Riyadh, Jeddah, and Madinah are the top three cities to visit in Saudi Arabia. I remember someone saying that there was nothing to do in Saudi Arabia. They were wrong, as you can do many things in these three cities – from the bustling city of Riyadh with its skyscrapers to the old town of Jeddah and the holy city of Madinah. This blog will give you an overview of the best highlight and show you the best way to get to the must-see sights, travel tips, accommodation, transport, etc.
Saudi Arabia may not be the first country you think of as a destination, but it will be the most visited country in the Middle East within a couple of years. I’m glad I made this trip before the influx of tourists, as it has been on my bucket list for a long time. But it was not easy to get in before because of their strict visa rules. However, since the borders opened to visitors in 2019, it is now possible for everyone to travel independently.
Booking A Flight to Saudi Arabia
Riyadh and Jeddah are two major airports in Saudi Arabia. I should have flown to A and returned home from B. As I didn’t have an exact plan for this trip, I thought of just flying to Riyadh, but my plan changed at the last minute. I decided to visit Jeddah and Medina, and have already booked a return ticket to Riyadh, and changing my flight itinerary costs more than buying a domestic flight. So I bought a separate domestic ticket. Gladly you can fly between the cities in Saudi Arabia for an inexpensive.
I flew with Qatar Airways as they were cheaper, but the 13 hours of transit in Doha was very annoying – I didn’t know what to do at the airport. Going out wasn’t an option as it was almost midnight when I arrived in Doha. And we know that flying with the best airline from the middle east, a layover in Qatar is avoidable. I have a separate blog on what to do during a long layover in Qatar.
Saudi Arabia Visa And Entry
Visiting Saudi Arabia, you must have a prior tourist visa. Most European passports can pre-arrange a tourist visa online, which costs 125 euros, including travel health insurance. The most expensive tourist visa I ever had.
Saudi Arabia is not a budget-friendly destination in the Middle East, the cost of accommodation and public transport is the one that brings up high. So you barely meet backpackers here as the hostel doesn’t exist.
As for a tourist visa, the online application is super easy. But it would be best if you had in hand: a passport, airline booking, hotel name, and credit card. After submitting your online application, you will receive an approved email within five minutes. Please print out your tourist visa because they will check the document at the airport. For the official Saudi Arabian tourist visa website, click on this link because so many websites can be confusing. You can stay for three months in KSA with your tourist visa.
Getting Around The Cities in Saudi Arabia
The only way to get around is by taxi, Uber, and careem. So crossing from one place to another is quite expensive.
The anticipated price for a short ride costs 3 to 5 euros, and for a long-distance, it’ll cost you 7 to 20 euros. Therefore, planning the sights you want to visit is sensible, so you don’t need to take a taxi back and forth.
However, Saudi Arabian taxis have meters, but drivers never use them unless you ask them to. Negotiation is typical, and you must agree on the price before getting on the vehicle because some taxi drivers are aggressive, primarily ex-pats. Uber drivers are local Arabs which is a lot safer than a taxi. By the way, I have no experience with careem, so I can’t speak about it. I have the app on my phone, but I found Uber is easy to use.
Where To Stay In Riyadh
There’s plentiful accommodation in Riyadh based on everyone’s budget. The Olaya districts are the city’s commercial heart, but hotel prices in the area are pretty high. If you check on Booking.com you will find rooms that meet your budget. I stayed at Plaza Business Hotel in the Olaya district for a couple of nights. The location is close to Kingdom Center and shopping malls. And as a solo traveler, I walk here at night to the malls, which I feel safe in anyways.
My second accommodation in Riyadh is at Mena Al Diyar. They have spacious studios for a reasonable price, but the location is somehow not one of the best areas in Riyadh. Moreover, the surrounding streets have no lights, I don’t go out anymore when it’s dark. I booked this place at the last minute after having trouble finding the other booking I mentioned on my other blog. I also ignored all the negative reviews, but I was after for the price as they were the cheapest I found. It’s one of the dirtiest accommodations I had in Saudi Arabia.
Top Three Cities To Visit In Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh
Let’s start in Riyadh. The capital is a modern Arab city with wide roads and many shopping centers. The skyline is characterized by ultra-modern skyscrapers such as the Kingdom Center, with its striking structure reminiscent of a bottle opener.
