15 minutes before prayer time, advising that the mall will be closing. If you are driving a car you will not be able to fill up during prayer time as all petrol stations also close. All businesses are required to close with the closure lasting between 30-40 minutes. While all doors are locked and curtains drawn during pray times, if you’re already in a café or restaurant, you will be allowed to finish your meal, coffee etc.
It seemed my body clock was perfectly in tune with the pray schedule since every time I decided to head to a café or restaurant, the call to pray rang out over town, closing everything down.
A good way to keep track of pray times is with an app such as Muslim Pro which allows you to view the prayer times at your precise location.
Intermingling of the Sexes
Rules exist in Saudi society which restrict mingling between males and females. Restaurants, fast-food chains and coffee houses, such as Starbucks, are all partitioned into two sections, one for ‘single‘ males and the other for ‘families‘. When entering a restaurant, you should first ensure you are entering through the correct door. I once, accidentally, entered a restaurant using the ‘family’ entrance and was quickly directed back outside so I could enter into the ‘singles’ section.
As illustrated in the image above, this McDonald’s restaurant in Riyadh has clear signage, plus a dividing wall, to avoid any confusion. Inside the restaurant, the partition wall continues to the counter, ensuring you cannot peer into the other half of the restaurant. It’s all about ensuring there’s no unnecessary ‘mingling’.
Despite its name, the ‘Singles’ section isn’t a happy-go-lucky singles club but is for single males. It is sometimes given the more appropriate label of “Bachelor’s section”. The family section is for any families, couples or single woman.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, one being the numerous coffee roasting cafés whose clientele are mostly young, progressive Saudis. In these establishments, there is no partition and you are free to sit anywhere you like.
What to Wear
Everyone in Saudi Arabia is fully covered, including foreigners. Woman wear the (usually black) Abeya while men wear the (always white) Thobe. While it is culturally acceptable for men to wear t-shirts with long trousers, most Saudi men choose to wear the Thobe. While I travelled through the country, I wore a pair of jeans and a shirt.
Most foreign woman I saw wore the Abeya (without the headscarf) and while Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) has indicated that woman no longer need to wear the Abeya (but need to dress modestly and respectfully), breaking this ingrained, cultural habit is not easy, with 99% of woman still choosing to cover up.
The flag of Saudi Arabia features an Islamic inscription, or shahada (an Islamic declaration of faith) in white, which is on set on a background of green, a colour which represents Islam. The shahada reads “There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”
The flag is manufactured with identical obverse and reverse sides, to ensure the shahada reads correctly, from right to left, from either side. A white sword symbolises the importance of the inscription by underlining it and also stands for the strictness in applying justice, under Sharia law.
Because the shahada is considered holy, the flag is never flown at half-mast, nor is it used to adorn trinkets, souvenirs, T-shirts or other items. In one famous controversy, regarding (unintentional) misuse of the flag, US troops in Afghanistan, in 2007, distributed FIFA World Cup soccer balls to Afghan children, which featured the flags of World Cup participant countries, including the Saudi flag. This led to demonstrations in Afghanistan, where the US was accused of insulting Islam. Saudi officials said that kicking the shahada with the foot was completely unacceptable.
The currency of Saudi Arabia is the riyal, which is issued by the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority. The riyal is pegged to the United States dollar at a rate of $1 USD = 3.75 SAR with notes issued in denominations of 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 riyals and coins issued in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 halalas and bimetallic 1 and 2 riyal coins.
The current version of the riyal note (series #6), features a portrait of the monarch, King Salman. Also, in circulation is note series #5, which features a portrait of the previous monarch, King Abdullah.
Suggested daily budgets:
- Backpacker: Up to 450 SAR (USD$120) per day.
- Flashpacker: Between 450 – 1,000 SAR (USD$120 – 266) per day.
- Top End: 1,000 SAR + (USD$266 +) per day
- Coca Cola (0.33 litre bottle): 2.55 SAR (US$0.68)
- Water (0.33 litre bottle): 1 SAR (US$0.27)
- Cappuccino (IDMI Coffee Roasting Company, Riyadh): 14 SAR (US$3.73)
- Car Rental (Hertz): 98 SAR (US$26.00)
- Litre of fuel: SAR 1.52 (US$0.41)
- Local Bus Ticket: 3 SAR (USD$0.80)
- Meal (inexpensive restaurant): 20 SAR (US$5.33)
- Meal for 2 (mid-range restaurant): 100 SAR (US$26.50)
- Combo meal at McDonald’s: 20 SAR (US$5.33)
- Room in a mid-range hotel (Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel Jeddah): 300 SAR (US$80)
- Room in a top-end hotel (Ritz-Carlton Jeddah): 1000 SAR (US$265)
One of the first things I purchase when I arrive in a new destination is a local SIM card and if you plan to use Google maps or Waze for navigation, or request the occasional Uber, then a local SIM card is indispensable.
The best network coverage is offered by the state monopoly, Saudi Telecom Company (STC), who offer a range of reasonably priced plans. In addition to the cost of the plan, each SIM card costs 30 SAR. As with everything in Saudi, you will need to present your passport and e-Visa when purchasing your SIM.
From the pristine coral reefs of the Red Sea, to the numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, to the towering Sarawat mountains, to the vast desert plains, Saudi Arabia is an incredibly diverse travel destination, full of incredible sights which have hardly been explored by tourists. Now is a great time to visit the Kingdom!
Local Tour Operator
Whenever I arrive in a new destination, I arrive sans itinerary, preferring to create an itinerary once I have consulted local tourist information centres and other specialists. Currently in Saudi, there are no tourist information offices, these are yet to be developed – Google image search is your best friend!
I was however very fortunate to bump into a local tour operator, Saleh, while in a café in Jeddah who sat down and mapped out a suitable itinerary for my road trip across the country. His suggestions opened my eyes to places I had no idea about. If you would like to organise any part of your Saudi trip through an established, local operator, then I would totally recommend contacting Saleh Altassan who is the owner of Peninsula Caravans, a tour company based in Jeddah but a company that organises tours throughout the Kingdom.
Of all the destinations I visited in Saudi Arabia, Jeddah was my favourite. An historic crossroads of pilgrims and traders, and the traditional gateway to Mecca, Jeddah is the most fascinating of Saudi Arabia’s major cities, with a cosmopolitan and liberal air which is unique in this ultraconservative country.
