Mecca is only accessible by Muslims, who often describe the moment they first lay eyes on the city's sacred Kaaba as an overwhelmingly emotional experience. For those living outside the Kingdom, a visit to Mecca – generally spelt 'Makkah' by Muslims and in Saudi Arabia – is a lifelong dream. Coming here to perform the hajj pilgrimage is a religious obligation for all Muslims who are financially and physically able to do so.
The birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, Mecca is awash with monuments of religious symbolism. Born of the desert, this is a modern city with the heart of an ancient Arabian village. Despite the immense construction projects around the city's sacred Kaaba – the most controversial being the clock tower – sun-bleached homes still nestle in the rocky hillsides and everywhere you look men dressed in two simple cotton sheets wander its streets.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Mecca.
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).
This little museum is brimming with relics from the two holy mosques, Al Masjid Al Haram in Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. These include pillars, marble insignia and historical photos. Some items date as far back as the 13th-century Abbasid period. There are two standout items: the ornate teak wooden stairwell on wheels, which the Ottomans used to access the Kaaba in the 1820s, and a historic pair of the Kaaba's spectacular giant gilded metal doors.
This small mountain (761m) is where the Prophet hid for three days with his companion Abu Bakr from the Quraysh tribe. According to Islamic custom, an acacia tree grew rapidly in front of the cave while the men were hiding here. In the tree a dove built a nest and laid eggs, while a spider spun a web over the cave’s entrance to protect the men from detection, all of this marking the place as a sign of faith and hope.
The 640m-tall Jabal Al Nour is the location of the tiny Hira cave and one of the most important Islamic pilgrimage sites. According to Islamic tradition, it was here that the archangel Gabriel gave the Prophet his first revelation. Reaching the cave entails a difficult hike that takes even the fittest hiker around two hours. Temperatures can reach 45°C, so bring plenty of water and food, and exercise extreme caution when making the climb.
Also known as the Mountain of Mercy, this granite hill is an important part of performing the hajj as pilgrims leave Mina for Arafat on the ninth day to recite the Quran and pray. It is also the site where the Prophet delivered his famous last sermon shortly before his death. It's more hill than mountain these days, with stairs leading to the peak providing relatively easy access. Vendors sell markers here, but be aware that writing on the hillside is illegal.
Formerly Al Zahir Palace, the 3435-sq-metre Makkah Museum has a collection ranging from images of Saudi Arabia’s important archaeological discoveries to exhibits on pre-Islamic history. An interesting presentation traces the origins of Islamic calligraphy with references to Arabic fonts and samples of inscriptions discovered in archaeological digs. A hall on Islamic art complements the calligraphy displays.
Many of the Prophet’s family are buried here, including his first wife, Khadija, his sons Qasim and Abdullah, his uncle, Abu Talib, and his grandfather, Abdul Muttalib. However, the fear of practices such as grave veneration has led Saudi authorities to all but stop visits to the site, except when a funeral takes place. Even then women are not permitted inside.
These remnants of Masjid Al Bay'ah mark the spot where tribal leaders pledged their allegiance to Muhammad in AD 621. Simple in design, an arched entrance opens into an uncovered area where a row of arches close to the mihrab (imam's niche) gives way to a larger courtyard. Prayer rugs sit piled up for anyone wanting to pray here.
Although the Saudi authorities claim there is no evidence to confirm it, many Muslims believe this is the spot where the Prophet Muhammad was born in around AD 570. As a result this modest two-storey structure, which is now a library, is surrounded by signs warning against 'disapproved' devotional behaviour, but there's no information about the Prophet's birth. That hasn't stopped some pilgrims from inscribing their blessings and prayers on the walls.