Saudi Arabia - The Forbidden Kingdom

Saudi Arabia is one of the most inaccessible places on the planet for western travellers. A land of mystery, it is very different from anything you may have experienced before.  On our Saudi Arabia holidays, we uncover some of the hidden secrets of one of travel’s last frontiers.

We start in the capital, Riyadh, a juxtaposition of bright new developments and old world charm, before heading into the desert to visit the ‘edge of the world’ with its incredible views. From here we visit old mud brick villages at Ushaiger and Hail, see the ancient rock art of Jubbah and drive via the ghost town of Al Ula to Madain Salah. The jewel of Saudi Arabia’s historic sites, Madain Saleh was built by the same civilisation as built Jordan’s Petra, and we have time to marvel at the exquisite rock carved tombs and learn about the ancient history of a people long gone from this land.

In the north west of the country, we visit the beautiful canyon of Wadi Qaraqir and the remote Bajdah desert, before flying to the striking Asir Mountains, one of the country’s most traditional areas and with landscapes unlike anywhere else in Saudi Arabia.

Unlike any other trip, this is a real journey of surprises that will challenge what you think you know about this enigmatic corner of Arabia.

Saudi Arabia - The Forbidden Kingdom

Highlights

  • Explore Jeddah’s historic quarter
  • Visit the Nabataean city of Madain Saleh
  • Traditional villages of the Asir Mountains
  • Ancient desert forts
  • Stay in the vibrant city of Riyadh

Day 1 - Riyadh

Arrive in Riyadh and transfer to the hotel. Depending on when you arrive there may be time to explore the city. Overnight Warwick Hotel or similar.

Riyadh

Riyadh is the capital and largest city of Saudi Arabia. Its name is derived from the plural of the Arabic word “rawdha”, which means “garden”, particularly those formed in the desert after rains. Riyadh is divided into 17 municipalities. Each contributes in its own way to the vibrant nature of the city, which has experienced a comparatively unique history and colorful past. In 1991, it was slightly damaged by Iraqi missile attacks during the Persian Gulf War but returned to normalcy soon after.

The most outstanding aspect of Riyadh is its architecture, which is a vibrant concurrence of the old and the new – contemporary high-rise towers shadow over buildings exuding old world charm. In addition to being the epicentre of power, the city is also a commercial hub.

Day 2 - Riyadh

Spend today exploring Riyadh. We visit the Murraba Palace, built by King Abdul Aziz in the traditional style as a home for his family, as well as the historic Masmak fortress, one of the oldest buildings in the city. As well as this we will visit the Dira souq, specialising in copper and brass as well as old Bedouin jewellery, and the National Museum. Overnight Warwick Hotel or similar. (B)


Day 3 - Diriyah - The Edge of the World

Spend the morning visiting the walled town of Diriyyah, the birthplace of the Saudi state and now in a process of restoration. In the afternoon we drive to the ‘Edge of the World’, a dramatic escarpment with spectacular views over the endless desert horizons. Return to Riyadh after watching the sun set. Overnight Warwick Hotel or similar. (B)

Please note: Diriyah is currently under restoration although is schedule to re-open shortly. If however it remains closed, we will view it from the outside.


Day 4 - Ushaiger - Buraydah

Drive to the well preserved mud brick village of Ushaiger, with its approximately 400 houses and 25 mosques lining a maze of paths amidst the palm trees and orchards. From here continue to Buraydah and explore its lively souq and date market, as well as the camel market, reputedly the largest in the world. Overnight Tramontane Hotel or similar. (B)


Day 5 - Jubbah - Hail

This morning we drive to see the collection of ancient rock art at Jubbah, a huge open air art gallery with carvings that date back to 5500BC. Continue to Hail, the gateway to the desert and once a major meeting point for traders and pilgrims. Throughout the city are a number of forts and palaces, often now used as museums or libraries, dating back to the time of Ottoman rule. We explore city, including the Al Qishlah fort, among other sites. We will also visit the ancient petroglyphs at Jubbah. Overnight Tramontane Hotel or similar. (B)


Day 6 - Al Ula

Drive to Al Ula, with its well preserved historic buildings. This is the gateway to Madain Saleh but is well worth exploring on its own. Upon arrival we explore the old town. Overnight Sahary Resort or similar. (B)


Day 7 - Al Ula

Today we explore some of the many sites in and around Al Ula, including the ‘lion tomb’, Ikmah Mountain with its ancient inscriptions, and the ‘elephant rock’. Overnight Sahary Resort or similar. (B)

Al Ula

This is an ancient site that had once been the hub of trade and commerce. The place had been previously known by the name of Dedan but has now acquired the modern name of Al-Ula.It retained its importance as the center of Saudi Arabian Civilization till the 1st Century B.C. when its position was taken over by the Meda in Saleh. However, the place still retains it historical significance as one of the most ancient sites in the country. The place has several evidences of primeval settlements; there are many inscriptions to be found in Thamudic and Dedanit scripts that tell you a lot about the civilization and culture.

