Backpacking in Saudi Arabia: Finally Open For Tourism

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

For years Saudi Arabia has haunted my bucket list. A country with such a potential for tourism, yet completely closed off for visitors. Suddenly on September 27th 2019 everything changed, as Saudi Arabia announced the arrival of an electronic tourist visa for nationalities from 49 countries. And in november the first tourists began entering Saudi Arabia. Me and my travel buddy Lasse arrived in Riyadh on December 26, 2019 with more than two weeks of backpacking planned throughout this untouched and unexplored oasis they call the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

How to get the new Saudi Arabia tourist visa?

Getting the new electronic tourist visa for Saudi Arabia is extremely easy. All you have to do is visit https://visa.visitsaudi.com/, fill the application, pay the fee and receive your online visa.

The fee for the new Tourist Visa to Saudi Arabia is 463,44 SAR (about 213 USD) and includes a mandatory travel insurance provided by the local government.

When you land in Riyadh International Airport, there's signs for "Visa on arrival", ignore those and walk straight to the immigration. There's an employee asking for first time visitors to take the lines on the right and re-visitors to take the lines on the left. Have your electronic visa printed and present it together with your passport. You are now officially ready to backpack Saudi Arabia!

How to get around in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia is not a backpackers paradise.... yet. There aren't really many ways to go to the rural part of the country unless you've got a car. Getting around Saudi Arabia can also be done by flights and a few places by train between the major cities. I'm guessing you could easily hitchhike the whole thing, as the local Saudis are very hospitable people - but for maximum payoff I'd recommend renting a car and having yourself a little Saudi Arabian road trip.

How to rent a car in Saudi Arabia?

Renting a car in Saudi Arabia is quite easy and driving it is both easy and cheap. There are several local rental companies, but I'd recommend to rent through www.rentalcars.com as they will provide excellent service and full-insurance. We rented at the company Hanco through rental cars and picked our car up in Tabuk after flying there from Riyadh. The gas prices in Saudi Arabia has been lower than the price for water, but has been steadily going up over a couple of years. Still the prices are unbelievably cheap compared to Europe. A liter costs about 2 SAR, which sums up to about 0,55 USD per liter or 0,49 EUR per liter.

How to get a local SIM-card in Saudi Arabia

If you land in Riyadh Airport, there's a small stand selling SIM-card on the left-side as you pass through customs. There are 3 different packages for tourist SIM-cards. Either 1 gb, 5 gb or 15 gb. The 5 gb costs 80 SAR, while the 15 gb costs 160 SAR. You'll need your printed visa to buy a Saudi SIM-card. The stand in the airport only sells SIM-cards from the company Mobily. We had connection in most places, although bad and sometimes none in rural areas outside the larger cities.

Cultural hospitality in Saudi Arabia

E-V-E-R-Y-W-H-E-R-E you go in Saudi Arabia people will offer you Arabian coffee along with sugarcoated dates (fruits from the date palm trees) and Arabian tea. Even before you check into a guesthouse you'll be invited in for a coffee. We even mistakenly entered a military base in a rental car, and the officers at work offered us morning coffee.

Arabic Coffee, Saudi Arabia
The Arabs are extremely polite and respectful people. The will not overrun you with questions, even though they are interested, unless you engage a deeper conversation. They are also very good communicators, even those with minimal skills in the English language will try to communicate with gestures and words in Arabic. Saudi Arabia ranks a one of the friendliest places I've ever visited.

Local Saudis preparing a barbecue in the middle of the dessert, Saudi Arabia

Wildlife in Saudi Arabia

CAMELS
Throughout the middle east camels has had an important role as working animals. In Saudi Arabia the camel is considered the national animal and symbol of the identity of the country. Today there are still many camel owners in Saudi Arabia and you'll see many camels as you move through the country. Some camels are even bred for camel racing, which is a traditional sport in many middle eastern countries.


DONKEYS AND SHEEP
Donkeys and sheep are also a farmers animal in Saudi Arabia. Where as donkeys are often work-animals, sheep are kept for there ability to produce different consumer products like wool, milk or meat.

Donkey on the side of the road neear Al Disah, Saudi Arabia
FALCONS
Falcon breeding plays a key role in Saudi culture as well. They are used for shows, hunting and even beauty contests. There's even a Falcon Festival in Saudi Arabia and it's one of the most prestigious animals to keep in Saudi Arabia.

MARINE LIFE
Like Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, Eilat in Israel and Aqaba in Jordan, the northwestern part of Saudi Arabia has rich marine life in the Gulf of Aqaba. We only stumbled upon a single dive resort though, and didn't have the time to take a full day of diving. But it's not only the Gulf of Aqaba that holds great diving opportunities. The Red Sea stretches all the way to Yemen and another place famous for amazing scuba diving is Jazan down south. Unfortunately we didn't visit Jazan during this trip. Maybe next time.

