Saudi Arabia, which for years has been closed to outsiders, is a land of mystery for most travellers. To the adventurous spirit, it offers wild desert wastes and towering sand dunes, cosmopolitan coastal cities and spectacular coral reefs, stunning archaeological treasures and a rich cultural heritage guaranteed to dazzle the senses.
In Riyadh, learn about Arabian history and culture at the National Museum, and shop at the lifestyle complexes of Al-Faisaliah Tower and Kingdom Tower. Watch the bidding at the Camel Market, wander the atmospheric ruins of Dir'aiyah, view the sunset at the Red Sands, and see the beautiful rock carvings of Jubba. Coastal and cosmopolitan Jeddah offers the old coral houses of Al-Balad and the vast collections of the Al-Tayibat City Museum. Wander the colourful fish market, people-watch along the corniche, and check out the energetic souk marketplace.
Muslims can make a pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Otherwise, relax at the beach resorts of Al-Nakheel, and escape the heat at temperate Taif. Explore the extraordinary tombs of Madain Saleh, once the historic crossroads of pre-Islamic civilisations. Visit the picturesque old town of Al-Ula, the archaeological museum of Taima, and the mysterious Standing Stones of Sakaka. Hike the misty forests of Abha and the towering peaks of Asir National Park, and ascend Jebel Soudah, the highest mountain in Saudi Arabia.
Explore the oasis town of Najran, the vast archaeological site of Al-Ukhdud, and the palace of Al-Aan. Visit the Farasan Islands, a good base for diving the spectacular coral reefs of the Red Sea. Among the fantastic sand dunes of the Empty Quarter, see the ruins of Al-Faw and spot the rare Arabian Oryx at the Uruq Bani Ma'arid Protected Area. Visit the oil-rich towns of Dammam and Al-Khobar, the atmospheric Bedouin Market at Nairiyah, and the sprawling palm trees of Al-Hasa, the largest oasis in the world.
Probably the best way of getting around is by plane, as Saudi Arabia is a large country. Fares are reasonably priced, with frequent flights between major cities. The only train line in the entire Arabian Peninsula runs between Riyadh and Dammam. Do buy tickets in advance, and arrive early for security checks. For other destinations, long-distance buses are air-conditioned and comfortable; though tend to be somewhat slow unless you take the special VIP buses.
Car rental is a good option, as roads are generally excellent and fuel prices are some of the world's cheapest. However, accident rates are high, and remember: women aren't allowed to drive. Within the cities, get around by taxi. You'll have to negotiate the price in advance, and be careful of unregistered taxis.
One of the most sacred things a Muslim can do is to undertake the “Hajj”, a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Every year, about three million people gather for a week of prayer and ritual. The largest gathering of Muslims in the world, the Hajj is a spectacular sight; however, non-Muslims are not allowed on the holy grounds.
The Rub’ al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, is the world’s largest continuous sand desert. At 1000km long and 500km wide, it is one of the driest places on earth, virtually uninhabited and largely unexplored. If time permits, do get on a tour, where you may find animal fossils, rare wildlife and even desert lakes.
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