Saudi Arabia has long drawn millions of devout pilgrims to its holy sites during the Hajj season. But the country is gradually opening to foreign visitors in a bid to become the next tourism hub in the Middle East. Saudi authorities even unveiled football superstar Lionel Messi as their tourism ambassador. And with direct flights from Karachi and Islamabad to Saudi cities, now is the time to explore the Kingdom’s cultural and architectural gems. So, here are four extraordinary landmarks to discover in Saudi Arabia.
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We’re starting our journey inland, to the country’s eastern province. A stone’s throw from the Arabian Gulf, come discover the world’s largest oasis and head to Al Ahsa to indulge in the soothing stillness of this peaceful haven. Visitors might also taste the sweet Khalas dates harvested on one of its 30 million palm trees. The rock-hewn caves of the Al Qarah Mountain are another popular spot for hikers, while bathers can take a dip in the area’s refreshing springs.
But the region of Al Ahsa is as much a natural gem as a historical hub. Ancient hamlets poke out of the dunes, some of which are home to the country’s rich pottery tradition. The cultural landscape of the oasis comprises many more heritage sites, from the region’s oldest mosque to archaeological remains dating back to the Neolithic age. You may additionally wander around the old town of Al Ahsa to discover a vibrant souk, a dazzling Ottoman palace, and even the residence of the Kingdom’s founding monarch, King Abdulaziz.
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About two hours away from the Al Ahsa Oasis, Dammam is an all-around destination. This thriving metropolis boasts a prime coastal location along the Arabian Gulf. From waterfronts to gorgeous sand beaches, several recreational activities await visitors. A short drive might even take you to the pristine Half Moon Bay for a family-friendly introduction to scuba-diving.
Dammam is also becoming the flagship of Saudi Arabian modern culture. The four galleries of the futuristic-looking Ithra Museum span world-class contemporary art, Islamic cultural heritage, and Arabian natural history. Other noteworthy museums include the quirky local treasures of the Alfelwah and Aljowharah Museum and the ground-breaking SCITECH Center. Street-art enthusiasts might also enjoy the Kingdom’s first-ever open-air graffiti project.
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Pilgrims are used to landing in Jeddah as their gateway to the country’s holy sanctuaries. Yet, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city is more than a mere entry point. The historical area of Al Balad alone deserves a stopover. With its floating mosques and ornate gates, Jeddah’s Old Town feels like a vivid open-air museum. So, get lost in its narrow alleys to discover an ancient Hijazi house turned cozy café, all the while snapping pictures of time-old mashrabiyas.
But as the motto says, “Jeddah is Different.” And apart from heritage sites, the Saudi metropolis is growing into an unparalleled resort hub. The newly-developed waterfront has all it takes to enjoy the scenery, including an art promenade. Top attractions also comprise the Fakieh Aquarium, the Al Shallal theme park, and several amusement centers. Despite its push for innovation, though, Jeddah is yet to open the first casino in the Middle East. While this still doesn’t happen, residents and visitors who enjoy playing casino games can have access to top online casinos in Saudi Arabia. Online platforms provide a safe and often anonymous way to circumvent gambling restrictions in the MENA area. Thus, players can indulge in a range of popular table games and casino slots. The best gambling sites even feature juicy bonuses and rewarding loyalty programs.
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Ruins of Mada’in Salih
Saudi Arabia is home to one of the most atmospheric ancient sites in the Middle East. Deep in the desert, the remains of Mada’in Salih are a dream come true for wannabe adventurers. Despite being the Kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, this ruined necropolis has flown past the radar of most tourists. The crowds are incomparable to its world-famous Jordanian sister city. Contrary to Petra, visiting feels like venturing into uncharted territories as archaeology lovers soak up the sights of 2,000-year-old Nabatean tombs.
Culture vultures are equally spoilt with the Winter at Tantora Festival, which turns the heritage site into a vibrant artistic scene. The surrounding region of AlUla also boasts stunning rock formations and canyons for sports enthusiasts to enjoy the great outdoors.