Author: This post is written by Jian Kang and you can follow him on Instagram at @escapist195.
There are lots of good Saudi guides around for roaming across the vast country without driving. The emphasis is on many tourist sites in Saudi are currently (early 2023) under (re)construction and often not open to visitors. Some more opinionated locals actually openly blamed the Neom/the Line moonshot/sci-fi projects for taking away funding of tourism infrastructure and construction resources from the rest of the country!
It helps if you divide Saudi into roughly 4 modules and stack them up according to what you most want to see and how long time you have to see them (recommended days are minimum required which still can be pretty exhausting given long transport & sightseeing days, add as many days you have/you’d like to make the tour more relaxed)
Easiest with international flights in and out of Jeddah or Riyadh, this itinerary focuses on flying into Jeddah and out of Riyadh to avoid backtracking.
Overview of the 4 regions/modules:
- The Western Circuit (Jeddah-Mecca-Taif 3 days + Thee Ain-Al Wabha 3 crater days)
- The Central Circuit (Riyadh-Shaqra-Edge of the World ~3 days)
- The Northwestern Circuit (Madinah-AlUla-Khaybar 4 days + Tayma-Tabuk-Al Disah 3 days)
- The Southwestern Circuit (Abha-Najran-Rijal Almaa 4 days + Fayfa-Jazan-Farasan 3 days)
Additionally, these are the regions or modules that can be extended:
- The Eastern Region: not heard/read many interesting or good things about Dammam other than it being a potential good entry/exit point for Bahrain
- Neom/the Line northwest: not ready yet! Might be a reason to return in 2030 to see if this grand vision/pipedream can really be realized.
- Up to 7 days: either fly into Jeddah for a Northwestern or Southwestern deep dive or do both on a supertight/hectic schedule (with flights and/or long bus days) cherry picking Madinah+AlUla in the north (3 days) and Rijal Almaa+Abha surroundings in the south (3 days)
- 10 days: with the extra days can add Mecca and Taif to complete the basic Jeddah Western Circuit
- 14 days: can do all 4 regions on a basic level like I did or go deeper on select 2-3
- 20+ days: can visit all 4 regions in depth on a still fully packed schedule
Best of Saudi top 5:
- Rijal Almaa overnight, small village packs a big punch when staying overnight in Heritage Inn perched on the hillside opposite the village with a postcard perfect view.
- Al Ula Hegra by Night & Maraya mirror hall, fantastic scenic experiences designed in recent years for the Instagram/social media crowd. However the constant handholding/red tapes by well meaning guides is in stark contrast to the freedom of explorations felt in Petra, Jordan.
- Madinah Al Haram evening time, something special and powerful about seeing the faithful Muslim pilgrims venturing from all over the world to pray in Madinah, beautiful mosque area surrounded by less beautiful modern hotels.
- Edge of the World (& other cliff edge viewpoints), was totally worth it! Additional views from Taif Alhada where Mecca clocktower could be spotted with eagle eyes was pretty special too!
- All the Ghadames-lite semi-abandoned heritage villages, well worth staying in the wonderful Heritage Guesthouse/mudhouse in Shaqra for an escape out of hectic Riyadh and visit the special maze of Ushaiquer, with Shaqra heritage village being a bit more structured. Another unexpected little gem was Watan Amsoudah, falling apart in the most scenic way near Al Soudah peak.
Bonus 1: Raum Castle in Najran, not saying it was totally worth the back to back 6h bus journeys to go to Najran and back from Khamis/Abha. But scrambling up and down offtrail of the Raum hill in Najran Valley was a fun 2 hours for sure!
Bonus 2: the hitchhiking experiences, always getting a car within a few minutes in the smaller towns and striking up an attempt of a conversion in very broken Arabic/English.
Note: I covered all 4 regions in the minimum 13 days but didn’t do any of the add-ons, met other traveled with more time/different priority who visited the more interesting add-ons, so I listed them here + brief details on what I heard for your planning purposes. I’m glad to have covered ~2/3 of the highlights I want to see, would love to visit Al Disah in the northwest, Fayfa in the southwest and Al-Wabha & Thee Ain from Taif during a future return trip!
All sites name below are written to be easily found on Google Maps. Even if you drive you might plan to fly or bus between each region (with some low fares available) to conserve energy and avoid some long, dull desert road driving days, or if you love driving go for it!
Transportation guide without a car:
- Bus – SAPTCO official state buses will be your best friend (that sometimes turn into an abusive relationship with a couple of hours of delays and extra discomfort). Buses were never full (I often booked the day prior and then rescheduled last minute to an earlier departure at the station if I made it earlier), women & families upfront separated from guys in the back. Schedules are clear and tickets are easy to purchase here with international credit cards.
- Speed train – Haramain trains between Jeddah-Madinah (2h vs 5h+ for the bus, ~170 SAR) and Jeddah-Mecca (25min ~32 SAR) depart frequently and are easy to book here.
- Flights – FlyNas and Flyadeal are offer many domestic flights in the $40-70 range, especially in and out of Jeddah, Riyadh as hubs and sometimes Medina.
