Here’s What It’s Like to Travel to Saudi Arabia: A Woman’s Perspective

Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the Middle East and also one of the most mysterious. After all, most travelers were barred from entering the country for decades leading up to 2019, the year the kingdom opened its doors to tourists from 49 countries around the world, including the United States.

This diverse country also has its share of controversies and a reputation for treating women as second-class citizens who are required to cover their bodies (including their faces) from head to toe.

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I have to say I had many preconceived notions about visiting Saudi Arabia before boarding my first flight from Paris to Riyadh, the country’s thriving capital. But what it’s really like to travel to Saudi Arabia is very different than what the news might suggest – even for women.

I visited Saudi Arabia in late 2019 and would have returned by now had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope to go again and there are many reasons why everyone should go given the chance.

Here’s what it’s really like to visit Saudi Arabia and why you should consider a trip to Saudi Arabia in 2022 and beyond.

people are friendly

I didn’t know what it would feel like to be a very white, very blonde woman surrounded by strangers who share a culture different from my own. I even worried that I would be treated harshly upon arrival, or that I would feel threatened or uncomfortable walking or eating out without a hijab or the long, flowing robes that Saudi women wear.

However, my arrival served as an excellent reminder of something I already knew. People are people wherever you go, and Saudis are very much like everyone else in the world – happy, friendly, and too busy with their own lives to care about what you’re doing.


Al Balad, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Al Balad, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

As I visited Riyadh’s distinctive hotels and landmarks, the winding streets of historic Jeddah, shopping centers and elsewhere, people smiled broadly at me or didn’t look at me at all. Random women showed me their Instagram accounts on their phones, and people in the stores were keen to pitch me for a sale.

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A stranger in an antique shop insisted I take a ring as a gift for visiting his country while beaming with pride. Someone in Jeddah handed me a cold bottle of water in the sweltering heat for no reason.

At one point during the trip, I noticed my private messages on Twitter were absolutely exploding. This shocked me at first until I took the time to read it.

While some Saudis politely invited me to convert to Islam, dozens of others asked me to meet them for dinner or tea. I didn’t feel comfortable with the circumstances, but it felt very real and real.

Abayas are optional for tourists (I didn’t wear any)

Speaking of long flowing robes worn by Saudi women, referred to as abayas, are no longer required for foreign women visiting the country. Considering I was visiting Saudi Arabia on the day this news broke in 2019, I brought an abaya with me but quickly packed it in my luggage.


Holly Johnson in Saudi Arabia
Holly Johnson in Saudi Arabia (photo courtesy of Holly Johnson)

Women visiting today just have to follow the same dress code as men, which requires conservative attire and covered knees and shoulders. During my visit, I dressed as I normally do, wearing long dresses with light sweaters along with pants and a top. I never covered my head and I never felt out of place.

Gender segregation is real but still evolving

Gender segregation is probably the most striking cultural difference in Saudi Arabia and it can be absolutely upsetting. While the country has ended the use of separate restaurant entrances for men and women, gender segregation is still the norm, although not required.

For example, at Saudi airports, men and women go through separate security lines, and women go through last. I had a business class flight from Jeddah to New York City, which normally involves early boarding, but I was one of the last passengers on the plane.

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One of the hotels I stayed in also had a male-only pool and male-only spa, but no facilities like this for female guests.

This should be changing in real time in Saudi Arabia – and it is changing. Changes take time, however, and visitors should know that they will encounter some gender segregation before they leave.

Saudi Arabia has some of the best “undiscovered” attractions in the world

If you love to travel off the beaten path, Saudi Arabia is definitely the place to be. Jeddah’s old city center fascinates with its uniquely designed antique balconies, old sidewalks and curated shops selling everything from spices to intricately detailed clothing. The Islamic call to prayer rings out loud in the streets here five times a day, and it is breathtaking to hear it in such a historic and extraordinary place.


Riyadh lights up at night.
Riyadh lights up at night. (Photo courtesy of JohnnyGreig/E+/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the Kingdom Center Tower in Riyadh is a sight to behold, and the view of the city from its skybridge is incredible.

Saudi Arabia is also packed with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, from the Al Ahsa Oasis to the Al Hijr Archaeological Site and the At Turaif District in ad Dir’iyah. These are all places you can see and experience before almost anyone else you know gets there.

Luxury is everywhere

While Saudi Arabia offers travel options for every budget, luxury travel is an absolute must here. The fact is that there are already so many exquisite hotels and resorts in the Kingdom and many more are in the works.

For example, the capital is home to luxury hotels with names like the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh in the Kingdom Centre, the Fairmont Riyadh, the Al Faisaliah Hotel and The Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh.

Other notable and must-visit resorts across the Kingdom are the InterContinental Taif, the Dar Al Tawhid InterContinental Makkah and the Rosewood Jeddah.

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Shopping centers with luxury brands can also be found everywhere. In fact, you can find all the top stores here including Victoria’s Secret, H&M, American Eagle, Zara, Gucci, Fendi and more.

The dining experience is amazing (even without alcohol)

While alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia, that could change in the future. Either way, the alcohol ban didn’t affect my trip to Saudi Arabia at all, and you shouldn’t let it spoil your trip either.

A few restaurants I ate dinner at offered extensive drink menus with mocktails that were both delicious and fun. In one instance, a waiter brought a beverage cart to our table before making the most delicious virgin smoked mojito I’ve ever tasted. It was much more than a drink; It was a whole show, and each drink he made required at least six or seven steps.

The food was also fresh, tasty, and varied across the country, and many of the cuisines on offer suited my pescetarian diet well. I enjoyed Chinese and Lebanese food in the capital, Riyadh, as well as plenty of freshly prepared seafood along the country’s coast. No matter what you like to eat, you will find it here.

The final result

Saudi Arabia is on the road to rapid change, but it’s also a conservative kingdom with deep-rooted beliefs and cultural traditions. Some of the events I witnessed there were a bit daunting (like being the last to board my plane), but I didn’t let that bother me or ruin my trip. I also learned a lot and gained a better understanding of this part of the world, which can only be done by seeing it for yourself.

The fact is, visiting Saudi Arabia feels like stepping back in time to a completely different universe, with modern conveniences but Old World faith. I have never experienced anything quite like it and can’t wait to visit again.