Things to do in Riyadh
Riyadh was built on the Hajar in the Al-Yamama province, which used to be home to two now extinct tribes; Tasam and Jadeis. In the the 1920's Riyadh grew rapidly as the new capital of Saudi Arabia and many people moved to Riyadh looking for employment. The city continues to grow at an impressive rate and new architectural pearls pop-up on the Riyadh skyline faster than any place on the planet.

WHERE TO STAY IN RIYADH?
Riyadh is all about luxurious hotels, and we had decided that for once we would stay somewhere not as budget as we usually do. There are hotels so luxurious and expensive here, that I would have to sell my camera just to stay a single night. We stayed at Al Khozama Hotel a historic hotel in Riyadh, which has been around longer than most of the skyscrapers defining the city skyline today, and which has a reasonable price for a 4-star hotel. Below you can search for other alternatives to stay at a more budget friendly accommodation in Riyadh:


Booking.com


HOW TO GET AROUND IN RIYADH?
Riyadh is probably the least walk-friendly city I've ever been to. You'll see practically no one walking execpt maybe very short distances during the evening. Uber is the way to go. It's both reliable and the drivers are very friendly and helpful. And even if you wanted to walk it could prove to be impossible as there are very few sidewalks around and if there are one, it's probably cut-off by some construction. Another obstacle for walkers are crossing the road as there often aren't pedestrian crossings and the roads often are too wide with too many lanes to cross safely. Stick to Uber, it works and it will save you a great amount of time and struggle.

CHOP CHOP SQUARE
Saudi Arabia has been notoriously infamous in the media for the brutal public executions throughout the decades and even in modern day times. Though the public executions has been cut down drastically over the past few years, they do still occur from time to time. In Riyadh the place for these public executions is at Alsafat Square right across from Masmak Fortress. The square has also been commonly refereed to as Chop Chop Square. Although the public executions aren't been carried out as continuously as before, they do still happen, and when they do, it's often on Fridays after the main prayer right around 9 am. We headed to Chop Chop Square on a Friday right around that time - not knowing if we even wanted to attend such an event, but curios nonetheless. The square was absolutely empty, so we had a silent walk around the blod drains in the tile florring.

Blood drains at Chop Chop Square in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
MASMAK FORTRESS
Masmak Fortress was built right around Masmak Fortress is located right by Chop Chop Square as mentions above, but if you plan to visit on a Friday you'll be disappointed. Masmak Fortress is closed on Fridays and Saturdays (the weekend in Saudi Arabia), so make sure you go there on a week day to enter the museum of Masmak Fortress, which has free entry and even a gift shop.

Masmak Fortress in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
RIYADH OLD QUARTERS: SOUVENIRS
Right by Masmak Fortress you'll find some narrow streets in the Old Quarters of Riyadh's. There are plenty of souvenirs shop to discover (a rare sight in Saudi Arabia at this point). Some are run by Indians, but you'll also find some shops owned and run by locals with genuine Saudi souvenirs. I was lucky enough to pick up a magnet and some old Saudi banknotes.

Souvenir stall in Riyadh Old Quarters, Saudi Arabia
KINGDOM TOWER SKYBRIDGE (FOUR SEASONS HOTEL RIYADH)
The Four Seasons Hotel in Riyadh is without comparison the most iconic and recognizable building in the city. The tower is commonly referred to as Kingdom Tower or Kingdom Centre, but we all know, that some architect watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy and tried to clone the Eye of Sauron. Kingdom Centre was completed in 2002 and has a height of 302.3 meters. The top of the tower features an inverted parabolic arch which includes a skybridge. To access the skybridge of Kingdom Centre you need to head to the main entrance of the Four Seaons Hotel in Riyadh. Enter the hotel's lobby and turn to the right to enter the shopping mall. Here you need to head upstairs and find the entrance to the Skybridge Experience. The entrance fee for the Skybridge at Kingdom Centre is 60 SAR + 3 SAR tax. After purchasing the ticket the first elevator will take you to floor 77. Then another elevator will take you the rest of the way to floor 99, where the skybridge is located.
Since tourism is still in its very early stages the gift shop at the ground floor is still under construction.

Kingdom Centre by night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
VOX CINEMA: A LUXURIOUS MOVIE EXPERIENCE
While you're visiting Kingdom Centre anyway you might as well make the most of it. Inside the Kingdom Centre shopping mall you'll find one of the recently built cinemas in Saudi Arabia. From 1983 to 2018 there were no cinemas in Saudi Arabia, but during the past year cinemas has begun to put up in the majors cities of the country. Vox Cinema in the Kingdom Centre shopping mall is the most luxurious cinemas I've ever been to. We paid 140 SAR per ticket and I kid you not, that comes with a reclinable VIP chair, a blanket, a pillow, a small table and a call button, so you can order 24 karat gold dusted popcorn for your movie DURING the movie.

Vox Cinema in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
KING ABDULAZIZ HISTORICAL CENTER (NATIONAL MUSEUM)
The King Abdulaziz Historical Center is the national museum of Saudi Arabia. The museum holds an enormous amount of historical and cultural artifacts from many different times periods spanning over 2 million years. Absolutely worth the 10 SAR entrance fee.

