Saudi Arabia has a vision for the future — Vision 2030. Spearheaded by the reformist 32-year-old, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it seeks to open up the famously conservative country in a number of ways. These are referred to as the three “pillars”: an ambitious nation, a thriving economy, and a vibrant society. Already, they’ve led to advancements for women, including the right to drive, attend sporting events, vote, and get elected. In February 2017, the Saudi stock exchange named its first female chairperson in history, Sarah Al Suhaimi.


This year, the kingdom plans to start issuing tourist visas, with the aim to welcome 30 million visitors per year by 2030, doubling the current number. The two cities that stand to benefit the most are the capital, Riyadh, and coastal city, Jeddah. Both destinations offer a different face of Saudi life, not to mention a slew of attractions. Whether there for business or pleasure, consider these highlights.



All roads in Saudi Arabia lead to Riyadh — the capital, court, and heart of the kingdom. A mere hundred years ago the “Queen of the Desert” was a walled, mud-brick village of 27,000 people along a desert trading route, but now it is home to more than 5 million, and includes the country’s largest hospitals, universities, companies, banks, and more. 


Thanks to the intensely hot desert climate, activities tend to take place behind closed doors. It’s only in the “winter” months, when temperatures drop to the 70s that locals come out to picnic in public parks, camp in the desert, and rent private chalets complete with swimming pools and playgrounds to vacation with families and friends. Public entertainment is limited in Riyadh but the newly created General Authority for Entertainment has already opened the city’s first cinema, with more to come.



Start at the Al Masmak fortress, erected in 1865 and looking every bit cinematic, with its clay and mud-brick watchtowers and thick walls. It’s here that the history of modern Saudi Arabia began, when leader, Ibn Saud, famously captured it in 1902. Exhibitions and video presentations inside tell the story, as well as display vintage weapons, photography, and other traditional objects.  


Fast forward to the 21st century at Kingdom Centre, a glistening, glass two-towered skyscraper rising 992 feet in the middle of the city. Home to a spectacular luxury shopping mall and the Four Seasons Hotel, it’s most famous for the stunning Skybridge on the 99th floor, which connects the two towers of the building and offers sweeping views of the city.


King Abdullah Park may sizzle during the day but by evening, particularly in the cooler months, the surprisingly lush and green space makes for a popular evening stroll. The highlight and main attraction is the huge “dancing fountain,” which features a colorful laser light show. 



In the city that is home to the king, it’s fitting that the “game of kings,” (golf) is so easily accessed. Several courses and clubs are within a half hour’s drive of the city, including Riyadh Golf Course, an official Par-72 championship course. Forty-five miles southwest of Riyadh, in the picturesque Tawfiq Valley, find Dirab Golf & Country Club. The 18 holes are just the start of the fun here, where you will also find horseback riding, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and clubhouse restaurant.


The desert dunes surrounding the city welcome ATVs and four-wheel drive cars for “dune bashing,” which essentially means putting the pedal to the medal while charging up and down the dunes. Don’t try on your own, however, as there is the danger of rolling the car over or getting stuck — always best to join a tour group or outfitter. For extra adrenalin, bring a snowboard for “sand surfing.”



Few places in the world can match the majesty of Riyadh’s super sleek modern shopping malls, which essentially serve as community centers. The queen of them all is the Al Nakheel Mall, home to more than
200 shops of most major world brands, dozens of restaurants, and a 20,000 square-foot play park for kids.


For a more traditional experience, head to the Deerah Souq bazaar just behind Masmak Fort. For souvenir hunters, this is the ideal spot to find scarfs, shawls, carpets, lanterns, scented oils, gold, spices, and much more. Don’t accept any price on face value — haggling isn’t just welcome, it’s expected.



If Riyadh is the center of law and order, Jeddah is the vacation hub where Saudis cut loose. The promenades along the Red Sea — especially the “Jeddah Corniche” — see far more foot traffic than any boulevard in Riyadh. With greater tolerance comes more options for entertainment, including hookah cafes, live music, and amusement parks. Beaches, both public and private, provide optimal conditions
for snorkeling and diving, and some even allow bikinis. 


As Jeddah is only 55 miles from Mecca, and has the nearest major airport, it is more greatly affected during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, which lasts around two months and attracts about two million people from all over the world. In fact, the airport has a five million square-foot Hajj Terminal, which can handle 80,000 arrivals during that time. 



While modern buildings abound, the heart of the city remains the charming neighborhood of Al Balad, with the buildings made of coral reefs from the Red Sea. Greater efforts have been made in recent years to preserve and renovate the labyrinthine neighborhood, and it is now an UNESCO World Heritage site. One of the many highlights is the
Al-Shafi’i Mosque, which dates back to the 13th century.


Jeddah’s reputation as an arts hub for the country helped create the outdoor Jeddah Sculpture Museum, with more than 20 sculptures arranged in a green park just next to the water. The collection is impressive, with works by A-list sculptors from around the world, including Joan Miró, Henry Moore, and Alexander Calder.


Jeddah is also home to the tallest fountain in the world, King Fahd Fountain. It sprays water up to 1,024 feet high (taller than the Eiffel Tower) at more than 200 miles per hour, amounting to 16 tons of water in the air at any one time. The show starts at dusk and runs during the night, illuminated by 500 high-intensity spotlights.



It wouldn’t be Saudi Arabia without at least one massive, gleaming shopping mall, and Jeddah follows suit with the Red Sea Mall. Along with the dozens of international and local luxury brands and restaurants, it also hosts a popular musically choreographed indoor fountain.


Wander the Al Balad Souq for traditional Middle Eastern products and cuisine, including jewelry, Islamic art, and spices. The Fish Market is a particular highlight, especially at 9 a.m., when the day’s catch arrives. More than 50 species of sea creatures are represented, ranging from hammerhead sharks to grouper, parrotfish, and squid.



The beach and sea infuse much of the entertainment and activities in Jeddah. A favorite is the private Silver Sands Beach, which glistens with fine white sand and perfectly turquoise water. Predominantly frequented by Westerners, bikinis are welcome. Included in the admission fee are padded reclining lawn chairs, a table, and umbrella. Finding it can be a bit tricky so be sure to get careful directions or help from the hotel.


The coral reefs off the coast provide ample opportunities for scuba diving, snorkeling, and more. Outfitters like Desert Sea Divers lead trips to prime spots, offer training, and provide equipment, drinks, and lunch. Or simply rent what you need and head to the beach.


For speed and excitement, get a pass to the 15-acre Al Shallal Theme Park and spend the day rolling and tumbling on roller coasters, shooting high in the air at 60 miles an hour on the Sling Shot, or swinging round in the flying carousel. You can top it off by cooling down in the on-site ice skating rink.


Getting There

Saudi Arabian Airlines offers nonstop service from Dulles International Airport (IAD) to King Khaled International Airport (RUH).


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