Another impressive feature of modern architecture is Al Faisaliyah Centre which you can’t ignore. But there’s so much more to discover on the outskirts of Riyadh. So there is no doubt that the capital of Saudi Arabia is entirely different as it has more contemporary and luxurious for its people and all those who come to it.
Things To Do In Riyadh
As you can see below, it gives you an example of what to do in Riyadh. You can fit this into your itinerary by having one or more days. Remember, getting from one place to another can delay your trip because of the traffic. Being patient and more patient is the only thing you can do.
It is one of the oldest neighborhoods and home to expatriates in Riyadh. It doesn’t look like the Middle East, utterly different from what you see in the city center. So here and there, you see depleted buildings still used for housing and shops.
It seems like you’re wandering in one of the Asian countries. But I recommend visiting during the daytime, as I wasn’t comfortable walking around, especially on deserted streets.
As for shopaholics, it’s a great place to be. There are so many shops, and everything you can think of you finds here for a low price. If you need an abaya and hijab, go to this place. I’m sure you need one for women travelers. There’s no fixed price for which you can ask for a discount. I only pay 50 riyals (€12) for my abaya, including a headscarf. So it’s a bargain price, and you can’t get it cheaper elsewhere.
Tips: How to get to Batha
You don’t know where the taxi driver dropped you off if you only tell Batha. In your Uber app, type Manila Plaza – it’s right in the center. And from there is easy to navigate on foot. But of course, you never get lost because you will come out on the shopping street. That said, it’s a shopping area where ex-pats go as this is the cheapest place to buy all kinds of stuff.
Street Walk At King Fahad Road In Olaya
Walking is the best way to explore a city, but it seems complicated to do in Riyadh because of insufficient pedestrians. And the Arabic people love speeding – crossing means ” run for your life.” Unfortunately, not many people walk in the street, and as a woman, you feel intimidated, but you will get used to it after a few days.
Read more> Going to Saudi Arabia: a solo female traveler.
King Fahad Road in Olaya is the best spot for a partial view of the city’s skyscrapers. The Olaya Towers is one of the fancy addresses in Riyadh where you find yourself mainly under those high-rise buildings – it is genuinely worth the time and effort. I also walk here at night, and the prospect differs from what you’ve seen during the day, regarded and identified together.
Al Masmak Fortress
Avoid back and forth and save on the cost of a taxi. Combine the Masmak Fortress, traditional souk, and National Museum. You can walk as they’re not far from each other. So you start at the Al Masmak Fortress and walk to the traditional souk (marketplace) when you have done. You pass here anyway on the way to the National Museum, the entrance of Al Masmak is free.
The Masmak Fortress, built in the middle of the 19th century, is one of the main attractions in Riyadh. And to gain some informative context into the majestic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The entrance is free, so take advantage to see inside, it takes less than an hour depending on your interest. The beautiful architecture displayed historical value that will keep you occupied for some time.
The Traditional Souk (Marketplace)
Coming out of the Masmak fortress, you will get to the souks (marketplace) right outside the fort. Some gift shops are perfect for buying local products like Saudi Arabian souvenirs.
If you’re not into shopping, still walking through the street was more than satisfactory, as you feel left alone without the state of being intimidated as a female traveler. This is not as crowded as other markets in Riyadh. However, haggling skills are needed if you purchase something except if there are already price tags on the articles.
National Museum Of Saudi Arabia
To learn a vast amount about the culture of Saudi Arabia, the National Museum in Riyadh is the place to be. It’s an excellent site to start before traveling through the country – as it gives comprehensive and better insight into Islam’s history. It’s a pretty big place, and there are some videos to watch, so you will need more time to explore inside than in other museums. There’s a 10 riyals (€2.40) entrance fee, which is much cheaper than a coffee in Starbucks.
Tips: How To Get There
Either you start at the National Museum or the Al Masmak Fortress; just type one of the two on your google maps. The taxi driver will drop you off at the entrance. The walking distance between the museum and the fortress is approximately 30 minutes. As I mentioned in my other blog, Riyadh is not a pedestrian-friendly city. So watch out when crossing the road or taking a taxi it doesn’t cost that much for a short ride.
