In November 2021, I accepted an invitation by the Saudi Tourism Authority to visit the widely unknown Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Although the reactions from my colleagues and friends varied (some were skeptical whereas others were simply excited for me), we all shared one thing: none of us knew exactly what to expect. On top of this, the coronavirus pandemic was far from over. But after my third dose, and additional testing precautions, I was ready to board the plane and start this adventure.
Although the times are changing, there are still many misunderstandings and questions about Saudi Arabia. I hope my personal travel experience will shed some light on this lesser-known Middle Eastern country and serve as a guide for female travelers wanting to visit Saudi Arabia.
Here’s everything you need to know:
- Solo travel vs group tours
- Arriving in Saudi Arabia
- Etiquette and customs
- Hotel facilities
- Beyond hummus: food & dining
- Beautiful landscapes
Solo travel vs group tours
Some people have strong opinions on whether group or solo travel is better, but there is no winner. In fact, this decision strongly depends on preference as well as the travel destination itself.
Personally, I enjoy exploring destinations by myself and feel that solo travel is a wonderful experience full of surprises. However, I also believe that traveling to an unknown destination like Saudi Arabia can be an adventure in itself. So this time around, I was happy to get to travel as part of a group.
For me, one of the biggest advantages was the added safety and peace of mind that came from having wonderful tour guides. Not only were they around at all times to answer questions, but they were very familiar with the places we visited and could offer expert knowledge and tips. This made me feel completely safe and relaxed.
The second (but no less important) reason why I wanted to travel in a group was that you get to connect with new people from different backgrounds. You learn about their lives and get to experience a foreign culture and country with them. Without even talking about it, you all know that you’re on this incredible adventure, together. It’s a wonderful feeling. And in a blink of an eye, strong friendships are born. Though it may feel like you’ve known each other for years, in reality, it’s only been a few days!
Arriving in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia was formerly closed as a travel destination for foreigners and only recently launched an international tourist visa in September 2019. Although it had to stop issuing visas due to the pandemic, the KSA finally reopened again in August 2021. Tourists from 49 countries are now eligible to apply online for a tourist visa. In fact, the country is focused on growing the tourism sector and has been making major changes and investments to help reach this goal.
One of the questions I heard a lot was whether a woman could apply for a visa to Saudi Arabia. The answer is yes. Women can even travel solo to Saudi Arabia. However, it is important to bear in mind that there is still a broad gender separation throughout the Saudi Arabian society that will influence and determine your travel. For example, there are separate lines for women and children at the airport security checkpoints, and only female security guards are allowed to check the women.
See Also: Saudi Arabia Travel Guide
Etiquette and customs
Just as you would do before any international trip, check the validity of your passport and ensure you’ve obtained all the necessary tourist visas. Nowadays, it’s also important to stay informed on the current health advisories and travel warnings. However, what you may not know is that reading about cultural etiquette can be relevant as well. So, before your flight to Saudi Arabia, I recommend doing some research. This is equally important for men and women.
Because the Middle East has many rules and traditions, being aware of the cultural norms will not only protect you from awkward situations but will save you from serious trouble. For example, any violation of public decency in the KSA can result in penalties. This includes taking pictures or videos of people without their permission. Another thing to keep in mind is the traditional dress code.
I did not have to wear an abaya.
Although I read it’s no longer compulsory for women to wear an abaya (the traditional dress), I planned to buy one upon arrival. However, once in Saudi Arabia, I realized this wasn’t necessary. So instead, I wore modest clothing: long, loose skirts and tops that covered my arms and chest.
While locals stared at us (some more discreetly than others), everyone was exceptionally friendly. They were just curious about tourists since they rarely see one. So, don’t get scared by the attention. And be prepared for people to want to take a photo with you. With this said, if you’d prefer to be less noticed, then stick with your group or wear an abaya.
My personal advice: dress conservatively. Make sure you show as little skin as possible and don’t wear anything too tight or form-fitting. If you’d like an example, see what I’m wearing in the picture below.
Depending on the size of the hotel and its particular standards, there may be different regulations when it comes to using the gym, spa, or swimming pool. For example, some hotels have separate gyms (one for women and one for men). At other smaller hotels, there may be certain hours set aside for when women can enjoy the gym. The same goes for the pools and spas. However, some hotels may only allow men to use the swimming pools. So, if you are planning to use any of these facilities, make sure you look into all of these points before booking your accommodation.
Beyond hummus: food & dining
Because gender segregation in restaurants and cafes is no longer required by law, everywhere I ate during my trip had one entrance and one dining area for both men and women. Terrific, right? Now let’s focus on the incredible cuisine!
From your very first meal in Saudi Arabia, you’ll quickly see that food plays an important role in the culture. Traditional dishes are wholesome and hearty – often served on massive platters for the whole table to share. And the best part is that the cuisine varies from one city to another. Along the coast, you’ll get fresh seafood like shellfish and shrimp. In other parts of the country, you’ll eat piles of steaming rice crowned with roasted chicken, lamb, or even camel.
Another central part of the Saudi Arabian culture is Arabic coffee. In fact, it’s used as a sign of hospitality to welcome guests. The coffee is mixed with spices like cloves and cardamom and is often served alongside fresh dates or other sweets. No matter what time it is or where you go in the country, you’ll always find coffee.
When you think of Saudi Arabia, you may picture an arid sand desert – and you would be right. However, with a size of over 2.15 million square kilometers, this vast country offers a broad variety of landscapes from deserts and mountain ranges to beautiful beaches and untouched islands. In fact, the KSA has a coastline along both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf which offers beach adventures year-round. From water activities and white sand beaches to national parks and coastal historic towns, Saudi Arabia has it all.
Visiting Saudi Arabia in late November turned out to be the perfect time of year to experience this fascinating country. During the day, the temperatures reached up to around 85°F and the evenings were mild. If you also plan to take advantage of the KSA’s particularly pleasant weather from mid-September to mid-December, just remember to bring a sweater for the evenings (and also for all the air-conditioned buildings).
All in all, Saudi Arabia was nothing like I expected. From the most hospitable people to delicious traditional food and breathtaking landscapes, I quickly realized that this country is incredibly diverse and has plenty to offer. Just keep in mind that a trip to the KSA requires a bit more preparation and, once there, you must follow certain rules – but it can be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have. Yalla!
This article was written by Marie Weindlmayr (based on her experiences in Saudi Arabia) and edited by Stephanie Fuchs.