King Abdulaziz Historical Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
HAVING LUNCH AT THE GLOBE LOUNGE IN AL FAISALIYAH CENTER
This one is not for the budget backpacker, but Al Faisaliyah Center is one of the most iconic buildings in Riyadh and here's why you should have an expensive lunch in their Globe Lounge. When you enter Al Faisaliyah Center there's a small desk on the left-hand side of the entrance. Here you can book either a "view ticket" or a "lunch ticket" to enter the mighty golden glass globe on top of the tower. The "view ticket" is 60 SAR, while the "lunch ticket" comes at the price of 120 SAR. The lunch includes a three-meal course with a buffet appetizer, a main menu and a dessert. You can walk around inside the globe and after your lunch you can head outside to the observation deck with great views over the city.

The Globe at Al Faisaliyah Centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Visiting Edge of the World in Saudi Arabia

WHERE IS EDGE OF THE WORLD?
Edge of the World is located northwest of Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh. The rock formations were formed when the land was submerged under the ocean. You can still find oceanic fossil on the ground and imagine the magnificent coral reef, which must have prided the walls of Edge of the World. An aboslute must for any trip to Riyadh and one of my favorite place in the whole country.

HOW TO GET TO EDGE OF THE WORLD?
At this point of early tourism in Saudi Arabia, there are only very few tour companies who arranges day trips to Edge of the World. Some of them are even pretty difficult to get in contact with and might not have a tour available for your preferred dates. Another option is to self-drive from Riyadh to Edge of the World, which is quite a ride and will absolutely require a 4x4 car and some courage. The third option is to get in touch with locals who can help you get to Edge of the World. We got in touch with a local guy; Bandar, who helped us reach Edge of the World with his car and his local knowledge about the area. You can get in touch with Bandar on whatsapp at his number: +966 56 007 7655 or follow his YouTube-channel here or find him on instagram @travelercrews.

CRYSTAL CAVE AT EDGE OF THE WORLD
On the way to Edge of the World there's a crystal cave (by locals named batcave), which houses crystal formations and families of bats. On Google Maps the cave is named "The Hidden Cave", which is not really a suiting name, since almost everyone visiting Edge of the World will stop there.

Crystal Cave near Edge of the World, Saudi Arabia
HIKING AT EDGE OF THE WORLD
Edge of the World is destined to become one of the absolute top attractions in Saudi Arabia. As of now, most visitors here are locals, but a touristic boom is absolutely certain to happen within the next few years. Right now, you're pretty much free to roam wherever you like at Edge of the World.

Edge of the World northwest of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
There are no safety measures though, no rails or closed off areas. There are some pretty sketchy places, so I'm quite sure some Chinese tourist with a selfie-stick is gonna fall of the cliff at some point, but that's bound to happen anywhere at magnificent rock formations like these.

Me at Edge of the World, Saudi Arabia
TENT CAMP AT EDGE OF THE WORLD
Right next to the crystal cave is a tent camp, which provides as a stop on the way back from Edge of the World. The Tent Camp is owned by Riyadh Hiking Group and operated by Faisal Almushari. Here you can have a meal and finish the day off with some local shisha and once again experience the great hospitality of the local Saudi people.
Tent Camp near Edge of the World, Saudi Arabia
STARGAZING AT EDGE OF THE WORLD
Edge of the World in Saudi Arabia is an amazing place to tilt your head back and look up to the night sky. Stargazing is incredible out there, as the light pollution is close to zero. Any fan of watching stars should aim to stay at Edge of the World after nightfall.

Lunar Eclipse at Edge of the World, Saudi Arabia

Tabuk

WHY VISIT TABUK?
Tabuk has a population just below a million people and is the central city in the northern area of Saudi Arabia. The city itself is a lot more local compared to Riyadh and Jeddah, which attracts plenty of foreigners. Besides that, Tabuk is close to the Jordanian border and hosts the largest airforce base in Saudi Arabia.

TABUK CASTLE
Tabuk Castle usually doesn't open until 4 pm in the afternoon, but even then there's no guarantee of the opening hours being reliable. I arrived during midday and just knocked the large metal doors. A friendly castle keeper opened op and let me in without any entrance fee. There's a small museum inside and information signs in Arabic and English.

Tabuk Castle, Saudi Arabia
TABUK WATER TOWER
Tabuk Water Tower was built to host meetings and a restaurant with a 360 degree view of Tabuk city. Unfortunately to enter the tower as a foreigner you'll need a permit through their office (which is located in a different part of town). I had to just adore this architectural masterpiece from the outside.

Tabuk Water Tower, Saudi Arabia
THAWB PRESSING
The Saudi Qamis or more commonly referred to as Thawb or Thobe are the tradional white long sleeved dress the men of Saudi Arabia wears regularly. In Riyadh you'll see many cultural influences, but Tabuk is more true to local culture and it's a great places to stop by a Thawb Pressing shop. There are plenty around town and they are usually open during evening and night (to have the Thawbs ready for the customers to pickup the next day).