- Hitchhiking – worked wonders for me to explore locally in AlUla (with other tourists), Najran, Taif. Met a Spanish traveler who went by thumb all the way from Abha to Fayfa and then Jazan. This is validated for solo male travelers at least. If you are a couple or more people or solo female your experience might differ.
- Ride hailing – worked fine in all cities between 2 min and 15 min wait time: used Bolt the most with lowest prices and sometimes Uber and sometimes Careem depending on availability and price. Very approximated rule of thumb for cost: 1.5-2x SAR per kilometer in the cities (Jeddah, Madinah, Riyadh) and cheapest ~1 SAR per km in the smaller towns in the south like Abha, Najran.
- Tours – used this option and splurged for Rijal Almaa and Abha surroundings, which could have been possible hitchhiking if I wasn’t crunched on time; as well as the classic tour to Edge of the World from Riyadh.
- STC airport arrival $20 for 18 GB was a solid deal for me, not cheap but reasonable. STC has LTE speed radio base stations in the middle of the deserts along roads, they are known to offer the best coverage!
- From crime and corruption perspective super safe! By far the biggest danger will be traffic and road accidents since many drive with complete disregard for rules and lives. Changing lanes at high speed without signaling but with hands and eyes on the phone is quite common, leading to pile up crashes sometimes fatal.
The Central West Circuit (Jeddah-Mecca-Taif 3 days + Thee Ain-Al Wabha 3 days)
- Jeddah – Daytime Al Tayebat exhibitions (8 SARr) and House of Islamic Arts (30 SAR, same mall as House of Swedish Home Arts aka IKEA) to avoid the heat.
– Evening/nighttime: Al Balad historic centre but tbh it feels like one big construction site right now and/or Jeddah Corniche.
- Mecca: no checks for the 25min/32 SAR ultra modern speed train from Jeddah! Since ticket is scanned by QR. Lots of security and soldiers amidst white Ihram clad men and black abaya dressed women doing Umrah around and inside the mosque. I stood out like sore thumb in my backpacker outfit + backpack, could walk around the mosque & clocktower but not enter, would probably have been allowed in no problem with the right clothing. Never got a sense that I’d be stopped by anyone for a check of faith.
- Taif: 2h SAPTCO bus from Mecca, Al Balad old town really buzzing and lovely at night. 30 SAR/20min ride to Al Hada telefric (cable car) for a terrific view of the plains and mountains between Taif and Mecca, even the clocktower could be seen on a clear day some 50km away!
+3 days add-ons (which I didn’t do but met others who did)
- Thee Ain by Al Bahah add 1-2 days by bus from Taif.
- Al-Wabha crater add 1 day 4×4 from Taif.
The Central Circuit (Riyadh-Shaqra-Edge of the World ~3 days)
- Riyadh: Masmak fortress, the impressive large National Museum complex nearby and Diriyah traditional village (where the ruling Saud family is said to originate from) usually fills the day for most visitors.
- Shaqra + Ushaiqer: fantastic day + overnight excursion option 3h bus from Riyadh, the Heritage Guesthouse is of tremendous value and run by a Saudi family who used to work in hospitality in Malaysia, so the standards is much higher than regular tourist sites & hotels where the staff hasn’t been exposed to international level of hospitality. Ushaiquer heritage village 20min ride away is a pretty special old mud town to visit.
- Edge of the World: went with Riyadh Trips daily departure for 350 SAR from 14:00-22:00 including dinner from Diriyah near 535 highway area.
The Northwestern Circuit (Madinah-AlUla-Khaybar 4 days + Tayma-Tabuk-Al Disah 3 days)
- Madinah: phenomenal city simply because there are actually 2 parallel pedestrian streets linking Al Haram to Quba mosque! Refreshing to be able to stroll in a Saudi city without fearing for one’s life in a game of Frogger! The ambience around Al Haram in the evening time was very powerful, the construction of endless bland tall hotels all around it not so much. Quick 2h speed train connection with Jeddah (but expensive ~170 SAR on our good old slow 5h SAPTCO for around ~78 SAR, time is money!
- Al Ula: need to book all historic sites tickets a bit in advance here.
- Navigation: there’s the Winter Park which is a fancy name for Al Ula historic site parking lot & ticket + shuttle center, also a hub/node to get to sights in all 4 directions from Winter Park:
- North: Hegra the famous Petra looking tomb site is ~20min drive north
- Northwest: Maraya the mirror concert hall also ~20min north west via the Habitas entry
- East: Elephant Rock is ~20min East
- West: Harrat viewpoint sunset club ~20min west
- South: then there’s an AlUla old town 10min south, faux old since it’s recently renovated, can’t park here. Then there’s the AlUla new town with the SAPTCO station a further ~5min south and a larger new town ~10min south again with most of the affordable accommodations. Confusing as hell until I visited!
- Transportation: my guesthouse Apartments of Abu Ali offered free SAPTCO & Winter Park drop off & pickup and for 100 SAR drives to Elephant Rock and Harrat Viewpoint + basic accommodation for 150 SAR which I found very reasonable compared to all the overpriced places online. However I met many nice fellow travelers driving so hitched with them to all the sites all day.
