Saudi Arabia will rival the UAE as the go-to tourist destination in the next few years.
Traveling for my birthday is a cherished tradition that I've followed for over a decade. When my husband I decided to start a family, I knew I would be pregnant for my birthday, and wasn't sure of where to travel for this annual celebration of my life. Being four months pregnant meant that I had to seek a destination that would offer a unique and memorable experience without the usual indulgences. After careful consideration, I found the perfect spot – Saudi Arabia. In this travel guide post, I'll take you through the best places I explored during this extraordinary trip, from the bustling capital of Riyadh to the tranquil desert town of AlUla and the coastal charm of Jeddah.
Riyadh - A Glimpse into Modern Saudi Arabia
Our adventure began in Riyadh, the heart of modern Saudi Arabia. In just two days, we immersed ourselves in the city's vibrant culture and modern developments. Riyadh turned out to be a revelation. We explored a 2D cafe, which made us realize just how advanced and modern the city was. This experience shattered any preconceptions I had formed based on Western media.
In August, Riyadh was scorching hot, so not many people were out during the day. Despite the heat, we found a city teeming with innovation and progress. Riyadh offered a glimpse into the evolving role of women in the country, as I experienced the unique contrast of Western misconceptions against the reality of this modern metropolis. While I didn't drive in Riyadh, it was here that I began to understand that Saudi Arabia held surprises beyond my expectations.
Al Ula - An Oasis of Natural Beauty and Adventure
Our time in Al Ula was an adventure like no other. Picture this: driving through a sandstorm in the dead of night, in a city we'd never been to, in a country whose landscape was largely uncharted territory for us. What made it even more exhilarating was that we received the very last rental car from Lumi, but it came with an empty gas tank! Fortunately, there was a nearby gas station, and we refueled before being stranded in the dark. However, our suitcase was left behind in Riyadh by Saudi Airlines, so our next day of exploration was momentarily postponed as we had to make a quick trip back to the airport to retrieve our luggage.
Travelers heading to Al Ula should keep in mind that there are no taxis readily available, so renting a car is highly recommended.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of our Al Ula adventure was the joy of driving around this unique desert landscape. It felt surreal, particularly as a woman behind the wheel in a country that had only recently lifted the ban on women driving. The rugged beauty of the desert surrounded us, making every turn a discovery. And the highlight of our Al Ula experience was undoubtedly the Habitas resort. Without a doubt, it stands as the most remarkable resort I've ever had the pleasure of staying at, and I'd consider traveling back to Saudi Arabia for another stay at this exceptional oasis.
Jeddah - High-Tech Hotels and Culinary Delights
Our three-day stay in Jeddah was a fusion of modern luxury and a welcoming atmosphere. Our hotel was Narcissus Al Hamra, a Saudia Hotel that provided us with a taste of high-tech living, from automated curtains to cutting-edge toilets -- Yes, even the toliets were fancy! What truly stood out during our visit was the remarkable Mall of Arabia, an astonishing shopping destination. I explored its grand halls and found it to be an extraordinary place.
I couldn't help but noticed the profound sense of safety I felt. Unlike in the States, where concerns about mass *pew pews* give daily anxiety, in Saudi Arabia, I was free to explore without those worries. What struck me even more was the absence of outward racism and the feeling that I wasn't treated differently because of the color of my skin. While I understand that experiences can vary, I can only share what I personally encountered.
One delightful surprise within the Mall of Arabia was a 6-foot high LEGO statue portraying a smiling Saudi family. This representation of a brown family with beaming faces and national pride was truly heartwarming. It's not often you see such diverse and positive imagery, especially of a country that has often been portrayed differently in Western news. Witnessing these images challenged the narratives and programming that is pushed back home and filled me with happiness.
Cultural Tips, Etiquette, and Getting Around
When exploring Saudi Arabia, it's important to respect local customs. Women, even non-Muslims, are recommended to wear abayas, and it's essential to be mindful of the prohibition on pork and alcohol. These small gestures of respect can go a long way in enhancing your experience.
While staying in Al Ula we visited Hegra (think of it like the Petra of KSA). I had a unique encounter with a local tour guide. Sporting a bright green dress for my birthday, I inadvertently matched the color of Islam. This sparked an interesting conversation and explained why fellow tourists were looking my way. It's moments like these that make travel truly unforgettable. You don't have to avoid the color green, but now you know the significance of its color.
Traveling between cities in Saudi Arabia was a breeze, thanks to the efficient domestic flight network. Within major cities, we relied on Uber and taxis for convenient transportation. In Al Ula, we drove a rental car.
As we reflect on this incredible journey through Saudi Arabia, it's clear that this country offers a wealth of experiences for travelers of all backgrounds. From the modernity of Riyadh to the serenity of Al Ula, the coastal charm of Jeddah, and the historical wonders of Hegra, Saudi Arabia is a multifaceted gem waiting to be explored. Even during unique life moments like pregnancy, this destination can offer adventures and memories that will last a lifetime.
So, whether you're a history enthusiast, an adventure seeker, or simply looking for a unique travel experience, consider Saudi Arabia for your next journey. As my trip proved, this destination has surprises, beauty, and cultural richness waiting to be discovered around every corner.