Local Thawb Pressing Shop in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia
TABUK ROUNDABOUTS
Tabuk is renowned for it's many colorful and artistic roundabouts. From large swords and palmstrees to a air fighter jet giving a nod to the airforce base in Tabuk, there's plenty to look at as you're driving around the city of Tabuk.

Air Fighter Jet Roundabout in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia
TABUK ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM
Right next to the Ottoman Railway Remains is a completely newly built archaeological museum. The museum is not featured in any guides I've found and I was the only visitor in the museum during my stay. The museum was quite interesting and showcased a lot of middle eastern culture and artifacts. Definitely worth a visit.

Archaeological Museum in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia
STREET ART IN TABUK
Saudi Arabia is not the central hub of street art, but in Tabuk I found several beautifully painted pieces of art bringing color to a city located in the desert.

Street Art in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia

Haql

CITY OF HAQL
Haql is the main coast city in the northern region and is located just a few kilometers from the Jordanian border. The city is a great place to have a stopover, with many hotel and restaurant options. One of the main sight to see in the city of Haql is the Incribed Mountain Sides. There are a few of them around town and they can actually be spotted on Google Maps statelite images. How cool is that?

Inscribed Mountain Side in Haql, Saudi Arabia
GEORGIOS G SHIPWRECK SUNSET
Georgios G was built in England after the end of World War II, and lived her days as a cargo liner until she stranded on the corals off of the Saudi coast in 1978. The ship originally intended to transfer ownership to a businessman from Haql, but the vessel caught fire after the crash. Today the Gorgeous G Shipwreck is one of the most popular landmark destinations in the region.

Georgios G Shipwreck, Saudi Arabia
We visited the Georgios G Shipwreck on a week day and saw only a handful of local Saudis and no other tourists. 10 years from now, this place will be overrun by Chinese selfie-sticks. We stayed and watched the sunset, which sets beautifully behind the old shipwreck.

Me at Georgios G Shipwreck, Saudi Arabia

In the Footsteps of Moses in Saudi Arabia

MOSES RED SEA CROSSING
Ron Wyatt discovered a large open area on the Egypt side of the Gulf of Aqaba in 1978. Through further investigation he discovered a narrow canyon on the bottom of the gulf. He was certain, this was the place where Moses led his people across the Red Sea. Later on other scientists has discovered further proof, that Moses must have led his people through Saudi Arabia. As you're driving down the coast os Saudi Arabia from Haql, you can easily spot the large open space on the other side of the gulf. Even easier is it to see the area on Google Maps statelite images.

The large open are where Moses would have led his people across the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia
JEBEL AL LAWZ: THE REAL MOUNT SINAI?
The blackened burned peak of Jebel al Lawz is what many scientists point to when they want to prove that this was the actual Mount Sinai. The real place where Moses talked to God in Exodus. Locals tells stories of the mountain being referred to as Jebel Musa (meaning; Mountain of Moses) for centuries strengthens the theory and the fact that Jebel al Law would mean Mount of Law is another point made by locals. At the foot of Jebel al Laws there are some ancient inscriptions of what seems to be a golden calf, which Moses turned to gold dust.

Jebel al Laws, Saudi Arabia
Getting to Jebel al Laws is quite tricky these days. We drove our rental car from Tabuk and north before turning left on the 394 highway, one of the most beautiful roads I've ever driven. Everything looks like Wadi Rum in Jordan along the 394 highway. Before reaching the town of Alsharaf there's a smaller road leading south towards the mountains. We drove it as far as we could, before we met a closed off road and a military guard who told us we had to turn around. From there we parked the car about 1 km back and hiked towards Almond Mountain in hopes of getting a peak towards Jebel al Laws. We could see Jebel al Laws in the distance and snap a shot with a long range camera lens, but there was not a chance of getting yourself near the mountain from this side.

Military roadblock on the way to Jebel al Lawz, Saudi Arabia
We did try to reach Jebel al Laws from the 55M highway on the west side of the mountain. We had a few local Saudi guys who we asked to help us get there, but they confirmed, that the mountain has been closed off and is being patrolled by Saudi military. Fortunately the locals helped us reach another landmark from the theory of Moses leading his people through Saudi Arabia. I would have loved to see the inscriptions at the foot of Jebel al Laws with my own eyes, but that will have to wait for now.

Me near the summit of Almond Mountain with Jebel al Laws in the far horizon, Saudi Arabia
MOSES SPLIT ROCK
The Moses Split Rock is located more than 10 km from the 55M highway. To make sure you're in the right spot look for a white Mosque on the 55M highway. That's the entrance point and if you switch your Google Maps to statelite images you can follow the tracks through the sand.

