If you are planning a trip to Saudi Arabia, your flight will most probably land either in Jeddah or Riyadh. It doesn’t really make a difference from where you will start your exploration journey, since the places you will be visiting are pretty much standard. With that in mind, you can easily reverse the order of the cities, based on the optimum inbound/outbound flights found.
Here below you will find the perfect 12-day itinerary, covering the very best of Saudi Arabia, for all first-time visitors to the Kingdom.
Road-Trip Distances Around Saudi
Every road itinerary in Saudi is shaped around 4 distinct areas: Jeddah, Riyadh, Abha, and AlUla. The distance between these cities is pretty huge, so I can hardly propose driving the whole way. Indicative distances here below:
- Jeddah – Riyadh (950 km, 9-10h): I find this to be the most useless drive, as there is nothing interesting to see between these two cities. You can skip this part entirely.
- Riyadh – AlUla (1.060 km, 11h): This is an interesting drive that is worth doing if time is not a big issue for you. We personally “invested” 3 days on this route, driving from Riyadh to Buraidah (400 km, 4h), from Buraydah to Haʼil (280 km, 3h), and from Haʼil to AlUla (430 km, 5h). We found both Buraidah and Haʼil an interesting add-on to our trip, so this is a big YES for me.
- AlUla – Jeddah (690 km, 7-8h): I don’t see any good reason for driving all this way unless your intention is to make a stop at either Madinah or Umluj. We have done the drive for Madinah (330 km, 4h) so no regrets!
- Jeddah – Abha (720 km, 10h): This is still a big question mark for me. Our initial intention was to drive this route, visiting Taif, Al Bahah, and Thee Ain Ancient Village along the way. I still think it’s an interesting drive to consider, but unfortunately, I cannot speak out of my own experience.
Day 1: Explore Jeddah
Jeddah is the second largest city in Saudi and the main gateway for Muslim pilgrims heading to Makkah. Despite its religious significance, it is also the most progressive city in the entire Kingdom.
I recently read an interesting debate about the name of Jeddah. Based on an old legend, Jeddah (translating into “grandmother” in Arabic) was named after our universal grandmother, Eve. This legend is supported by the fact that Jeddah is considered to be the burial place of Eve. Her Tomb is located in a cemetery close to Jeddah’s Old Town. In an effort to prevent pilgrims from visiting Mother Eve’s Cemetery, the religious authorities sealed the tomb with concrete back in 1975, making it no longer visible. The cemetery is most of the time closed, but even if you manage to get inside you stand no chance of tracing Eve’s grave.
Some people argue with this old legend saying that Jeddah was initially pronounced “Juddah”. Juddah translates into “seashore” in Arabic, signifying the city’s location next to the Red Sea.
The absolute minimum time you should spend in Jeddah is one full day for sightseeing the main points of interest. Let your first stop be the lively corniche! The Corniche of Jeddah has a lot of green rest areas and offers its visitors opportunities for walking, running, setting a picnic outdoors, or simply enjoying scenic views over the Red Sea. As it’s quite big in length, you’d better focus on interesting zones such as the Jeddah Sculpture Museum, or the “Art Promenade”. The latter is the best spot for gazing over the famous Al Rahma Floating Mosque from a close distance.
While in Saudi, you will soon realize that not many things are happening during the day. The heat has forced people to minimize their outdoor activities in the daytime, with most marketplaces and Souqs turning operational in the early afternoon. With that in mind, the best time to visit Jeddah’s Old Town, the world-famous Al Balad district, is before sunset. At this time of the day, Old Jeddah turns into a bustling and vibrant area, full of life!
Al Balad is famous for its unique architecture based on the use of coral stone (extracted from the nearby reef in the Red Sea). Another noticeable feature of this Hejazi architecture is the elegant rawasheen (wooden windows and balconies) adorning the buildings’ facades. As part of the country’s Vision 2030, and in an effort to preserve Al Balad’s identity and heritage value, a lot of historical buildings are currently undergoing heavy renovation. This might not allow you to see them at their full grandeur, but you will still get a very good feel of how wealthy and prosperous the merchants of Old Jeddah used to be.
