There haven't always been a lot of opportunities for travelers to visit Saudi Arabia. In fact, obtaining an entry visa has often been difficult and challenging for most foreigners looking to visit the Kingdom. But, thanks to revised rules and a loosening of restrictions, it is now possible for visitors from 49 countries to obtain an e-visa or a visa upon entry. That means more travelers than ever can make their way into the country, which should go a long way towards opening up lines of communication and demystifying some preconceptions of what it is like there.
But why would any traveler want to visit Saudi Arabia in the first place? Because it is a country with a rich history, a deep culture, and plenty of opportunities for adventure. Here's what you should do while you're there.
Wander Through the Empty Quarter
Covering more than 250,000 square miles, the Empty Quarter—or Rub' al Khali as it is known locally—is a vast sea of sand that is amongst the largest deserts on Earth. There is great beauty to be found in this vast wilderness however, with sunsets over the massive dunes being especially breathtaking as the rolling hills spill off into the distance.Opportunities to travel in the Empty Quarter include day trips by 4x4 vehicle or overnight excursions that include trekking or riding camels, camping under the stars, and wandering through a place that is seldom seen by outsiders. If you're truly looking to get away from it all while in Saudi Arabia, this is the place to go.
Explore an Ancient City Made of Stone
While Petra in Jordan gets most of the attention, the Nabatean people who built that site left remnants of their civilization in other places too. Take for example Mada'in Saleh, which was once an ancient city and stopover point for merchant caravans that roamed across the Middle East more than 2,000 years ago. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest Nabatean city after Petra and in many ways it is just as impressive. Visitors will find numerous tombs and other structures carved from the surrounding stone, with several locations used for religious ceremonies that date back to well before Islam spread across the Arabian Peninsula.
Witness Ancient Rock Art in Jubbah
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jubbah is home to some of the oldest petroglyph rock art in the Middle East. The carvings found there date back more than 10,000 years and depict both humans and animals. But most impressive of all is the fact that the primitive art is spread out across more than 24 square miles of territory, making it quite a challenge to take it all in. Some of the art, which dates back to 5500 B.C., depicts creatures that are not all that common in Saudi Arabia these days, including ibex and oryx, which once roamed the region in large numbers when it was a more fertile and temperate place.
Dive and Snorkel on the Red Sea
The Red Sea is one of the top diving destinations in the entire world, offering up coral reefs, colorful fish, and plenty of wrecks to explore. Generally speaking, Egypt gets most of the attention amongst divers, but now that Saudi Arabia has become more accessible, it is sure to draw plenty of visitors too. They're likely to find dive spots that are largely untouched and uncrowded, with very few others in the water. This is quite a difference from the Egyptian coastline, which can get very busy during the high season. Snorkelers will find a lot to love here too for many of the same reasons, with plenty of opportunities to spot large schools of fish and explore healthy coral reefs along the way.
Visit a 2,000-Year Old Ghost Town
The arid desert has a way of preserving things and keeping them in surprisingly good condition, even hundreds of years after they have been abandoned. Such is the case with the city of Al 'Ula, a place that over time has gradually become a ghost town, despite tracing its origins back for more than 2,000 years. Made up of more than 800 buildings, most of which are a mashup of various architectural styles, Al 'Ula is a monument to the history and culture of the people that have lived in the region for millennia. Still, it is a bit eerie to walk down the deserted streets and explore the empty buildings while thinking about the people that have inhabited this place in the past. Its final residents left more than 35 years ago, but the echoes of those that once called the city home still remain.
Hike and Camp at Al Wahbah Crater
Once thought to have been created by a meteor that crashed into the Earth, Al Wahbah Crater is actually the result of volcanic activity. Measuring more than 1.2 miles across and 800 feet deep, the crater is a striking landmark in an otherwise flat and relatively unremarkable stretch of desert. At the heart of Al Wahbah is a sparkling salt flat, which often shines brilliantly in the sun.
A hiking trail takes adventurous visitors down into the crater if they're willing to make the trek. Al Wahbah is also a popular place for camping and picnics too, as the view from the crater rim is quite impressive.
Visit the Hanging Village of Habalah
Another architectural wonder, the "hanging village" of Habalah is built along the sheer cliffs of a rock face located in Saudi Arabia's Asir region. The city itself has been abandoned for decades, but it is still accessible via a 300-foot-long cable car. The tramway take visitors up and into the stone structures, which were built by a group of individuals who were fleeing the Ottoman Turks and sought refuge in the desert cliffs. As you can imagine, their high vantage point afforded them a good lookout for approaching visitors and today it serves to provide an impressive view of the surrounding countryside.
Soak Up the History in ad-Dir'iyah
History abounds across much of Saudi Arabia, much of which dates back thousands of years to ancient times. But those looking for a direct line from the country's current rulers and their historical ancestors, a visit to ad-Dir'iyah is in order. There, in the At-Turaif District, sits yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in the form of stone citadel that was once a part of the first national capital and the seat of power for the House of Saud. Here, visitors will find numerous palaces, a city with origins dating back more than five centuries, and a desert oasis.
Unwind in the 'Saudi Maldives'
After you've finished taking in all of Saudi Arabia's rich history and culture, it's time to unwind and relax some. There is no better place to do that than in Umluj, which is often referred to as "the Saudi Maldives." Found along the coast of the Red Sea, this beach town offers some respite from the more hectic pace of the country's busier cities and tourist attractions. Here, you can enjoy some peace and quiet while taking in the views of nearby volcanic mountains and enjoying the harvest from local mango farms.