Moses Split Rock, Saudi Arabia
We did drive a few kilometers in a 2-wheel driven car, before giving up in fear of getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. Instead we stumbled into some local guys at the Mosque, who helped us reach the Moses Split Rock. I'm pretty sure this could be turned into a major landmark for tourism in Saudi Arabia, but as of now I'm not sure the Saudi government has any plans in that direction. My best guess is, that they are planning to make a pilgrimage visa for Christians (much like the Hajj Visa), which would make it possible to follow the path on Moses from the landing site of the Red Sea Crossing, to the Moses Split Rock, 12 springs of Moses, The Well of Moses and lastly to Jebel al Laws. If they aren't planing to do such a pilgrimage route, they should be reading this blog and changing their minds, I think this area has an unbelievably great potential of attracting more tourism to Saudi Arabia.

Me and two local guys who helped us reach Moses Split Rock, Saudi Arabia

Wadi Tayyib

Wadi Tayyib is an ancient gorge going straight through the mountain range and into the Gulf of Aqaba. Water winds its way through the chasm and this oasis has been a paradise for locals for thousands of years.

The last part of Wadi Tayyib going into the Gulf of Aqaba, Saudi Arabia
It is possible to walk through the entire gorge, but we turned around about half way. As the road from the north is closed off. The only way to reach Wadi Tayyib is from the coastal road arriving from the south or from inland. At the road there has already been put up a sign, that says Wadi Tayyib is closed off, but it has not been effectuated yet. I think it's all a part of the grand reopening the Saudi government plan to do in October 2020.

Modern inscriptions at Wadi Tayyib, Saudi Arabia

Catalina Seaplane Wreck

The wreckage of the Catalina Seaplane is located on a beach near Ras Alsheikh Hamid on the northwestern coastline of Saudi Arabia. The seaplane was built in San Diego in the 1930's. The seaplane landed in the 1960 but was stopped by the Saudi guards, due to lack of landing permits. The owner was an American pilot who had restored the seaplane himself. He and his wife were on a round the world trip. Both were unhurt and returned home, but the wreckage of their seaplane remains on the beach.
We arrive just around sunset at Catalina Seaplane Wreck with no one else around, which set us up with a picture perfect scene. But the road to the actual wreck is still under construction, which ment driving in sand to reach the wreck. Not a place I'd advice anyone to be driving at in the dark, but as many other places in Saudi Arabia this place is being prepared for tourism. The Neom information signs had already been put up so I'm guessing this site will be ready for October 2020 like the reach of the grand opening of tourism in Saudi Arabia.

Catalina Seaplane Wreck during sunset, Saudi Arabia

Magna

FRESHLY CAUGHT FISH
Magna is one of the many small coastal cities bordering the Red Sea. Almost all the many local restaurants serve daily freshly caught fish, which is some of the best food you can find around here.

Freshly caught and cooked fish in Magna, Saudi Arabia
12 SPRINGS OF MOSES
During their exodus from Egypt it is believed that Moses found 12 springs and 70 palm trees. Such a place also exist in Saudi Arabia. More precisely in Magna. The site is even referred to as 12 Springs of Moses by locals in the area.

12 Springs of Moses in Magna, Saudi Arabia

Al Bad'a

The town of Al Bad'a is located not far from Magna in the valley of the Wadi Aful.

MADYAN
Inside Al Bad'a is an archaeological site with underground gaves named Madyan (often referred to as "Mugha'ir Shu'ayb" by locals meaning; Caves of Jethro). This site is still being excavated and are closed off from the public. Most archaeologists believe it's an ancient Nabatean site, but the area has been mentions in many religious text throughout history.

Sign at the closed Madyan in Al Bad'a, Saudi Arabia
WELL OF MOSES
Al Bad'a also holds the Well of Moses. We followed our GPS to this place and walked straight in through a whole in a fence. Later on, we realized that the main gate to Well of Moses from the main road actually had a sign saying this area was also closed off from the public. I believe both these sites are being prepared for tourism - at least they should be.

Well of Moses in Al Bad'a, Saudi Arabia

Sharma / Neom Project

NEOM
If you have ever googled Saudi Arabia and future, you will surely have stumbled upon the named Neom. Neom is composed of two words; the ancient Greek prefix "neo" and the arabic word for future "mostaqbal" which put together means "new future".

The idea of Neom is to create and built a sort of world capital with the newest technology available. The metropolitan city will cover 26.500 square kilometres across the northwestern region of Saudi Arabia and into both Egyptian and Jordanian territory. To give you an idea of a city in that size it will stretch across 460 kilometers of coastline (which is almost untouched at the moment). Furthermore Neom will be approximately 43 times the size of New York City. The estimated cost of the project is set to $500 billion.

Me in front of the newly put up Neom-sign in Sharma, Saudi Arabia
Neom will function as an world economic hub, but also as a tourist destination where 40% of the world's population will be able to reach Neom in less than 4 hours of flight. And 70% of the world's population can reach Neom within 8 hours of flight.