Diplomatic Quarter in Saudi Arabia
The Diplomatic Quarter is home to foreign embassies and government housing in Riyadh. If you want to get away from the hustle, this could be the place you need.
The fascinating architecture and green landscape are like an oasis. The tranquility doesn’t look like you’re still in Riyadh. It is such a fantastic place to spend a day without the hordes.
Walking trails in DQ
Adventure hikes at Diplomatic Quarter? Yes, you can. There are a few walking trails in DQ. But I think if you visit this place for the first time, I’m pretty sure you don’t need the tracks. I had a nonstop walk all day following the residential streets. I feel my legs when I’m back at my hotel later in the evening.
But for adventurous hikers, there are several paths you can choose. So be prepared for short and long walks. From Tuwaig palace, I’ve seen the sign you can take a short trail from there. As for the longer tracks, you need to head to Wadi Hanifah. I planned to take the hike, but I hadn’t made it back there because I ran out of time.
Tips: How to get to the Diplomatic Quarter
Because it is a large area, I did a lot of research on these. As I read some of the blogs, they say you have to choose a place before you order an Uber. I choose to get off at Tuwaig Garden, and from there I start walking. You won’t get lost once you’re in DQ because the streets are designated and in English translation, different from other places in Saudi Arabia. Sometimes, I open my google maps to see where I am.
Moreover, for security reasons, the compound areas are enclosed. You will enter one of the access gates where a security guard is, but don’t be surprised if the guard asks your taxi driver where you are going. With no trouble, it is just the formality here, and without any problem, they let you through.
Tips: Going back to the city center
You can order an Uber anytime if you’re ready to return to the center. Again, look for a place where it’s clear for the driver to pick you up. I walk to Oud Square, where you have Starbucks, and type the coffee shop Starbucks in your Uber app. This way, it’s easy for the driver to perceive where you are waiting.
King Abdullah Park
There are quite a few greeny parks in Riyadh, but for some of them, you need to pay an entrance fee. King Abdullah Park is the largest Park in Riyadh with an entry fee of 11.50 riyals. The greenery areas offer an excellent walkway around the park. The highlight is the lake and fountain in the middle of the park. In the evening a superb fountain show with lights and music can be seen here. So plan, whether you decide to visit the park during the day or at night time, this saves you the entrance fee.
It is something different than all the skyscrapers you’ve seen anywhere. Surprisingly, I haven’t thought of going to the zoo in Riyadh. It is, in fact, the cheapest zoo I’ve ever been to – for 11.50 riyals (€2.5) admission fee, you have an unforgettable day in Riyadh. The zoo is quite large, where you find a variety of animals and reptiles. Well worth spending a couple of hours visiting the animals retained in their natural wildlife environment—the maintenance inside looks organized to European standards. So for the time you spent inside, it was genuinely worth it for what they offer.
The old town is on the Unesco Heritage of Saudi Arabia, located on the outskirts of Riyadh. It’s fascinating to see these historical places in old mud buildings built in the traditional Saudi style. However, restorations and improvements are still in process during my visit but if that doesn’t bother you, still a great place to escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.
I came here twice. The first time I took a taxi, which was an expensive ride. And for the second time, I went in a rental car and I wasn’t allowed to go in because they were preparing for the events. So check before heading to Old Diriyah if they are open to avoid any disappointment.
There are a few markets in Riyadh where some are less known. Nevertheless, the Taiba market is famous because of its traditional aptitude. It is one of the best places for everyone who needs anything, from traditional abayas or gold hunters to carpet lovers, everything you can think of; the Taiba market has it all.
I still didn’t learn the opening hours of markets in Riyadh; when I came here, the shops were closed. However, it was the best time, and I didn’t mind. It was, in fact, ideal because there was nobody around, and strolling by myself I could take some photos, and outside you have a full view of the twisted Majdoul Tower.
Riyadh Kingdom Tower
The Kingdom Tower is one of the top attractions in Riyadh. So it’s a shame if you miss this site. The captivating design looks like a bottle opener and offers a full panoramic view of Riyadh on top. Indeed, you can’t compare it to the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, which is immense and expensive. The Kingdom Tower is a smaller version and cheaper. The Skybridge is the viewing platform to see the city on both sides.
