Photography/Editing – Helen Janneson Bense | Pictured – Laura from the The Blue Abaya – Make sure to check out her blog as someone who has lived in Saudi for 10+ years she has a lot of knowledge and experience
Locations – Riyadh – Fairmont | Nadj Village
Planning a trip – Get yourself an eVISA | Travel Regulations | Travel Road trip style | Transportation | Trip planner | Road signs, directions, and many shop names are in English as well. Most people I asked for assistance spoke English | Cultural considerations – read below | List of restricted items | Upcoming events in Saudi
It’s kind of crazy that this was my first international trip since 2019! I’m not sure if it felt so surreal because of the long wait to travel abroad, or that Saudi is one of the dreamiest places I’ve ever been. The breathtaking desert landscapes whispering their ancient stories were beyond my wildest expectations.
This trip was filled with bucket list moments and highlights every single day, from flying on a private jet from Riyadh to AlUla, dancing the night away at the Azimuth festival, watching the sun rise over World heritage site Hegra, to staying at Habitas, an eco resort nestled within an otherworldly sandstone canyon.
But my amazing journey really began as soon as I stepped off the plane in Riyadh where I received the warmest of welcomes. The first thing I noticed was the kindness in the eyes of strangers. They were so welcoming and it made me feel instantly at ease. I never knew someone could smile so powerfully with their eyes. It pierced me in a way I wasn’t expecting.
Before my trip I had some reservations and definitely some misconceptions. I didn’t know a lot about the country, as many don’t. They only opened tourism in late 2019 so I was so uncertain what to expect. Uncertainty in travel is something I’ve come to embrace and even enjoy. It brings the most wonderful lessons and joys with it, especially when it challenges us. My biggest concern was about my safety. To my surprise I’ve actually never felt safer anywhere I’ve traveled. I could leave my camera or phone anywhere and no one would steal it. Saudi is actually ranked as one of the safest countries in the world among G20 countries. There are very strict laws and punishments which definitely play a part in this. Anytime I needed assistance it was there, strangers willing and eager to help. I found Saudi men appeared quite protective towards women. My tour guide explained that this protective behaviour even begins at a young age and you can see small boys gesturing with care towards their sisters and mothers. I noticed this in Riyadh and it was very sweet.
Upon arrival in Riyadh, I stayed at the beautiful Fairmont Hotel. The architecture, design, comfort and impeccable service were just as I’ve always experienced at any Fairmont Hotel. I loved waking up here and enjoying some Arabic coffee. The hint of cardamom definitely strikes a cord with me and my Finnish roots. During my short stay I enjoyed the beautiful pool and discovered that men and women were not permitted to share the pool at the same time. This was to protect the womens privacy. When I wanted to go for a swim I was actually able to book the pool, lock the door, and enjoy the entire pool to myself. I must say it was actually really amazing knowing no one else was coming in and I felt very relaxed and free. In AlUla at Habitas, it was a different experience entirely. Everyone shared the pool, just as you would experience here in Australia.
One important aspect when traveling to Saudi, and any country, is to be respectful of their customs. They don’t drink alcohol in Saudi as alcohol consumption does not align with their religious beliefs. They also dress modestly, which means wearing loose clothing, covering your shoulders and chest, with skirts/pants falling below the knees. In Saudi there is no legal requirement to wear a hijab/headscarf, niqab, burqa, or abaya, for Saudi women or tourists. The only time you need to wear an abaya is entering a mosque. Many Saudi women choose to wear these items for religious and/or cultural reasons. What I found was that a headscarf and abaya were actually protective from the elements whilst wandering in the heat of the desert.
Saudi is a place to visit with an open mind, to learn and enrich yourself with a different perspective. It’s so important anywhere you travel to ensure you respect their customs, even if they don’t align with your own. I’m always grateful for the opportunity to experience something new.
I’ve put together a list of some must visit spots, but there is so much more to experience in Saudi. If you are short on time then AlUla is a must and I would say ideally 1 week minimum for Saudi splitting your time between Riyadh, Jeddah and AlUla.
In RIYADH –
* Al Masmak Fortess – a museum to learn all about the rich history of Saudi.
* Diriyah – If you get a chance to see UNESCO World Heritage site Dirayah then do it. It’s the birthplace of the first Saudi state. Unfortunately we didn’t make it on the day due to unforeseen circumstances, but I was really hoping to see this and will be putting on my bucket list for my next trip.