Said to be the place where the mother of humanity, ‘Eve’, was laid to rest, Jeddah has existed since at least the time of Alexander the Great, who visited the city between 323 and 356 BC.
Founded in the 7th century, the historic district of Al Balad (translates as ‘The Town‘), is the highlight of Jeddah, one which was recently registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The narrow streets of the old town are lined with antique homes which are constructed from Red Sea, coral-stone, blocks.
A standout feature of the houses of Al-Balad are the Hejazi mashrabiyya, colourful, wooden lattice covers which enclose all windows and balconies, allowing hot air to escape while keeping a house cool and allowing occupants to look out while blocking any prying eyes.
The entire old town is very much in a state of disrepair. The government has selected 450 buildings which will be renovated during a renovation program which is currently ongoing.
Tucked away in a small courtyard behind Nasseef house in Al-Balad, the Zawia 97 workshop is the brain child of one local, passionate artist, Ahmad Angawi, who is busy training students (mostly female) the art of woodworking with the aim of creating beautiful examples of Hejazi Mashrabiyya, the lattice work which can be found on all buildings in Al-Balad.
Originally from Mecca, Ahmad now calls Jeddah home and has found world-wide acclaim through his artwork. He recently created intricate wooden screens for an Islamic gallery at the British Museum in London. A short biography of Ahmed can be seen on YouTube.
The screens, which are constructed from Indian mahogany, are made without nails and glue, requiring precise cuts, with each screen fitting together like a large wooden jigsaw.
Constructed between 1872 and 1881, Nasseef house is one of Jeddah’s best-restored old coral houses and lies at the heart of the Al-Balad district.
Built by a local wealthy merchant, and governor of Jeddah, Omar Nasseef Efendi, the house was used as a base by Abdulaziz Ibn Saud when he entered the city in December 1925, after the siege of Jeddah.
As of 2009, the house has served as a museum and cultural centre but is currently in a state of disrepair and was closed for renovation at the time of my visit.
In the 7th Century, Jeddah was established as both a major port for Indian Ocean trade routes, and the entry point for Muslim pilgrims who arrived by sea on their way to the religious city of Mecca.
All pilgrims would have passed through Bab Makkah, which marked the start of the road from Jeddah to Mecca. The current gate is a re-creation.
Located on King Abdullah Square, the 170-metre high Jeddah flagpole is the highest flagpole in the world. A huge double-sided Saudi Arabian flag, measuring 49.5 metres (162 ft) by 33 metres (108 ft) and weighing 570 kilograms was raised for the first time on the 23rd of September 2014, as part of Saudi Arabia National Day celebrations.
Did you know? The 2nd highest flagpole (165-metres) is located in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (click on the link to read my Tajikistan Travel Guide, which features the flagpole).
The place to be in the evening is the wonderful Corniche, a stretch of Red Sea coastline which has been transformed into a pleasant walkway and leisure space. The Corniche is lined with benches and picnic shelters, where locals relax and watch the blazing sun set into the Red Sea.
Al Rahma Mosque
Located at the northern end of the Corniche, Al Rahma Mosque (aka the Floating mosque) sits on stilts and seemingly ‘floats’ on the Red Sea. The beach alongside the mosque is a favourite gathering place for local families at sunset.
King Fahd’s Fountain
Also located on the Corniche, King Fahd’s Fountain is the tallest fountain in the world, jetting water to a maximum height of 260 metres. The fountain was donated to the city by King Fahd and was constructed between 1980 and 1983 and launched in 1985. The fountain does not operate during the day but is activated at 6 pm each evening and is best viewed from the Corniche.
North Coast Beaches
A short drive north of Jeddah, the Red Sea coast is lined with private beach resorts which are hidden away behind high security walls.
One of the most popular is the Silver Sands resort which is very popular with ex-pats and more liberal, young Saudis. The resort is totally hidden away behind a white, unmarked concrete wall which isolates it from the outside world.
To enter the resort, I had to leave my passport with the security guard, who sits in an unmarked booth at the main gate. It’s all so hush-hush that while Google directed me to the general neighbourhood, I had to stop and ask a local shopkeeper for the exact location, there is no signage anywhere!
To enter the resort, I had to pay a hefty SAR 150 admission fee which entitled me to use the beautiful beach and facilities. For the price, you get to relax as you would on any other beach in the world. This is the only place in Saudi Arabia where I saw females (including Saudis) relaxing in bikinis. While inside the resort, it was hard to believe I was in ultraconservative Saudi Arabia.
As part of its tourism drive, the government is planning to develop a luxury Red Sea resort which is known as The Red Sea Project.
While all areas of Saudi Arabia are now open to tourists, the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina are off-limits to non-Muslims. Police checkpoints on all access roads into the cities ensure that non-Muslims do not enter the ‘Haram‘ zone, an area around Mecca and Medina which is only accessible to Muslims.
Non-Muslim Bypass Road
The main east-west highway (route 80M), which crosses the country from Jeddah to Dammam via Riyadh, passes through the centre of Mecca.
However, Non-Muslims must take the longer and slower (but also very scenic) route 298 which makes a circuitous detour, deep into the desert, to the south of Mecca. This detour adds more than 100-km to the journey between Jeddah to Taif.
Red signage on the highway will direct you onto the bypass road, even while your navigational app (Google Maps or Waze) will be directing you to stay on the main highway.
You must turn-off before entering the city limits to avoid any problems at the police checkpoint.
Route 298 is lined with a variety of camouflaged speed cameras, with some installed inside beige-coloured housing and placed in front of beige-coloured rock walls or others installed in grey-coloured housing, sitting alongside grey-coloured guard rails. The road is normally empty of traffic and has a low speed limit. Beware and don’t forget to smile for the camera!
Despite the access restriction, there is one sight in Mecca which welcomes Non-Muslim visitors, the Al-Amoudi Museum (aka The Vertical Museum), which has been deliberately located one kilometre outside the city limits, making it accessible to all.
Named after its founder, Abu Bakr Al-Amoudi, the highlight of this fascinating museum is a treasure trove of relics from the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam which is located at the centre of Islam’s most important mosque, the Great Mosque of Mecca.
The collection of relics includes the gold-plated ‘Meezab-e-Rahmah‘ which drains water from the roof of the Kaaba. Other relics from the Kaaba include gold-plated door locks, holy textiles which once covered the Kaaba, speaker systems and much more.
While viewing this fascinating collection, I was struck by the ironic fact that, while, as a Non-Muslim, I’m not able to enter Mecca, and will never get to see the Kaaba, here in this small museum, I could get up close to the holiest of objects from the most important mosque in the Islamic world.
