Home to picturesque landscapes rooted in ancient history, Saudi Arabia is bursting with color. Since the country opened its doors to visitors from around the world, its postcard-worthy destinations — each one more spectacular than the next — await. As we partner with the Saudi Tourism Authority in our special fourth anniversary issue, the Creativity Issue, Vogue Arabia invites you to discover the Kingdom in its true form, where its kaleidoscope of nature takes center stage.
From Diriyah’s orange-tinged mud brick walls, Taif’s heady roses blooming in pink and purple, the lush green Al-Ahsa Oasis to the tranquil lapis lazuli waters of Umluj, it’s time to feast your eyes on the beauty of Saudi Arabia.
The original home where the Saudi Royal Family rose to prominence lies almost in the center of The Kingdom as one of the most significant cultural heritage sites in the country. At the heart of the site is At-Turaif, the jewel of the Kingdom, and today a Unesco World Heritage Site. Throughout its beautiful typography and winding valleys and amid the mud brick former palaces of Salwa, Saad Al Saud and Al Nasser, a myriad of treasures awaits discovery. Founded in the 15th century and declared the capital of the First Saudi State in 1744, Diriyah established what is known today as modern-day Saudi Arabia; uniting all corners of the diverse and culturally rich destination as Birthplace of the Kingdom. Diriyah’s ancient mud brick walls belie the mighty desert city it once enclosed. As a historic crossroads for both pilgrims and traders from across Asia, Africa, and Europe, the city was a powerhouse of culture, commerce, and politics. At-Turaif was the historic center of Diriyah where the sound of camels, spiraling shisha smoke, and traders quibbling over fabric and incense suffused the senses.
A recent ambitious restoration project has ensured that Diriyah and its surrounds are preserved and this historic legacy safeguarded for future generations. It has been sensitively restored and transformed into an open-air museum, as part of the wider Diriyah development. The distinctive Najdi architectural style is still evident, with remnants of the original walls still standing strong. As you wind through the labyrinthine alleyways, you can marvel at the colorful geometric patterns and heavy wooden doors so characteristic of the Gulf even today. Upon completion the development will include a mosque, several cultural institutes, and a traditional market, where visitors can glimpse back in time at traditional life in Saudi Arabia. Visitors to Diriyah will be able to walk on foot throughout, browsing restaurants, cafes, and shops offering authentic gifts and crafts, such as weaving and calligraphy. As a gateway to the past, Diriyah provides a tantalizing view of Saudi’s future.
For centuries, purple’s gentle hue has been associated with charm, tenderness, and romance; it serenely soothes the spirit, enveloping it in a warm glow. Purple is the defining shade of the city of Taif, where residents and tourists experience life through a happy lens. Nestled in the western Makkah Province of Saudi Arabia, Taif is known as the kingdom of perfumes, as well as for its visually arresting landscapes. Picture sprawling, rose-tinted soil, 2 000m above sea level with more than 900 fields producing 300 million roses each spring. Across the valleys of Al Hada and Al Shefa, the hills are covered in pink petals that are harvested during March and April to be transformed into the most luxurious essential oils and essences in the world. Luxury maisons like Guerlain, Chanel, and Hermès particularly covet the 30-petal Damask rose, known for its almost spicy scent.
At Taif, the earth’s pink intensifies when it meets the horizon at both dawn and dusk, enveloping all in a blush tranquility. When night falls, the city’s essence transforms as a few drops of rose on the skin propose a sensation that can be considered even regal. Laura Bosetti Tonatto, professional nose and holder of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, sourced the Taif rose for a bespoke collection of exclusive perfumes for Queen Elizabeth II. “This is the most precious rose, whose fragrance is overwhelmed by wind, honey, and citrus,” comments Tonatto of the essence that is without equal
Explorers can reach the heights of Taif ’s rose-filled landscapes via the longest cable car in Saudi Arabia, before exploring the Hijazi architecture and surrounding souqs to shop for traditional handicrafts. The vast, open-air Souq Okaz, once a historic center for trade and arts, honors a new poet each year. It hosts lectures, artwork, and even sporting competitions like camel racing and football. The souq’s 200 shops offer pottery, silver and glassware, historical manuscripts, and perfumes. The Shubra Palace, a royal residence before being converted into a historic museum in 1995, offers many events, in particular the Taif Rose Festival.
