Just reaching Taif is a thrill. From the hollow of Makkah, a beautiful serpentine road winds up through the mountains to the plateau where Taif sits, passing fruit markets, rose farms and deep valleys. Taif is often referred to as the City of Roses, for the famously fragrant flowers that grow in the wadis and mountains around it. It’s also known as Saudi Arabia’s unofficial summer capital. Because of its altitude, Taif is a cool escape from the summer heat, especially in the beautiful nearby mountains of Al Shafa, where baboons frolic in front of plunging valleys. While the roses bloom in April, the city really blossoms in August, when the Souq Okaz cultural festival and the Crown Prince Camel Festival are just a few of the attractions around town.
High above the valley that runs towards Makkah, Al Hada is a place of comedic baboons, rose fields and natural vastness. A curving road sweeps elegantly down the mountainside, as do ancient zig-zagging camel trails. As the sun sets and locals gather at lookout points, the rows of mountains on the horizon are cast in a greyish ombré. Saudi Arabia’s longest cable car runs between the mountaintop and the wadi floor, where there’s an aquamarine water park and toboggan slide at the Hijazi-style Al Kar Tourist Village.
Taif’s central market is a labyrinth of narrow alleys through sand-colored buildings to peaceful plazas. Laid out in themed areas, there are colorful, fragrant sections devoted to rich local honey, perfume (especially rose water and oil), Islamic dress and jewelry. Street jewelers with blow torches work on silver rings inlaid with Yemini agate, while nearby shops sell elaborate body pieces made of gold mined near Medina. Sellers of ghee milk, oud, decorative swords and healing herbs are all part of a quintessential Taif experience.
Every year, Taif turns pink and red, as the city’s famous 30-petal damask roses scent the air. In the City of Roses, more than 900 rose farms produce well over 300 million flowers, which are harvested to produce the world’s most expensive rose oil, or attar. See the mechanism first-hand with a guided visit to one of the city’s rose factories, or visit Taif’s central market to browse and buy rose-scented oil, water, fragrance and soaps.
Where to eat: Visit the iconic Ahlan Wasahlan to eat scoops of rice and chicken like the locals; Mashwee for the best charcoal-grilled meats; Safi for Middle Eastern platters; or Diwaniya café for Arabic coffee, dates and saleeq in traditional surroundings.
Learn more: Go Zahid offers two-day tours that include Taif’s famed rose farms and the Al Hada and Al Shafa mountain areas. Palm Lands Tours has a similar itinerary, which also takes in coffee on the 30th floor of the Awaliv Hotel.
The northeastern city of Tabuk has long been a resting point for Jordanian and Egyptian pilgrims, with a rich Bedouin culture that can be felt in the bustling Souq Twaheen, which still supplies patterned rugs and goat-hair tent covers for modern nomads.
The coastal city of Wajh is famed for its unspoilt beaches to the north and south, and its Hijazi-style old town, which is like an uninhabited equivalent of Jeddah’s famous Al Balad.
The port of Yanbu, just a few hours’ drive west of Medina, is really two distinct cities: the new city to the south, with its oil refineries and plants, and the old town to the north, an ancient spice route staging post where T.E. Lawrence lived.
Jeddah’s unofficial motto is Jeddah ghair, or ‘Jeddah’s different’. No Saudi city has been more open to outside influences over the years than this ancient port.
A journey to Al Baha is a journey to a different Saudi Arabia. In a Kingdom that’s often characterized by ochre desert, this high-altitude city is a place of ancient towers, lush forests and winding valleys.
At 3,000-meters, perched on the side of Saudi Arabia’s highest mountain, the juniper-covered village of Al Soudah blends historic charm with outdoor appeal.
The southern endpoint of the Red Sea coast, Abha is the culturally rich capital of the Asir region, and a great base for exploring this mountainous part of the Kingdom.