Visiting Saudi: An Introduction
For me, Saudi was always the Schrodinger’s Cat of countries: I simultaneously wanted to visit and didn’t want to visit. I’ve had friends over the years who lived there with their families as ex-pats and it seemed fascinating – a wealthy country mostly hidden from the world, with no tourism beyond Muslims visiting the holy city of Mecca. But Saudi always seems to make headlines for the wrong reasons.
I turned down an invitation to visit two years ago – right after Saudi started issuing tourist visas for the first time. But COVID changed everything. When I was invited this year, I jumped on it. I truly love the Middle East, I wanted to travel again in a normal way (Saudi’s virus rates are low and its vaccination rates high), I wanted to see Saudi’s modernization with my own eyes, and I wanted to talk to the people. When there’s a country where citizens don’t elect their leaders, that’s where I want to travel deeper and meet the people beyond the headlines. Plus, the takeaway from my friends who went two years ago was that yes, Saudi wants tourism, but there’s not a lot to do. Has that changed?
I accepted an invitation to visit Jeddah and Riyadh with absolutely no requirements of positive coverage, and this blog post wasn’t a requirement.
Flying to Saudi
I left Los Angeles on a Sunday afternoon, flew 16 hours or so to Doha, Qatar, had a layover for six hours, and then flew two more hours to Jeddah, on the Red Sea. This was the simplest itinerary I could find, I love flying Qatar Airways, and if I’m going to have a layover anywhere, Doha’s amazing airport is a good place to do it. Other options were Paris, Frankfurt and London, but they weren’t perfect – there are a lot more flights into Riyadh from Europe than into Jeddah. My flight arrived just a little late.
At the airport in Jeddah I put my backpack through the arrival x-ray and I was immediately flagged for having a “professional” camera – my standard DSLR, which at this point pales in comparison technologically to my cell phone. My passport was taken and I was told to go to “the office” after picking up my checked bag. I did that, my checked bag was x-rayed to make sure I didn’t have more camera equipment, and after a little explanation of why I was in Jeddah, I got my passport back. Note to Saudi: if you want to encourage tourism, maybe don’t hassle people with cameras. If you’re just coming in with your cell phone you’ll be fine.
Jeddah dates back to the 7th century. It was always the gateway to Mecca (an hour away by car) and as more pilgrims have come through, the city has grown from half a million people in 1974 to 4.7 million now. It’s also Saudi’s primary port – the largest port on the Red Sea.
Jeddah’s most interesting sites are the old town (Al-Balad), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the waterfront/corniche, and the Tayebat Museum, which details the history of Islam and the history, architecture and culture of both Jeddah and Saudi. I genuinely enjoyed spending two days in Jeddah seeing the sites, and as this is the start of Saudi tourism, there aren’t a lot of other visitors yet. It’s a good time to go.
Where to Stay and Dine in Jeddah
We stayed at The Venue. I love the location, and being able to walk along the waterfront in the morning. The hotel was ok. There are several hotels that look nicer, including the Rosewood and Park Hyatt, and there are others being built, including a Shangri-La and Raffles. Just be aware that Jeddah is attracting a lot of major events, from film festivals and food festivals to Formula One races, so be sure to book your hotel well in advance.
From Jeddah we flew one hour to Riyadh. Our highlights over four days:
Riyadh Season encompasses activities, venues and events at sites throughout the city, all open during the cooler months of the year (it’s not fun being outside in the Middle East in the summer). We spent two nights at two Riyadh Season locations, the Winter Wonderland amusement park and Boulevard Riyadh, a mash-up of Las Vegas, New York and Universal Orlando. Winter Wonderland was a lot of fun, with carnival rides and games, and Boulevard was extremely impressive. There’s a Cirque du Soleil show there, an hourly fountain show, musical performances, and activities like the world’s widest slide, but really Boulevard is about wandering around a place that’s visually amazing at every turn. Plus there are excellent restaurants and quick food options throughout.
The Diriyah Biennale
The inaugural Diriyah Biennale just opened and we were lucky to be invited to the opening celebration. It will be held every two years for three months, showcasing Saudi and international artists. Definitely check it out if you visit when it’s taking place.
