Saudi Arabia is a controversial destination. When planning my trip to Jeddah, I was not immune or blissfully ignorant of the criticisms lobbied against it. From a lack of freedom of speech to travel bans against their own citizens, I have read it all. Despite its conservative Islamic laws and shady human rights record, many don’t realize that many of the countries they have already visited (UAE and Qatar come to mind) have similar issues… but have done a better job covering it all up. I have lived in the Gulf region for many years. I am not blind to what goes on here. Acknowledging the issues countries have, is the first step towards resolving those issues.
Saudi also (perhaps) sabotaged themselves when they invited a group of travel influencers to visit, offered them a luxurious trip (inaccessible to the average tourist at the time) and then had them commenting on all sorts of things they hadn’t actually experienced- as privileged white people tend to do. It has been a hot mess ever since they started their tourism campaigns in 2018.
I have watched from a distance.
However, I strongly believe in making my own mind up about a place; particularly when I have had many female friends who have enjoyed working and living in Saudi Arabia. So when the opportunity presented itself to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), I took it with both hands. Note that when I say, the opportunity presented itself, I just mean that I found a friend whose time off worked out with mine and so off we went. No one invited me or paid for anything I did there. That means all my opinions and perspectives are my own. In this Instagram post, I outline exactly why Saudi Arabia is NOT destination for everyone:
In this post I will outline details of where I stayed, what I did and what everything costs for planning a trip to Jeddah as of December 2022.
Note: The flights, accommodation and activities mentioned in this post were NOT sponsored/discounted/gifted. Here is a summary of my expenses for planning a trip to Saudi Arabia:
Prices for certain things may have changed since the time I took this trip, so please only use this as a guide to help you set your own savings target.
FIRST IT’S TIME FOR A BRIEF PPG (PANDA’S PROGRESSIVE GEOGRAPHY) LESSON!
Located between the two great centers of civilization, the Nile River Valley and Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsula was the crossroads of the ancient world. Trade was crucial to the area’s development; caravan routes made life possible in the sparsely populated peninsula.
Around the year 610, Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), a native of the thriving commercial center of Makkah, received a message from God (in Arabic, Allah) through the Angel Gabriel. As more revelations bid him to proclaim the oneness of God universally, the Prophet Muhammad’s following grew. Less than 100 years after the birth of Islam, the Islamic Empire extended from Spain to parts of India and China. Although the political centers of power had moved out of the Arabian Peninsula, trade flourished in the area.
The emergence of Arabic as the language of international learning was another major factor in the cultural development of the Arabian Peninsula. The Muslim world became a center for learning and scientific advances during what is known as the “Golden Age.” Muslim scholars made major contributions in many fields, including medicine, biology, philosophy, astronomy, arts and literature. Many of the ideas and methods pioneered by Muslim scholars became the foundation of modern sciences.
For a period, the country was fragmented into various warring tribes. However, on September 23, 1932, Abdul Aziz bin Faisal Al-Saud united warring tribes into one nation. The country was named the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with Arabic as its national language and the Holy Qur’an as its constitution. This desert nation on the Arabian peninsula was one of the poorest countries on the planet until the discovery of oil within its borders in 1938. Since then the nation has become one of the key players in the world economy and global politics.
The country borders Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The country shares maritime borders with Bahrain, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, and Sudan.
When should I visit?
The best time to visit Saudi Arabia depends on where you will travel to. October-March is widely considered to be some of the best months to visit Saudi Arabia, due to a fine balance of cool weather. However, some of the mountainous regions can get extremely cold (with snow!) so it does depend on what you plan to visit. We visited Jeddah in December and found the weather to be ideal (20-25 degrees celsius).
Unless you cannot avoid it, try to stay away from visiting Saudi Arabia in summer (May-September) where some parts can reach 50 degree celsius. .
What to do about money?