Al-Ula is also spotted with rugged mountains that have beautiful carved tombs. The most famous among these is the Lion Tomb. There are also other ancient structures in this region such as forts, dams and wells. The architecture of these constructions reflects the influence of Greek, Roman and Assyrian style.

Day 8 - Madain Saleh - Tabuk

Head to the site of Madain Saleh – perhaps the highlight of this trip. We spend time exploring its numerous tombs and chambers hewn into the rocks, a remnant of the Nabataean civilisation which once ruled this part of Arabia. We also head a little further afield to visit 17th century Ottoman fort at Al Moadham, and we’ll also visit the historic Hejaz railway station. Continue from here to Tabuk. Overnight Ewa Express Hotel or similar. (B)

Madain Saleh

Far less well known than Jordan’s Petra, the city of Madain Saleh was also built by the ancient Nabataeans, and become their second, southern, capital. A magnificent site with tombs hewn out of rocks, it became Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 but as you might expect receives a fraction of the visitors of Petra.

The site consists of over a hundred tombs, fairly uniform in structure with elaborate facades following a similar pattern of steps at the top rising from a central point.

The Nabataeans began as pastoral nomads, raising their sheep, goats, and camels in the desert as so many other Arabian tribes have done through the millennia. From early in their history, they had connections with Mesopotamia and may have been the Nabatu Arabs mentioned by the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE. Alexander the Great’s officer Hieronymus of Cardia wrote of the Nabataeans as having an ascetic life with harsh laws. They were also known for their incredible familiarity with the desert and their ability to fade into it to evade enemy tribes. Their system of hidden cisterns dug deep in the interior provided water for their livestock and their people.

The real cause of the success of the Nabataeans, however, was control over much of the spice trade. Frankincense, myrrh, and other spices from southern Arabia were brought up to the north along trade routes to be purchased by the Greeks, Romans Egyptians, Phoenicians, and others around the Mediterranean and in the Near East. The Nabataeans built their empire as the middlemen. Madain Saleh was a crossroads where the major north-south incense route intersected a road from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf.

Please note: following the recent initiative to issue tourist visas, the Saudi authorities have implemented a strict policy regarding visits of Madain Saleh. It is no longer possible to explore the site on your own, and instead visitors must join a scheduled bus tour which takes you between the various sites. While this isn’t how we would choose to visit this magnificent site, unfortunately it is not possible to deviate from this.

Day 9 - Wadi Qaraqir – Tabuk

Drive to Wadi Qaraqir, one of Saudi Arabia’s natural wonders. This is a 15km canyon running through the Jebel Qaraqir, a palm dotted oasis with crystal clear waters, which we explore on foot and by vehicle. We then return to Tabuk for the night. Overnight Ewa Express Hotel or similar. (B)


Day 10 - Bajdah Desert

Today we take jeeps into the Bajdah Desert, also known as Jebel Hisma. This is an area of stunning desert scenery not dissimilar from the better known Wadi Rum in Jordan, and we spend the day exploring its canyons, wadis and rocky outcrops, before returning to Tabuk. Overnight Ewa Express Hotel or similar. (B)


Days 11-12 - Abha

Fly to Abha, in the Asir Mountains. At an altitude of 2200m, the climate here is quite different to the rest of the country, and frequent rainfall makes the surrounding lands fertile, and good for agriculture. The architecture here is quite distinct, and on the outskirts of the city we can see centuries old mud and stone houses with striking white decorations. Explore the city including the market and the Al Shada Palace. Overnight Aber Hotel or similar. (B)

Abha

Abha’s houses are made of stone and mud, and were built by hand. Some are over 300 years old and still occupied. The insignificant graduation from one layer to the next gives these houses the overall impression of truncated pyramids. Foundations are usually stones. The houses are built in shelf-like, overlapping, vertical rows that act as rain guides, keeping the rain from saturating the walls and washing them away. On every hill stands one of the famous stone watchtowers built over the centuries to monitor the movements of possible invaders.

Abha’s daily market is a busy affair, bustling with activity and people. Locals bargain for fruits, vegetables, coffee beans and other wares. Local handicrafts like ornate silver, Bedouin jewelry and hand woven basketry are specialty items.