- Prebooked 3 tours: Dadan + Jabal Ikmah which was moderately interesting; Hegra daytour and Hegra night tour which were impressive. Transportation included from Winter Park for all 3.
- Maraya, Elephant Rock (open from 16:00) and Harrat Viewpoint (best by sunset) are all free, with refreshments readily on sale in the bar/cafe lounges on the latter 2 spots.
- Additional experiences: there are always guided outdoor adventure, concerts, exhibition, sport events available to easily fill another day or two.
- Rainbow Rock & Rocks of Buraikah 1h drive north, need to get lucky & hitch a ride.
- Khaybar: book fortress site tour for 95sar on Al Ula experience site. Stop by with SAPTCO morning bus from Al Ula then take the next afternoon bus to Madinah. Bonus: There’s an impressive White Mountain Crater about 70km east of Khaybar that does require 4×4 to reach.
- Tabuk: can serve as a starting point/car rental pickup & drop off city in the north for a loop to Al Ula and back or even Madinah.
- Tayma: can book entrance + tour on Al Ula experiences site for 95 SAR or 395 SAR including return transport to Al Ula.
- Al Disah: heard it’s a fantastic oasis, bit difficult without a car, met a lady who’s CouchSurfing host took her from Duba and others who got a spontaneous lift from Al Ula for an overnight desert camping trip.
The Southwestern Circuit (Abha-Najran-Rijal Almaa 4 days + Fayfa-Jazan-Farasan 3 days)
- Abha & surrounding traditional villages of Tamniah, Al Yanfa and Al Habala for traditional mudbrick architecture, went with private tour hire for 700 SAR.
- Abha itself is of moderate interest, the Shaman castle was closed for unknown reasons, the Damside Park and “Art” Street were a bit meh.
- Tamniah has a small Archeological museum and Al Yanfa has beautiful but dilapidated mud architecture with lots of constructions underway.
- Al Habala has a stunning cliff dropping over a kilometer into a vast canyon, but the cable car to the hanging village was closed.
- Rijal Almaa & Al Soudha
- Al Soudha is the highest peak in the Kingdom but you couldn’t tell from looking at the pretty flat hilltop filled with mobile towers. It’s also closed although there are some cliff edge viewpoints nearby and a Watan Amsoudah Heritage village that was falling apart but wonderful to get lost in, reminded me of a mini-Ghadames in the best possible sense!
- Rijal Almaa, the iconic stone house village (20 SAR entrance) is smaller than imagined. One could come here for a 2h stop during the day. I splurged on staying the night at the impeccable Heritage Inn with a killer view and it was the best thing I did in Saudi! Visiting the village at dusk and exploring it at night made it all the more magical!
- Najran 5-6h from Abha via Khamis SAPTCO (skip Khamis btw I want to call it Khamisery, least appealing place I went through In Saudi). Along the Najran dry river valley climb the epic yet easy Raum Castle, visit the traditional Aan Palace (open only Fri-Sun evenings), Amarah Palace and Al Ukhud historical site of a massacre of Christians almost 2000 years ago (lots of construction but at least a small history exhibition was interesting). The Najran Valley Dam is sadly under military control due to the proximity to Yemen border and currently inaccessible.
Bonus – Hima Wells & rock arts is an UNESCO site ~2h north of Najran on the fringes of the vast expansive desert dominating southern Saudi aptly called the Empty Quarters, but need to hitch or hire driver to reach.
+3 days add-ons:
- Wadi Lajab: looks amazing for a proper canyoning hiking adventure but seasonally closed after heavy rainfall.
- Fayfa: the hills and villages look stunning too, I know one traveler who hitchhiked here from Abha. Hotels up in the hills are expensive vs more budget ~150 SAR options in Adayyer.
- Jazan: town by the Red Sea, with Adosareyah Castle and Northern Sea Front corniche, and free ferry boarding point to visit Farasan (with one closed Ottoman fort and Al Qessar heritage village). The island looked flat and hot to me from online research (I was recently on the opposite end of the Red Sea in Massawa) hence gave it a skip.
Saudi is very much a society in flux, or “under construction” as I saw and felt over and over again, with not only mega projects and historic sites but also with beliefs and values. Things are happening which is good in itself after too many years of conservatism and closure, but are good things happening?
It’s a developing country that’s expensive, it’s a conservative country with glimpses of opening. The liberal progress rest fickly on the mantle of a wannabe “strongman” prince, while young people are generally more happy with more freedom, we know from history how absolute power corrupts time and time again.
Tourism infrastructure, where it exists has been instagrammified and heavily filtered, with handholding and guiding every step in the flagship sites of Al Ula and Al Diriyah. The Grand Vision 2030 may yet deliver to set Saudi apart from UAE and others on the Arabian peninsulaa, or it may be the largest mirage in the desert. For that reason alone, it is interesting to visit an unfinished Saudi now, and the “finished” product in a decade or so to measure the difference.