* Najd village – for authentic Saudi food and experiences set in a special space designed to reflect the heritage of the past.
* Roka – the best food I think I’ve ever had! Many of their items are already plant based, but it’s the level of quality, culinary talent and service that elevates this restaurant above all others.
In ALULA –
* Hegra also known as Mada’in Saleh – the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Saudi, untouched for a millennia is finally opened to the world for viewing. This archaeological site has 111 monumental tombs carved into the sandstone, some dating back to the 1st century BC. Hegra is an outstanding example of the Nabataeans civilisation architectural and hydraulic accomplishments, harnessing the harsh desert environment to their benefit. While much of the sandstone looks like honeycomb weathered through time by rain, the Nabateans created cisterns and pipes, which have kept the tombs well preserved for thousands of years. Once a thriving trade route, much of the Nabataean city and history is lost to the sands of time.
While you’ll need to wake up super early, arriving for sunrise is pretty special. It was magical to see the sun flares sparkling across the largest monolithic tomb known as the lonely castle. It stands 72 feet tall and is the tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza. It was the most surreal experience to be in the presence of such ancient history and a very special bucket list moment for me.
* Elephant rock (Jabal Alfil) – As the name implies this giant geological marvel does in fact look like an Elephant. This natural sandstone rock reaches 3 storeys high, and has been shaped by over 240 million years of erosion. This is a breathtaking place to visit for golden hour. They have sunken seating, food and toilets available so you can stay, picnic and enjoy the view. This is also a great place to visit for some astro photography. The night sky in AlUla is spectacular.
* Maraya – The biggest mirrored building in the world. Maraya is a cultural centre hosting art residencies, arthouse films and concerts. The building has set a Guinness World Record in 2019 and has 9,740 mirrored panels reflecting the magnificent beauty of AlUla’s desert landscape. Arrive for golden hour if you want to get some epic photos.
* Old Town – an archaeological heritage site, with mosques, markets and houses made from mud bricks and stone dating back to the 10th century. It’s overlooked by the Musa bin Nusayr Castle, an old fort dating back to the 6th century. The most fascinating aspect of this place is that it was still inhabited until 40 years ago. They have storytelling tours running throughout the town and even fine dining at Suhail, a modern twist on Saudi cuisine.
* Habitas – the most wondrous and inspiring resort I’ve ever stayed at. Habitas is a sustainable hotel built within a living museum of AlUla. It’s a place to experience deeper connections to people, yourself, nature and local culture. Each villa is spread apart so you will experience the serenity and privacy of the desert. Your villa is equipped with an e-bike though they have buggies to shuttle you to/fro. My villa was number 46, closest to the pool/restaurant so I could walk there and also to the Desert X Art installations – the giant swings and trampoline. This is an experience reserved for your inner child that will fill your heart with pure joy. The main restaurant, Tama, which means ‘here and now’ in Aramaic, serves an array of global and middle eastern cuisine with multiple plant based options included in the menu. The best part of Habitas was definitely swimming in their grand infinity pool under the hot desert sun, surrounded by giant sandstone boulders. It was another bucket list moment for me!
The feedback from this trip has been really positive, people open and excited to learn and explore the rich history and world heritage archaeological sites of Saudi. I have received some remarks from the wider community questioning why I would travel to Saudi, in light of their history of human rights violations. I do understand where this is coming from and please know I do not condone violence or discrimination. I’ve chosen to travel to Saudi for a few reasons. It’s a beautiful country, with awe inspiring landscapes and such a long, rich history told through these heritage sites. There were many places that spoke to me, like Hegra, that I have longed to see for myself. So many countries, including my own, have a long history of human rights violations. If I let this define my reasons to explore the world, there would be almost nowhere to travel. Saudi continue to make many progressive changes and have made an effort to open up their country to the world for the first time in history, in a bid to diversify their oil reliant economy. To me this is a gesture that needs to met with the same openness. This is something I choose to support, as it’s a progressive path forward. I’m looking to the future with gratitude for the opportunity to learn and connect.
I’m really excited to see what new and exciting changes occur for Saudi as they navigate this new path. I hope you’ll be open to discovering their culture and beautiful country for yourself. A few words to describe my first and lasting impressions of Saudi people are kind, generous and friendly. They are a truly beautiful people.
With love and gratitude,