Card payments are accepted everywhere in Jeddah, even for very small amounts. You only need to ensure that your bank allows you to transact in Saudi Arabia and what the associated fees are. If you need cash and plan to travel outside of the city, try to use ATMs connected to bank branches.
What about the visa?
I applied for an eVisa via the official website. At this moment eVisa is only available for privileged passport holders or those already holding valid EU, UK or US visas. Those holding residency permits from any of the GCC countries can also be granted an eVisa depending on their profession.
How to get around Jeddah?
The simplest option is to drive; however this comes with a caveat. The driving in Saudi is some of the wildest I have seen in the world. This is compounded by a confusing and illogical road system. I only recommend this if you are a strong and comfortable driver. A second person to navigate is helpful. Other than that, if you only plan on staying within the city then Uber or Careem are excellent options for those who don’t fancy extreme driving.
We stayed at the 3 following places and they were all pretty good- clean, safe parking and spacious for 2 travellers:
Spacious apartment with a 24/7 front desk and located close to the airport. Wifi did not reach the bedroom though. Parking is on the street but is safe.
Ideally located near wonderful restaurants and is quite huge for two travelers. Parking is underground but it’s a little tight for large cars.
The best hotel in the area with a large hotel room and friendly service. Their hotel buffet breakfast is quite extensive considering their remote location. Perfectly located to visit sites in Baha.
Did you feel safe?
I definitely felt safe in KSA; more safe than I have felt in most European countries. We travelled as two women and did not encounter any times where we felt in danger. Every Saudi person we approached- from policeman on the road to women working in hotels- was extremely helpful and polite. We did not encounter any uncomfortable situations.
What did you wear?
I was a bit hesitant of what to pack when planning a trip to Jeddah but here is what I wore:
-When I landed, I wore jeans and a blouse.
– Out and about in Jeddah and Baha, I wore long dresses with long sleeves (as it was quite windy).
– On the last day, I wore a dress with short sleeves that stopped at my knee.
Despite everything I wore, no one stared at me or told me to cover up. My hair remained uncovered as it usually is. When packing, I would aim to be more modest (outfits with sleeves, no crop tops or nothing showing thigh) but no need to be extreme!
DAY BY DAY ITINERARY
Stop 1: Breakfast at Siblings Cafe
My only regret is that I didn’t visit here twice. Their menu is bursting with incredible dishes: crab bagels, churro pancakes, chicken & waffles, seafood pasta, luxurious salads and more. The interior design is super pretty as well and the service is top notch. This place gets busy so try to go early!
Stop 2: Jeddah Corniche
The corniche is quite a long stretch of land so you need to figure out what you want to see before you head in that direction. I recommend heading towards the Movenpick hotel (Al Nawras) near Al Asdaf Plaza. There’s a parking lot near here if you’re driving. From here, you can admire the colourful pedestrian walkway and take in the views of the sea. You could walk a bit further to see the ‘Jeddah’ sign if you really wanted to (we didn’t as it was too windy the day we went).
Stop 3: Balad Historical Village
This historic town served as Makkah’s main entrance and was an ancient trading harbour founded in the 7th century. It had defensive walls until the 1940s.. As a result, the buildings are old and reflect the traditional style of architecture. Its quite charming in a run down sort of way. Unfortunately we went on a Friday morning so nothing was open at the time. A security guard told us that they run a daily tour of the area everyday at 4pm on weekdays so if you happen to be there at this time, it might be something worth looking into when planning a trip to Jeddah.
Stop 4: Al Rahma Floating Mosque (for sunset)
If you have time for nothing else in Jeddah, MAKE time for this stop! Also known as Fatima Al-Zahra Mosque, it is located on the northern tip of Jeddah’s waterfront and is perfect for sunset or sunrise (depending on the time of year). The majestic building is anchored to the sandy shore by a low-walled walkway sprawled across the Red Sea. Important things to note is that you don’t need to cover your hair if you are outside the mosque and it’s completely normal to take photos there (people are used to it). The best vantage point is from the stairs across from the mosque.
