If you had 1, 3 or 5 hours to explore Makkah, what would you do?
Makkah is Islam’s holiest city, and a pilgrimage to its Great Mosque is mandatory for the faith’s 1.6 billion adherents. Most don’t venture far beyond the mosque itself, but historic Makkah has much more to offer, from fascinating museums to a culinary scene reflecting the rich diversity of the Muslim diaspora.
Saudi Arabia is not a typical travel destination. Here, a few things to keep in mind as you navigate the Kingdom. Weekends: Friday and Saturday. Prayer Times: All restaurants and businesses must close during the five daily prayers—typically 15 minutes before they begin and up to an hour after they conclude. Keep this in mind as you plan your shopping and dining excursions (if you’re seated in a restaurant before it shutters, you’ll typically be allowed to stay and continue eating). “Single” vs. “Family” Seating: All restaurants and coffee shops have separate seating areas and ordering counters: Those marked “families” apply to any mixed groups, while “singles” sections are limited to males or groups of men. Don’t go wandering into the wrong section, or you’re very likely to be scolded. Access to the Great Mosque: The Conrad Makkah has an entrance that leads directly toward the gates of the mosque—but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can roll in just as the call to prayer begins. Security guards regulating pedestrian traffic in and out of the mosque can close down entrances based on congestion, so at busy times you may have to walk further to find an open gate. If you’re running late, you can always pray in the hotel’s private prayer room, located at the garage level, with large windows overlooking the mosque and speakers broadcasting the services. Calendar: Saudi Arabia uses the lunar-based Hijri calendar (it’s currently the year 1438). Given the difference, it’s useful to determine which date is being used, though this can get a bit confusing at museums when trying to gauge the age of an item.
Outside the five days of the hajj, visitors come to Makkah throughout the year to perform the shorter umrah pilgrimage, which can be completed in a few hours. Begin by bathing and donning the ihram garments, the prescribed attire, before flying into the country; perform tawaf by circling the Kaaba seven times; cross between the hills of Mount Safa and Mount Marwah seven times; and end your umrah by cutting off a lock of hair. We suggest seeking out a comprehensive umrah guide like this one to ensure all required steps and prayers are carried out properly; alternatively, ask your travel specialist if they have a book or pamphlet available.
• Explore the higher-end shops of the Abraj al-Bait complex, right near the Conrad • Find stylish contemporary takes on traditional items The Great Mosque is surrounded by shopping malls featuring familiar brands and chains, but you didn’t come all this way to stock up on Sephora products, did you? Instead, do a targeted loop through the shopping centers in the Abraj al-Bait mall complex—home to the famous Makkah Royal Clock Tower skyscraper, and just steps from the Conrad—to seek out the highest-grade religious-themed souvenirs. Reem sells tasbih—prayer beads—from its plush showroom; My Fair Lady has quality abayas and scarves at reasonable prices; Lomar is where dapper Saudi men buy tailored thawbs; the Bin Dawood grocery store carries a wide range of dates; and Abdul Samad al-Qurashi stocks high-end scents in agarwood and amber (just be prepared for the price: some offerings cost upwards of $2,000 USD an ounce). If you’re looking for something more artistic and cutting-edge, Makkah-based design outfit Dhuraibah sells contemporary takes on traditional items: think minimalist prayer rugs, colorful Pop Art–inspired illustrations of the Kaaba, and Korans sheathed in jackets adorned with modern calligraphy. All of these shops are located in the Makkah Royal Clock Tower complex, along the perimeter of the Great Mosque, about a five-minute walk from the Conrad Makkah. BIN DAWOOD: Abraj al-Bait, ground floor; +966-12-571-9218; bindawood.com MY FAIR LADY: Abraj al-Bait, 2nd floor LOMAR: Abraj al-Bait, 11th floor; facebook.com/lomarthobe REEM: Abraj al-Bait, 11th floor ABDUL SAMAD AL-QURASHI: Abraj al-Bait, ground floor; store.asqgrp.com DHURAIBAH: Abraj al-Bait, 11th floor; +966-12-571-9157; duraibah.com
• Book a private appointment at the Conrad with a renowned Saudi jewelry designer • Browse exquisite pieces inspired by kiswah calligraphy and the sacred Black Stone For a truly unique memento to mark your journey, ask the Conrad concierge to summon Saudi jewelry designer Wessam Hassanin for a private visit. He’ll arrive at the hotel with a range of his stunning pieces inspired by the kiswah (the black cloth covering the Kaaba): exquisite necklaces, cufflinks, and magnets embossed in the kiswah’s signature calligraphy motifs or modeled after the sacred Black Stone. Hassanin has even designed a remarkable pendant incorporating a piece of actual kiswah cloth, delicately framed in gold. The designer is also an official photographer for the two Holy Mosques, which means he has an archive of breathtaking color prints on offer as well. He’ll bring his wares straight to the lobby or your suite, along with a credit card machine, so you can browse and purchase from the comfort of your room. Contact the Conrad concierge to arrange a private hotel visit by Wessam Hassanin.
