Saudi Arabia is the 13th-largest country in the world, making up 80% of the Arabian Peninsula. The country is full of breathtaking natural landscapes ranging from snowcapped mountains to endless deserts and pristine coral reefs along the Red Sea—the majority of which have remained untouched for decades and rival the waters of the Maldives or Great Barrier Reef. Saudi Arabia is neighbored by Yemen and Oman to the south, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait to the north and Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE to the east. These are the major regions and cities in the Kingdom to know:
Saudi Arabia’s economic and political capital, Riyadh, is on the brink of a veritable development boom: In addition to the landmark museum opening currently underway at the ruins of Diriyah (the birthplace of the first Saudi state and a UNESCO Heritage Site as of 2010), the city is preparing to receive a parade of top-tier hotel arrivals, including flagships from AMAN, Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Nobu and many more—with prime dining and shopping right on their heels. Established on a desert plateau in the center of the country, Riyadh resembles Los Angeles in its layout, with the main highway, King Fahd Road, running vertically through its center. Riyadh is also the largest city in the Arabian Peninsula. The Kingdom Centre, Al Faisalyah, and Al-Tahlya Street are some of the city’s most prominent landmarks, along with the Diplomatic Quarter, Masmak Fortress and the Imam Turki bin Abdullah Mosque.
The desert dreamland of AlUla is quickly becoming Saudi’s undisputed culture hub. In addition to sampling the crafts and internationally competitive cuisine of the charmingly restored Old Town (an essential settlement along the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Mecca that dates back to the 12th century) and up-and-coming Jedidah neighborhood, here you can also tour some of the Middle East’s most impressive archaeological sites—including the tombs of Dadan and the colossal 1st-century AD Nabatean tombs at Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site (which rivals Petra, the Parthenon or Machu Picchu). AlUla also plays host to music festivals and cultural events, including the contemporary art fair DesertX.
This vibrant port city on the Red Sea, which has long functioned as the gateway to Mecca, is lauded for its multicultural atmosphere and exquisite, well-preserved architecture (best admired in the Al-Balad historic district, dating back to the 7th century). In many ways, it is reminiscent of Barcelona or Beirut. The city is also celebrated for its arts and shopping scenes—and don’t miss a stroll down the Corniche seafront promenade, which also features an outdoor sculpture gallery.
MECCA & MEDINA
These twin holy cities are also bustling tourism destinations—namely for Muslim travelers. Mecca (or Makkah) is where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad was born, and Medina (or Madinah), where he was buried. Every year, millions of Muslims from around the world make a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca to visit the Kaaba shrine, the most sacred site in Islam, considered to be the House of God. Mecca is the one city in Saudi Arabia that remains off-limits to non-Muslim tourists. Medina is known as the “cradle of Islamic culture and civilization;” here, Muhammad’s tomb is also a point of pilgrimage (known as Ziyarat).
The fifth most-populous city in Saudi Arabia (after Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca and Medina) and another port of international travel, Dammam is the capital of the Eastern Province and is a major administrative center for the oil industry (it was transformed from a rustic fishing village into a rapidly-growing hub in 1936, when immense quantities of oil were discovered by Aramco, and the company dug the famous Dammam Well No. 7, now known as the “Prosperity Well”).
TABUK & THE EMPTY QUARTER
At the northwestern-most tip of the country, Tabuk is characterized by Grand Canyon-like red-rock landscapes and stretches of sand dunes resembling Jordan’s Wadi Rum (which makes sense, as the region is just south of the Jordanian border). It houses many ancient archaeological sites and natural wonders—including oases and slot canyons—as well as the largest air force base in Saudi Arabia. It is also neighbor to the building site of the new city of NEOM. To the south, the bottom third of Saudi Arabia is enveloped by another desert, known as The Empty Quarter, which spreads beyond the boundaries of Saudi Arabia into other countries and is infamous for its indomitable vastness (though some nomadic tribes do occupy this area).