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There are few places in the world that could be described as outside the reaches of tourism, and Saudi Arabia may be one of them. Images of desert adventures or busy souks are only one side of this eclectic country, known as the birthplace of Islam. This trip will introduce a Saudi Arabia of high mountains, chaotic camel markets, diverse food and a history that spans prehistoric rock art, the ancient spice trade and Lawrence's Arabian deserts.
Explore Tour Leader
8 nights comfortable hotel
2 nights premium hotel
2 nights comfortable tented camp
Trip maximum 16 Explore Average 11
Itineraries on some departure dates may differ, please select the itinerary that you wish to explore.
Arrive in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Once a desert trading post on the caravan route, this skyscraper-filled city is fighting a battle between the old and the new. Riyadh has a more traditional atmosphere than its red sea sister, Jeddah, and its historical significance as the birthplace of modern Saudi Arabia can be seen in the contrast between the modern, gleaming buildings in the business district, and the many forts, museums and colourful souks that confirm the city's ancient past.
Due to the number of evening flights into Riyadh, the Tour Leader plans to do the welcome meeting in the morning of Day 2. There are no planned activities today, so you can arrive into Riyadh at any time. If you would like to receive a complimentary transfer today, you'll need to arrive into King Khalid International Airport (RUH), which is around 40 minutes' drive.
If your flight arrives earlier in the day, you may wish to ascend the Faisaliah Tower or the Sky Bridge for their vantage points over the city. We will visit the Sky Bridge tomorrow but not at sunset, and it gives a great view of the Riyadh skyline as the sun goes down.
Saudi Arabia is a vast country, so there will be some quite long drives with key stops along the way and a few early starts. We will use a comfortable charter bus throughout the itinerary. Please speak to your leader if you have any questions about driving times.
Gloria Inn (or similar)
Riyadh is a chaotic, sprawling city, where ancient palaces and palm trees are found just a few traffic-laden streets away from bright, modern architecture. We'll get a feeling of both the old and new today.
Before the 1930s, Riyadh was a small, walled oasis town in what was then known as the Second Saudi State. After Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud conquered the state in the late 1920s he retook his family's ancient seat and brought together most of the Arabian Peninsula in what he went on to name 'Saudi Arabia'. We'll learn some of this history in a trip to the National Museum this morning - the museum is enormous so we will pick and choose some of the key exhibits. If you arrive to Riyadh early on day 1 it's well worth spending more time here (please note that the museum has been closed at the end of 2022. It is planned to reopen in January 2023, at the discretion of the management). We'll go on to visit Masmak Fortress, the most prominent remnant of the old walled oasis town of Riyadh. From here, we visit the modern part of the city, taking the lift up the Kingdom Tower skyscraper for impressive views.
In the afternoon, we'll be meeting a Saudi local for a city tour with a difference. Riyadh, like most Saudi Arabian cities, is a slave to the motor vehicle. Due to a combination of the heat and the status that cars give, Saudis drive everywhere - this means that you're unlikely to find people walking around. We, however, will be exploring on foot today in one of the neighbourhoods that still enjoys some life on the streets. We'll start at the Tabya Souk, a classic market with mostly female vendors. Then we'll stroll to Tahliya Street and Suleimaniya Street, where the 70's meet modern day architecture. We'll see how the city has grown quite dramatically over the last 30-40 years, and enjoy some tea and pastries at a local bakery. We then drive to Deera, close to our hotel, where we'll explore this market area and some of the vendors who have been selling here for years. This walking tour will give you the opportunity to discuss the changes that Saudi Arabia has experienced in recent years, and talk to a woman who's family has lived through many of the Kingdom's changing governments.
Note that the timings for this day may change.
Leaving Riyadh this morning, we'll drive north-west to the Ushaiqer Heritage Village, a winding maze of alleyways and mud-brick houses. Nearby springs and palm groves made this a convenient stopping point for ancient pilgrims to Mecca. The village is a glimpse into an old way of life, with some incredible examples of ancient Nadji architecture. It's still partially inhabited today, and there is a lot of protection work going on here to ensure that it retains its character for future generations.
