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What to see and do in Saudi Arabia - notable attractions and landmarks

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Now that Saudi Arabia is starting to open itself up to tourists, there is a whole host of incredible sights to see spread out across the Kingdom. It is much more than just a barren desert, with intriguing sites full of an endless chronology of history. The Empty Quarter does, however, offer a beautiful expanse of rolling sand dunes unlike anywhere else in the world. 

Khaled Al Mughrab

My Destination local expert on

Saudi Arabia

You can explore ancient history in the north at Madain Saleh, a collection of stone tombs as magnificent as Petra, or soak up the cosmopolitan lifestyle in the city centers of Jeddah and Riyadh with their top-notch restaurants and huge shopping malls. And, for those interested in religion, there are a number of mosques and religious sites to see.

 

Madain Saleh

 

The extraordinary Madain Saleh was Saudi's first site to be entered on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008. It is home to 131 tombs, 45 of which are etched with inscriptions in late Aramaic script. Amalgamating Greco-Roman architecture, Nabataean and Babylonian imagery, this is one spectacular sight you won’t forget in a hurry. There are lots of other attractions to enjoy at Madain Saleh including the Nabataean Well, the Diwan, the Al-Mahajar tombs and the Hejaz Railway Station at the northern edge of the site. Qasr Farid in the south is the largest tomb and perhaps the most intriguing, etched from a towering monolith.

 

Masmak Fortress

 

This squat fortification in Saudi's capital was built around 1865 and was the site of Ibn Saud's daring 1902 raid. During the raid, a spear was thrown at the main entrance door with such force that the spearhead is still lodged in the doorway. The fort was renovated during the 1980s and became part of the King Abdulaziz Historical Center. There is an opening on the center of the door which is just big enough for one person to pass at a time and it is a defensive feature designed to allow people in and out without opening the door. The castle also has a mosque and a well inside. The information panels and short films on the storming of the fortress and the 'reunification' of Saudi Arabia are biased towards the Al-Sauds, but they're worth watching anyway.

 

Old Jeddah

 

Old Jeddah has been effectively an open museum for generations and has plenty of historical places worth visiting. The most noticeable attraction is the Jeddah Wall, which was built to protect the old city against foreign attacks. The houses in old Jeddah were beautifully designed - locals used to build their homes using carefully selected rocks from the nearby Arba'een Lake which were then reshaped - but are unfortunately dilapidated. However, the restored Naseef House, which once belonged to one of Jeddah's most powerful families, is now set back from Souq al-Alawi, the most extensive souk in Saudi Arabia.

 

Dir'iyah

 

Dir'iyah is the capital city of the first Saudi state and the place from which the modern Saudi state originated. The Turaif District is a World Heritage Site, Saudi's second. Dir'iyah houses a number of spectacular buildings which showcase the local engineering talent and has huge high-rise mud buildings rarely seen in the rest of the region. Salwa Palace, where affairs of the state were operated and run, is definitely worth a visit and there are a number of towers, forts and palaces to visit in this area.

 

Najran Fort

 

The town's most noticeable monument, the Najran Fort displays all the features of traditional Saudi Arabian architecture. Filled with 60 rooms, built in 1942 to form a military base, the fort’s main entrance is through an intricately carved door. Inside, the fort's mosque, a restored well that dates to pre-Islamic times and the two-storey prince's palace in the center are the ground floor highlights.

 

Kingdom Tower

 

This is Riyadh's landmark tower and it is a stunning piece of modern architecture - rising 302 meters high and has a distinctive steel and glass 300-ton bridge connecting the two towers. It is particularly impressive at night when the upper sweep is lit with changing colored lights. High speed elevators take you to the 99th floor Sky Bridge at 180km an hour. From here the views are breathtaking, but avoid weekends and evenings after 6pm if you can as it can get very crowded.