Apart from the display of Kaaba relics, the museum contains numerous mud-brick structures which house exhibits that showcase Saudi heritage, culture and traditions.
Access: The museum is located on a service road which runs alongside the main highway (M80), just 1-km from the twin arches which cross the highway and indicate the entrance to Mecca. The police checkpoint lies just beyond the arches, if you’re not a Muslim, you should avoid reaching the checkpoint.
If you enter the museum name into your navigation app, you will be directed here without getting into any trouble. If approaching Mecca from Jeddah, the exit to the museum, from the highway, is the final exit before the twin arches. From the service road, you can drive up to the arches.
When I arrived at the museum, the main gate was closed, but a sign on the gate provided a phone number (Tel: 0555043044) which I dialled. I spoke to the caretaker, Naeem, who was onsite and quickly opened the gate. There was no admission fee and Naeem insisted on providing me with a guided tour which was very informative. At the end of the tour, I was handed a refreshingly cold apple juice by his assistant – Fazad.
After leaving Mecca, the main highway (M80) enters the spectacular Sarawat mountains, climbing 1,981 metres (6,500 feet) in 21 km through 93 tight bends.
Formed by plate tectonics, and home to the highest peaks in the Kingdom, the Sarawat mountains runs along the western edge of Saudi Arabia, with the eastern side gently sloping into the interior of the country while the western side descends dramatically onto a coastal plain which extends to the Red Sea.
Perched on top of the Sarawat range, at an elevation of 1,975 metres (6,479 feet), the town of Al Hada (means ‘The Tranquillity’) is a popular resort town within Makkah Province. Offering numerous hotels, restaurants and amusements, the highlight of Al Hada is the Taif Cable car which connects Al Hada with a water park, which is located in the lower village of Al-Kurr.
Known locally as the Telefric, the cable car, which departs from the Ramada hotel in Al Hada, covers a distance of 4.5 km with the journey in each direction lasting 30 minutes and a return ticket costing SAR 80.
Located in the Sarawat mountains, at 1,700 metres above sea level, Taif (population: 580,000) has always served as the summer capital for the Saudi Royal family. With its temperate climate, the city is refreshingly cool compared to most other places in Saudi Arabia.
The city lies within Mecca province and draws hordes of Saudi tourists, who come to relax in the cool climate, explore the many parks of the city, hike in the surrounding mountains and enjoy the many amusement parks, which can be found along the highway between Al Hada and Taif.
Taif is renowned for its agriculture, pomegranates, grapes and roses – not just any rose but a powerful oil-rich, 30-petal, damask rose which is used to make a famous local perfume.
It’s believed the rose was first introduced into the area by the Ottomans from the Balkan region, the rose is apparently very similar to a famous Bulgarian variety. The rose business is big in Taif, with numerous shops pedalling the fragrant perfume. Each year, during the rose harvest (May to July), the city plays host to the Taif Rose Festival. If you wish to see how the roses are processed, the best place in town is the Al Gadhi Rose Factory.
Most buildings in Taif could be described as modern and ugly, however, rising up out of the architectural bleakness is the beautiful Shubra Palace which once served as a Royal residence. Originally built in 1905, the Palace was once used as a residence by King Abdul Aziz and King Faisal but now serves as the city’s museum.
At the time of my visit the museum was closed for renovation and I was advised by the director, who invited me into his office to join him for tea, that the museum will be closed for at least the next 6 months, and maybe longer. No doubt the interior is resplendent but for now, the beautiful exterior, with its ornate latticework windows and balconies, can be admired from the street.
Al Rudaf Park
Located on the southern outskirts of town, Al Rudaf Park is possibly the best park in a city which boasts many fine green spaces. This large, sprawling park is located in a dessert landscape which features mounds of large granite boulders. The landscape gardeners have woven a green park, pathways, a large water feature and various restaurants around the giant mounds.
The park is especially popular in the evening when families throng to enjoy the cool air, occasional fireworks and entertainment options.
The capital and largest city of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh (population: 5,200,000) is considered one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Located (almost) in the centre of the country, this large, sprawling, bustling metropolis is built atop a desert plateau.
The following video shows the view from highway M80 on approach to Riyadh from the west, at the point where the highway climbs up onto the plateau on which the capital is built.
It was in Riyadh in 1902 that Ibn Saud led a successful raid on Al Masmak fortress, defeating the Ottoman occupiers. From this foothold, Ibn Saud was able to eventually expel the Ottomans from the remaining Saudi lands, thereby creating the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With the help of the Americans, the Saudi government then discovered vast oil reserves and the rest is history.
The city is home to several cultural sights and is currently undergoing a major infrastructure transformation with the construction of the huge Riyadh metro (see the ‘Getting Around‘ section for more details).
Riyadh has long had a reputation, in Saudi, for being more conservative than other cities, however the winds of change currently sweeping the nation are also affecting the capital. I saw many women choosing not to cover their hair, although all still insist on wearing the Abeya.
Riyadh recently hosted the country’s very first music festival, where a female singer, Nicki Minaj, performed live for the first time in Saudi history.
Al Masmak Fortress
Located in the historic district of Riyadh, Al Masmak Fortress is a clay and mud-brick fort, with four watchtowers, which was built in 1865 under the reign of Mohammed ibn Abdullah ibn Rasheed, a Saudi ruler who had, earlier, wrestled control of Riyadh from the Al Saud clan.
In 1902, the exiled Amir, Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman bin Faisal Al Saud, returned from Kuwait to his ancestral hometown, Riyadh, and led a siege on the fortress. Using a small army of men, he was able to overthrow the small garrison in what has become known as the ‘Battle of Riyadh‘. It was a significant victory. From Riyadh, Ibn Saud went on to conquer the different kingdoms of the region, before eventually uniting them to form what is now the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The fortress (open every day except Friday) serves as a museum, with various diwans (living rooms) converted to display exhibits which include maps and photographs of Saudi Arabia from 1912 to 1937.
Located alongside Al Masmak fortress is Deera Square which is a seemingly normal, almost pleasant public space – until you consider its alternate name – Chop Chop square.
It is here that public executions (be-headings) take place after Friday noon prayers, when police, and other officials, clear the area in the centre of the square to make way for executions to take place. After the beheading of the condemned, the head is stitched to the body which is wrapped up and taken away for the final rites.