You can visit the tower all day, but the best time to go up is late afternoon at 5 pm and stay to watch the sunset as the city lights come on. And for the price you pay, you have the city’s outlook in day and night light. The admission price to the Skybridge on weekdays costs €15, while double the price on weekends. Thus it will be wise to go up during working days, not only fewer people around but also cheaper.
Combine Wadi Namar Lake And Heet Cave
Did you know that there are some fantastic spots outside of Riyadh? If you want something different than skyscrapers, then discover these places. It’s a free entrance! Your only problem is the transportation. Wadi Namar lake is about 25 minute’s drive from the city center. It’s a great site if you like some quiet locations, especially on weekdays you only see the workers and no other visitors around. The palm trees and the landscape is so different, another little treasure in Riyadh, which is a lovely place to stroll along the waterfront.
You have a superb view of the lake from both sides. However, drive to the parking lot and walk down to the bottom if you come with a car. If you come by taxi, probably the driver will drop you off on the hillside, where you have a beautiful view of the surrounding area. But you can walk down to the bottom and get closer to the water.
Heet Cave in Saudi Arabia
The Heet Cave is another hidden spot on the outskirts of Riyad, located amid the desert. So getting there by taxi is impossible unless you hire them. The sinkhole of this cave is known for its crystal-clear waters, which are ideal for a swim, but due to its rocky passage going down to the bottom can be more adventurous and dangerous. But even if you’re not going to swim, exploring the area can be great – a gem to discover while in Riyadh.
It is still an unknown place for many, but I understand that it is not an accessible site without your transport.
The cave’s location is not easy to find as it is hidden, so you must see the landmark. There is a small hut full of graffiti, which you can’t miss the only one you see around. Then, walking through it by going down, you will see a big rock – beneath that rock is the Heet cave.
Tips: How to get to Wadi Namar Lake & Heet Cave
These are not famous tourist attractions yet, but if you type the location on Google Maps, it shows the direction. So use your phone for navigation.
Its locations are on the outskirts of Riyadh, so combine these two in one day with a rental car. A taxi and organized tour will cost a fortune. So self-drive is the cheapest way – you can rent a vehicle for 35 USD a day in Riyadh.
Edge of the World in Saudi Arabia
The vista reminded me of visiting the Grand Canyon in Arizona. You probably don’t expect to see this view in Riyadh, making your trip an unforgettable event in Saudi Arabia. However, this will be the most expensive thing to do in Riyadh, it costs 345 riyals (€84), but it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You can choose to go for a hike or want to see the spectacular scenery – the options are yours. The view at the Edge of the World is stunning and has geographic features. It is still an undiscovered beauty because getting there on your own isn’t easy, so going on tours is the only way.
Tips: How To Get There
Not very easy as you need to book this with a travel agency. Some say you can go by yourself, but you need a four-wheel drive because you’re going off-road to the last part of the park. But I haven’t dared to do it as accidents happen here.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many agencies making this trip, so I contacted a few agencies online, and the only one that responded to my query was Ghazi Tours. So the best approach to get a quick reply is to message them through Instagram. There’s no daily trip to the Edge of the World unless you want a private tour, which is more expensive. The tour starts at 3:00 pm and finishes at 9:00 pm. They do the afternoon tour so you can experience the sunset.
Jeddah City Saudi Arabia
Jeddah is the second-largest city in Saudi Arabia, the gateway to the holy city of Mecca and Medina. The beautiful city of Jeddah gives a different impression than Riyadh because it combines its historical treasure with modern life. In a word, Jeddah has it all. The unique appearance of the old quarters, where you find different building styles from the eras. And while Jeddah’s Corniche is a popular recreational area with walking trails, pavilions, and sculptures, making the city attractive to travelers.
Tips: How to get to Jeddah?
There are a few ways to reach Jeddah, either by bus, train, or air. And my first plan was to go by train, but you can’t go straight to Jeddah without stopping in Damman. So I decided to fly. However, flying doesn’t cost that much – they have budget airlines in Saudi Arabia such as Flynas and Flyadeal. Even booking a last-minute ticket doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg.