Some places you should not miss while in Old Jeddah:
- The Nassif House was constructed in the late 1800s for Omar Nassif Efendi, the governor of Jeddah at that time. The very same house served as the residence of King Abdulaziz (the founder of Saudi Arabia) while in Jeddah. A fun fact about this house is the existence of a pathway that allowed the King to ride his horse all the way up to his office on the second floor! Bait Nassif has also been nicknamed the “House with the Tree”, thanks to a beautiful neem tree that stands at its very entrance! It is said that, up until the 1920s, this was the only tree in the entire Jeddah! Over the course of the years, the Nassif House has served as a library, a cultural center, and a museum.
- The Al-Shafi’i Mosque (Masjid Of Al-Imam Al-Shafi’i), is the city’s oldest mosque, counting over 1.400 years of age. Non-Muslims are allowed to enter the mosque outside of prayer times. Before entering, make sure that you are dressed modestly and that you have taken your shoes off!
- The traditional Souq Al Alawi, where you can find genuine Arabian jewelry, traditional dresses, perfumes, as well as local herbs, spices, and textiles.
- The Bab Makkah, a three-arched gate that has been marking for centuries the start of the pilgrimage journey to Makkah.
- Al Saidi Bakery is most probably the oldest bakery in Jeddah, baking traditional bread for almost 100 years! You can find it very close to Nassif House. From there, let the smell of the freshly baked bread show you the way!
Your last stop of the day should be at King Fahd’s fountain, the tallest fountain in the entire world! It is located on the shore of the Red Sea, and at a close distance from Al-Hamra’s Corniche. The height of its water reaches a maximum of 312 meters, making it even taller than the Eiffel Tower (without its antenna). At night the fountain is beautifully illuminated, while the fact that the water changes colors is making it a mesmerizing sight that should not be missed.
Day 2: Jeddah - Abha (flight)
The city of Abha is the capital of the Asir Province in the South of Saudi Arabia. Due to its mountainous location, and contrary to the rest of the country, Abha enjoys pleasant weather all year round. And this is precisely what makes it extremely popular in the summertime when Saudis are trying to escape the extreme temperatures experienced in the rest of the Kingdom. Abha is also well-known for the beautiful landscape above the clouds!
Using a flight for this part of your trip will save you a whole lot of time! Upon arrival in Abha, you can walk around the city center and admire interesting sites, such as:
- The historical village of Al-Muftaha is located at the very heart of Abha. Al-Muftaha counts over 260 years of age, however, for many years it was left in an extreme state of neglect. Thanks to the efforts of the Saudi government, restoration work was completed giving the village a new life and purpose! Ever since, it has been serving as a regional cultural center, with lots of art galleries and exhibition spaces. Overall, it is acting as a platform for local creativity. The colorful houses have been maintained exactly like the original ones and are a fascinating example of traditional Asir architecture. At the time of my visit, Al-Muftaha was, unfortunately, not open due to restoration work done all over Abha.
- For museum lovers, Shada Palace is the place to go (if open). It is one of the few traditional buildings still standing in Abha, originally built for a ruling governor, and now housing a handicrafts museum. This mud-walled tower definitely stands out from the modern buildings surrounding it.
- Art Street is another favorite gathering place for locals. A street lined up with trees, and what more full of art and life. Shops, galleries, cafes, restaurants, and street art, all in one place. Stroll, stroll, stroll, and people watch as others stroll, stroll, and stroll! Don’t miss the Souq Al Thulatha (Tuesday Market), which is just around the corner! The market is open on all days of the week, but it attracts the best merchants of the region every Tuesday!
- The Abha Dam Lake is a peaceful place with pretty nice views. It is definitely worth a quick stop. You can get here within a 10’ drive from the city center.
