If there is a final frontier of tourism left, it's Saudi Arabia. The birthplace and spiritual home of Islam, Saudi Arabia is rich in attractions and stirring symbolism. For Muslims, the cities of Mecca and Medina, rich in Prophetic significance, have no equal, while the carved temples of Madain Saleh, known as the second Petra, and the sophisticated rock art at Jubbah are the Kingdom's greatest pre-Islamic treasures.
Other wonders abound, from echoes of TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) along the Hejaz Railway to the sculpted red dunes of romantic deserts. Fascinating Riyadh is a showpiece for modern Saudi Arabia, while Jeddah's World Heritage coral architecture whisks you back to the history of this bustling pilgrim port. The pristine, azure waters of the Red Sea ache to be explored and in the south, the jewel in the Kingdom's crown, Asir, reveals breathtaking mountain scenery where mysterious and spectacular villages wait to be discovered.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Saudi Arabia.
One of only two mosques in the world that can accommodate a million people, the Prophet’s Mosque holds deep significance for Muslims all over the world. It is said to have been built by the Prophet himself in AD 622 and not only encompasses his final resting place (alongside the first two caliphs) beneath the iconic green dome built by the Ottomans, it also covers where his house once stood, adjacent to the mosque when it was just a modest square mud-and-wood building.
MosqueAl Masjid Al Haram
The focal point for every Muslim and the biggest mosque in the world, Al Masjid Al Haram is able to host a million worshippers and covers an area of 356,800 sq metres. At its epicentre is the Holy Kaaba, covered in black and gold cloth, around which Muslims can be found circumnavigating night and day (known as tawaf). It's the holiest structure in all of Islam, and is at the heart of the Islamic pilgrimages (hajj and umrah).
Rock ArtJubbah Rock Carvings
This is arguably the Kingdom's premier pre-Islamic site and open-air art gallery. Covering an area measuring 39 sq km are some of the most impressive petroglyphs (rock carvings) you are likely to ever see. The finest carvings date from around 5500 BC, when much of this area was an inland lake and inhabitants carved game animals that came to the waters. Elegant rock-cut ibex, oryx and camels abound, as well as significant Thamudic inscriptions dating to 1000 BC.
Historic SiteMasmak Fortress
Surrounded by sand, this squat fortification was built around 1865 and is like a scene out of the movies: a big fortress representing an empire. It was the site of a daring 1902 raid by Ibn Saud, during which a spear was hurled at the main entrance door with such force that the head is still lodged in the doorway. Highlights among the exhibits include maps and fascinating photographs of Saudi Arabia dating from 1912 to 1937, in galleries converted from diwans (living rooms).
Historic SitePearl Merchants' Neighbourhood
Staring at the mesmerising geometric and floral designs of the carved patterns that adorn the houses and arched gateways of Farasan's former pearl merchants, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the midst of Andalusian or Mughal ruins. The best preserved house is the stunning Rifai house, built by wealthy pearl merchant Munawwar Al Refai in 1922, but it is locked up. Fortunately, several near-complete and dilapidated examples close by are accessible.
This state-of-the-art museum is one of the finest in the Middle East. Encased within modernist architecture, its two floors contain eight well-designed and informative galleries covering Arabian prehistory, history, culture and art. The galleries beautifully display evocative rock carvings, engaging models and even a full-scale reconstruction of a Nabataean tomb from Madain Saleh. Films in English shown on 180-degree screens complement the exhibits, as do virtual visits to historical sites and other excellent interactive displays.
The 'Abode of Silence', or the Empty Quarter, covers almost 655,000 sq km and evokes all that was romantic and forbidden for European adventurers, such as British explorer Wilfred Thesiger who famously crossed it. The Bedouin simply call it 'the sands', and its dunes, which can reach up to 300m high, form long chains of sculpted ridges that always look as if they're missing the silhouette of a camel caravan.
The biggest miqat (pilgrim station) complex in Saudi Arabia, this fort-like mosque rises up like a North African kasbah on the southwestern edge of Medina, marking the point at which would-be pilgrims have to assume the state of ihram (purity) ahead of making their journey south to Al Masjid Al Haram and the Kaaba in Mecca. This stunning world-class mosque has almost 2000 showers, toilets and ablution stations integrated into the perimeter wall, which is styled like an ancient city wall.
ViewpointAl Ula Viewpoint
The views as you wind your way up to this gem of a spot offer glimpses of what's to come. At the top, the road plateaus through a windswept, lunar landscape of black basalt rock, before arriving at a sad-looking park with a precarious fence at its edge. Suddenly the breathtaking view comes into sight and the entire Al Ula valley, surrounded by majestic red-rock mountains disappearing into the horizon, sprawls out before you like a surreal painting.
Whether it’s a guided tour of a historic landmark, private tasting of local delicacies, or an off-road adventure — explore the best experiences in Saudi Arabia.
Experience a world beyond in Qatar
Surrounded by the Arabian Gulf, Qatar seamlessly blends cultural heritage with modernity. This warm and friendly peninsula offers a wealth of attractions from iconic art and culture museums to historic heritage sites and souqs, from beautiful beaches and desert escapes to family fun at brand new theme parks. The best hotel brands, restaurants, spas, and shops have created an oasis of adventure and relaxation in the heart of the Middle East.