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Closed to tourists until recently, Saudi Arabia is still an unknown quantity for many would-be travelers.
That’s changing fast. The country reported a 56% growth in international arrivals in 2023 from 2019 pre-pandemic levels, according to the UNWTO.
So, where are some of the best places in this emerging tourism destination to go?
We asked some of the people who know it best – regular visitors and Saudis themselves. From celebrities to rocket scientists, here’s what they recommend:
This living museum is best known for historic dwellings dating back thousands of years, dramatic rock formations and some of Saudi’s most spectacular scenery.
Lojain Omran, a Saudi television presenter and star of Netflix’s UAE-based reality show “Dubai Bling,” is a fan.
“It’s like nowhere else on Earth, it is truly magical,” she tells CNN. Like everyone interviewed for this feature, she was speaking via email. “The level of peace and comfort in AlUla is just unmatched. If you are into meditation and relaxation, AlUla is the perfect spot. It is secluded, far from the hustle and bustle of crowds and city noise.”
Omran, who is also an actress, says when visiting she stays at A-list favorite the Banyan Tree AlUla, which features private tented villas.
“It combines luxury, privacy, and tranquillity, in addition to excellent service for all guests,” she says.
Omran is also hopeful visitors will explore destinations across Saudi Arabia.
“The Kingdom is vast, and every region has its unique charm in terms of nature, atmosphere, cuisine, customs, and traditions, adding a wealth of cultural richness to our experiences,” she says.
Jeddah’s Old Town
A highlight of any visit to Saudi’s second-largest city is a wander through the winding alleys of its historic Al Balad district, where ancient coral stone and wooden buildings come with fascinating stories.
Established in the 7th century, Al Balad was once the beating heart of Jeddah, and is still a top destination.
Mai Eldib, a senior vice president for auction house Sotheby’s in the Middle East, says she has witnessed transformative changes in Saudi Arabia over the last eight years, and always makes a beeline for this fascinating area when she’s in town.
“The beauty of the old town is that it is almost stuck in time and tells the story of Jeddah as a port city – a true melting pot, as so many people making the pilgrimage to Hajj stopped and made a life and a home there,” says Eldib.
“There is a huge preservation effort from the government, restoring the 18th and 19th century Ottoman houses, and it is wonderful to see the old neighborhoods coming to life and being renewed.”
Eldib particularly recommends Jeddah’s Angawi House.
“My jaw dropped when I first saw this sumptuous private home as it’s a real kaleidoscope of colors, craftsmanship, history and modernity,” she says. “It’s not to be missed as a mesmerizing introduction to Saudi’s past and present.”
Al Nawras Island
“You can’t talk about islands in Saudi Arabia without talking about a new tourist favorite, but a treasured local one, Al Nawras Island,” Saudi professional boxer Ziyad Almaayouf tells CNN.
“Personally, I love to jump on a rented boat or a friend’s yacht and go to Al Nawras Island as much as I can, and I would recommend any tourist do the same!”
Ziyad, who is based in California, says he enjoys the tranquility of the island, located on the Red Sea coast north of Jeddah. “What I love most about Al Nawras Island, isn’t the island itself, but the waters surrounding it,” he adds.
“Park the yacht just before the island to enjoy the scenes and the water for the day, it truly is a piece of heaven and a true hidden gem.”
When he’s away training, Ziyad says he pines for traditional Saudi culture and home comforts.
“I miss dinner with my whole family – parents, grandparents, siblings, and cousins. We all join one table as it’s a symbol of togetherness,” he says. “And I miss the bonus life hack and cultural tradition of eating with our hands. Believe it or not, eating with your hands takes the food time experience to a whole other level. I love it.”
Stargazing in Unaizah
Saudi aerospace engineer Mishaal Ashemimry, says she is still in awe of the wonderful desert sand dunes around Unaizah, a small city northwest of capital Riyadh, which she credits for inspiring her passion for space when she was six.
“My mom took me to the desert dunes on our farm in Unaizah at night,” she says. “The sky was so dark and all you could see was the light from the stars above. Back then there wasn’t much light pollution, as such, all you see is a thick layer of stars and it was captivating.
“Looking up to the sky that night changed my life, as it set the course of my future to become an aerospace engineer to enable me to explore space and learn more about the stars and our mysterious universe.”
Now founder and CEO of MISHAAL Aerospace, Mishaal still visits her childhood haunt and proudly champions her heritage through her work.
“As an Arab, exploration is part of my DNA and seeking knowledge to better our understanding of the cosmos is the ultimate goal,” she says.
Mishaal says she is just as excited to discover more about her vast homeland too. “One of my goals is to fly a twin-engine aeroplane around Saudi to explore all its cities.”
Riyadh’s Souk Al Zal
Riyadh-born singer Tamtam went viral around the globe in 2014 with her song “Gender Game,” which contains powerful lyrics about the challenges facing Saudi women.
She may be one of Saudi’s hottest cultural exports, but Tamtam, AKA Reem Altamimi, says she loves the buzz of being back in her homeland and visiting much-loved haunts, including the historic Souk Al Zal, in Riyadh’s Al Dirah district.
“It may be a typical place to take tourists in Riyadh, but Souk Al Zal is honestly a favorite of mine as it’s one of the oldest traditional markets in the city,” she tells CNN.
With over 100 years of history in its ancient-tiled walkways, the traditional market is known for tiny shops filled with incense and oud, as well as its daily antiques auction.
“It’s close to Masmak Fort too, another must-see in the city,” the Los Angeles-based singer says, referring to a renovated 19th-century mudbrick fortress.
Lured in by the rich smell of Ethiopian coffee beans and freshly baked brownies, Tamtam is a loyal patron of one of Riyadh’s most popular coffee spots, Ba’a Bakehouse.
“It’s locally owned, really unique for a coffee shop in the city and I love the location,” she says.
Diriyah’s UNESCO Heritage Site
Established in the 15th century, Diriyah is the original home of the country’s royal family.
The historic, mudbrick-built site is currently being developed into what Saudi officials say will be a $63 billion cultural and lifestyle center that will draw in 27 million visitors a year.
Hatem Alakeel, the Saudi founder of luxury consulting and creative production agency Authenticite, says Diriyah, west of Riyadh, is already worth a visit.
“Diriyah is the birthplace of the kingdom and a symbol of the unity, beauty and resilience of the Saudi nation and its people,” he says.
“Deemed the land of kings and heroes due to its historical significance, it has been carefully restored to offer visitors a chance to tread in the footsteps of generations past and experience Saudi history and culture in an authentic environment.”
With breathtaking beaches, stunning coral reefs and crystal-clear turquoise waters, Umluj is a stark contrast to Saudi’s infamous desert landscapes.
The resort on the Red Sea coast is often promoted as “the Maldives of Saudi Arabia,” offering water sports and cultural experiences.
“This secluded coastal area is a haven of natural beauty, providing a serene escape from the hustle and bustle,” says Saudi American Tasneem Alsultan, a documentary photographer.
“Its pristine beaches and azure waters make it a hidden paradise for those seeking tranquility.”
Tasneem, who has spent recent years documenting social changes in Saudi Arabia, adds: “Saudi Arabia’s allure lies in its unique blend of tradition, generosity, and captivating stories waiting to be discovered.
“Our society is a tapestry of generosity, rich Arab traditions, and a profound commitment to storytelling in its myriad forms. The warmth of our people, the depth of our cultural heritage, and the vibrant narratives woven into every aspect of life make Saudi Arabia an exceptional destination.”
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