Day 13 - Abha - Jeddah

Continue exploring the area around Abha, visiting some of its traditional villages for an insight into a more rural side of the country, with good opportunities to meet local people. Fly to Jeddah in the afternoon. Overnight Warwick Hotel or similar. (B)


Day 14 - Jeddah

Spend today exploring Jeddah. This morning visit some of the old Ottoman houses, constructed from coral and wood, for a sense of the history of this Red Sea city, built on the wealth of ancient trade routes. We also visit local museums which are home to ethnological and archaeological artefacts, and have time to stroll along the cornice with the locals. Overnight Warwick Hotel or similar. (B)

Jeddah
Situated on the Red Sea coast, Jeddah is Saudi Arabia’s second city and has long been its gateway to the outside world. Originally founded in the 6th century BC, it rose to prominence during the early years of Islam when it became the principal port of the region, and since then has seen millions of traders and pilgrims using it as a starting point to reach the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In the 16th century it was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, remaining so until the First World War. Today it’s by far the most cosmopolitan city in the kingdom and at first glance seems very much at odds with the strong traditions of Saudi Arabia, but beyond the glitz and glamour of modern development lies the old quarter, a repository for traditional Saudi culture and heritage with many traditional buildings.

Day 15 - Jeddah

Transfer to the airport for departure. (B)


Please note that government restrictions may sometimes force us to make amendments to this itinerary, and you should be prepared for a degree of flexibility. The Saudi authorities can be rather arbitrary in making sudden closures of sites and we cannot always guarantee that all sites can be visited. You should also be aware that some sites, like forts and mosques, can generally only be viewed from the outside.

Optional Pre or Post Tour Bahrain Extension

Day 1 - Bahrain

Arrive in Bahrain and transfer to your hotel. The rest of the day is free. Overnight Golden Tulip Hotel or similar.


Day 2 - Bahrain

Spend today exploring the island of Bahrain. We head south to see the vast site of A’Ali, home to numerous burial mounds dating back 4000 years, then take a closer look at the burial chambers of Saar. We also stop at the fort at Riffa and the remains of the temple of Barbar, before returning to the capital Manama and exploring its lively souq, and the impressive Bahrain Fort, overlooking the ocean. Overnight Golden Tulip Hotel or similar. (B)


Day 3 - Bahrain

This morning visit the National Museum to give a bit more of an insight into the history and traditions of the island. We then drive to the island of Muharraq, home to a beautifully restored historic quarter which gives an idea of what much of the country would have looked like before the discovery of oil. After a visit to a nearby shipyard which builds traditional dhows, the afternoon is free to relax or explore. Overnight Golden Tulip Hotel or similar. (B)


Day 4 - Bahrain

Transfer to the airport for departure. (B)

  

Please note: this extension can be modified to fit your flights – for example if you are flying into Bahrain early in the morning of Day 1, excursions can start on that day rather than waiting until Day 2. Similarly, you could fly out in the afternoon / evening of Day 3 rather than have a third night in Bahrain.


Optional Pre or Post Tour Qatar Extension

Day 1 - Doha

Arrive in Doha and transfer to your hotel. Overnight Best Western Hotel or similar. (B)

Qatar
With its rich history and capital Doha emerging as one of the Gulf’s most progressive cities, Qatar is establishing itself among its more well-known neighbours.

An amalgamation of ancient tradition and cosmopolitan modernity, Qatar lends itself perfectly to those visitors wanting to experience the best of both of these worlds in the Middle East. From priceless treasures at the Museum of Islamic Art, camel racing in the desert, the traditional souq to a flourishing art scene, Doha appeals to visitors with a broad range of interests.  Further afield, the magnificent but little-known Al Jassasiya rock carvings are thought to span from the third century and give a little insight into Qatar’s ancient past.

Due to its abundance in oil and gas, Qatar now attracts significant international investment and as such, tourism. This, coupled with its rich historic sites and fascinating heritage puts it firmly on the world stage. This was recently cemented with its debut as a host for the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar is unquestionably one of the Gulf’s most dynamic and vibrant states and a bucket list destination for those travellers interested in the history and modern development of the Middle East.

Day 2 - Doha

After breakfast we explore the city. The contrast between history and modernity, old and new is very apparent in this fast growing metropolis.  We visit the National Museum of Qatar, as well as Doha’s historical quarter at the Souq Waqif Heritage Market with its extensive wares including an array of spices and herbs, textiles and art. We then head to Doha’s modern landmarks, from the Corniche at the waterfront to the West Bay District with its towering skyscrapers including Doha Tower and the government buildings, as well as the cultural village of Katara with its mosques, amphitheatre and sculptures. Overnight Best Western Hotel or similar. (B)


Day 3 - Desert Safari

After breakfast we head south, venturing into the desert to drive through the dunes to the inland sea of Khor al Adaid, close to the border with Saudi Arabia. Return to Doha and the afternoon is free. Overnight Best Western Hotel or similar. (B)


Day 4 - Doha

Transfer to the airport for your onward flight. (B)


Saudi Arabia - The Forbidden Kingdom
Traditional houses in Jeddah's historic quarter - Saudi Arabia tour

What's included?