At one end of the square, a beige-brick building serves as the headquarters of the ‘Mutawwa‘, Saudi Arabia’s religious police. Once powerful, the Mutawwa have largely been confined to barracks under the rule of MbS.
What’s it like to be a state executioner in Saudi Arabia? You can read an interview with an executioner here.
Located a short drive from Al Masmak fortress, the National Museum of Saudi Arabia is the largest museum in the country. Displays covering the history, culture, fauna and flora of the Kingdom are arranged over two floors, with the second floor devoted mostly to the history and development of Islam.
If you’re interested in gaining an overview of what the country has to offer, in terms of sights and history, the museum makes for a great first stop.
Rising 302 metres above the streets of Riyadh, the Kingdom Centre offers the best views in town. Also known as ‘The bottle-opener’, the tower includes a unique sky bridge on its 99th floor, which is reached via two lifts which travel at 180-km/h. Crossing the bridge can be a confronting challenge for anyone who suffers from vertigo. The best time to visit is shortly before dusk (best to ascend around 4 pm).
Tickets (SAR 63 and payable only in cash) can be purchased from the ticket desk which is located on the 2nd floor of the centre shopping mall.
Once the sunsets, the bridge is illuminated with constantly changing coloured lights which make for surreal photography.
Al Faisaliah Tower
Not to be outdone, the nearby Al Faisaliah Tower is a commercial skyscraper located a few kilometres down the road from Kingdom Centre. The tower was designed by Norman Foster and partners and built by the Bin Laden construction company. When it opened in 2000, the 267-metre-high skyscraper was the tallest building in Saudi Arabia.
The Globe Experience offers fine dining with the best views of Riyadh from inside the huge golden glass ball which sits atop the tower. The ball is constructed from 655 glass panels and accommodates a 3-level restaurant.
The original historic district of Riyadh, Al Turaif is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located on the north-western outskirts of the city, this historic neighbourhood is centre around an oasis which is home to green parks and gardens.
At the time of my visit, most of the district was inaccessible, surrounded by construction barricades, behind which an army of guest workers toiled away to prepare the sight for the Riyadh Formula-E motor race which is held on the 3rd weekend of November.
Located 327 km east of Riyadh, Al Hofuf (population: 150,000) is the main urban centre inside the sprawling Al-Ahsa Oasis, the largest oasis in the world, which is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site – the 5th site to be registered in Saudi Arabia.
Al Hofuf is a major Saudi cultural centre and has many cultural and heritage sites, including Ibrahim Palace. The larger oasis is home to an estimated 2.5 million date palms, which are irrigated from a huge underground aquifer via 60 artesian springs. The oasis is known for being one of the largest date production areas in the world.
Apart from the cultivation of dates, the aquifer allows for year-round agricultural production of fruits and vegetables in what would otherwise be a desert. The roads throughout the oasis are lined with stands selling fresh, local produce, a rarity in Saudi Arabia.
Due to its abundance of water, the oasis has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Al Hofuf, whose name translates as ‘whistling of the wind‘, is home to several historic sights which make this a compulsory stop for anyone interested in Saudi history and culture.
The region is also home to some of the richest oil fields in the world, including the Ghawar field which holds an estimated 70 billion barrels of oil, making it by far the world’s biggest onshore oil field.
Located in the heart of Al Hofuf, Qasr Ibrahim (Ibrahim Palace) is an architectural gem which was built in 1556 during the Ottoman era to serve as both an Islamic building and a military fortress.
The palace served as a Turkish military barracks and was the the main headquarters of the Ottoman garrison in the Al-Ahsa Oasis. The walled compound includes the beautiful Al-Qubba mosque, an Ottoman prison, an ammunition store and Turkish baths.
Opening times: On the day I visited, the palace door was locked, despite a sign indicating that it should have been open. A friendly local informed me that the door is opened each evening at exactly 5 pm to allow worshippers to enter the Al-Qubba mosque for sunset prayers. Sure enough – at 5 pm, the guardian arrived and unlocked the door, allowing me, and a small group of worshippers, to enter. There were no other visitors, the evening light was magical – it was all very surreal.
Located in the village of Al-Kilabiyah, about 12 km northeast of Al Hofuf, Jawatha mosque was the earliest known mosque built in eastern Arabia and is, reputedly, the second mosque that Prophet Muhammad ever prayed at during the Friday prayer, with the first prayer being held at the Prophets mosque in Medina.
The mosque, which is considered to be one of the holiest sites in Islam, was built in 629 AD. The original mud structure fell into ruin long ago and has since been rebuilt based on the design of Al Masmak fort in Riyadh.
The interior of the mosque, which is open to visitors, is comprised of three, small, rectangular rooms.
Al Qarah Mountain
Located 15 km north-east of Al Hofuf, Jabal Qarah (Al Qarah Mountain) is an outlining mesa which covers an area of 1,400 hectares and consists of sedimentary (limestone) rocks towering 70 metres high.
Over millennia, this porous mountain has been eroded by wind and water which has resulted in a series of cool, tight cavities and narrow passages being carved out of the rocks.
The site has been renovated and is accessed through a visitors’ centre (open from 8 am to 6 pm) with an entrance ticket costing SAR 50.
The capital and throbbing heart of the Eastern Province, Dammam (population: 768,602), along with Al Khobar and Dhahran form the greater Dammam metropolitan area, the 3rd largest urban area in Saudi Arabia with an estimated population of over 4,100,000.
Dammam is where Saudi Arabia’s oil story began in the early part of the last century, when America discovered oil here and a partnership between the two nations began. Dammam today is the centre of the Saudi oil industry and is home to a large community of ex-pats who work for the state oil company – Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company and the most profitable company in the world.
Frequent buses connect Dammam to the neighbouring cities and Bahrain (see the ‘Getting There‘ section below for more), making this a popular exit and entry point into the country.
One of the highlights of Dammam lies on Tarout island, which is located 22-km to the north of Dammam. The island was once part of the Dilmun civilisation, which flourished on neighbouring Bahrain (click the link to learn more about the Dilmun empire in my Bahrain Travel Guide).
The castle lies at the centre of the island and is almost completely ruined, with just the western wall still standing, a wall which is bathed in a golden glow in the late afternoon sun.
The castle was built between 1515 and 1521 and, while little is known about its origins, some archaeologists suggest that it was built by the residents of Tarout to protect them from Portuguese attacks. Other research indicates that the castle was possibly built by the Portuguese to protect themselves from Turkish attacks. There is no entrance fee to the castle but the access gate is closed at sunset.
