15 most beautiful places to visit in Saudi Arabia

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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been shrouded in intrigue and mystery being closed to all but religious tourists for years. But with tourist visas now available, intrepid travellers can finally explore this enigmatic country full of interesting cultural and historical sites. Here are the best places to visit in Saudi Arabia.

Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter)

Rub' al Khali directly translates to "Quarter of Emptiness" and it is no surprise as it is the largest sand desert on Earth. The arid sands span 250,000 square miles, covering much of the southern Arabian Peninsula, and is shared by Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Step in the footsteps of the explorer Bertram Thomas, who crossed the Omani Empty Quarter in 1930, in a 4x4 expedition. Wild camp beneath the stars by a warming fire before waking up early to watch the sun rise over the rolling dunes.

 

HEGRA

There are perhaps no more recognisable sights in Saudi than the monumental rock-cut tombs suspended in the majestic desert at Hegra, near Al Ula in the heart of the kingdom. If these 131 enigmatic mausoleums recall the ancient ruins of Petra, that’s because they were built in the first century AD by the Nabataeans, the same nomadic warrior-traders behind Jordan’s wonder of the world. But while Petra hosts more than a million visitors a year, Hegra remains relatively undiscovered, attracting more wildlife than tourists. That might change in the next few years: Aman, Banyan Tree and Tulum-born Habitas are among the hotel groups opening eco- and heritage-sensitive camps around what could be one of the big destinations of the 2020s.

 

Edge of the World

 
 
This escarpment northwest of Riyadh offers endless views, so look for interesting rock formations or angles that show the sheer drop to really illustrate how the area lives up to its name. The abundant fossils in the area come to life at golden hour, presenting another interesting shot at sunset.

 

UMLUJ

It’s not hard to see why this unassuming coastal town and region is often referred to as the Maldives of Saudi Arabia. To the north of the town, 104 atolls are scattered across a corner of the Red Sea that is most definitely turquoise. The quintessential Umluj activity is an island-hop – spotting dolphins on the way to outcrops including Jabal Hassan to snorkel, fish or laze on white sandbars, becoming as relaxed as the dugongs and hawksbill turtles that swim around these islets. This is also a world-class dive area; much quieter than Red Sea hotspots such as Sharm El Sheikh, but with a technicolour bounty of 1,200 fish species and 300 types of coral, four times as many as you’ll find in the Caribbean. Sustainable resorts are under development on a selected few islands, but most of the area is a thrillingly untouched natural aquarium.

 

Jeddah Corniche

 
While it is hard to beat a view of the sun dipping into the Red Sea, it pays to look for added interest, like the sun setting behind King Fahd Fountain, or waiting until you can combine the last sunset colors with the lit-up Mamluk Mosque Lamps on Al Andalus Street. On nights when the sunset is more pastel, it’s worth seeking out the Floating Mosque, which appears to hover over the waves.

 

Dhee Ayn Village

 
Once you have explored every nook and cranny of this 400-year-old stone settlement, head down to the road in front of the village to catch it illuminated by the last bit of the day’s sun. You’ll see why it’s called the Marble Village as the pale slate pops against the dark mountains.

 

Asfar Lake

 
No matter what time of day you visit, the contrast between the blue lake and golden dunes is striking, but it comes alive at sunset. Climb up high for the best view, and be patient as the colors change the water, sand and sky. While Asfar Lake (also known as Yellow Lake) is the star of the show, keep an eye out for interesting dune formations or little details along the shoreline.

 

Al Disah Valley

 
Plan ahead for sunset views here — high canyon walls mean that golden hour is earlier. Down on the ground, look for reflective pools to help show the rock formations. If you have the chance, venture up to higher ground to gain a perspective on just how magnificent Al Disah Valley is.

 

AL BALAD, JEDDAH

Many Saudi cities have a historic quarter, often called Al Balad and marked by the scent of exotic spices and the beautiful cries of the call to prayer. Balad in Jeddah, Saudi’s cosmopolitan port city, is the most evocative of all – a series of tight alleyways between ancient coral-stone merchants' houses, home to oud sellers, clove-scented traditional bakeries and the vast, glowing Souq Al Alawi. Since it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014, many of the area’s vast, crumbling mansions have been sensitively restored, including the grand 106-room Nasseef House – now a museum and cultural centre hosting art and photography exhibitions as well as lectures by academics. What’s more, galleries, mangour woodcrafting workshops and cool cafés are breathing new life into once-derelict buildings, giving a district built in the seventh century a bright future. 

 

Farasan Island

 
By the time the sun is setting, you’ll probably be heading back to the main island after a day of exploring the little islands. This is the perfect time to snap silhouettes of the many boats or even see dolphins. If you’re on the main island, the area around Beit Al Refai or one of the many beaches are ideal for taking in the sunset.

 

Al Wahbah Crater

 
The reward for scrambling back up to the edge of Al Wahbah Crater is being able to watch the setting sun tint the white crater floor. Look for an angle where you can capture the last rays dropping below the crater’s edge.

 

DIRIYAH

Few sites are more striking than the ancient desert city of Diriyah, wrapped in the green oasis of Wadi Hanifa just outside Riyadh. It was once a hotbed of culture, a historic crossroads for pilgrims and traders throughout the centuries, and the ancestral seat of the royal dynasty. Today Diriyah’s museums, such as the spectacular Salwa Palace, delve into the citadel’s storied past. Dotted around its magnificent mud-brick architecture and lining its palm-fringed avenues, restaurants and coffee shops also nod to tradition with Najdi plates such as gereesh bil laban, cracked wheat cooked in a yogurt sauce.

 

Al Soudah

 
The trouble with Al Soudah is that there are almost no bad views, which means it is very popular. Head up Jabal Sawda until you find a good vantage point, and settle in for a show. A zoom lens can help create dramatic images of the sun going down among the layers of peaks. Don’t get too distracted by the view, though — the baboons are always on the prowl for leftovers!

 

Tarout Castle

 
 
The area around Tarout Castle is a lovely place to watch the sun set over Tarout Island, especially the eye-catching mosque just below. Too much work to climb up? In the rainy season, the puddles are perfect for reflecting the castle and palm trees.

 

Green Arts Park

This unique park in King Abdullah Economic City is full of hedges artfully trimmed into a menagerie of animal shapes. If you have already filled your camera roll with sunset dunes and mountains, this might be the place to grab some sunset selfies with a leafy camel.