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 vibrant city of Riyadh, a juxtaposition of bright new developments and old Arabian heritage, before heading into the desert to visit the ‘edge of the world’, with its incredible views of the surrounding landscape. From here we visit old mud brick villages and forts at Ushaiger and Hail before driving via the ghost town of Al Ula to Madain Saleh.

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.

From here we continue to the Red Sea, visiting the beautiful canyon of Wadi Qaraqir en route. At Maydan we explore more remnants of the ancient Nabataeans, then fly to the striking Asir Mountains, a contrast from the city and one of the country’s most traditional areas. The trip ends in Jeddah, perhaps the country’s most atmospheric city, with its old Ottoman heritage and traditional architecture.

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 tourist class hotel.


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 tourist class hotel. (B)

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 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 tourist class hotel. (B)


Day 4 - Ushaiger - Qassim

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 Qassim and explore its lively souq and date market. Overnight tourist class hotel. (B)


Day 5 - Hail

Drive 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 Aarif and Qashlah forts, among other sites. Overnight tourist class hotel. (B)


Day 6 - Al Ula – Madain Saleh

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. We visit the Musa Ibn Nusayr fort, the ‘lion tombs’ and the ‘elephant rock’, as well as the town itself. Overnight tented camp. (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 7 - 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 the impressive rock formations of Jebel al Rukkab, where erosion has sculpted the sandstone into striking structures. We’ll also visit the historic Hejaz railway station. Continue from here to Tabuk. Overnight tourist class hotel. (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 if 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 8 - Tabuk

Spend the day exploring Tabuk. We’ll visit the historic fort, built in the 17th century by the Ottomans, the local museum and the busy souq. Overnight tourist class hotel. (B)


Day 9 - Wadi Qaraqir - Duba - Sharma

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 continue to the Red Sea city of Duba to visit its fish market, before driving on to Sharma. Overnight tourist class hotel. (B)


Day 10 - Ras al Sheikh Hamed – Maqna – Tayeb Ism

Drive to Ras al Sheikh Hamed, the westernmost point of the Saudi mainland, then continue to the coastal town of Maqna. Here we explore Tayeb Ism, the ‘Valley of Moses’. This is a vast canyon flanked by 600 meter high cliffs which drop sharply to the white beaches of the Gulf of Aqaba, and we explore the landscape here on foot. Overnight tourist class hotel. (B)


Day 11 - Madyan – Jebel Al Lawz - Tabuk

Dating back to the second millennium BC, Madyan is an ancient city with Nabataean era tombs, and supposedly where Moses sought refuge after fleeing Egypt. After exploring the site, head to Jebel al Lawz, thought by some to be the real site of the biblical Mount Sinai. From here, continue to Tabuk. Overnight tourist class hotel. (B)


Day 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 basket market and the Al Shada Palace. Overnight tourist class hotel. (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

Visit the local market and then head to Al Soodah, a nature reserve that is part of the Asir Mountains, and much greener than elsewhere in Saudi. We then visit the UNESCO listed village of Rijal al Maa, with its pretty traditional buildings, once an important stopping point for traders en route to the Levant. In the evening, fly to Jeddah. Overnight tourist class hotel. (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 tourist class hotel. (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.

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

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. In recent years the Saudi authorities have become a lot more accommodating with regards to granting visas, but we will need to provide you with supporting documentation in order to apply. At the moment tourist visas are not being granted (although we expect this to change very soon) and so you will need to apply for a business visa – please contact us for further details.

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 Najran and areas close to the Yemen border, 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.

Traditional houses in Jeddah's historic quarter - Saudi Arabia tour
Saudi Arabia - The Forbidden Kingdom
Date(s)
Price (PP) Exc. Flights
Single Supplement
Trip Status
Date -
09 January 2022
Price (PP) -
£5,599
Single Supplement -
£800
Trip Status -
Guaranteed