Stop 5: Dinner at Papaya
This is such a beautiful restaurant. The interior looks like a lush garden! Not only is it gorgeous, the food is delicious and they have an extensive menu too. I strongly recommend going hungry as their portions are massive! Their fattoush (salad) was one of the best I have ever had!
Stop 1: Breakfast at Urth Cafe
Urth Cafe is somewhat of an institution across the Gulf countries, offering delicious food and a homely atmosphere. Their french toast and breakfast burrito were our favourites. They have multiple branches in Jeddah so you can pick one closest to where you’re staying! Definitely factor this restaurant when planning a trip to Jeddah.
Stop 2: Snorkeling with Haddad Scuba
I have been snorkeling in many countries all over the world but I have to say that snorkeling in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia was definitely in my top three!! Haddad Scuba organises everything and you can pre-book and pay on their website. On the day you show up at their offices- make sure to carry your passport- and they take care of everything for you. You register with them, grab your equipment and then you drive to the boat which is docked nearby (10 minute drive). I assume you could get a ride with the guides if you didn’t drive there.
The snorkeling is a whole day affair and includes ample snacks and drinks. The boat ride is about 40 minutes to Anas Reef and the water is quite warm in the middle of December. This is probably not the snorkeling experience I would recommend for a first timer (not because it’s scary but simply because the guide doesn’t hold your hand through the experience) but for confident snorkelers, it’s a blissful day. As long as you behave responsibly, there is no one policing you and you can explore Anas Reef to your heart’s content. It has some of the most colourful and vibrant marine life I have ever seen. A similar experience can be organised with them if you prefer to go diving; we were on a boat with divers who did two dives. That gave us ample time to snorkel and snack.
This experience is suitable for non-swimmers and kids (they can wear a life jacket provided on the boat). Our snorkeling experience lasted from 10am-4pm and cost 370SAR per person.
Optional Extra: Day 3
The below can be added on if you’re planning a trip to Jeddah and staying for more than a weekend.
Stop 1: Tayebat International City
We stopped here hoping it would be open but sadly they were closed. Nevertheless, this is an amazing place to take photos as it showcases some awesome traditional Saudi architecture that is not otherwise seen in other parts of the city. If you take photos around the outside, it’s 100% free but if you want to enter the museum, there is a fee.
Stop 2: Drive to Baha to visit Thee Ain Heritage Village
We embarked on a long and confusing drive to Baha- a small town nestled within the mountains to see a different side of Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately heavy rains had closed the roads and we had to take a series of complicated detours which meant that a 4.5 hour drive turned into a 7 hour one. If you do this drive, make sure to take the route that runs parallel to the coast- it’s scenic and well maintained. Depending on your time you could visit Thee Ain Village on the same day or alternatively, sleep in Baha and see it the next day.
Optional Extra: Day 4
Stop 1: Visit Thee Ain Heritage Village
One of the most stunning archaeological sites in the country, if you fit this into your itinerary, I would strongly recommend it. It’s something otherworldly and gives the impression of something straight out of a movie. It consists of 60 stone houses as well as a mosque and outdoor cafe. I recommend following the sound of water to see the small falls in the back and enjoy some chai in the cafe.
You are free to explore at your leisure and it’s free to visit. The road is also well maintained offering various viewpoints where you can stop to take photos enroute.
Stop 2: Return from Baha and head to Jeddah Airport
While many would be against visiting Saudi Arabia (and I respect that completely), others are curious about this mysterious destination, particularly for those of us who live in neighbouring countries. The intrepid travelers, a quick add on to a longer Middle Eastern trip or a weekend getaway from another Gulf country, planning a trip to Jeddah is an ideal option.
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Have you visited Saudi Arabia before? Or have I inspired you to begin planning a trip to Jeddah? Let me know in the comments below!