TIPS FOR TRAVELING TO SAUDI ARABIA
Saudi Arabia opened its doors to the world and launched the e-tourist visa on September 28, 2019. Citizens of 49 counties can obtain the tourist visa online or on arrival at the four major airports in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam and Madina. According to the Saudi Gazette, almost 24,000 tourist visas were issued in the first 10 days, mostly to citizens of China and the UK.
Check the visa requirements and apply here: https://visa.visitsaudi.com/
The country has been closed for tourists for so long and it is an unknown territory to many. The e-visa system is a great start, but those visiting should come with an open mind and ready to adjust. Tourism industry in Saudi is still almost non-existent—the infrastructure is not there yet, finding tours and getting around may be difficult and online information about the sites is often unreliable. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is authentic and has not been spoiled by tourism. The Saudis are incredibly friendly and welcoming, the country is exotic even for a seasoned traveler, and tourists are sure to have a good time when visiting this fascinating country.
Here are some things to expect and tips for traveling to Saudi Arabia.
BEST TIME TO VISIT SAUDI ARABIA
The best time is between October and March; January and February being the coolest months. It is brutally hot and dry in the summer but temperatures start cooling down in October when temperature is in the low 30sC/90sF.
WHAT TO WEAR IN SAUDI ARABIA
Foreigners are expected to dress modestly or they may face fines for improper attire. While local women are covered in black abayas and men wear long, white thobes, foreign visitors are now free to choose modest clothing. Foreign women are required to cover their shoulders and knees in public and long dresses and skirts and pants are the safest choices. There is no requirement to cover the hair. For men, the best advice is to wear long-sleeved shirts or regular t-shirts and long pants.
The more relaxed dress code is new and many expat women are still finding it more convenient to wear an abaya, even though they tend to keep it open in the front.
If you want to buy a thobe, bisht or abaya as a souvenir, head to Deira/Souk-al-Zal in Riyadh. Read more here: SOUK AL-ZAL: THINGS TO BUY IN RIYADH’S OLDEST MARKET
HOW TO GET AROUND IN THE CITIES
If you are staying in a luxury hotel, they probably work with some drivers that can take you around. This is the safest option. Also, some car rental companies rent cars with drivers. Do yourself a favor and do not drive yourself. The traffic is horrible, not only because of the traffic jams but mostly because of the way people drive. Almost everyone is speeding, on the phone, texting, watching whatever they need to watch when driving, weaving between lanes. Drivers are impatient, distracted, and cut through only millimeters from your car, across several lines, without turning on blinkers. It's insane. Besides, many traffic signs are only in Arabic and the GPS devices cannot keep up with the traffic diversions.
The cities are not walkable. Sites are spread out and there are hardly any pedestrian areas.
Taxis and Uber. Not all drivers speak English and some do not drive safely. Just beware. A safer option is to hire a private driver.
There is no good public transportation in the major cities and in Riyadh, metro is still under construction, causing traffic jams and diversions.
CLOSURES DURING PRAYER TIMES
Restaurants and shops close during prayer times, with very few exceptions. As a general guideline, the times that may affect you are Dhuhr around midday, Asr around 2.30-3pm, Maghrib around 5.30-6pm and Isha around 6.30-7pm. Check the times that change daily on Google. Most places start closing about 10-15 minutes before prayer and stay closed for roughly 30 minutes. Some restaurants are now staying open during prayer times but it is definitely not the norm.
SINGLE SECTIONS AND FAMILY SECTIONS IN RESTAURANTS
It is slowly changing, but many restaurants still have separate areas for men (single men and married men without female companions) and family sections (women as well as mixed groups).
The other thing about restaurants is that there are rarely linen napkins available and most have boxes of flimsy tissue paper on the tables.
THERE ARE NO DRESSING ROOMS IN CLOTHING STORES
You'll find everything from Harvey Nichols to Victoria's Secret in Saudi Arabia. The latter, however, may only allow families to enter. Most stores do not have dressing rooms. Savvy shoppers pay for the clothing, go to the restroom (there may be prayer rooms in the rest areas that you can use) and return the clothes if they do not fit. Pay in cash if you can, the shop assistants do not always know how to process credit card refunds.
THE CITIES BECOME ALIVE AT NIGHT
The Saudis are night-owls! The sand-colored cities are lit in neon at night, the crowds stay out late and restaurants and malls stay open past midnight. If you are visiting any festivals, then most of the action takes places after the last prayer in the evening.
FRIDAY IS A HOLY DAY
The weekend is Friday and Saturday in the Islamic world and Sunday is a regular workday. On Friday, locals gather for their most important prayer of the week, jumah. Muslim men are required to attend Friday prayers as long as they not traveling, while women are given the option to attend. Some grocery stores and cafés are open on Friday morning until about 10 to 10.30am and then again after 1.30pm. Most stores and restaurants are closed until at least 4pm on Fridays. If you are staying in Riyadh, this is a good time to enjoy the brunch at the Ritz-Carlton when most other places are closed. Read more here: DELECTABLE FRIDAY BRUNCH AT THE RITZ-CARLTON RIYADH
PUBLIC DISPLAYS OF AFFECTION
It is illegal to take photos of people without their permission and violators can expect a SR1,000 ($266) fine if caught. At the same time, many locals are eager to take a photo with visitors and are generally curious where you come from and want to chat with you.
Taking pictures of government office buildings is illegal.
ALCOHOL IS ILLEGAL
The sale, purchase and consumption of alcohol are illegal in Saudi Arabia, as is bringing alcohol or drugs into the country. Check the ingredients lists if you a bringing chocolates or other food products that may contain alcohol. Often the luggage x-rayed on arrival at the airport and may be subject to a thorough search.
UNRELIABLE INFORMATION ON THE INTERNET
Never rely on the information about opening times etc. published on the Internet. It is rarely accurate. Ability to adjust is the key in Saudi Arabia.
ALWAYS CARRY TISSUE WITH YOU
Saudi restrooms have water hoses but rarely is there paper available.