In addition, if you want to travel by train, Riyadh and Jeddah have different websites for online booking. So, for example, if booking a ticket departure from Riyadh, you need to go to SAR, and from Jeddah, go to the HHR website. It sounds complicated? No, it is not—just a little hassle by train with all the layovers. So the best choice is by bus Saptco – it’s a long trip but straightforward and cheaper.
Where to stay in Jeddah
There’s no shortage of places to stay in Jeddah, so many choices are based on everyone’s budget. The Oyo chain hotels have studios in different locations and are reasonably cheap. I’m staying at OYO 278 Taj Shaba Furnished Units – their location is primarily in a quiet area of Jeddah but only a short drive to the old town, and there are shops nearby. They have beautiful spacious studios equipt with a mini kitchen.
I also spent a couple of nights at Jeddah Gulf Hotel. It’s another inexpensive place to stay and just a short ride to the Corniche, and this is even better than my previous hotel in terms of location. It is surrounded by a level of quality restaurants and shops, and a big chain supermarket. They have a lovely spacious room with a wifi router inside, that’s why the internet is pretty good here. There’s also a parking lot, so finding a parking space shouldn’t be a problem if you rent a car.
Things to do in Jeddah
Jeddah is distinguished by its beautiful architecture and is home to historical landmarks, and is also famous for its modern attractions. Thus, creating an exciting itinerary will give you an idea of what to do in Jeddah.
It is the old town and historical site of Jeddah. Whether shopping or sightseeing, the place is exhilarating to wander all day. Lots of history gives you a sense of Jeddah’s past events. Al Balad was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage in 2014, and some traditional houses and shops are still restored and open for visitors.
The best time to visit Al Balad is morning or afternoon when most shops are still closed, which makes a perfect time to take some photographs as only a fewer people are around.
Tips: How To Get To Al Balad
There are several gates in the old town, and although you’re not going to get lost, it’s easy to make clear to your taxi driver where you exactly be dropped off. If taking an Uber, you can type the Bab Jadid gate on your app – as for taxis, tell the driver you want to get out at Bab Jadid gate. And from there, you’re close to the historical area of Al Balad.
The beautiful Corniche of Saudi Arabia
The gorgeous coastline of Jeddah is the place to go, and it considers one of the best city attractions. On one side, you have the red sea, while on the other is the city’s skyscraper.
The Corniche in Jeddah split into the southern, central, and northern parts. And each section is different, but a fascinating feature is the south Corniche, where you find the mosque and some beautiful artworks.
Despite the congested road along the Corniche, they made more than 30 kilometers of pedestrian length, where you discovered some beautiful sculptures and mosques along the way. I visited this place two times. When I came here, it was during the weekend, which was too crowded, yet a fun time for the local Arabs. The best time is going on weekdays, and it feels like you have all the space alone.
Tips: How To Get To Corniche
The Corniche is a long boulevard, so your taxi driver will not know where in Corniche you want to be. I ask my driver to drop me off at Venue Hotel, one of the most famous hotels in Jeddah. And from there, start walking either going south or north Corniche.
Red Sea Mall in Saudi Arabia
You don’t need to be a shopaholic to visit the Red Sea Mall. Saudi Arabia is known for its luxury shopping, but I didn’t intend to go shopping. My curiosity took me to what was inside. The attractive building of the red sea mall is hard to withstand – the biggest shopping mall in Jeddah. A browse inside can’t harm your wallet but is genuinely worth the time.
Of course, they have everything from ordinary to luxury brands if you want to go shopping. Nevertheless, the food court was the best part I’ve seen so far, with extensive choices. So this will be the place to be for epicurean travelers.
Walk to Formula 1 STC Museum
It’s a shame to skip this place while it is just a short walk from Red Sea Mall. The benefit is free to see inside, isn’t that nice? You won’t find a lot of tourist sights in Saudi Arabia for free. It can be deceiving to explore inside, which takes time if you are thorough with everything you find here. Have you heard of or seen the Saudi Arabian first Grand Prix in 2021 in Jeddah on television? This tiny enthralling place provides information and exhibitions during the Grand Prix event in 2021.