An impressive dhow harbour lies to the south of Tarout island and is easily viewed from the main coastal road (Khaleej road).
Located 25-km south of Dammam, the city of Al Khobar (population: 165,800) is located on the shores of the Arabian Gulf, at the crossing point between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Like Dammam and Dhahran, Al Khobar lies in the heart of oil country and is home to a large community of ex-pats who work for Saudi Aramco. The city has the distinction of being the only city in Saudi Arabia in which foreign residents constitute the majority of its population, making up more than 56% of the population.
The city is full of accommodation and dining options and has one excellent coffee roasting company – see the ‘Café ‘ section below for more details.
While there are few sights to see in Al Khobar, the Corniche is home to parks, gardens, a couple of interesting mosques and a Water Tower.
From the Corniche, you can see the King Fahd Causeway, a 25-km bridge which connects Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
The iconic symbol of Al Khobar is the 90-metre high Water Tower which is situated on a man-made peninsula on the Corniche. The tower, which was closed at the time of my visit, has eight stories with one floor being a restaurant.
Built on a small man-made islet, at the southern end of the Corniche, the Salem Bin Laden Mosque was built by the wealthy Bin Laden family. The family became the subject of media attention and scrutiny through the activities of one of its members, Osama bin Laden, the former head of al-Qaeda.
The east coast city of Dhahran (population: 120,000) lies in the heart of oil country and is the hometown of the state oil monopoly, Saudi Aramco. It was here that oil was first discovered in Saudi and today, the only sight worth visiting lies on the exact spot where that first discovery took place.
King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture
Rising up out of the desert plain, on the outskirts of Dhahran, and looking like something from outer-space, the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture, which is also known as iThra (Arabic for ‘enrichment’), is a large cultural centre which was opened in 2017.
The Centre incorporates several venues; a museum, which details the natural and geological history of Saudi Arabia; a Children’s museum; a multi-level library, which is home to a collection of 200,000 books and a very nice café ; a cinema; theatre and exhibition halls. The centre is open every day except Sunday until 9 pm.
Built by the Norwegian architectural firm of Snøhetta (the same company who designed the amazing Norwegian National Opera and Ballet building in Oslo), the centre was funded by Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company and was built on the site of the country’s first oil well.
The unique design focuses on the geological nature of the Kingdom, using an assortment of different-sized “rocks”, which symbolise diversity. Theses ‘rocks’ are wrapped in 350-km of steel piping.
In 2018, the centre was included in the list of the ‘Top 100 Places in the World to Visit‘ which was published by Time magazine.
If you’re a photographer, its worth sticking around until sunset and the magical ‘blue hour’ when the building is illuminated by a light show.
While Saudi Arabia is only now receiving its first recreational tourists, business travellers have been flocked to the Kingdom for many decades. As a result, accommodation options largely consist of international hotel chains which cater to business travellers.
In the major urban centres, there’s an abundance of options (e.g. there are five Radisson hotels in Jeddah). With fierce competition, many hotels offer 4 and 5-star accommodation at bargain rates. I booked all my accommodation on hotels.com who are currently offering a room at the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel in Jeddah for US$76 per night.
While in Jeddah, I stayed at the very comfortable Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel which is located inland from the Corniche on the very busy King Abdullah Road. Rooms at the hotel are often offered at less than US$80 per night and include an incredible buffet breakfast. The hotel includes a pool which, like most hotel pools in Saudi Arabia, is hidden away indoors.
While I enjoyed my stay at the hotel, if I was to visit Jeddah again, I would book one of the hotels which line the Corniche. This is the place to be while in Jeddah!
While in Taif, I stayed at the Swiss Spirit Hotels & Suites which offers spacious rooms with comfortable king-sized beds for 242 SAR (US$64) per night. The hotel is part of a Swiss chain which has 11 properties in Saudi Arabia.
While in Riyadh, I stayed at the wonderful Grand Plaza Gulf Hotel which is located in the government district. Being the capital and largest city, hotel prices in Riyadh are the most expensive in the country, although a room at this 4-star hotel cost me 438 SAR (US$117) per night.
A line of the Riyadh metro, which is currently under construction, is being installed outside the front of the hotel and is causing a small degree of mayhem with the main road closed while tunnelling takes place.
If you haven’t tried Arabic coffee (definitely an acquired taste), you can do so in the lobby of the hotel, where a staff member serves free cups of the bitter-tasting beverage from a shiny ‘Dallah‘ – a traditional Arabian coffee pot.
Of all the spacious hotel rooms I enjoyed while in Saudi, none were more palatial-in-size than my room at the Lily Hotel Suite Mubarraz which is located in downtown Al Hofhuf. The photo above shows half of my room which, in addition to a king-sized bed, included a kitchen, dining area and large bathroom – all for the bargain price of 237 SAR (US$63) per night.
The hotel is part of a local hotel chain, Lily Hotels, which own 4 properties in Al Hofhuf; the Grand Lily Hotel Suite, Lily Palms Hotel, Lily Mubarraz Hotel and Lily Hofuf Hotel Suite. This can be confusing if you’re using navigation to find your hotel. Waze sent me to one ‘Lily’ hotel where I was advised that I was at the wrong location and needed to travel further along the same road to another Lily hotel.
There’s no shortage of quality accommodation in the sprawling Dammam, Al-Khobar, Dhahran metropolitan area. This is the heart of the Saudi oil industry and as such, has always attracted scores of business travellers.
I chose to stay in at the Park Inn by Radisson in downtown Dammam, where a spacious room cost me 315 SAR (USD$84) per night which included a very good buffet breakfast.
The cuisine of Saudi Arabia is similar to other regional cuisines with meats being served with salads, dips and flat bread. The most popular dish in Saudi Arabia is Al Kabsa, which is spiced rice topped with meat – similar to an Indian Biryani.
Islamic dietary laws forbid the eating of pork and the drinking of alcoholic beverages. This law is enforced throughout Saudi Arabia where those products are strictly banned.
Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim country that requires all businesses to close during prayer – five times each day, this includes all eating establishments. Arrive at the wrong time and you’ll be forced to wait until prayer time ends before the restaurant/ café re-opens.
If you’re already inside a restaurant and eating, you’ll usually be allowed to finish your meal (with the curtains drawn and door locked). If you’re sitting in a café drinking a coffee when the call to prayer is announced, you’re free to relax and enjoy your coffee, but no new orders will be taken and the front doors will be locked.