- The High City is most probably the highest viewpoint in Abha, offering its visitors mesmerizing views over the valley and the surrounding mountains. But apart from a viewpoint, it is mainly a recreational area and a get-together spot for local Saudis. The High City gives a more European flavor to Abha with its elegant (and pricey) coffee shops and restaurants. Normally, a cable car is connecting the High City with another popular location, the Green Mountain (more on this below). However, at the time of our visit (again), this was not operational (maintenance work in progress).
- Next stop, Jabal Al Akhdar, or else the iconic Green Mountain of Abha. Not really a mountain, but a hill, Jabal Al Akhdar took its name from the green lights used to illuminate it at night. Definitely, an amazing spectacle for visitors and locals alike. You can get to the mountain’s summit either by hiking your way up or by using the cable car. I am not sure about the cost of the cable car since we could not use it, but there is an entrance ticket of 20 SAR (5€) to the Green Mountain itself. The entrance fee can be redeemed at any restaurant on site, but again restaurants in tourist places are rather expensive. The view from the top is worth taking the ride, but the mountain itself is way more impressive (when illuminated) from a distance! Opening Hours: After 2 p.m.
- Khamis Mushait is a nearby city in close proximity to the Abha airport. It hosts the heritage village of Dhafer Bin Hamsan which is covering an area of 15.000 square meters and offers its visitors the opportunity to explore the ancient social lifestyle within its grounds. The city’s Souq Al Khamis (Thursday Market) also boasts some of the best gold and silver Bedouin jewelry in the region.
Day 3: Abha - Al Sahab Mountain Park - Al Sawda - Rijal Alma - Abha (130 km / 3 hours)
No visit to the South of KSA can be complete without heading to Rijal Alma. Rijal Alma is yet another heritage village of Saudi Arabia that has been gradually transformed into a major tourist attraction. Hidden in the mountains of the country’s southwest Asir region, this small village is characterized by Yemen-style architecture. This makes absolute sense, considering its strategic location and proximity to Yemen itself.
Rijal Alma historically served as one of the most important trade centers in the Arabian Peninsula. As such it was strongly influenced both culturally and architecturally by the foreign travelers that passed through. The village’s iconic stone buildings (also known as forts) are decorated by skilled painters in fascinating color combinations and designs.
In an effort to preserve the heritage of the region, most of these buildings have gone through a thorough restoration driven by the locals themselves. In that direction, a Heritage Museum has also been established onsite, displaying over 2,800 exhibits collected among the local families.
How to Get to Rijal Alma
Rijal Alma can be reached by car within just 1.5 hours from the city of Abha. Do just note that the road before reaching the village is extremely steep and sharp, making the drive down a bit scary.
On your way to Rijal Alma, it is worth making two quick detours at:
- Jabal Sawda (or else “Al Sawda”), is the highest peak in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is one of the best viewpoints, famous for its spectacular misty landscape. Al Sawda peak is easily accessible by car, just 30 mins from the center of Abha.
- El Sahab Park, for more views of the surrounding mountain peaks. “Sahab” literally translates into “cloud”, and that is exactly what this place is all about. A wonderful viewpoint above the clouds!
Day 4: Abha - Riyadh (flight)
I highly recommend using a domestic flight for this part of the route to quickly and comfortably reach Riyadh. Assuming that you can afford one day only in the Kingdom’s capital city, here are the most important points of interest you should target visiting:
- Al Masmak Fort: Dominating the center of the Old City, Al Masmak Fort is the exact spot where the Battle of Riyadh took place. This is literally the place where the first page in the history of modern-day Saudi Arabia was written. Al Masmak is nowadays serving as a Museum, and is open for public visits free of charge.
- The Deera Square: Right across Al Masmak Fort, lies Deera Square, the site where public executions were performed until very recently. For that very reason, Deera is commonly known as “Chop Chop Square”.
- The Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Saudi Arabia, is located right on Deera Square. If you are dressed up decently, you can ask for permission to get inside. The prayer hall is simply enormous and can accommodate up to 17,000 worshippers!
- Al Murraba Palace: Al Murraba was built by King Abdulaziz to serve as his personal residence. It also has a historical significance being the very first building constructed outside the Old City of Riyadh. Today, the palace is a “living museum”, housing some of King Abdulaziz’s personal items, archives, and other royal antiques. Among these, the Rolls Royce presented to the King as a gift by Winston Churchill.