Building has just begun and there aren't much to see besides the huge Neom-signs on each end of the town Sharma along with some building materials and brand new signs for the airport which will operate commercial flights regularly from Riyadh. The vision is to finish Neom within the next 7-10 years expecting to have construction completed by 2030. If you want to know more about the Neom Vision 2030 you can visit the official website here https://www.neom.com/en-us/.

Sign to the newly built Neom Bay Airport in Sharma, Saudi Arabia
CASTLE MOELH OTTOMAN
Located south of Sharma in Al Muwaileh the Castle Moelh Ottoman is an impressive fortress along the coast. The castle seems closed off from the public, but there is an old Arab guy about 1,5 meters of height with a key to the main gate. If you cant find him, there is an area on the south side of the castle where you can get a great view. Definitely worth a stop on the way.

Castle Moelh Ottoman in Al Muwaileh, Saudi Arabia

Wadi Al Disah

Wadi Al Disah is a mountainous area located within the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Natural Reserve. The area attracts many locals who enjoy the humid air and the many shadowed places to have a picnic. The government of Saudi Arabia has launched a developing project in Wadi Al Disah aiming to boost tourism and make Wadi Al Disah the top nature destination for tourism.

Reflection at Wadi Al Disah, Saudi Arabia
Before you reach the nature reserve you'll pass through Al Disah town. The drive is stunning and I got several flashbacks to Monument Valley bordering Utah and Arizona in USA. You are destined to make several stops along the way to suck in the view and hit that camera-button.

Rockformations on the way to Wadi Al Disah, Saudi Arabia

Things to do in Al Ula

Al Ula is surely where the most impressive historical and archaeological landmarks in all of Saudi Arabia are located. Al Ula will be entering bucket lists over the entire world in the years to come and with good reason.

WHERE TO STAY IN AL ULA?
We found Al Ula to be by far the most expensive place to acquire accommodation. We did find this outstanding place though, which I urge you to check out. It's called Naseem Alazeed and is run by an elderly old Arab man. He is one of the kindest people I've ever met in my life and his place is unbelievably beautiful. You'll overnight in heated luxury tents, pluck fresh oranges in his garden and hike up the mountainside to watch the sunset. The only downer is, that it's quite difficult to find, both physically and on booking sites. I managed to add Naseem Alazeed to Google Maps and on booking.com you'll find Nazeed Alazeed by clicking here HERE.

If you're looking for other types of accommodation in Al Ula you can find it by searching below:


Booking.com


ELEPHANT ROCK
Elephant Rock is what its name makes it out to be; a rock resembling an elephant. And not just somewhat looks like, but actually quite obvious. You can walk around the entire rock and its one of the most picturesque places throughout Saudi Arabia.

Elephant Rock in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia
SIAMESE CONJOINED TWIN ROCK
Right by the Elephant Rock there's a lesser known rockformation named Siamese Conjoined Twin Rock. Locals tent to hang around underneath the giant stone in hopes of catching a little shade. I'm not sure whether this is being marketed by the government, but it will surely be a popular stop for tourists visiting Elephant Rock.

Siamese Conjoined Twin Rock in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia
KEYHOLE ROCKFORMATION
I haven't been able to find any information regarding this "Keyhole Rockformation", so I named it that way myself. The odd-shaped hole in the rocks are located on the opposite side of the road at Elephant Rock and can be spotted from there. Locals seem to be visiting the Keyhole regularly, so I'm guessing this will be another stop for the tourist busses that's gonna roll in within the next 5-10 years.

Keyhole Rockformation in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia
DADAN
Locally referred to as Dadan, but originally named Lihyan, is ancient Arab kingdom who played a keyrole in this area of the Arabian Peninsula. There are many carvings in the mountainsides and the most famous ones are probably the Lion Tombs. As of now the area is only accessable from quite afar, as Dadan is like so many other places being prepared for a larger crowd of tourists to come. Bonus info: there's a replica of the carved lions in the King Abdulaziz Historical Center (National Museum) in Riyadh.

Lion Tombs at Dadan in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia
JEBEL IKMAH
Jebel Ikmah (sometimes spelled; Jebel Ekhmar) is famous for it's very well-preserve inscriptions into the rock-face of the mountainside. Besides water running through here for centuries, the inscriptions has been standing the test of time. This place was a sacred place for the Libhyanites, but also many travellers who passed through has added to the inscriptions. Most of the inscriptions are referring to journeys, pilgrimmage and offerings and are written in dadanitic.

Inscriptions at Jebel Ikmah in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia
AL ULA OLD TOWN
Old Town Al Ula is a walled city including Al Ula Castle which rises about the old part of town. The tightly built mud-houses are like a maze and most of the buildings here are more than 2000 years old. Great parts of the Old City is being restored in an effort to keep the whole thing from turning to dust. I'm sure this place will be thriving even more as a tourist destination in a near future.

Al Ula Castle, Saudi Arabia
AL ULA OLD MARKET
There are often markets in the streets of old town just below Al Ula Castle. It's a great place to grab a souvenir and catch the local vibe of daily life in Saudi Arabia. Kids playing and families enjoying the weekend is a common sight to see.