The Saudi’s seem to have developed a rhythm whereby they make a last-minute coffee purchase, before the call to pray is made, then they get to relax, while late-comers have to wait around for the café to re-open. It’s all about timing!
In all of the main cities through Saudi Arabia, you’ll find a good selection of international cuisine, including Brazilian BBQ, Turkish, Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Korean, Thai, Indian, American fast food / chain restaurants and much more.
The biggest selection of restaurants, under one roof, can be found at the sprawling Red Sea mall which is home to both local and international restaurant chains. Elsewhere, restaurants can be found along the Corniche and the neighbourhoods surrounding the waterfront.
Downtown Taif is full of unremarkable cheap eats, however, one restaurant literally stands above all others. Located on the 29th floor of the Awaliv International Hotel (just look for the MiG fighter jet mounted out front), the hotel’s revolving restaurant features a wonderful lunch buffet which costs 100 SAR and is served from 1 pm. The views from the restaurant are the best in town.
Riyadh is full of local and international dining options. One of my favourite restaurants was Shikara, which is located across the main road from Kingdom tower and offers tasty Indian cuisine.
For excellent Italian, it’s hard to beat the food at La Rustica Pizzeria, where the wood-fired, thin-crust pizzas are divine – just don’t expect any prosciutto! The restaurant is located in a quiet side street in the business district, around the corner from the amazing IDMI Coffee Roasting Company (see the ‘Café ‘ section below for more).
Like most regional centres in Saudi, dining options in Al Hofhuf consist of local cheap eats. The Al Ahsa mall is home to a selection of cafés and restaurants.
Being home to a small army of expatriate oil workers, Dammam offers plenty of local and international dining options. A stand out restaurant is the disneyesque Heritage Village Restaurant which is built in a traditional Saudi mud-brick house and features themed displays. The menu includes traditional Saudi food and also other Arabic food, all of which is delicious. I ordered the mezze platter, which was served with piping hot, freshly baked, puffy, flat bread. Delicious!
Starbucks and other western coffee chains can be found all over Saudi Arabia, where they serve up their usual brand of mediocre coffee. Like all other restaurants, Starbucks (who have 78 outlets in Saudi) are required to partition their cafés into a ‘Singles’ and ‘Families’ section. What happens when the partition fails? In one case in 2016, which made world headlines, a Starbucks restaurant in Riyadh temporarily banned woman from entering when the partition wall collapsed. Only after the wall was re-instated were woman allowed to enter the café .
If you’re a caffeine aficionado, you’ll be happy to know that the Saudi’s have fully embraced the small-batch, coffee roasting revolution and in all the major cities, you’ll find roasting companies serving the most flavoursome coffee. For some reason, these establishments are not required to be partitioned, providing a rare opportunity to ‘mingle’ with the opposite sex. It’s all very well behaved and respectful and could be used as an example to show that partitioning of restaurants and cafés is not necessary.
For the best coffee in Jeddah, you should head to the Medd Café & Roastery which is located on the ground floor of a glass skyscraper which overlooks the Corniche near the Floating mosque. The café attracts a young and funky clientele of progressive Saudis who sit at mixed tables, enjoying amazing, freshly-roasted Arabica coffee. In a land of many partitions and social restrictions, the open nature of the Medd café is certainly refreshing.
Located in the Riyadh business district, in the shadow of the towering Al Faisaliyah Centre, the IDMI Coffee Roasting Company offers the best coffee in town. This is another roasting company that is partition-less and is normally bustling with a mixed crown of young, educated Saudis who flock to the café from the neighbouring office towers.
Located in downtown Dammam, the newly opened Soil Coffee Roasters offers a strong, nutty, Arabica coffee and a small selection of food items. The homemade donuts are divine and are the perfect accompaniment to a robust Flat white. I especially appreciated the ‘unicorn’ café artwork which graced my coffee.
Rounding out the selection of ‘best coffee houses in Saudi Arabia‘ is the very popular Qaf Coffee Roasters which is located in Al Khobar. With it’s white-polished Marble bench-tops, floors and tables, this café is very cool and minimal and attracts a mixed crowd of caffeine-loving locals.
Alcohol is strictly banned in Saudi Arabia, although the, non-alcoholic, Saudi Champagne is a popular refreshment.
On the 27th of September 2019, Saudi Arabia formally announced the issuance of tourist e-Visa’s to passport holders from eligible countries. Overnight, one of the most reclusive countries became one of the most accessible.
The tourist e-Visa is valid for multiple entries during a 12-month period (from the date of issue) and for a stay of 90 days. Click here to view my Tourist e-Visa post which provides a detailed step-by-step description of the application process.
Tip: When travelling in Saudi Arabia, you should ensure you always carry your passport and a copy of your e-Visa. These will be requested when purchasing transport tickets, SIM cards, hiring a car, or by police officers at the many highway police checkpoints.
Upon arrival at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, I was directed to the immigration ‘lounge’, a comfortable, soothing oasis of calm, which was staffed by a team of young, female immigration officers who were sat behind office desks, waiting to process foreigners who were holding the new tourist e-Visa.
I was directed to take a seat by one of the polite, friendly officers who welcomed me to Saudi Arabia, then scanned my passport and visa, took my photo and bio-metric fingerprints then stamped me into the country – all done in a matter of minutes! I would rate my entry into Saudi Arabia as one of the most pleasant immigration experiences anywhere in the world.
Qatar Diplomatic Boycott
In June of 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates began a boycott of Qatar, alleging Qatar funds extremist groups and is too friendly with Iran.
As part of this dispute, the quartet closed its airspace for Qatari planes and shut Qatar’s only land border, which it shares with Saudi Arabia. If you wish to travel between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, you will first need to fly via either Kuwait or Oman, the two countries in the region which have remained neutral in the dispute.
Saudi Arabia is home to seven international airports, which are:
- Jeddah (IATA: JED) – King Abdulaziz International Airport
- Riyadh (IATA: RUH) – King Khalid International Airport
- Dammam (IATA: DMM) – King Fahd International Airport
- Medina (IATA: MED) – Prince Mohammad Bin Abdulaziz International Airport
- Al-Hofuf (IATA: HOF) – Al-Ahsa International Airport
- Yanbu (IATA: YNB) – Prince Abdul Mohsin bin Abdulaziz International Airport
- Buraidah (IATA: ELQ) – Prince Nayef Bin Abdulaziz Regional Airport
King Abdulaziz International Airport
The busiest airport in the country is King Abdulaziz International Airport (KAIA) in Jeddah, which is used heavily during the Hajj season. Located 19 km north of the city, the airport serves as a base for the national carrier, Saudia, and is currently undergoing an expansion project which will allow it to eventually handle 80 million passengers per year. There are two terminals at KAIA – the North and South terminals.