- The National Museum of Saudi Arabia. A stone’s throw away from Al Murraba Palace, you will find the crown jewel of Riyadh, the National Museum of Saudi Arabia. Consisted of eight different Exhibition Halls, presenting (with the use of multimedia technology) different stages of the Arabian Peninsula’s evolution. Geographical, historical, cultural, and heritage-related elements, all beautifully blended together. I personally found pretty impressive the halls exhibiting models of the two Holy Cities and Mosques, displaying Hajj rituals, and pilgrimage routes from ancient to recent years. Entrance to the museum is free of charge.
- The Sky Bridge at Kingdom Center. The Kingdom Center is Saudi Arabia’s fifth-tallest skyscraper and one of the most iconic buildings in Riyadh. On its very top sits the 65 meters long Sky Bridge, a viewing platform offering breathtaking views over Riyadh’s skyline. The ticket price for the Sky Bridge is 69 SAR.
- Ad Diriyah. The historical city of Diriyah, dating back to 1446 CE, is one of the oldest heritage sites in Saudi Arabia. It served as the first capital of the newly founded Kingdom, as well as the home of the country’s ruling House of Saud. Diriyah’s historical center (At-Turaif), demonstrates the traditional mud-and-brick Najd architecture and was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2010. Ever since, and in an effort to be transformed into the new Saudi Arabia’s cultural capital, it has been undergoing various restoration and preservation works. This is one of the most ambitious projects for the Kingdom, aiming to make the historic Diriyah one of the most important tourist attractions and cultural destinations in the entire world.
Day 5: Riyadh - Desert Safari - Sunset at the Edge of the World (or at the Camel Trail) - Riyadh
If you can afford one extra day in Riyadh and are up to some adventure, then book yourself a half-day desert safari tour. Such a tour will take you via a 4×4 car to Riyadh’s desert for unlimited fun while sandboarding, quad biking, and dune bashing!
As an alternative or even a combination of the abovementioned activity, head to either the Edge of the World (Jebel Fihrayn) or the Camel Trail. These are two of the best viewpoints of the Tuwaiq Mountain offering jaw-dropping views of the dunes, and ancient camel tracks of the Arabian Desert.
The Edge of the World is located approximately 90 kilometers (and 2 hours) away from Riyadh. It is basically a 300 meters high cliff overlooking the vast desert. Being here makes you literally feel like standing on the edge of the world! Whether you are going with your own vehicle or via a tour, you will need a 4×4 car, and good driving skills to avoid getting stuck in the sand. In the last years, and due to an accident of a person falling off the cliff, this particular site was shut down for safety reasons. At the time of our visit, it was not clear whether the Edge of the World was reopened or not. You’d better check with some local tour operators before heading there.
The best alternative to the Edge of the World (and 100% accessible) is the so-called Camel Trail. This site is way closer to Riyadh but still requires a 4×4 vehicle. The Camel Trail is a historical trail that was used by pilgrims that were making their way toward Makkah. What to expect here? Breathtaking views from the top of the mountain, of course, and the opportunity to descend down via the historic trail if you are up for some extra challenge.
Day 6: Riyadh - Shaqra - Ushaiger Heritage Village - Buraydah (400 km / 5 hours)
Visitors to Saudi Arabia have the chance to learn about the Kingdom’s history and distinctive architecture by visiting one or more heritage villages that are scattered around the country. This is by far the ideal way to step back in time and see how everyday life in Saudi Arabia was some hundred years ago.
Those landing in Riyadh should, by all means, plan a full-day trip in the mud villages of Shaqra and Ushaiger, located less than 2.5h away from the Kingdom’s capital city. Most buildings remain in ruins, yet some others have been renovated by the owners themselves, in an effort to keep their heritage alive. While wandering around the narrow streets and winding alleyways, be on the lookout for any doors left open! These will give you access to the houses’ rooftops for unparalleled views over the surrounding oasis and farmlands.
