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The top five places to visit in Saudi Arabia

Now welcoming non-Muslim travellers, Saudi Arabia is embracing transformation and paving a future geared to top-end tourism, writes Belinda Jackson.

The beauty of Saudi Arabia has been veiled from non-Muslim travellers for generations. But tourism is the new petroleum, and the country’s transformative Vision 2030 sees e-visas as the norm, and dress codes markedly relaxed. No headscarves or long robes are required for women now – local or visitor – while Saudi women are enjoying their own new freedoms for work, travel and even self-expression. “This is our own golden era,” says Fatma. Wearing trousers and a t-shirt, her curly, coal-black hair uncovered and dark eyes lined in kohl, she is the new face of Saudi Arabia; an avid climber and camper, educated and ambitious, the first girl in her village to drive, keen to show me her country.

Riyadh

Things are looking up in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Literally – look up to see a forest of cranes on the horizon, as new cities-within-the-city are built at a speed so fast you almost hyperventilate while watching. Driving through the city, every luxury brand is staking its real estate – from world-renowned jewellers to every five-star hotel; we pass metro stations designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, an airport by Norman Foster’s Foster + Partners.

The exception is At-Turaif, the ruins of Riyadh’s 15th-century seat of power. The timeworn mudbrick fortress is the city’s heart, its birthplace, the first capital of the al-Saud dynasty.

At Turaif fortress, Dirayah, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
At Turaif fortress, Dirayah, Riyadh

But instead of a dusty curio, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site is enjoying a renaissance, studded with new light projections thrown onto mudbrick walls, museum spaces dedicated to Saudi’s beloved Arabian horses and cushion-strewn open-air cafes.

Maiz, the restaurant where we are eating Saudi cuisine was not here six months ago. Facing the fortress, it is part of the Diriyah Gate giga-project, whose new luxury digs bear such names as Armani, Fauchon, Four Seasons and Nobu.

Tabuk city

In Tabuk, in the northwest of the country, when change comes, it will be next-level transformative. Tonight, I’m sitting on a small dune in the desert after a dinner of Saudi’s beloved spiced chicken and rice dish, kabsa, looking up into the skies. This quiet desert is the starting point for what will be The Line, the synapse-blowing, futuristic, linear city that will continue 170 kilometres to the Red Sea. Along the desert roads, I spy camps where teams of scientists, conservationists, architects and hard hats are working to create the mirrored, sustainable city that is the linchpin of the NEOM project and now the newly announced Trojena project. A year-round ski resort will encircle a 2.8-kilometre artificial lake in the desert, which has the world divided over whether it is folly or far-sighted.

AIUIa

AlUla is three hours south and Saudi Arabia’s first and most evocative tourism project. Transforming from a sleepy oasis to one of the coolest culture hotspots in the world. Effortlessly chic, here you’ll find the world’s largest mirrored building, Maraya – it is an architectural wonder – which hides in plain sight. But inside, the auditorium hosts world-class performances, and the rooftop restaurant has British Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton on the pans.

Maraya in AIUIa, Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest mirrored building
Maraya is the world’s largest mirrored building

Even without such constructs, what makes this oasis so significant are the dramatic rock formations and the leavings of ancient Hegra, the sister city to Petra across the border in Jordan. Beneath the elephant-shaped Jabel AlFil rock, food trucks open for business as the sun melts into the horizon, chilled music plays as we sit in a sunken pit, drinking icy alcohol-free beer.

The nearby canyons host open-air music festivals, grand-scale art installations, wellness gatherings and balloon adventures. Its latest occupant is the new Banyan Tree AlUla, its low-slung, tent-like villas subtle in the dramatic landscape.

Hegra is Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage-listed site
Hegra is Saudi’s first UNESCO World Heritage-listed site © Jonathan Irish

Madinah

“Saudi Arabia is one of the few places left that will surprise you if you’re well travelled,” says Padraig Doyle, the operations manager at AlUla, who I meet by chance in the oasis’ old town. And he’s right. Driving south to Madinah, non-Muslims are now allowed to enter Islam’s second holiest city. We arrive just as its enormous Prophet’s Mosque is emptying after Friday prayers. The devout pour calmly into the streets, stopping traffic with their sheer numbers. The mosque can house more than a million worshippers, and while non-Muslims cannot enter, we have a bird’s-eye view over the mosque over lunch on the top floor of the Pullman Zamzam Madina.

Masjid al nabawi - the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah, Saudi Arabia
Masjid al nabawi - the Prophet's Mosque © Adobe Stock

Jeddah

From the desert to the sea, it’s two hours by bullet train, touching speeds of 300km/hour. We’re travelling from Madinah to Saudi’s second city, Jeddah. The ancient, always lively port city on the Red Sea. In the 18 months since I last visited, change is obvious – in Jeddah, the newest landmark on the Corniche is a Shangri-La; tall, cool with views of the Red Sea coastline.

Historic Jeddah is situated on the eastern shore of the Red Sea
Historic Jeddah is situated on the eastern shore of the Red Sea

Jeddah’s aquatic pursuits

Jeddah is sultry by nature, and the sea beckons – our snow-white motorboat noses out of the harbour and 25 kilometres offshore into a shallow lagoon. Here, we snorkel around pristine, fluorescent corals and barbeque fish in the boat’s kitchen.

This spectacular day on the water marks the end of my Saudi adventure, and my mind is a kaleidoscope of images. Of valleys of palms and super-luxury hotels, ancient tombs cut into rock hillsides and ideas so bizarre, they bend my brain. And throughout, each is accompanied by a small cup of green coffee. Offered with the grace and acceptance of this nation of Saudis, and accepted with joy from me, the traveller.

Clear water at the entrance to Jeddah port
Jeddah has beautiful locations for snorkelling © Adobe Stock

This article originally appeared in volume 46 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. Subscribe to the latest issue today.

Main image: The striking pool at Banyan Tree AlUla © mehmeterzincan

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