Have you seen the news that visiting Saudi Arabia is now a possibility for many people in the western world? It is true, the kingdom is now opening its doors to tourism which means a lot more people are planning a trip to Saudi Arabia than ever before. My son and I were lucky enough to travel to Saudi Arabia for the first time just after the country reopened post pandemic closures. We share all that we learned along the way as planning a trip to Saudi Arabia can be a bit overwhelming since it’s been closed to the outside world for so long and there isn’t a ton of information out there.
Obtaining a Visa for Visiting Saudi Arabia
First things first – you need a way to get into the country. The thing that opened the doors for tourism in Saudi was the introduction of the Saudi e-visa. The issuance of an e-visa can now be approved online in minutes. This has opened the door to visitors from all over the world. Entry visit visas cost SAR535 ($142) per person and are valid for one year with each stay no more than 90 days. The Saudi tourist visa also includes health insurance during your visit.
The eVisa (or on arrival) are available for citizens of 49 countries including the United States, UK, Canada and most European countries. Check the link above to see if your country is on the list. If you plan to conduct any work in the country you will still need to go through proper channels to obtain a business visa. Saudi tourism authority is hard at work to lure more and more western tourists to the country.
The Best Time to Travel to Saudi Arabia
As Saudi Arabia is located in the middle of a vast desert, you can imagine that the summer months will be scorching hot, however plenty of people still do visit during those months. That said, the best time of year to travel to Saudi Arabia is in the winter months from around November through April.
Be aware though that even though it can be quite warm during the day, the early morning and evening hours can be quite cold, especially if you are out in the desert going on an adventure, so don’t forget your light jacket.
Also take note of the dates of Ramadan that occurs for a month every year. In 2023, Ramadan will be celebrated from the evening of Wednesday 22 March to the end the evening of Friday 21 April, with Eid ul-Fitr celebrated on Saturday 22 April. During this time many restaurants might be closed until after sunset and it is highly recommend to not eat or drink while in public spaces. That said, I did visit Iraq during Ramadan and found it to be a good time to go as we were able to see so much more of the local culture.
What to Wear
One of the biggest inquiries on visiting Saudi Arabia is what is the dress code – especially if you are a female tourist. Having visited many conservative countries in the world, I will say that Saudi Arabia didn’t feel that different than other destinations in the world. Guidelines regarding women’s attire have relaxed in recent years, but there are still quite few norms to obverse.
Women, local or tourist, are no longer required to wear an abaya (the long flowy black dress) over their clothes, however you will see that the majority of local women do still wear them as it is the expected norm. Often times the Saudi women will have their open abaya when out and about, but close them up when around family or friends. The hijab (head covering) is not required for local or foreign women. I wore an abaya and hijab one one day, but did not the other days of my visit and did not notice any difference in how I was treated or being observed.
As with all conservative countries I do however recommend wearing modest clothing covering knees and shoulders as a show of respect to the local culture. For me, this included long skirts (down to my ankles), leggings with a dress over top, long sleeves and no low cut tops. Ideally it is a good idea to wear loose fitting clothing that is flowy, which will be best for the weather and for the local culture.
Short dress, sleeveless shirts, shorts, crop tops and the like are not allowed. Additionally, you will find that on public beaches it may not be accepted to wear a bikini swimsuit.
Check out our stories on Instagram for a day to day look at our visit in Saudi Arabia.
Other Frequently Asked Questions About Visiting Saudi Arabia
Below we share a lot of the questions we got asked after our return from Saudi and will continue to update this section as we get asked more!
Alcohol is still strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia. You will not find it in any restaurants or hotels. It is also illegal to bring it in yourself. That does not mean locals do not drink, but I would highly suggest staying away from it even if you find yourself in the company of locals who do have access. Better to be on the right side of the Saudi officials and the local laws in a newly opened country.
Cash or Credit Card?
For the most part, most places take credit card, however at the smaller market shops cash is usually expected. I will note that more than once we were given a discount even without being asked, even using our credit cards. It felt very safe and we had no issues with our cards from the United States.
One of the things I love most about travel in a Muslim country is the call to prayer. Yes, this happens several times a day, often very early in the morning as well. We loved hearing the call and were not bothered by it, but if you are a light sleeper you might consider bringing ear plugs or a sound machine.
Rental Car or Public Transportation?
During our visit we had a car and driver which was amazing. However if I were to go again, I would try to take buses between destinations when possible and then hire a car if I wasn’t doing a local tour. I will say that you can do a lot on your own as the roads are nice and well signposted, but to get the most out of the experience I would highly suggest a local guide.
Does Saudi Feel Safe?
Yes! I always felt so safe in Saudi everywhere we went. Even being a solo female traveling on my own with my son, I never felt like we were in the wrong place or that we should worry about our personal safety. I am sure there is petty crime like any place in the world, but overall we felt very safe and secure here.
Note that often times there are strict security measures when entering malls, festival grounds or public places where lots of people congregate. There are often seperate entrances for men and women to have their belongings searched. Also, it was often the case that we were told we could not bring in our big cameras.