  • Airport transfers

    We include arrival and departure transfers regardless of whether you book flights yourself, or we book them for you. If you’re booking them yourself, then please let us know the details so that we can arrange the transfers. Please note though that if you arrive earlier than Day 1 of the tour, and leave after the final day, we may need to make an additional charge for an airport transfer.

  • Accommodation

    Accommodation as listed in the dossier. The nature of the destinations that we operate may sometimes mean that we need to change hotels, but we’ll always endeavour to keep the same standards. Please be aware that as we operate in many countries where tourism is in its infancy, hotel standards may not be the same as you’re used to elsewhere.

  • Guides

    You will be guided by an English-speaking guide.

  • Meals

    As listed within the itinerary / dossier (B-Breakfast, L-Lunch, D-Dinner). All meals are included from breakfast of Day 2 to breakfast of Day 15. Please note that when meals are included, sometimes these will be in hotels, as often these are the most appropriate option, and will sometimes be set menus. Local restaurants are often lacking in variety, as well as the capacity to cater for groups. Drinks are not included and are at your own expense.

  • Entrance fees

    Entrance fees are listed for those sites that we mention within the itinerary. If there are any other sites that you’d like to see, these would be at your own expense.

What's not included?

  • Visas

    We don’t arrange visas for our travellers, but if an invitation letter is necessary then we will arrange this for you. If you need any advice with visas then just give us a call, or alternatively, a visa agency such as Travcour can assist.

  • International flights

    Many of our travellers arrive from different destinations and so we don’t include international flights in the cost of our tours. If however, you would like us to book flights for you, then just give us a call and we’ll be happy to discuss your options.

  • Travel Insurance

    If you need any assistance with this, then let us know – although we can’t arrange it ourselves we can point you in the direction of a reputable provider that can assist.

Visas

All travellers will need a visa for Saudi Arabia, which can be applied for online.

You must not have any Israeli stamps, or other evidence of travel to Israel, in your passport. This will lead to your visa application being rejected.

Visa regulations can change however and so we recommend that you contact your nearest embassy for the most up to date information.

Health and vaccinations

We are not medically qualified and so we recommend that you speak to your doctor or nearest health professional for advice concerning recommended vaccinations. For more advice on vaccinations, you can also visit www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.

Insurance

It is a condition of joining our tours that you have suitable travel insurance in place, and we cannot accept travellers without insurance. All policies differ in terms of what they will cover, but as a minimum you need medical and health cover which will cover you for the whole time that you are away. Most policies will also include cancellation cover, which will cover you if an unforeseen circumstance obliges you to cancel your trip. We recommend that you obtain your insurance as soon as you book your trip.

Please note that government travel warnings often affect the validity of your travel insurance, and you should check this with your insurance company.

Money

The local currency here is the riyal, and US dollars, Euros and UK pounds are all accepted for exchange purposes. Your guide will be able to help you change money.

Local conditions

When travelling to some of the destinations we offer you need to bear in mind that things won’t always work here as we’re used to them working at home. Travelling in underdeveloped and untouristed destinations requires both patience and a sense of humour. There may be problems with infrastructure, attitudes may be different, and maintenance may not be as high a standard as we would always like, but this is very much part and parcel of travelling in such a place. We aim to resolve any issues as quickly as possible, and thank you for your patience.

This is particularly relevant to this trip – Saudi Arabia has a very different culture to our own, most visibly concerning the status of women in society. Please respect the advice of your guide at all times in order to avoid problems during the tour.

Many sites close between noon and 3pm, and you’ll also find that long lunches are fairly customary here, which uses this time reasonably effectively – adapting to this slower pace is necessary when you’re here.

Travel advice

We keep a very close eye on the travel advice issued by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that we can keep you up to date with any warnings.At the time of writing the FCO advises against travel to Abha airport, which we visit on this trip.

We work very closely with our local team and are fully confident that we can operate tours safely in Saudi Arabia. Should you have any concerns over safety please do not hesitate to contact us and we can address your concerns.

This relates to advice from the British government – other nationalities need to check the stance of their own governments.

Please note that the information contained above is highly susceptible to change, and while we endeavour to keep up to date we recommend that you use this as a guide only. Should you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Updated July 2023

Saudi Arabia - The Forbidden Kingdom
Traditional houses in Jeddah's historic quarter - Saudi Arabia tour
Date(s)
Price (PP) Exc. Flights
Single Supplement
Trip Status
Date -
17 November 2024
Price (PP) -
£5,599
Single Supplement -
£910
Trip Status -
Available
Date -
05 January 2025
Price (PP) -
£5,799
Single Supplement -
£995
Trip Status -
Available
Date -
16 November 2025
Price (PP) -
£5,799
Single Supplement -
£995
Trip Status -
Available

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