The following airlines provide scheduled services to/ from King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah:
- Aegean Airlines – flights to/from Athens
- Afriqiyah Airways – flights to/from Misrata, Tripoli–Mitiga
- Air Algérie – flights to/from Algiers
- Air Arabia – flights to/from Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah
- Air Arabia Egypt – flights to/from Alexandria–Borg el Arab, Assiut, Luxor, Sohag
- Air Cairo – flights to/from Alexandria–Borg el Arab, Assiut, Cairo, Sohag
- Air India – flights to/from Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kochi, Kozhikode, Mumbai
- Airblue – flights to/from Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Peshawar
- AlMasria Universal Airlines – flights to/from Alexandria–Borg el Arab
- Ariana Afghan Airlines – flights to/from Kabul, Kandahar
- AtlasGlobal – flights to/from Ankara, Istanbul
- Batik Air – flights to/from Makassar, Medan, Surakarta/Solo
- Biman Bangladesh Airlines – flights to/from Chittagong, Dhaka
- British Airways – flights to/from London–Heathrow
- Cairo Aviation – flights to/from Cairo
- Daallo Airlines – flights to/from Hargeisa, Mogadishu
- EgyptAir – flights to/from Alexandria–Borg el Arab, Cairo
- Emirates – flights to/from Dubai–International
- Eritrean Airlines – flights to/from Asmara
- Ethiopian Airlines – flights to/from Addis Ababa
- Etihad Airways – flights to/from Abu Dhabi
- Flyadeal – flights to/from Abha, Dammam, Gassim, Riyadh, Tabuk
- flydubai – flights to/from Dubai–International
- FlyEgypt – flights to/from Alexandria–Borg el Arab, Sohag
- Flynas – flights to/from Abu Dhabi, Adana, Algiers, Amman–Queen Alia, Baghdad, Beirut, Dammam, Dubai–International, Erbil, Hatay, Hofuf, Istanbul–Sabiha Gökçen, Jizan, Kano, Khartoum, Kuwait, Medina, Riyadh, Sharjah, Sharm El Sheikh, Tabuk, Yanbu
- Garuda Indonesia – flights to/from Jakarta–Soekarno-Hatta
- Gulf Air – flights to/from Bahrain
- IndiGo – flights to/from Delhi, Kochi, Mumbai
- Jazeera Airways – flights to/from Kuwait City
- Jubba Airways – flights to/from Hargeisa, Mogadishu
- Kam Air – flights to/from Kabul, Kandahar
- Kuwait Airways – flights to/from Kuwait City
- Lufthansa – flights to/from Frankfurt
- Malaysia Airlines – flights to/from Kuala Lumpur–International
- Middle East Airlines – flights to/from Beirut
- Nesma Airlines – flights to/from Ha’il
- Nile Air – flights to/from Alexandria–Borg el Arab, Assiut,Aswan, Cairo, Luxor, Sohag
- Nordwind Airlines – flights to/from Moscow–Sheremetyevo
- Oman Air – flights to/from Muscat, Salalah
- Pakistan International Airlines – flights to/from Faisalabad, Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Peshawar, Quetta, Sialkot
- Palestinian Airlines – flights to/from El Arish
- Royal Air Maroc – flights to/from Casablanca
- Royal Jordanian – flights to/from Amman–Queen Alia
- SalamAir – flights to/from Muscat, Salalah
- Saudia – flights to/from Abha, Abu Dhabi, Addis Ababa, Al Ahsa, Al Baha, Al Jawf, Al Ula, Al Wajh, Alexandria–Borg el Arab, Algiers, Amman–Queen Alia, Amsterdam, Ankara, Arar, Athens, Baghdad, Bahrain, Bengaluru, Beirut, Bhopal, Bisha, Cairo, Casablanca, Chennai, Colombo–Bandaranaike, Dammam, Dawadmi, Delhi, Dhaka, Dubai–International, Erbil, Frankfurt, Gassim, Geneva, Guangzhou, Gurayat, Ha’il, Hyderabad, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jizan, Kano, Jakarta–Soekarno-Hatta, Johannesburg–O.R. Tambo, Karachi, Khartoum, Kochi, Kozhikode, Kuala Lumpur–International, Kuwait, Lahore, London–Heathrow, Los Angeles, Lucknow, Madrid, Malè, Manchester, Manila, Mauritius, Medan, Medina, Milan–Malpensa, Multan, Mumbai, Munich, Nairobi–Jomo Kenyatta, Najran, New York–JFK, Paris–Charles de Gaulle, Port Sudan, Qaisumah, Rafha, Riyadh, Rome–Fiumicino, Sharm El Sheikh, Sharurah, Singapore, Tabuk, Taif, Tunis, Turaif, Vienna, Wadi al-Dawasir, Washington–Dulles
- SaudiGulf Airlines – flights to/from Baghdad, Dammam, Erbil
- SCAT Airlines – flights to/from Almaty
- Scoot – flights to/from Singapore
- SpiceJet – flights to/from Delhi, Hyderabad, Kozhikode, Mumbai
- SriLankan Airlines – flights to/from Colombo–Bandaranaike
- Sudan Airways – flights to/from Khartoum
- Tarco Airlines – flights to/from Khartoum
- Tunisair – flights to/from Tunis
- Turkish Airlines – flights to/from Istanbul, Istanbul–Sabiha Gökçen
- Turkmenistan Airlines – flights to/from Ashgabat
- Uzbekistan Airways – flights to/from Tashkent
- Yemenia – flights to/from Aden
Jeddah Airport Transport
Airport taxis can be booked from taxi counters in the arrival hall, with a fare to downtown Jeddah costing 90 SAR (USD$24). Uber taxis can also be booked throughout Saudi Arabia.
The State-owned bus company, SAPTCO, operate a Limo service from the South Terminal. The nearest public bus stop is a long walk in front of the terminal where SAPTCO buses #9 and #9B stop.
The Haramain High Speed Rail connects King Abdulaziz International Airport with Mecca and Medina – a useful connection for Muslims, but not a service for non-Muslims, who are banned from entering the two holy cities.
