Oasis of Ancient & Futuristic Wonders

Once secluded and authoritarian, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is modernising at a rapid rate with an impressive vision for the future making it a must-see for the discerning traveller.
August 2023

While it’s universally recognised that Egypt and Jordan are home to most of the Middle East’s blockbuster sites, it’s less widely known that Saudi Arabia has some equally impressive, and certainly as important, ancient relics — with a fraction of the visitors. And, although a prominent destination for millions of people who make the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, this enigmatic kingdom has been a road less travelled for western visitors, until recently.

With the ushering in of new political and social freedoms thanks to the government’s Vision 2030 and a quickly evolving tourist infrastructure, including simpler visa requirements, Saudi Arabia is now a highly sought-after destination appealing to travellers seeking breathtaking landscapes, jaw-dropping archaeological sites, innovative hotels and a rich historic legacy.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the Middle East. Lying between the azure reefs of the Red Sea and the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, it is fringed by the Empty Quarter (Rub’ al-Khali), the largest sand desert in the world. Natural wonders abound from the sweeping red dunes of Al Nafud Desert in the north to Al Wahbah Crater in the west, with its floor of dazzling salt. There are soaring, juniper-clad mountains in the southwest, the largest oasis in the world to the east (with over two million date palms) and untouched coral reefs in the glistening waters of the Red Sea which lap the western shores.

The country’s rich heritage has been shaped by its location on important trade routes and by Islam, which originated here. In recent years, this homeland of the Bedouin has undergone a significant cultural transformation, evolving centuries-old customs to fit the contemporary world.

Saudi Arabia is a study in contrasts — ancient, ruined towns and fortress-like villages, old merchant homes and mosques sit alongside modern souks and contemporary art installations, soaring skyscrapers and futuristic shopping centres. And the planned Neom giga-project in the country’s northwest will be an even starker contrast to anything seen before. A futuristic green urban mega-development, projected to cost US$500 billion, the region will set a standard for sustainable living accommodating nine million residents in The Line, a 160-kilometre-long linear car-free city with a mirrored façade to be powered by renewable energy and an emphasis on green spaces and walkability. This ground-breaking vision alongside its ancient attractions, makes Saudi Arabia a destination to tick off now, and well into the future.

Staying true to its pioneering spirit, Abercrombie & Kent was one of the first luxury tour operators to set up operations in Saudi, opening an office in Riyadh in 2022. This means A&K’s team on the ground is perfectly positioned to constantly research new experiences, keep up-to-date with the fast-moving pace of progress in the industry, and beyond, and stay informed of the rolling opening of new hotels and lodgings. At the same time, local expertise allows doors to be opened and privileged access given to individuals and personalities in-country who can give visitors unique insight to life in the new Saudi Arabia.

Spotlight on Saudi

From the palm-fringed port of Jeddah to the treasure trove of rock-carved tombs at AlUla and the sleek skyline and ornate mosques of Riyadh, here are some of Saudi’s unmissable sites:


Home to one of the kingdom’s finest UNESCO World Heritage Sites, AlUla is located deep in the desert of the northwest. Named amongst Condé Nast Traveller’s New Wonders of the World for 2023, this extraordinary site is poised to rival Jordan’s Petra, another legacy of the Nabataean civilisation. Its ancient, cliff-carved tombs, mudbrick dwellings, stunning natural rock formations and canyons reflect its important oasis location on the incense route and 7,000 years of human civilisation.

There’s plenty to explore here. Start off at Hegra, the second city of the Nabataean Kingdom after Petra, a thriving cosmopolitan hub in the 1st century BC, which is brimming with highly decorated rock-hewn tombs dating back some two thousand years.

AlUla’s Old Town is also a must-see with its labyrinthine alleyways connecting a sprawl of ancient houses built out of mud and stone, many now restored. Stroll along the Incense Road, lined with market stalls selling fresh fruit and produce, local arts and crafts plus cafés, open-air eateries and street art installations.

In Dadan, formerly the Lihyanite capital, admire the Lion Tombs. These 2,500-year-old burial niches were carved directly into a cliff face and are guarded by relief-sculpted lions.

Maraya, the world’s largest mirrored building, is the centrepiece of AlUla’s growing cultural scene set in the desert canyon of Ashar Valley. Designed to blend into the surrounding landscape, it rises from the sand like a mirage and plays host to a range of cultural events from concerts to art residency programmes and arthouse films. With specially curated events throughout the year, be sure to check the calendar for what’s on during your visit.

Stay: Habitas AlUla
Nestled within an ancient oasis in the desert canyons of the Ashar Valley, Habitas AlUla is a unique eco-retreat surrounded by sandstone cliffs and palm groves. Its minimal-impact footprint embraces sustainable design practices with accommodation in pre-fabricated tented villas which use organic materials and blend into the surrounds. Each villa comes with its own e-bike and some have telescopes to make the most of the clear night skies. For a different vibe, choose to stay in one of the resort’s Airstream campers and dine from the on-site food trucks.

Saudi’s second city, Jeddah is the cosmopolitan gateway to Mecca sitting at an historic crossroads where pilgrims and traders once gathered. Today, this palm-fringed port on the Red Sea coast is one of the most welcoming cities in the Middle East. Meander through its atmospheric old quarter, a World Heritage site, through tight alleyways between ancient coral-stone merchants' houses, clove-scented traditional bakeries, coffee shops and into the vast Souq al-Alawi. Admire the many restored mansions breathing new life into this ancient heart of the city.

Stay: Shangri-La Jeddah
Positioned on the Jeddah waterfront, the luxurious Shangri-La Jeddah affords guests uninterrupted views of the Red Sea with floor-to-ceiling windows inviting the outdoors in, and stylish interiors reflecting the endless blue of the sea and the golden sandy beaches beyond.

Restaurant choices abound with plenty of innovative dining options and a dedicated Kids’ Club allows parents the space to relax. The Spa at Shangri-La combines Asian traditions with cutting-edge techniques presenting an appealing menu of therapeutic and results-driven treatments.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital
city, is a fascinating blend of old and new. This once humble oasis town is today a sprawling city and a melting pot of atmospheric souks, museums and ancient architecture. Soaring skyscrapers dominate the skyline while wide tree-lined streets and futuristic buildings jostle for attention with glitzy shopping malls. The iconic Kingdom Centre, one of the capital’s tallest and most famous buildings, is a gleaming, glass-covered monolith which sweeps up into twin spires connected by the skybridge — an unmistakable feature of Riyadh’s skyline.

Stay: Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh
The sophisticated Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh is located over 20 floors within the Kingdom Centre offering easy access to the famous skybridge. Hotel interiors bring authentic Saudi heritage and craftsmanship to life and all 274 spacious rooms boast marble bathrooms and remarkable vistas. Spa facilities are available and an eclectic array of restaurants.

For a little extra magic, book a private candle-lit dinner at the Kingdom Centre’s high-altitude skybridge: three gourmet courses paired with the ultimate view over glittering Riyadh, and a professional photographer on hand to capture the experience.

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