My personal recommendation, and if you are following this suggested itinerary, is not to return back to Riyadh after visiting Shaqra and Ushaiger but to head towards Buraydah for your overnight.
Buraydah is the capital of Al Qassim province. Its strategic location in the heart of Saudi Arabia makes it an important connection hub for travelers moving between different regions in the country. Buraydah is called the city of dates for the production of high-quality dates, as well as the biggest date festival in the world.
Time permitting, you can make a quick visit to Buraydah Museum, Aloqilat Museum, and Al Musawkaf Market.
Day 7: Buraydah - Madinah (525 km / 6 hours)
Buraydah is also famous for the world’s largest camel market, the Al Qassim Camel Market which is located in short proximity to the city itself. For taking part in this very unique and truly Saudi experience, you will need to wake up early in the morning as the market comes into life already at 5-6 am.
Your next stop, over 500 km away, is the holy city of Madinah. Home to the Prophet’s Mosque (Masjid Al-Nabawi), which is one of the largest mosques in the world, and the second holiest after Masjid Al-Haraam in Makkah. The Prophet’s Mosque was built by Prophet Muhammed in the year 622 CE when he migrated to Madinah. A Green Dome marks the exact location of the “Sacred Chamber” where the Prophet’s real home and also his final resting place is.
The mosque alone is a grand spot of utmost grandeur. It stands out from a distance thanks to its sparkling white marble, the numerous minarets, and of course its dazzling green-colored dome. The courtyard of the mosque is covered with lots of giant umbrellas aiming to provide shade to the worshippers. Moreover, its floor has been renovated using Thassos Snow White marble, a high-quality material that reflects the sunlight and keeps a low temperature throughout the day. In this way, pilgrims can walk barefoot without feeling any heat. The exact same marble has been used in the Great Mosque of Makkah, surrounding the Holy Kaaba.
The Prophet’s Mosque, as well as the area in its vicinity, is known as Haram and is closed to non-Muslims. However, non-Muslims can visit the rest of the city and even stay here for the night.
Day 8: Madinah - AlUla (340 km / 4 hours)
Another lengthy drive till you reach the spectacular AlUla. In addition to ruins of ancient civilizations, AlUla offers its visitors stunning natural landscapes from eroded mountains to desert oases and a lot more.
For your first day, I suggest you take it easy and head to one (or more) of the following unique locations:
- The Elephant Rock (Jabal Al-Fil): As its name suggests, the Elephant Rock in Saudi Arabia is an iconic sandstone resembling a 52m tall elephant, shaped solely by natural forces (wind and water erosion)! Take a seat in one of the comfortable and stylish sunken seating and enjoy the view of AlUla’s most famous geological formation. The Elephant Rock is open for visitors all day round. However, the best time of the day to capture the perfect shot of the mighty elephant is at sunset. Useful to Know:
- No ticket is needed to enter the site, while parking is complimentary for all visitors, as well.
- There are several food places on site, but they only open in the early afternoon. With that being said, afternoon visits ONLY can be combined with a light dinner (comfort food on offer, such as burgers, shawarmas, hot dogs, pancakes, etc.) while sitting around a bonfire.
- This site is ideal for night stargazing, so the most adventurous ones can also consider it as their camping spot!
- The Harrat Viewpoint: The Harrat Viewpoint is a lookout point and seating area at the top of the Harrat Uwayrid volcanic mountain. From here you can enjoy epic views over Dadan, AlUla Old Town, and AlUla Oasis, surrounded by majestic red mountains. The best time of the day to get up here is shortly before sunset so that you can get the best views of the sky’s orange glow, as the sun is disappearing into the horizon. Entrance to the site is free of charge, while parking is also complimentary for all visitors.
- The Maraya: The magnificent Maraya concert hall is not just a state-of-the-art construction, but also the world’s largest mirrored building! The name “Maraya” itself translates into exactly that: a “mirror” or a “reflection”. Maraya is a multi-purpose venue, housing concerts, annual festivals (such as the Winter Tantora festival), international events, and business conferences. Touristic visits are not allowed, so if you do not hold a ticket or invitation for an event or concert, your only chance to admire this amazing building is by making a reservation at the Maraya Social restaurant (open for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday).