Local Saudi girls playing a game at Old Market in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia
AL ULA MUSEUM
A local friend of mine recommend us to visit Al Ula Museum to get the full experience of the area. Unfortunately the museum seems somewhat permanently closed at the moment. I'm sure there will be a reopening of the museum in the fall of 2020.

Madain Saleh / "Hegra"

Madain Saleh (or Hegra) is without a doubt the most important touristic destination throughout the entire Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The majority of the archaeological remains dates back to the 1st century AD and the Nabatean Kingdom. Yes, that's the same kingdom who built Petra in modern day Jordan. There are also traces of Lihyanite and Roman occupation on each side of the Nabatean rule at Madain Saleh. There are 111 monumental tombs, 94 of which are decorated and 130 wells to access water. Large areas of the city are still buried in the desert sand and are still being excavated by archaeologists today.

IS MADAIN SALEH CLOSED? Yes, after the end of the Winter at Tantora Festival on March 7, 2020 Madain Saleh will be closed of for the public until the grand re-opening in October 2020.

JEBEL ITHLIB
Jebel Ithlib has over 100 inscriptions in different languages. Many of them are believed to be by soldiers who guarded the route to nearby ancient city of Dadan. Atleast 16 inscriptions include the expression "ntr ddn"meaning "he protected Dadan".

Inscriptions at Jebel Ithlib in Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia
AL DIWAN
Jebel Ithlib was a special place for the Nabatean people. The Siq is a naturally formed passage in the mountain and on the right side of that passage is a rock-cut hall known as Al Diwan. This is where the Nabateans gathered for rituals, feasting or political discussion. There are even carved benches for guests to recline and eat, drink and possibly even listen to music.

Al Diwan (Right) in Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia
AL BINT TOMB
Al Bint Tomb is locally named Qasr Al Bint meaing "Palace of the Daughter/Maiden" includes the largest tomb facade in Madain Saleh and many many other tombs in the same rock named equally.

Two women walking towards Al Bint Tomb in Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia
JEBEL AL AHMAR
Hegra was the principal southern city of the Nabatean Kingdom and Jebel Al Ahmar was one of the main burial sites of the ancient civilization. You can walk around the entire mountain which has tombs carved in the facade on every side. The most prominent ones being on the south side of Jebel Al Ahmar including a famous headless Eagle carving.

Me at Jebel Al Ahmar in Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia
QASR AL FARID / LONELY CASTLE
Most commonly referred to as the Lonely Castle but in fact named Qasr Al Farid is without comparison the most impressive and most well-known and recognizable landmark in Madain Saleh. The description as a castle is quite misleading as this was in fact also a tomb built in the 1st century CE by the Nabateans. Like the world-famous Petra in modern day Jordan, the Nabateans carved the tombs at Hegra from the top down. The tomb is believed to be the tomb of the Lihyan son of Kuza.

Lonely Castle or Qasr al Farid in Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia
THE HEGRA APP
As part of the newly opened tourism in Saudi Arabia there has been launched an interactive app to navigate during a visit to Madain Saleh. The app functions with AR-technology which gives you the opportunity to learn more about the history of these ancient and sacred Nabatean places. The app is called "Living Museum" look it up before you go to Madain Saleh.

Winter at Tatora in Al Ula

The Winter in Tantora Festival 2019/2020 is only the second time this festival is running. The idea is to create a period of nearly two and a half months, where the whole area in and around Al Ula and Madain Saleh is turned into an activity area attraction a larger number of visitors. As of now, the most visitors are still local Saudis, but we did stumble upon a few other tourists at the festival. There are still much to be learned and developed, but in the greater picture the idea behind the festival is spot-on.

AL ULA NORTH PARK
The whole center of the Winter at Tantora Festival is located at Al Ula North Park. Here you'll find the informations stands, the ticket office, restuarants, shops and cafés. This is also where the main car park is and where the shuttle buses run from.

Al Ula North Park during Winter at Tantora Festival, Saudi Arabia
ELEPHANT ROCK BY NIGHT
During the Winter at Tantora Festival in Al Ula, the area around Elephant Rock is transformed into a night time gathering place. The Elephant Rock is lit up in orange colors and there are restaurants, shisha shops and live music. Absolutely the place to be during the evening and night at the Winter in Tantora Festival.

Elephant Rock by night during Winter at Tantora Festival 2019/2020 in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia
HOT AIR BALLOON
Over the course of the Winter in Tantora Festival the weekends have different themes. We luckily visited during the Hot Air Balloon Weekend, which allowed us to book a ride with a hot air ballon over the stunning landscape among more than a hundred other ballons flying. A unique experience, which I hope the Saudi government will keep and possibly roll out as a main attraction in Al Ula (and not only during the Winter in Tantora Festival).

