One of the most unsettling aspects of traveling to Saudi-Arabia for women are of course the abayas. The abaya always seems to make women wearing it for the first time feel insecure and very self-conscious. Wearing abaya for the first time feels strange but expats quickly get used to them. That doesn’t mean we would love to have a chance to be without them every once in a while though.
Women traveling to Saudi Arabia for the first time often would ask questions about the dress code such as: What should we wear underneath the abaya? Is it ok if the lowest or highest buttons are open? Should the abaya be plain black only? Can abayas have decoration on them? Should I always wear a shayla (head scarf) with the abaya? Will wearing high heels with abaya get me into trouble with the notorious Saudi religious police? Answers to these questions can be found here.
Here’s a list of things to do and places to go in Saudi that do not necessarily require wearing of abaya and a woman could remove hers if she chooses to do so.
ABAYA FREE ZONES IN RIYADH AND SAUDI ARABIA:
Any place far off in the desert will be safe for women to take their abayas off when there’s nobody else around.
The most beautiful and secluded place around Riyadh would be the Secret Lake. Women can remove abaya and walk around the lake or climb up the hills for spectacular views. Climbing with abaya would actually be dangerous!
Rawdhat Khuraim long walks around the huge area without abayas, there was literally no one else there. Also good for some desert female driving.
Thumamah park is a beautiful nature reserve outside Riyadh, we went there for a picnic with no one else in sight.
The historical area which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site is virtually empty from visitors on weekdays. We enjoyed a short walk on a farm and later a picnic in Wadi Hanifa. On weekends an evenings it can get very crowded in the picnic areas and taking off abaya would not be recommended during those times. UPDATE 2016: With the recent huge restoration project in Diriyah and Wadi Hanifa valley, this has become a very popular area an removing abayas is no longer recommended!
Women can take their abayas off at the top of the tower in the “Globe” restaurant, the Cigar club and the viewing platform.
Ladies only Kingdom
For first timers in Saudi it’s always interesting to see how Saudi women really look like behind their veils. Third floor in Kingdom shopping center women shop and work in normal clothing
There are few areas around Riyadh for quad biking but the most scenic ones are Red Sands and Thumamah. During the weekdays its very quiet and women can drive around without being disturbed especially in the mornings. I would not recommend going to these places alone or without males on weekend peak hours though. Guaranteed unwanted attention from the hundreds of male drivers.
Women can take their abayas off as soon as they pass the checkpoint at Jeddah harbour.
In Farasan Islands women can explore the hundreds of deserted islands in peace.
The DQ in Riyadh is the area where most of the embassies are located. The huge area has some amazing parks worth visiting. The area is safe for women to walk around in western attire.
Inside all compounds abayas can be removed. Some western compounds even BAN abayas inside!
KFSH Cave park inside the hospital compound has some lovely fountains and places for BBQ’s, which can be accessed by public and no abayas are required there.
Dirab and Riyadh golf clubs out of the city allow women to golf sans abaya.
Dirab stables, the stables in DQ and the Riyadh Equestrian club are abaya free zones.
Istiraha and other rentals
An istiraha “rest house” is a place sort of like a vacation rental outside the city where people go on weekends to relax. A family can rent out their own istiraha complete with private swimming pools, yards and housing equipped with living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens.
Another option is to rent a Bedouin style tent which will come with a private area where it’s perfectly fine for women to remove their abayas. Some nice tent rentals can be found in Thumamah park.
Women swim in “normal” swim gear in the numerous private beaches in Jeddah and Al Khobar.
Do you know of any other places worth mentioning?