Days 9-10: AlUla
Ever since Saudi Arabia opened up to tourism, AlUla, hosting the first UNESCO World Heritage site in the country, was promoted as the #1 must-visit destination for international travelers.
To date, numerous archaeological sites have been identified in the broader area, while the excavation of even more is still ongoing. Amazingly, the very first inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula carved a whole city out of rock in this very place. Madain Saleh (also known as Hegra), was a principal city of the Nabataean Kingdom and served as its former capital, second only to Petra in Jordan.
What comes as a big surprise is that despite its historical significance, AlUla was deliberately neglected by locals for centuries. Reason being the clear statement made by Prophet Muhammed in the Quran that this place had been cursed by Allah and should be avoided by all means. To be more specific, Allah decided to punish the Thamud people, original inhabitants of the area, for their sins. As a consequence, the land of Thamud was severely hit by earthquakes, destroyed, and abandoned.
The Saudi government, in line with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 program, urges people to start visiting AlUla. The efforts to revive AlUla’s past role as a thriving hub of trade and cultural exchange target at offering visitors a unique travel experience, including a combination of outdoor adventures, wellness, heritage, and entertainment.
What is very important to know is that independent visits to the various heritage sites are strictly forbidden. You will have to book your tours and experiences through the official Experience AlUla website and be accompanied at all times. Not only that, but you have to make your bookings well in advance, as there is a limitation on the daily slots. Check the instructions sent to you upon ticket reservation to have a clear understanding of:
- The exact pick-up location. For most tours and experiences, you will be picked up at the Winter Park. Yet, there are still a few tours and experiences that have set a different meeting point.
- The meeting time. You are usually prompted to be at the meeting location at a specific time – well before the official commencement of the tour. Make sure to respect the given timeframe.
- Avoid booking back-to-back tours. If there is a delay in the first one, you may easily miss the next one. I think that two tours per day are pretty sufficient.
It is worth looking at the map to understand the location of each site, as they are pretty much scattered around the broader area. Even if you will not be driving to the actual sites yourself, you will still need a car, a driver, or a taxi to drop you off and pick you up from meeting locations. Taxis are neither reliable nor on time when you need them, so you should not risk missing a tour just because of that.
Day 11: AlUla - Jeddah (flight) OR Wadi Disah - Tabuk
- Option (1): If you don’t want to drive all the way to Jeddah (pretty meaningless as you will waste over 7 hours behind the wheel to cover the 700 km of distance), you can consider using a domestic flight instead. Al Ula is served by the Prince Abdul Majeed Bin Abdulaziz Domestic Airport, located 34 km away from the city center. The airport provides direct (but not that frequent) flights to both Jeddah and Riyadh. If you take this option, you can spend a lazy rest of the day at Silver Sands Beach nearby Jeddah.
- Option (2): Alternatively, and if you are not tired of driving just yet, you can head further north to Wadi Disah. This is one of the most beautiful wadis in the entire Kingdom and the perfect destination for nature lovers and campers. To get to Wadi Disah you will need to drive slightly over 3 hours on a 4×4 car. From Wadi Disah you can:
- Head back to AlUla and get a flight to Jeddah
- Drive for another 3 hours to Tabuk and get a flight to Jeddah from there
Day 12: Tabuk - Jeddah - (departure flight)
I leave this day free of schedule so that you can better organize the logistics of your departure from the Kingdom.
Ready To Go?
On the most practical part, and while setting aside the itinerary itself, I totally urge you to also go through my previous post titled “The Ultimate Survival Guide For Travelling To Saudi Arabia”. Through this post, I am sharing with you essential information on the entry requirements, as well as the evolution of the tourism industry in the country from the past, through the present, to the future!
If you feel you cannot organize such a trip alone, then you can always join me on one of my future trips! As a point of reference, I will be posting my most up-to-date travel dates at the end of each blog post!
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