Saudi Arabia travel guide, including map of Saudi Arabia, top Saudi travel experiences, tips for travel in Saudi Arabia, plus advice for women travellers
For Muslims, Saudi Arabia is the world's greatest travel destination - the home of Mecca, and the object of the haj pilgrimage.
For non-Muslims, on the other hand, it is an undeniably challenging place to travel – this is an orthodox Islamic country with an often dim view of the West. Wanderlust readers voted the country their least desirable destination in 2008. Tourist groups require a police escort, alcohol is forbidden, and all women are expected to wear the abaya - a long, black gown - in public.
For those who persevere, though, treasures await. The Nabatean rock city of Madain Saleh – world-famous Petra's little-known twin sister – heads a long list of ancient and natural attractions: mountain walking, one of the world’s greatest deserts, Mecca itself, houses hewn from coral, spectacular diving and table-groaning Bedouin feasts.
And beyond the sights, there's the cultural divide itself. Troubling but fascinating, Saudi Arabia presents a moral code at odds with Western norms. For visitors and expats who make the effort to understand it, that contrast is perhaps its most revealing and remarkable feature.
Few western tour operators feature Saudi Arabia. Groups of four or more travellers can obtain a visa through a licensed tour operator in Saudi Arabia, which will also create your tour.
Women under 30 must travel with their husband, father or brother. For more on Saudi etiquette, read our guide to Middle East customs in the Advice area of the site.
Saudi Arabia has a desert climate with high temperatures for most of the year. There is little rainfall. Winters can be cold, especially in the northwest. The best time to visit is between November and February. During April to October, temperatures reach 40°C+. Many visitors to the country are Muslim pilgrims heading to Islam’s spiritual heartland, Mecca. The Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca happens in mid to late January.
Riyadh (RUH) 35km from the city, Dhahran (DHA) 13 km from the city, Jeddah (JED) 19km from the city.
Be warned, women are not allowed to drive a car or ride a bike in public in Saudi Arabia and must be accompanied by their husband or a male relative on inter-city buses. Most westerners travel by air or private vehicle. However, buses aren’t bad and useful if you’re trying to get around Asir or Al-Ula.
Saudi Arabia is not cheap. You’ll need a passport to check into any hostel or hostel and women traveling alone will also need a letter from their sponsor. There are a few youth hostels (men only) but these are often outside cities. The only camping grounds are in the Asir National Park. Saudi Arabia has many excellent 5 star hotels and a good choice of mid-range hotels. Cheaper hotels tend to be grim so spend more if you can.
Saudi food is delicious. If you’re on a budget you’ll be eating plenty of grilled chicken, fool (fava bean paste) and shwarma (beef or chicken in pita bread). Look out for mezze, a selection of delights to nibble on such as hummus, lahm bi-ajin (minature lamb pies), kofta (meat balls) and waraq aynab (stuffed vine leaves). Samak mashwi (barbequed fish basted in date puree) is particularly good. Vegetarians will find a greater choice in large cities. Alcohol is banned.
The security situation has improved in the past few years but all tour groups still require a police escort. Violent street crime is almost nonexistent. Homosexuality is a crime that comes with harsh penalties.
Tap water is not safe to drink. Check with your GP before travelling to ensure that vaccinations are up to date. Heatstroke is a real danger in Saudi Arabia. Drink plenty of fluids and take it easy during the hottest parts of the day.