Saudi Arabia shares land borders with Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen, however not all are open to holders of tourist e-Visa’s. As per the advice from the Saudi Government, the following crossings are open to tourists:
Travel between Bahrain and Saudia Arabia is via the 25-km long King Fahd causeway. The causeway connects Bahrain island with the Saudi city of Al Khobar, which offers easy connections to all points in Saudi Arabia.
I exited Saudi Arabia through this crossing using one of the regular SAPTCO buses which shuttle between Dammam and Bahrain (60 SAR/ 50-km’s / 3 hours) via Al-Khobar. Immigration formalities (straight-forward and easy) occur on the aptly named ‘Passport island‘, which is located approximately halfway across the causeway.
The only crossing between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which is open to tourists, is the main crossing at Al Batha which is located 360 km west of Abu Dhabi.
Saudi Arabia is car country! Everything is designed around the car. Cities are decentralised and sprawling, and with almost non-existent public transportation, a car is often the only means of getting from A to B.
If you wish to maximise your time in the country, and fully explore different destinations, you will either need to arrange transportation or rent a car. I hired a car through Hertz who offer competitive rates – see ‘Car Rental‘ below.
The main charter bus company in the kingdom, known as the Saudi Public Transport Company (SAPTCO), offers trips both within the kingdom and to its neighbouring countries.
Comfortable, modern, inter-city buses, offer point-to-point connections throughout Saudi Arabia and to international destinations such as Bahrain and the UAE. When purchasing tickets, you will be required to show your passport and e-Visa (or Iqama for ex-pat workers).
There are three rail routes in Saudi Arabia, run by two different state-owned organisations, Saudi Railways Organisation (SRO) and Saudi Arabia Railways (SAR):
- Riyadh – Dammam: The burgundy–coloured route on the map, this service is run by SRO with six daily trains which cover the 449 km route in 3.5 hours, with 2nd class tickets costing SAR 78.75.
- Riyadh – Qassim – Hail – Jauf: The green-coloured route on the map, this service is run by SAR with two daytime trains in each direction and one overnight ‘sleeper’ train.
- Mecca – Jeddah – Medina: The gold-coloured route on the map, the high-speed Haramain train is operated by SRO using trains built by Spanish firm, Talgo. The line was built to provide a link for pilgrims travelling between the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina (via the transportation hub of Jeddah) and hence is of no use to non-Muslims who cannot enter the Holy cities. The train travels at 300 km/h over a total distance of 453 km. There are five stations on the line; one in Mecca, one on Medina and three in Jeddah (including KAIA airport).
As indicated on the map, there are several new railway lines currently under construction throughout the Kingdom.
Currently under construction, the Riyadh metro is an ambitious public transport project which will consist of six metro lines spanning a total length of 176 kilometres, with 85 stations. The project will cost $22.5 billion to build and is scheduled to open in 2020.
The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) invested US$3.5 billion into the Uber IPO, so it’s not surprising that the ride-sharing service is widely available throughout the Kingdom. If you do not have your own transportation, Uber represents the best means of getting from A to B within the major cities. Apart from Uber, regular city taxis are also available
Even if you do have a car, it’s best to leave it parked at your hotel in the bigger cities and use Uber. Traffic is chaotic and the number of testosterone-fuelled kamikaze drivers on the road is scary. Most cars in Saudi bear the scars of previous accidents, so it’s recommended to leave the driving to someone else!
The best way to maximise your time in Saudi Arabia is to hire a car. The country has a limited public transportation network which connects one urban centre to another. To reach many of the main sights and to be fully independent and flexible, you will need your own transport.
I rented a ‘compact’ car through Hertz which cost me 98 SAR (USD$26) per day. All rental companies in Saudi offer a maximum of 200 km per day which can be a problem if you plan to drive long distance. My journey took me across the country, covering a distance of 1,451 km which I spaced over a 12 day-period. While in Riyadh, I left the car parked in the hotel car park to allow the average daily kilometre count to reduce and to save me the stress of dealing with the chaotic Riyadh traffic.
At the end of my journey, I dropped the car in Dammam, which attracted a one-way rental fee of 800 SAR (USD$213). I then took a SAPTCO bus to Bahrain. One bargain in this oil-producing country is fuel, which costs 1.50 SAR (USD$0.40) per litre. As with all other businesses in Saudi Arabia, petrol stations are required to close during prayer times!
The following video shows the highway between Riyadh and Dammam.
If you’re going to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, you should be prepared for the inevitable speed fines. According to the staff at Budget Car Rental, speed camera’s are a major source of revenue (although not as much as oil!) for the Saudi government and 90% of Budget client’s receive speeding fines.
The fines are processed quickly and were all waiting for me, in the system, when I dropped my car off after my 12-day rental. During my coast-to-coast road trip, I had accumulated three fines totalling SAR 600 (USD$160) which, according to the staff at Budget, meant I had driven very carefully considering I had passed hundreds of cameras on my journey. The manager at Budget told me some clients receive US$1,000 or more in speeding fines. Ouch!
The cameras in Saudi Arabia are especially nasty, when compared to other countries. There are no warning signs that you are approaching a speed camera, instead you will see the occasional generic sign which advises ‘Road is under Surveillance‘. Almost all cameras are installed at ground level and often in front of a larger object which hides the camera.
The camera housing is often painted the same colour as surrounding objects, making the camera almost invisible. On the ‘non-Muslim’ bypass road around Mecca, cameras are installed in beige-coloured housing in front of beige sandstone walls.
A favourite hiding place for cameras is in the dark shadow of overhead highway bridges, and often the camera is installed alongside the concrete support of the bridge so it looks like a part of the bridge. Often the camera is facing away from you so you’ll only ever see a flash in your rear-view mirror. Sneaky indeed!
Rarely will you see cameras installed on overhead gantries, where they are easier to spot. Camera revenue has been such a boon for the government, a new high-tech Saher camera has been developed which includes a range of features, all of which you can learn about here.
That’s the end of my Saudi Arabia Travel Guide.
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Other travel reports from the Gulf Region region:
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Author: Darren McLean
Darren McLean is an Australian full-time digital nomad who is focused on visiting all 246 countries and territories on the UN+ list.
He has currently visited 215 countries and territories.
Darren is an avid photographer, travel writer, scuba diver and owner/ author of taste2travel.com – a website which offers travel guides, travel quizzes, photography and much more.