It is said that if you observe green colors when you meditate, your heart chakra will be rejuvenated and renewed. Now, for the first time, tourists will be able to renew their heart chakras like never before when Al-Ahsa, the world’s largest oasis – a verdant, terrestrial paradise in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – opens to the world. Tales of mythical gardens have survived through millennia of lore, but today, the Unesco World Heritage site serves as a testament to the enduring miracles of nature.
Situated on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Ahsa is a four-and-a-half hour drive from the dizzying skyscrapers of Riyadh. Its lush pathways and hidden aquatic wonders have enchanted pilgrims for centuries, where an emerald blanket of 2.5 million green date palms is nourished by more than 280 natural artesian springs. Densely green today as it has been for centuries, stepping into the perennially fertile region (which spans 220 sqkm) is like exploring a richly fertile forest
Al-Ahsa, which means “the sound of water underground,” is said to have been inhabited since prehistoric times, yet very little is known about the original people of the oasis. Archeological remnants of human settlement can be traced back to the Neolithic period, and the region is said to have reached a cultural and economic zenith around the Dilmun period 3 000 years ago, due to the prosperity of the Arabian Gulf trading routes.
In and around the Al-Ahsa area, immerse yourself in the healing, mineral-rich waters of the Al-Jawhariah, Um Sab’ah, Al-Khodoud, and Al-Harah springs. The open-air Qaisariya Souk, one of Saudi Arabia’s oldest markets, is nearly 200 years old and hosts an array of curiosities like spices, fragrances, henna tattoos, as well as clothing items like bishts, famously crafted by artisans in the Al-Ahsa region. Qasr Ibrahim or Ibrahim Palace, a historic castle and fort, features architecture typical of the region and includes a museum and mosque still in use today. A 25-minute drive from Al-Ahsa, the Al Qarah village is known for its palm-tree farms and small mountain, Jabal Al-Qarah, which is pock-marked with wildly high caves that offer mild temperatures during summer. Also outside of Al- Ahsa city, the Yellow Lake is one of the few natural bodies of water found in the Kingdom. Spanning 12km along the outskirts of Al-Ahsa city, it is surrounded by sand dunes.
In this small coastal town, the striking blues of an ancient region are not only reflected in its crystal clear lapis lazuli waters, but in its peaceful lifestyle. Umluj is a place of wellness and calm – as its azure hues will faithfully conclude – set right on the edge of Saudi Arabia as one of the Red Sea coast’s hidden gems. With pristine sandy beaches and ancient swaying palms, visitors are transported when traveling to the nearly 100 small islands off the region’s coast, swept across the blue waters in one boat ride to palm-covered destinations and the translucent beaches of islands like Ras Al Shaaban and Doqm. Spread across the 150km to the north of Yanbu, other islands like Libanah and neighboring Umm Sihr make Umluj much more than just another vacation spot, but a hub for health and relaxation.
Having lived for centuries in the confines of a blue paradise, the locals share in this secret refuge, where the produce is fresh and abundant, and where life moves at a comfortable pace. In fact, as part of the Red Sea Project, large ships and ferries are prohibited from traveling in the area, all to keep Umluj an untouched haven. Comparable to Blue Zones around the world, in which a healthy and relaxing lifestyle enables greater longevity for life, this turquoise treasure located in the northern Tabuk province of the Kingdom has in its history provided a safe and secluded home for its residents – one that has spurred an unrivaled quality of life that is now being offered to welcomed guests.
With year-round sun, the warm seas around Umluj are home to 300 species of hard coral. Green and Hawksbill turtles, dolphins, dugongs, and more than 1 200 fish species share the waters with the town’s locals. Towards the Northwestern region of Saudi Arabia, inland from Umluj, there’s a vast space of black sand dunes, lava fields, and Harrat Lunayyir, a dormant volcano that’s perfect for those looking to hike along the mountains. With plenty of seafood, traditional dishes, turquoise waters, and peerless hospitality, Umluj is no longer Saudi Arabia’s best-kept secret.