Saudi Arabia may be best known for its holy sites, but there is a lot more to this ancient kingdom than meets the eye. From rose gardens to stone cities – here are just a few of our favourite ‘hidden’ sights…
1. Madi’neh Saleh
The rose-coloured stone artefacts of Madi’neh Saleh stood undiscovered but perfectly preserved for thousands of years – in fact, they were only designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
The site features 131 stone-carved tombs, as well as early Arabic scripts and evidence of the ancient Nabatean culture – the same people who created the ancient city of Petra.
Guided tours are sometimes available, or you can just hire a 4x4 from one of the nearby cities, and set off on an unforgettable journey to the past!
2. Habala – the home of the ‘Flower Men’
The Habala Mountains look like something out of a fairy tale. The rugged peaks sit along the border of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and they are home to a tribe of people known as the ‘Flower Men’, whose traditions date back more than 2000 years.
The men of the tribe are famous for wearing handmade crowns of fresh and dried flowers in their hair (usually wild jasmine and basil picked from the surrounding hills), as a way of showing their wealth, health and physical prowess.
For hundreds of years, this tribe lived among a network of caves and forts hewn into the mountainside, and the towns were only accessible via rope ladders. But today, cable cars allow visitors to traverse the mountains more easily, and there are even a couple of hotels in the area where tourists can enjoy the fresh mountain air and stunning scenery while learning about the unique culture of the area.
3. The rose gardens of Ta’if
Every April, something magical happens around the outskirts of Ta’if – the fields turn pink, and the air becomes impossibly fragrant.
More than 2,000 rose farms are situated in and around the Saudi city of Ta’if, and these unique pink blossoms are used to make masses of organic rose water and rose oil, which is then sold on to leading perfume houses such as Givenchy and Chanel.
4. The Empty Quarter
Rub' al Khali (which translates as The Empty Quarter) is one of the largest desert areas in the world, stretching across the south east of Saudi Arabia, as well as Yemen, the UAE and Oman.
The iconic red and golden sand dunes are a breath-taking sight for brave travellers – but the real draw is the night sky.
The Empty Quarter has some of the darkest skies in the world, which means you can see more stars there than anywhere else in the world.
4. Farasan Banks
You might not expect to find a cluster of tropical islands off the coast of Saudi Arabia, but here they are! Situated just off the coast of Jizan (south of Jeddah), the archipelago is completely uninhabited and rarely visited by tourists – but those who do make the visit are rewarded with some of Saudi’s most incredible wildlife.
Herds of wild gazelle roam the main island (Farasan Island), while endangered dugongs (a type of manatee) play in the shallow waters around the reefs. You can spot flamingos and dolphins in the mangroves, and reef sharks, rays and eels in the perfectly preserved coral reefs.