Madinah, the holy city in Saudi Arabia
Madinah is the second most important city for Islamic traditions and beliefs. If you read about Madinah, you see a lot of information beyond the possibility of visiting the city if you’re not a Muslim. But I found a recent blog that is indeed possible to visit even if you’re not a Muslim. So I took my chances and booked a hotel for one night.
I was very confident that there couldn’t get wrong with visiting as a non-Muslim. I’m not a Muslim, but I genuinely want to see this holy city of Saudi Arabia. And I’m glad I did, as it was worth the trip. The rules for the women travelers are to dress up as anyone else – wearing an abaya and covering up your hair. Nobody asks if you are a Muslim pretending to be one. Not even during check-in to my hotel; all they want from you is your passport.
Two full days in Medina if you can
It is such a beautiful city filled with many beautiful places of worship. But, as I wasn’t sure what to expect during my visit, I only stayed for one night. I regretted it as I could have spent two nights seeing the entire city. But, of course, I’ve seen the essential attraction during the night but would want to experience it all in the daytime.
Tips: How to get to Medina from Jeddah
You must be in Jeddah if you plan to visit Madinah. The best way to reach Madinah is by taking the train or bus, but there’s a big price gap between these two and a time difference. The buses are cheaper, cost €15 for a one-way but take longer, about 5 hours trip. The train can take you up to Medina in more than one hour, with a ticket price of €35 for a one-way trip.
I took the bus from Jeddah Al Corniche station to Madinah. The ticket is available at Saptco online, and no need to reserve in advance – either you book the day you travel or the night before. The ticket you bought online is the same price at the station, and you avoid the hassles if you have a ticket on hand. As for the train, you need to reserve a seat in advance, and you can choose to travel in business or economy class. Check the railway website for the train in Jeddah that I provide above this post.
Where to stay in Medina Saudi Arabia
If you check on booking.com, there is abundant accommodation in Madinah, but avoid visiting during the weekend as hotel prices might be high; many people from different places are heading to Madina. So it is sensible to plan a trip on weekdays and enjoy your time in the city. I stayed at Mirage Al Salam, a five-minute walk to Prophet’s Mosque and close to Madinah’s old bazaar. I can recommend this place if you are looking for a central location at an affordable price. The location is entirely away from the bus station, and a taxi costs 25 riyals with a negotiation price.
Things to do in Madinah or (Medina)
I so much regretted that I only spent one night in Medina, as there were many things to see. If you can fancy staying for two nights that will be good. Remember this is one of the holiest cities in Saudi Arabia, be sure you have an abaya and a scarf. I’m so glad they were not as strict as in Mecca – there’s absolutely a no-go for non-Muslims.
Hop On Hop Off Bus
As I arrived late in the afternoon and wanted to see more of the city, I took the Hop-on hop-off bus which covers all tourist attractions in Medina – even going to the outer parts of the city. It may be expensive 80 riyals (€20) for the ticket, but it gives you the freedom for 24 hours to see all the city’s attractions. Taking a taxi back and forth to places will cost you more.
And you can hop-on-hop-off anytime you want and visit some of the religious houses, which can be interesting to witness a few of them. There were two lines to choose from: short and long, but I recommend you take the longer one with 11 stops, this cost a little more, but you will see the important sites in Medina.
Prophet’s Mosque – Masjid Al-Nabawi
The Prophet’s mosque is one of Medina’s most popular and revered places with breathtaking architecture. And I can’t compare it to the one I’ve seen in Abu Dhabi. It blows my mind as it isn’t what I’ve seen and felt every day. The peacefulness has no words to describe it. There’s a revival of the spiritual energy when inside the mosque, a unique experience. And before you know it, you forget the time that you have sat under these beautiful open umbrellas for a few hours.
The historical significance of the Quba Mosque is a unique landmark which is a reason for a visit. It is the second-largest and most prestigious Mosque in Medinah after Prophet’s Mosque. Though its location is outside the center of Medina, if you take the hop-on-hop-off bus, it is one of the stops, and you’ll be waiting here for a while until the prayer is done because the driver himself will join the prayer. One can perceive the beautiful white building with four minarets and some beautiful domes from a distance. Although only Muslim visitors can enter to pray, you can just admire the exterior of the worship building.