The Top 7 Things to Do in Saudi Arabia

During a recent interview with CNN, Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan bin Salman announced that the Kingdom would begin issuing tourist visas in 2018, among other reasons to reduce the dependence of the Saudi economy on oil. Although Saudi authorities had previously spoken about possibilities for non-Muslim tourism in country (namely, a "special tourist zone" on the Red Sea), this announcement reflected an opening of the country at large to foreign travelers.

Now that tourist travel is allowed to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia it's time to start planning your trip. Below, you'll find a list of Saudi Arabia's most amazing tourist attractions.

  • 01 of 07

    Mecca

    Kaabah, Mecca, Saudi Arabia

    shaifulzamri.com/Getty Images

    The birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, Mecca has long been a popular destination for Muslim tourists. In fact, every Muslim who has the financial means to do so is required to make a pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the "Hajj") once in his or her lifetime, according to the Quran.

    Non-Muslims are prohibited from entering city of Mecca as well as the area around the iconic Kaaba stone.

  • 02 of 07

    Riyadh's Kingdom Centre Tower

    The Kingdom Centre, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

    Abdullah Al-Eisa/Getty Images

     

    Kingdom Centre is such an iconic symbol of Saudi Arabia's capital that an emoji version of it shows up when you say you're "Traveling to" Riyadh on Facebook. A shopping mall and residential complex that's also home to an observatory (which is not surprising, since it rises 992 feet above the ground), Kingdom Centre is actually only the third-tallest building in Saudi Arabia, in spite of its fame. 

    Certainly, it will be a great place to begin any Riyadh city trip once Saudi Arabia opens up to tourists, offering visitors both figurative and literal perspective on the bustling national capital of 5.2 million people, which is also home to the Kingdom's main airport. It's easy to see the observation deck becoming Saudi Arabia's most popular selfie spot!

  • 03 of 07

    Empty Quarter

    The Empty Quarter or Rub al Khali desert

    Buena Vista Images/Getty Images 

    Although the vast majority of the aptly-named "Empty Quarter" technically belongs to Saudi Arabia, there are no borders here—it's just sand, after all, with nothing different about it between Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. On the other hand, the Empty Quarter (which is known in Arabic as Rub' al Khali) is far from boring, whether you come on a camel safari, to drive 4x4s through the dunes or to visit with the nomadic tribes who call this seemingly inhospitable place home.

    A number of places in Saudi Arabia are accessible to independent travelers once visas start being issued, but this is probably a destination for which you'll want to have a guide. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to find your way out of sand dunes alone? To say nothing of all the rodents and scorpions who call this area home—it's best to set up camp according to the recommendations of someone who knows the lay of the land!

  • 04 of 07

    Coral Houses of Jeddah

    Jeddah Coral Houses

    Jpatokal/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

    The Red Sea port of Jeddah is known as a relatively liberal and open city; from lax enforcement of the country's strict rules about female attire, to the generally laid back attitude of the people. In addition to a great vibe, Jeddah offers one awesome tourist attraction in particular: The so-called "Coral Houses," built out of blocks of coral harvested from the sea.

    They're currently in a state of disrepair (almost notoriously), but are still a worthwhile destination.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Lost City of Mada'in Saleh

    Madain Saleh

    Sammy Six/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

    Unless you've been living under a rock for the past couple of decades, you've heard of the Lost City of Petra (which is no longer "lost" at all) in Jordan. What you might not realize is that Saudi Arabia is home to a city that's both similar in design and origin, dating back to the Nabatean Kingdom of the 1st century.

    Although many Saudis enjoy visiting Madai'in Saleh, it maintains a low profile among foreigners, which means that you should be able to enjoy a trip here in relative peace. Certainly, it will take a long time before Mada'in Saleh reaches the "tourist trap" status of Petra, if that ever happens at all. 

  • 06 of 07

    Prophet's Mosque in Medina

    Al-Masjid an-Nabawī in Medina, Saudi Arabia
    Public Domain

    Mecca is the highest-profile holy place in Saudi Arabia, but if you read Islamic history, you'll realize that Medina is also quite important—the Prophet Muhammad taught here for a number of years after he came of age in Mecca, and before he returned to the city in his later life. The most stunning site in Medina is the mosque of Al-Masjid an-Nabawī, whose origins date back to the year 622.

    As is the case with Mecca, non-Muslims are currently prohibited from setting foot in central Medina. 

  • 07 of 07

    Red Sea Scuba Diving

    Saudi Red Sea Scuba Diving

     Abdullah Al-Eisa/Getty Images

    It's tempting to think of Saudi Arabia as a land of nothing but desert, but the country has incredibly long coastlines on both the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. In the case of the latter, this means that Saudi Arabia is home to some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world. This is not a surprise if you've ever visited Egypt's Sinai peninsula, which is also located on the Red Sea.

    A bonus of scuba diving in Saudi Arabia, famous sites of which include Allah's Reef and Boiler Wreck, is that you won't have to put up with the huge crowds you see in Egypt. In fact, it's unlikely you'll encounter any crowds at all, since scuba diving is relatively unpopular among Saudis.