From here we drive on to Buraidah. The area is one of the country's biggest date producers, and we have the chance to sample produce with a visit to a date shop before our arrival at the hotel.
Overall driving time: approx. 6 hours.
Best Western Plus (or similar)
Rise early this morning to drive to the dusty outskirts of Buraidah, where we find the Kingdom's famous camel market. A chaotic melee of people, sounds and smells, the daily market sees hundreds of camels, as well as sheep and goats, being bought and sold by local Saudis. A visit to the market is a glimpse at traditions that haven't changed in hundreds of years. The auctions are loud and theatrical, with the best camels going for many thousands of dollars.
In the early afternoon we set off to Ha'il, arriving in the early afternoon. This small town lies on the edge of the massive Jabal Aja protected area, and is surrounded by the red granite hills of this desert range. We'll explore the town this afternoon, including the massive Aarif fortress. This 17th-century monolith is visible on its hilltop position from anywhere in Ha'il.
Overall driving time: approx. 4 hours.
Hotel Golden Tulip Hail (or similar)
The oasis of Jubbah was once a huge inland lake, rich in wildlife and plant life and on the edge of the windswept Nafud Desert. On a set of sandstone rocks, which pop out of the sandy floor at the western edge of this oasis town, we'll find some of the Middle East's most extensive and important ancient rock carvings. These Neolithic petroglyphs date back as early as 5500BC, and depict scenes of everyday life; hunting is widely represented, and from the images we can see the kind of animals that would have been prevalent at the watering hole, from camel to ibex. Jubbah's rock art has been a crucial link in the chain for palaeontologists to put together a picture of Neolithic human life not just in the Middle East but also spreading through north Africa.
From here we drive to AlUla and our desert-based accommodation.
Overall driving time: approx. 8 hours
Arch Mountain Camp (or similar)
Comfortable Tented Camp
A short drive this morning brings us to the Lion Tombs of Dedan. Pre-dating the Nabatean Empire, the kings of Dedan, and later named Lihyan, ruled from the 6th to the 2nd Century BC. At their capital, Dedan, the remains of ancient tombs have been found hewn into the rockface at different heights and of different sizes. The name 'Lions Tomb' comes from the carved lion sculptures found outside one of the necropolis entrances - denoting the importance of its owner.
From here, we continue to what may be one of the highlights of our Saudi Arabian journey - the ancient Nabatean city of Hegra. This set of ornately carved tombs was constructed in the 1st Century AD by the Nabatean people, and it would become their second-largest city after the capital, Petra, in Jordan. These magnificent tombs are eerily quiet in contrast to Petra, but as tourism grows we can expect this to change dramatically within the next few years. For the moment, what was once a thriving city at the southern-most part of the spice trade, and a key part of the Nabatean Empire, is now a deserted outpost, with many buildings partially hidden under layers of sand.
We end our day at Elephant Rock, an instantly-recognisable geological feature that takes its name from its elephantine shape. Dinner is included this evening at our desert accommodation.
Please note, the sites around Al Ula currently depend on timed tickets, so the order of our visits may change. We may also have to split the group in two depending on the maximum numbers permitted at either site.
Driving south to Medina, the desert extends before us, with the Sarawat Mountains flanking us to the left. En route, we will stop at an old Hejaz Railway Station - the building, and it's partly reconstructed train, is now fenced off but if we're lucky we'll be able to find a gap in which to get closer. The Hejaz Railway was the brainchild of the Ottomans, an attempt to pull together their disparate empire from the reaches of Constantinople to the holy site of Mecca. In the early 1900s, the railroad was complete from Damascus to Medina, and it was a strategic crown in the Ottoman Empire. Its glory days didn't last long however, and the railroad was almost completely destroyed during World War One and the Arab Rising.
On arrival to the holy city of Medina, we'll visit the Archer's Hill - an important battle site in Islamic history. Medina is the Islamic world's second holy city after Mecca, and the Prophet's Mosque, right in the centre of the city, is home to the grave of the Prophet Mohammed. This innermost part of the city is restricted to Muslims, but we will take the opportunity to visit those places that we can. We also aim to visit a date producer, where we'll be welcomed with Arabic coffee and dates, and be shown a little of how these dates are collected. The owner of the establishment has a rather bizarre museum full of old collectables, from arabic rugs and clothing to old radios and jewellery - in true Saudi style, the museum opens on a whim so we may have chance to take a look around.