Can Unmarried Man and Woman Share a Hotel Room?
I did not experience this personally, but I have read that it is now possible for unmarried men and women foreign tourists to share hotel rooms. In the past this was not the case, but as things are opening up more and more I expect this will continue. I would not be surprised that smaller towns or small family run hotels might still raise an eyebrow or two.
Is it Ethical to Visit Saudi Arabia?
This is one for each person to decide on their own. The Saudi government is known for its human rights issues, but I also feel personally that it is moving in the correct direction. For me personally, if I didn’t visit places that had questionable government practices I probably wouldn’t be able to go anywhere even in my home country! The tourism sector here is still new and growing and with that I think more will change over time as well.
Where to Go in Saudi Arabia
The main destinations that tourists are visiting in Saudi Arabia right now include the capital Riyadh, the port city of Jeddah, the desert oasis town of AlUla and the mountain villages of Jizan. However, just these 4 destinations alone comprise more than 3500 km. This country is large and will take some time to get around if you want to see much. You can also expect to fly at least once between your destinations. There is a budget airline called flyadeal which if you book in advance can offer good rates between major cities.
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The capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is Riyadh. It is here that most international flights will arrive and as such it makes sense to begin and end your journey here. Having visited many Middle Eastern countries, I will say that Riyadh has its own feel. It isn’t like nearby neighbors in the United Arab Emirates with fancy shopping malls and sports cars jipping around the city, but also not quite like other countries in the area. It is a city filled with culture and history, has all the modern conveniences you will need, but also just outside of the city you can find yourself dune bashing up massive sand dunes.
Our top picks for Riyadh include Masmak Fort in the Old City, Red Sand Dunes and Ad Diriyah outside of the city and sunset at the Skybridge Tower for a view over town.
During our visit we didn’t have time to get to Jeddah, but it is high on our list as it looks so fun and we have heard it’s the more progressive of the major cities in Saudi Arabia. Formed in the 7th century AD for Muslims going to Mecca who are arriving by sea. From what we heard from locals, Jeddah is where you will find the hipsters in Saudi in the many local cafes opening up more and more. Top things to do in Jeddah include visiting the Al Balad, area which is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site and most expats in the city. As Jeddah is located on the shores of the Red Sea you must make a visit here where you will even see women wearing bikinis! While in town, also check out Al Wahba Crater which is believed to be caused by a meteorite. And finally, the Floating Mosque which is on the sea.
Al Ula is one already one of the most famous touristic destinations in Saudi Arabia and for good reason. This desert oasis has centuries old heritage sites, opportunities to venture far into the desert for its natural beauty and stunning eco friendly hotels. One of the biggest draws for visitors here is Hegra or Madinah Saleh which was an ancient city founded by local tribes over 5000 years ago. The Romans conquered Hegra (and Petra in Jordan) but more than 100 tombs made out of the desert rocks still remain. It is an interesting site as it is virtually empty, but still as fascinating at Petra in Jordan!
In addition to Hegra, you can get out into the desert in search of beautiful rock structures for all your IG photo needs, you can visit Al Deerah Heritage Village (the Old Town) to see the 2000 year old mud based ghost town that is left. There are amazing restaurants, cafes build into the sand and some of the only tourist type shopping we saw in the country. I could easily spend more than a few days here soaking up everything around as well as checking out the super cool desert glamping options that have cropped up since our last visit.
If you are looking to get off the beaten path a bit, then Jizan is where you should head. The dramatic mountains and Yemeni-like culture is totally different from any other place you might be visiting in Saudi Arabia. It is well worth the effort to get here to really explore the Yemeni culture in Saudi.
The places to visit in this area are Fayfa and Absiyah, two mountain villages where you will find the famous hills with those terrace fields Jizan is known for. It is a great opportunity to get a close view of local traditions as well.
Why is Mecca not included here?
One of the stated entry requirements with your tourist visa is that you can go anywhere inside Saudi Arabia except Mecca and Medina which are the two holiest religious sites for Muslims. These destinations are held sacred for Muslims and every year Muslims from around the world make a pilgrimage here. While tourists would find it very interesting, it is best to respect their rules and wishes and steer clear if you are not Muslim.
Where to Stay While Visiting Saudi Arabia
There are an abundance of hotels in most towns and cities. During our visit, we went luxury and stayed at the Four Seasons in Riyadh and the Sahary AlUla Resort in Al-Ula. Both of these offered great amenities and guides. However I will say that there are many many new options that have opened up since our last visit which include RV and desert glamping outside of Al Ula which is what we had hoped to find last time.
Regardless of where you wish to stay, plug in your dates on the map below to see all the options available within the country to see what is available when visiting Saudi Arabia. You can move the map around to see different areas – for now I have set it on Riyadh.
If you have the opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia I would highly recommend it as it is a unique country offering a glimpse into how tourism the tourism industry can just begin fresh.
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