The Museum of Happiness
The Museum of Happiness lives up to its name – a dozen or so themed, colorful rooms, designed to inspire positive thoughts…and designed for Instagram. I don’t know that I would have had much fun in the museum if I was traveling solo, but with a group of friends? It’s perfect!
The Red Sand Dunes
An hour east of Riyadh are the Red Sand Dunes. I’ve loved desert excursions throughout the world, which usually include some combination of dunes, camels, dune bashing, ATVs, falconry, sand boarding, desert meals and spectacular vistas. This sunrise trip (through Ghazi Tours) included coffee, dune bashing, ATVs, sand boarding and amazing dunes. It’s maybe my favorite morning ever in the desert, simply because the dunes were stunning and there was no one else around. Seriously, visit Saudi before it becomes too touristed!
And after I returned home, I received a DM inviting me to try paragliding at the Red Dunes next time, so that’s an option too.
The Sky Bridge
At the top of Kingdom Center, more than twice as high as the Four Seasons’ rooms, is the Sky Bridge. It’s not super exciting, but it’s a good chance to see the best view in Riyadh – even better than the rooms at the Four Seasons. Go in the late afternoon for the best light.
Where to Stay and Dine in Riyadh
We stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh. Everything about the hotel is perfect, from the breakfast buffet to the service to the rooms. It’s the 11th Four Seasons I’ve stayed at and one of the best. It’s not cheap though – anywhere between $400 and $1000/night depending on when you’re visiting. Opt for a bed/breakfast rate if you can, since otherwise the breakfast buffet is over $50.
We had a lot of amazing meals in Riyadh, and they were mostly Saudi – a nice change from visiting neighboring countries where it’s hard to find local cuisine. I don’t want to visit the Middle East and eat at a western chain restaurant! Our best meals were at Alnakheel at Boulevard, Najd Village (where you take off your shoes and sit on the floor) and Off White.
What to Wear When Visiting Saudi
I received a lot of comments on my Instagram Stories questioning head coverings for women. Head coverings aren’t mandatory, for visitors or for Saudis. A lot of Saudi women still completely cover their heads, but more and more we met Saudis who are opting out.
As far as dress, Saudi is still a conservative country. Don’t wear shorts and don’t have uncovered shoulders, and maybe leave the graphic t-shirts at home. Otherwise Western dress is fine. I wore jeans every day and plain t-shirts and polos (from Unbound Merino). I also brought a sweatshirt for cool evenings and a puffy jacket for the morning at the desert, although I shed it quickly. I got by with just one pair of shoes – athletic shoes from OluKai. Super-easy to pack light for Saudi.
What We Didn’t Do
What’s Going on in Saudi
Saudi’s committed to bringing in major events. For a calendar of everything going on right now, click here.
Saudi impressed me. I don’t know what I expected – probably uninteresting cities without much to do. But I loved seeing how Jeddah’s preserving its history, both in the city and in museums, and I really enjoyed everything going on in Riyadh. The desert experience was excellent, and Riyadh Season blew me away – especially Boulevard. The food everywhere was excellent – better than I’ve had in neighboring countries.
The people everywhere were amazing – from guides and drivers to media to random people who started conversations with us, everyone was warm and welcoming. And I received dozens of DMs on Instagram from Saudis who were genuinely interested in what I thought of their country, asking for both positives and negatives. I’ve never experienced that when posting from anywhere else.
The road system is annoying. In both Jeddah and Riyadh it seemed like we often had to go several km out of our way just to make u-turns. Jeddah has virtually no stoplights and I didn’t see overpasses – the roads just snake. Riyadh is a little better, but still traffic didn’t seem efficient compared to other cities of a similar size. Riyadh’s metro is about to open which may help a little, but Saudis love their cars.
Saudi’s modernizing quickly, both in terms of infrastructure and in its policies. Now’s a good time to go – there are very few places in the world where it’s possible to be one of the first tourists!
My Photos from Jeddah and Riyadh
As professional cameras were frowned upon, I shot almost everything in Jeddah and Riyadh with my iPhone. I also took a lot of short videos, which can be seen on my Saudi Instagram Highlight.
Saudi – Your Turn
If you’ve traveled to Saudi, please comment below with what’s worthwhile that we didn’t get to. I’m tempted to head back and explore some more while it’s still untouristed – and while my one-year tourist visa is still valid.