This evening, we will be having a meal with a local Saudi family, giving us a fantastic opportunity to exchange our lives with local people and discuss the importance of the Islamic faith with those living in its heart. The delicious meal will usually include a tagine, with vegetarian options, a local rice dish, salads, dessert and, of course, coffee and dates.
Delights Inn (or similar)
One of the most dramatic natural wonders in Saudi Arabia is our destination this morning, as we set out from Medina and drive south. At a massive four kilometres wide, the Al Wahbah Crater was originally thought to have been formed by a meteorite crashing to earth, but it is now generally accepted to have been created by volcanic activity. The base of the crater is encrusted with salt crystals, forming an enormous white ring in the centre of the vast hole. We'll have a picnic lunch here and take a short walk around some of the viewpoints over the crater.
From here we continue up a winding road, to the start of a completely different side of Saudi Arabia - the cool mountains of the south. Our final destination is Ta'if, located at approximately 1800m altitude. This evening we'll take a stroll through its lively souk, a thronging maze of shop fronts selling goods from honey and perfume to ornate jewellery.
Iris Boutique Taif Heart Hotel (or similar)
Ta'if is surrounded by lush wadis and mountains that bloom with roses in April. More than 900 farms produce upwards of 300 million roses for worldwide export each year, and it's from this industry that the city takes its name, the 'City of Roses'. We'll visit a rose farm this morning (there will be no blooms outside of March-April), and while in Ta'if you may like to purchase rosewater, scented rose oil or a refreshing rose tea as a souvenir of your time here. We'll also drive to a viewpoint with excellent views over the mountainside - the first time we've really experienced the mountains during our time in Saudi Arabia. During our time in Ta'if and Bahah we may see some of the wild baboons that roam by the roadsides. We also aim to visit the Shareef Heritage Museum during our time here.
In the afternoon we leave the city for the Al Bahah region. If Ta'if has given us a taster of life outside of the desert, Al Bahah will strip us of all illusions that Saudi Arabia is a mass of dust and sand. At 2200m altitude, the region is surrounded by forest and barren rock formations, with hairpin bends taking travellers to small mountain top villages. We'll arrive in the evening and settle in to our hotel.
National Park Hotel (or similar)
Spend a day of adventure exploring everything that this wonderful area has to offer. We set out from our hotel onto the 25 tunnels road - a deeply dramatic road of tight hairpin bends that descends hundreds of metres in a short time. We'll visit the 600 year-old marble village of Thee Ain, a mysterious looking set of stone houses that were originally built as a citadel on top of a white marble outcrop, surrounded by banana plantations, fruit trees and mountains. The 8th-century construction is visually magnificent from afar, and fascinating close up. We'll have a delicious al fresco lunch in a calm and shady spot, in the shadow of the mountain village.
After our visit here we set off to meet our 4WD vehicles, for our adventurous drive to Shada Mountain, navigating hairpin bends on our uphill journey. At the top is a small 'resort' - a peaceful homestay that has several small rooms, a tranquil garden of fruit trees and a dramatic setting overlooking the valley below. We'll undertake an easy-to-moderate walk here among some remarkable rock formations. The walk itself is flat, but on some rocky terrain with a couple of narrow sections as we negotiate the space between rocks. These fantastical grottos and caves were, until recently, inhabited by humans - with some of the cave-dwellings going back hundreds of years. We go back to the city for dinner and our hotel.
We finally meet the Red Sea today, as we journey back northwards towards the coastal city of Jeddah. It's a long day of driving, but we'll make stops en route. Jeddah is the largest commercial city in Saudi Arabia. A major port, a historical Red Sea trading point, and an important gateway for the thousands of yearly pilgrims heading to Mecca or Medina, the city has a bustling atmosphere of opportunity and growth.
