When you consider taking an exquisite vacation to the Middle East you typically consider going to Egypt or Jordan or Dubai. Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly a hot travel destination, mainly because its borders were closed to the outside, except for business or religious reasons. But the country has recently started to issue tourist visas, making it more accessible for foreigners to come see what the country has to offer.
First you might be asking yourself, what should I wear? As a muslim majority country you should adhere to a strict dress code. You shouldn’t wear tight fitted clothing or expose bare skin except for face, hands and feet. For women, wearing an abaya is the norm and you can find some on Amazon. Typically Saudi women also wear a hijab but I have seen women in more liberal parts of the country without fully covering their hair. It’s good to take some scarves with you to just loosely wear over your head.
Located right beside the Red Sea, Jeddah is one Saudi’s more liberal cities. It has the most gorgeous waterfront I’ve ever seen. Felt like a little oasis in this bustling city, with lush palm trees, gorgeous fountains and a boardwalk that lit up. The tallest fountain in the world, King Fahd’s Fountain, is also located in Jeddah and you can see it from miles away. Seriously the things oil money can buy.
Right by the Red Sea is a “floating mosque.” It’s not literally floating on the sea, it’s situated on a boardwalk off land and stabilized by pillars underneath. But when there’s a high tide it does give the illusion that it’s floating in the sea.
As far as I know Mecca is the only city restricted to Muslims only. Muslims from all around the world gather there for Hajj or Umrah. Hajj can only be done during a certain time during the year depending on the lunar calendar, but Umrah can be performed all year round (except during the weeks of Hajj).
Mosque al-Haram, which houses the Kaaba, is the biggest mosque in the world and is still undergoing construction. The floor is made of marble which is beautiful in terms of architecture but hurts your feet when you’re walking barefoot. The mosque is open 24/7 and is always filled with people. When I went to perform Umrah it was midnight and it was still packed. Despite huge crowds it somehow felt very peaceful.
Right beside the mosque there is a Clock Tower. This clock tower puts London’s Big Ben to shame. You can see the tower miles before you even enter the city. Not only is it massive but inside there are multiple hotels as well as a huge multi-level mall (the things oil money can buy).
Medina is home to the Prophet Muhammad (swa). As such it is another incredibly holy site for Muslims. Al-Masjid an-Nabawi was built by the Prophet and is also his final resting place. Medina is a little more lenient than Mecca as they do allow anyone entry into the city, however only Muslims can go inside the mosque.
What I enjoyed the most was the plaza around the mosque. Surrounding the mosque are hundreds of giant mechanical umbrellas designed to look like date trees. I love how innovative the umbrellas are. Many people pray outside as the mosque fills up quickly. A great way to escape that desert heat. The umbrellas are open during the day and close at night.
Medina is surrounded by a valley of mountains. This valley is a popular area for picnics and desert fun, like riding a camel or ATVs. It’s also got a very unique road. Basically if you put your car in neutral, your car will start to move on its own without pressing the accelerator! Despite being a woman of science, I was baffled when our taxi put his car on neutral and it was still moving! This valley is call Wad-e-Jinn as the locals believe it’s possessed by a spirit. I believe the mountains covering the area must be creating some sort of magnetic field that can move vehicles on the road (though it’s much more fun to believe the road is possessed).
Saudi Arabia has it’s fair shares of hidden gems. I didn’t go to Riyadh, the capital, but I know there’s some worthwhile sites to explore. For instance, right outside of Riyadh they have a Great Canyon-esk valley (visit Saudi’s tourism site for more info). It’s nice to see other countries become accessible to outsiders. Hopefully in the future more countries will follow.