With the launch of the new tourist visas, Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to the world to come and explore its hidden treasures. The Kingdom is one of the last frontiers in the world where so many undiscovered gems still exist. As a traveler in Arabia for over a decade, I keep discovering new locations every time I venture out into the desert. Saudi Arabia has vast lands to explore and a diverse landscape.
When I first landed in Saudi Arabia in 2008, I had little information about the travel opportunities, but that didn’t deter me from traveling around the country. From my very first days spent there, I began going out and exploring, and I haven’t stopped since. I’ve visited every corner of the ‘Magic Kingdom’, and here are some of my favorite locations, ones that I keep returning to, year after year.
The Kingdom is one of the last frontiers in the world where so many undiscovered gems exist
I first visited AlUla in 2008 and it felt like being in an Indiana Jones movie. Think about ancient tombs scattered in the stunning desert landscape with no one in sight. AlUla is most well-known for Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site, Hegra (formerly known as Mada’in Saleh), but it has many more hidden treasures. In fact, AlUla County is nearly the size of Belgium, so you have a lot to see. Many ancient kingdoms have left their mark in AlUla, and it’s not hard to understand why they chose to settle here. The lush green valleys, surrounding red mountains and other-worldly rock formations create a timeless landscape that has appealed to civilizations for thousands of years.
Among my favorite locations in AlUla is the Nabatean site Hegra, with its 131 tombs cut with masterful precision 2,000 years ago. Also on the top of my list are Jebel Ikhmah, the ‘Open Library’, a majestic canyon full of ancient inscriptions, and the Dadan Kingdom site, where tombs are carved into the deep red mountain and the magical afternoon light lingers there like pure magic. An annual festival, Winter at Tantora, which celebrates the magic of AlUla, goes on this season, where world-class artists perform inside Maraya, a mirrored concert hall in the middle of the desert.
This picturesque little village nestled in a green valley somewhere in the Asir mountains isn’t easy to reach, but well worth the effort. Rijal Almaa resembles a gingerbread house from the outside, but the real surprise comes when you step inside. The talented artists, who are the women of the village, paint the interiors of the houses in every color of the rainbow in beautiful tribal patterns found nowhere else in the world. This valley is also known for the ‘flowermen’, a tribe that wears flower crowns on their heads, and has a traditional dance called Khatwah.
Many don’t realize that Tuwaiq Mountain is an escarpment almost 800km long, cutting through the heart of Najd. Along Tuwaiq Mountain, one stunning vista after another reveals itself. The famous ‘Edge of the World’ is just one of them, where you can sit and watch the view down below, which looks like a never-ending plain. Numerous traditional mud villages can be found along Tuwaiq and one of the most well-preserved ones is Ushaiger heritage village. Along Tuwaiq, several canyons with hidden lakes and waterfalls can also be found.
I keep returning to Farasan Islands since my first visit in 2008. An authentic experience awaits, as local communities of fishermen, farmers and ancestors of pearl merchant traders inhabit the islands. There are over 100 islands in the archipelago, and you can experience the beauty of this place by taking a fishing boat out for a day on the deserted island, catching your own lunch from the sea and preparing it on the beach, with no one else around. Farasan has many interesting historical sites as well, such as the Alrifai house (pictured here), and the Roman ruins. The islands have a strategic location and have been inhabited for tens of thousands of years.
Saudi Arabia’s dream city, being built in the Tabuk region, has some of the most versatile landscapes. Majestic mountains that fall directly into the ocean, natural springs and oases, Nabatean historical sites, shipwrecks and coral reefs that can be classified as some of the best in the entire Red Sea can all be found here. Nature lovers will find amazing locations like the Tayeb Ism, which opens up to the Red Sea, and the Wadi al Disah Valley, where water flows all year round in a Grand Canyon-like scenery.
Laura Alho is a Finnish expat who moved to Riyadh to work as a nurse back in 2008 and has since explored every corner of Saudi Arabia. She launched the Kingdom’s first travel blog in 2010 and has written the books, Ultimate Guide to Edge of the World and Guide to Secret Lake in Riyadh. Her photographs have been featured in NatGeo’s Where the Locals Go. Her blog was named ‘Best Asian & Middle Eastern Weblog of 2013’ and was a finalist for the title ‘Best Website Promoting Tourism’ at the Saudi Tourism Awards 2014 . Follow her on Instagram @BlueAbaya and visit Blueabaya.com