We hope to arrive around 4pm, although this may depend on traffic. On arrival we'll be free to explore the city - the Islamic Museum is one of our options, a veritable showcase of Arab history and tradition. Alternatively, you may wish to go for a walk along the corniche, which is a key spot for locals to socialise, stroll and enjoy the evening air.
Overall driving time: approx. 5.5 hours
Prime Al Hamra Hotel (or similar)
We'll explore Jeddah today, beginning with a visit to the enormous fish market. Seafood is essential to the economy of Jeddah, and a visit to this thriving fish market puts this into perspective. We'll also explore Jeddah's corniche, which extends many miles along the Red Sea coast - this long sea front incorporates parks, mosques and playgrounds, and is lined with sculptures that culminate at the small open-air sculpture 'museum' in the north of the city.
After lunch we drive to the UNESCO-listed old town of Al Balad. A quirk of Saudi culture, which we will have noticed throughout the trip, is that many places only come alive after 4pm, with souks, shops and cafes opening late into the night. This is no different in Al Balad. Founded in the 7th Century, Al Balad was once the city centre of Jeddah and an essential Red Sea port. This wonder of architecture is famous for its wooden 'roshans' (intricately carved facades), which provide fascinating subjects for photographers. During our guided tour of Al Balad we'll enter some of the houses for a perspective on how people lived and worked in old Arabia. We'll also have some free time to explore the maze of narrow streets that lead into the Souk Al Alawi section of Balad - in the late afternoon this area is transformed into a busy network of shops selling rugs, herbs, silver and perfume, as well as a lively street market with everything from okra and rice to meat and chilli peppers.
Our included meal this evening will give us the opportunity to sample what Jeddah is really known for - fish! We'll go to one of the city's popular fish restaurants and try the local catch. Normally the menu includes a delicious and creamy fish chowder, alongside a main of fish (grouper or parrotfish are common) and shrimp, together with hummous, vine leaves, rice and the trimmings. It's a fitting end to our Saudi Arabian journey.
The trip ends after breakfast at our hotel in Jeddah.
There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Jeddah at any time. If your flight is departing later in the day, luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you need to depart from King Abdulasiz International Airport (JED), which is a 20 minute drive from the hotel.
Saudi Arabia has a predominantly desert climate, meaning that the summers are very hot and dry, and the winters are more temperate. The majority of the country's annual rainfall occurs between November and April, but aside from in the mountainous areas this is very minimal. However, there are certain regional differences that should be taken into consideration.
Along the coast near Jeddah, winter and shoulder season temperatures range from approximately 22-32 degrees celsius.
The desert plateau, which encompasses Riyadh, Buraidah and Medina, can range from 15-30 degrees celsius (again, in winter and the shoulder months) depending on the time of day. Ha'Il and Al Ula are also on this desert plateau but at a slightly higher elevation, so night time temperatures can drop as low as 5 degrees celsius.
In the mountains around Asir, and to a lesser extent in the lowlands of Al Bahah, the climate is temperate year around. However, rainfall is at its highest particularly from January to May.
3 Square Pin (as in the UK)
Riyadh: Going to the top of the Sky Bridge - 60SR AlUla Stargazing experience: US$97
Although Saudi Arabia is going through a period of great change at the moment, it remains a deeply conservative country. Visitors are asked to dress modestly - both men and women alike - avoiding tight-fitting clothes and items with profane language or images. Women should take an abaya with them (the long robe that is worn over the top of clothes). These can be purchased before travel, or locally for around £20. Your local guides will ask you to wear one at the Buraidah camel market and in Medina. It's not necessary to wear one in the rest of the country, although it is certainly easier to throw this on over your clothing without worrying about what's underneath. Otherwise women should wear long, loose clothing - long skirts or trousers, and long-sleeved blouses or t-shirts. A scarf should be carried with you, to cover your hair when entering mosques and throughout your stay in the holy city of Medina. Headscarves are not compulsory in the rest of the Kingdom. Men should wear long trousers or long shorts, covering the knees. On a practical note, the weather will vary greatly between day and night, and between the desert and the mountains. It will also be colder in the winter months from mid-December to February. You may experience highs of 30 degrees celsius in Jeddah, whereas Al Bahah will be very cold at night. It is not unlikely to experience rain while in the mountains. Layers are essential, including warm clothing and a rain jacket for any time of year. Warm layers and a jacket are also needed for the nights in the desert.