Flying hot air balloon at Winter in Tantora Festival in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia

Things to do in Jeddah

WHERE TO STAY IN JEDDAH?
We stayed in Al Nabaress Al Macy Hotel, which seemed like a great offer. There are plenty of other options and you can find them by searching below:


Booking.com


HOW TO GET AROUND IN JEDDAH?
Getting around in Jeddah is much like getting around in Riyadh. If you decided to get a local sim-card Uber will be working in all parts of Jeddah. We met no scams or rude drivers and it was generally a pleasure to use Uber in Jeddah.

JEDDAH OLD TOWN
Jeddah Old Town is locally called Al Balad referring to a 7th century historical area of this second largest city of Saudi Arabia. The whole Old Town area was labelled a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 2014. Some of the old building are in need of repair and restoration and this are being done with huge amounts of money for preserving Al Balad in hopes of promoting cultural tourism in Jeddah and in the country.

Old Town in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Jeddah Old Town is also the only place in the entire country I succeeded in finding a post card. There are a few souvenir shops located within Old Town. Besides the souvenir shops you'll find local markets and quite a few gallerias where local artists produce, present and sell their artwork for profit.

Naseef House in Old Town Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
MOTHER EVE CEMETERY
For many years an actual tomb stood in Jeddah marked to be Tomb of Eve, as in Adam and Eve. However the tomb was destroyed in 1928 and today there is only a cemetery with flat unmarked graves left. And in 1975 the whole think was sealed with concrete by religious authorities who dissaproved of pilgrims praying at the tombs. We went to Mother Eve Cemetery and walk inside the entrance only to be asked in arabic if we were muslim. As we didn't want to lie our way in, we were firmly asked to leave again. There are windows towards the graves sites, so all we caught was a glimpse. Too bad this place aren't a public landmark which tourists can go visit, but who knows maybe someday?

Entrance to Mother Eve Cemetery in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
MARINA / CORNICHE
The Corniche along the shoreline is a hot spot in Jeddah. Filled with restuarants, cafés and locals enjoying the area. This is also where you'll find the huge "Jeddah"-sign, which lights up at night and the impressive King Fahad's Fountain.

King Fahad's Fountain in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
SHOPPING IN JEDDAH
Jeddah has plenty of shopping opportunities. Shopping Malls are popular in Saudi Arabia and Jeddah has endless shopping possibilities to be explored. Often with impressive themes, lights, indoor waterfalls and in generel lavish creative architectural design.

Oasis Mall in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Interview with a Saudi Woman

Nojoud Albalawi is 24 years old, she works as a tour guide at the heritage site of Dadan in Al Ula, Saudia Arabia. She used to work at the collage she graduated from, but her life has been flipped upside down with the colossal changes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been under going for the past couple of years. I met Nojoud as I was visiting Dadan and she agreed to feature in an interview about the undergoing evolving of Saudi Arabia and what lies in store for the young generation in the shaping of their country.

Nojoud Albalawi, 24 years, tour guide at Dadan in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia
What do you think about Saudi Arabia opening up for tourism?
I believe it's a good thing for our country. The tourism will strengthen the Saudi economy and it has already generated many new jobs like mine. The Saudi government are investing in educating new tour guides and they are paying us a very good salary. Also, I think we have a very important heritage to show to the world, which will now be possible with the opening of tourism in the country.

How are the Saudi government educating you?
Working as a tour guide used to be a man's job in Saudi Arabia. So it's new for women to be having jobs in this line of work. Personally I've been in training for about a year now. I was send to Paris, where I worked in the "Istitut du Monde Arabe" (Arab World Institute). This is the museum, where many of the statues and other artifacts found and discovered in and around Al Ula are currently on display. Besides showcasing our heritage to the world, the hope is that it will generate more interest in our heritage and ultimately increase tourism in Saudi Arabia.

What do you think about the NEOM 2030 Vision Project?
I didn't visit NEOM yet, as the city itself is still in the very early stages of construction.

What do you think about the idea of NEOM as a world capital?
I hope it will reach the expectations. NEOM is being built with the newest technology available and will hopefully be the most futuristic place on the planet. The area in which it's being built has been empty and unused for years and I think it's a good idea to expand and grow this beautiful coastline area.

How long do you reckon it will take to finish NEOM?
Probably 10 years. At this stage of construction, foreigners are more interested in NEOM than the local Saudis. Maybe due to the media interest in the project. Many Saudis are waiting to visit NEOM until construction has progressed more.

And with Nojoud's interview I'll wrapped this up. I truly hope you've gained more interest in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As one of the fastest changing places in the world I urge you to visit Saudi Arabia now. I know I'm glad I checked it off my bucket list during the very dawn of tourism and I know for sure, that I will come back to experience the changes in a near future from now. Thanks for reading and feel free to share this post to help me grow my audience and help other travellers open their minds to the beauty of Saudi Arabia.

2 comments:

  1. Awesome blog about Saudi Arabia. I hope beautiful people include this amazing country in their bucket list to visit, see and experience unique culture from north to south.

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