Comfortable walking shoes or tough and sturdy trainers are recommended for Bahah. During the rest of the trip, sandals or lightweight shoes will suffice for exploring towns and sites. A bathing custome, sunscreen and a towel are needed for the boat trips.
One main piece of baggage and a day sack. Hotel porters are not always available, so don't overload yourself.
The amount of single use plastic consumed within Saudi Arabia is abysmally high, and the recycling facilities are almost non-existent. We recommend that you take a Water to Go bottle with you, which has a filtration system that allows you to drink water from any non-saline water source in the world. This means that you can drink safely from the tap in Saudi, as well as in any other country. It's a great (and low cost) investment to your travels. Find out more here: https://watertogo.eu/partnerships/explore Explore customers get a 15% discount using the code EXPLORE15
During the trip you'll be accommodated in predominantly excellent 3-4* standard hotels. In some locations you'll find the hotels are located on the outskirts of town, which is appropriate for this full-on trip. In AlUla, we cannot guarantee which tented camp you will be staying in. The entire area is controlled by the Royal Commission of AlUla, which can requisition rooms or entire hotels at will, usually at short notice, for their needs. The Sahary or Arch Mountain permanent camps are just two of several options that may be used. All alternatives offer en-suite facilities. This is just one of the quirks of travelling in a country new to tourism! Swimming pools in hotels are either men-only, or operate with separate men-only and women-only timings.
It's worth noting that Saudi Arabia can be a challenging (but doable) location for vegetarians. Many of the dishes revolve around meat or fish, and on learning that you don't eat meat, you'll no doubt be asked, 'but chicken is OK?' It is always possible for us to work around this, but just be prepared for some locations to be limited in your choice. Side dishes are great for this - hummous, tabbouleh, fattoush salad and baba ganoush are often found. Where not, the Tour Leader will help organise something for you. Due to the nature of the trip and the distances covered, some lunch stops will be very much on the go, whether grabbing a quick shawarma or some snacks from a petrol station stop. On the other hand, where we do eat out, you'll be taken to some really local places. One memorable dish that you may have the opportunity to try is Areeka - a sweet dish commonly eaten among the savoury courses, which typically includes honeyed date paste, cream or yoghurt, mashed banana and cornflakes. Very odd, but unusually delicious!
Can you drink the water?
The water quality is poor and therefore it is recommended to avoid drinking tap water during your trip.
We strongly recommend that you check your government's travel advisory for up-to-date information and advice about your destination: safety and security, entry requirements, health, local laws and customs. For UK citizens, check the latest Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office advice.
Please refer to our COVID-19 entry requirements page for any country-specific conditions of entry. Whilst we strive to update this on a regular basis we recommend you also check the FCDO website for the latest advice on entry requirements in this fast-evolving situation. Information can change at any time.
Please note that some countries require proof of parental consent when travelling overseas with under 18s. Please check requirements with the relevant embassy or consular office well in advance of travel if this applies to your party.
Once your booking has been confirmed we guarantee the price will not increase, whatever the circumstances. However, please note that if you voluntarily make any changes to your booking including changing your trip or departure date, any additional costs or charges incurred will not be covered. Before booking please ensure you have read our important tour pricing information.Booking Conditions
Saudi Arabia: British passport holders can apply for an e-visa on line at the following portal - https://visa.visitsaudi.com/ or on arrival at any of Saudi Arabia's international airports. Explore recommends obtaining an e-visa online. Other nationalities should consult the relevant consulate. All Visit Visas: The fee for the visa is SAR 440 (approx £85). This includes the base fee (SAR 300) and health insurance (SAR 140). However, additional charges apply for VAT and payment processing. The validity of the visa depends on its type. A single entry visa allows you to stay for a total length of one month, while the multiple entry visa allows you to stay in Saudi Arabia for up to three months. A multiple entry visa is valid for a maximum of three months, regardless of whether you leave and re-enter the country during that period of time. If you do require assistance in obtaining a visa then you may be able to apply through Explore's recommended visa service in the UK, Travcour. See www.travcour.com to download the relevant visa application for your trip, if applicable (UK citizens only), along with details of how to apply for your visa through Travcour. The Team at Travcour will be happy to answer specific questions relating to visa applications, please call them directly on 0208 5431846. All visa information is subject to change. You should confirm all visa related issues with the relevant Embassy prior to departure. It is your responsibility to ensure that you are in possession of a full passport, with the correct validity for your chosen destination
If you do require assistance in obtaining a visa then you may be able to apply through Explore's recommended visa service in the UK, Travcour. See www.travcour.com to download the relevant visa application for your trip, if applicable (UK citizens only), along with details of how to apply for your visa through Travcour. The Team at Travcour will be happy to answer specific questions relating to visa applications, please call them directly on 0208 5431846.
It is your responsibility to ensure that you are in possession of a full passport, with the correct validity for your chosen destination.
Before booking your Explore trip, please ensure that you read both our Essential Information and Booking Conditions.
Customers who have chosen to book on the ‘Land Only’ arrangements of our tour, please ensure that you have checked your tour specific ‘Joining Instructions’ prior to booking your own travel arrangements. Your joining instructions can be found below in the dates and prices information.
You may also be eligible for the Free Explore Transfer.
Customers booked on the ‘Land Only’ arrangements will receive a Free Transfer, provided you arrive and depart on the tour only itinerary start and end dates. The complimentary transfers will be arranged from the Explore designated airport or train station to your trips joining point, and then back from the ending point to the designated airport or train station. Generally the airport or station that Explore have selected will be the one that is closest to the town or city where the trip starts, or the one nearest to the joining point. It will be either an airport or train station but not both.
The exception to this rule is customers who are booked on a tour where the joining and ending point is at the designated airport or train station.
Free transfers are not available for Polar customers.
If you are not eligible for the Free Transfer then you will need to make your own way through to the joining and ending point. On a majority of our tours Explore will be able to provide a private transfer at an additional cost. Please ask for a quote at the time of booking.
For more information regarding the Explore Free Transfer click here
It is a condition of booking with Explore that you have adequate valid travel insurance. It is your responsibility to arrange appropriate travel insurance and ensure you have read and understood the full terms and conditions of your travel insurance policy to ensure that you are covered for all activities you intend to undertake whilst on the tour, including all optional activities. Your Insurance Policy must fully cover you for medical expenses and emergency repatriation to your home country. Please ensure your policy includes medical emergency helicopter evacuation in the event of illness or injury and covers the entire duration of your holiday. If you are trekking at altitude please ensure that there is no upper altitude limit which may limit or exclude cover for your trip. The cost of many of our Polar Voyages will exceed the capped amount covered by standard insurance premiums and you will be required to pay an additional premium to cover the full value of your trip. Please ensure that you are covered for the full amount of your holiday cost, as insufficient cover could invalidate a claim under the policy. Medical and repatriation insurance cover is not mandatory for UK residents who are travelling on trips within the United Kingdom.
Read more information about what travel insurance is required.
Explore offers a wide range of flexible flying options to make joining and leaving our trips easy. Read more about them here.
You are able to book this tour on a 'land only' basis or as a ‘flight inclusive’ package. Your flight inclusive package will be fully protected by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) ATOL protection scheme.
We have a good selection of flights not only from London but from many regional airports around the UK allowing us to compare fares between scheduled carriers as well as low cost and charter airlines. Our dedicated flights team will match the best flight options to your arrival and departure airport.
On our website we display a UK flight inclusive package guide price which is generally based on a London departure. To avoid paying supplements or to secure your preferred flight option, we recommend booking as early as possible, especially for peak travel dates.
Nothing compulsory, we recommend protection against typhoid, tetanus, polio and hepatitis Please check the latest requirements with your travel clinic or doctor prior to departure. Further information regarding vaccinations and travel health advice can be found by following the NHS and NaTHNaC links at Explore Travel Health and from your local healthcare provider. Visa and vaccination requirements are subject to change and should be confirmed by you before travelling.