Hike to the summit of Jabal al-Nur See the entrance to the cave where the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelation Jabal al-Nur, “the Mountain of Light,” is a hallowed location in Islamic history—at its top lies the cave of al-Hira, where the Prophet Muhammad often retreated to meditate. It was during one of these moments of solitude that Muhammad received the first revelation of the Holy Koran from the Angel Gabriel: Iqra bismi rab bikal lathee khalaq—“Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists).” Given the site’s significance, it’s no surprise that pilgrims flock to climb the 2,000-foot peak to get a firsthand glimpse of the cave. It’s a fairly easy walk up mostly paved stairs and should take 45 to 90 minutes each way, depending on your fitness level; given the heat, though, we suggest going early in the morning or later in the afternoon. Just don’t expect much solitude of your own when you arrive at the cave’s mouth—it’s thronged by people and can be difficult to access, but remains a profoundly moving experience. Depending on traffic, it can take 20 to 30 minutes to reach the base of Jabal al-Nur from the Conrad Makkah. Ask the hotel to arrange a car, or call a taxi or an Uber. Jabal al-Nur: Mecca 24238, Saudi Arabia
Uncover the backstory of the faith’s two holiest mosques Trace the evolution and expansion of these sacred sites over the centuries Visit the workshop where the holy kiswah cloth is handwoven, then threaded with gold and silver The focus of any trip to Makkah and Madinah is, of course, to spend as much time as possible in prayer and reflection. But you’re sure to have questions about the history, details, and operation of the two holiest mosques in Islam (the Great Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah). Two attractions are designed to help answer all your queries. The al-Haramain Museum, also known as the Exhibition of the Two Holy Mosques Architecture, chronicles the history of the mosques’ construction and their numerous expansions, and now houses remnants from earlier iterations: salvaged marble arches, calligraphic inscriptions, old wooden doors, fragments of pillars, teak staircases, and much more. Vintage renderings and photographs of the complexes in bygone eras will make you appreciate the massive versions that stand today. Next door, you’ll find the Kiswah Factory—but have the concierge arrange your visit in advance, as it’s not open to the public without an appointment (which requires a bit of finagling. Once inside, you’ll walk through the rooms where the kiswah—the signature black cloth that’s draped across the Kaaba—is made. Yards upon yards of dyed raw-silk fabric are woven on intricate looms, while ornate calligraphic inscriptions are stitched by hand from threads of real gold and silver. It’s an astonishing sight, and well worth the effort of booking an appointment. Both attractions are about 20 minutes west of the Conrad; hire a taxi or arrange for a hotel car. Again, you’ll need an appointment to visit the Kiswah Factory, so contact the Conrad concierge for assistance. EXHIBITION OF THE TWO HOLY MOSQUES ARCHITECTURE: 5322 Old Makkah-Jeddah Rd. KISWAH FACTORY: Old Makkah-Jeddah Rd.
Discover the impressive depth and variety of Makkah’s culinary scene Sample exotic flavors from across the globe on a progressive food tour Indulge in South Asian sweets from an 80-year-old, family-run institution Come mealtime, most pilgrims settle for the familiar comforts of KFC, Domino’s, or McDonald’s. Don’t be like them. For centuries, Saudi Arabia’s Hejaz province has been a gathering place for Muslims from all reaches of the world, so Makkah has spawned an impressively cosmopolitan food culture, incorporating dishes and flavors from East and South Asia, Africa, and beyond. Sample the best offerings on a self-guided tasting tour through the neighborhoods spread out beyond the mosque. Al-Bani, in Ash Shawqiyyah, is a local mainstay that frequently caters weddings around the city; it’s lauded for Makkah-style classics like saliq, a delectable, porridge-like dish wherein rice is cooked with both chicken broth and fresh cream, and kuzi, rice and noodles paired with chicken or lamb. Abu Yasser is known for African-inspired dishes like the beloved sereh, steak dusted in flour and grilled over flame. Abu Zaid is worth a stop for a Yemen-style murtabak, a savory flatbread filled with leeks, eggs, and spice-scented ground beef. The new Khan Baba does a brisk trade in Indo-Saudi “fusion” shawarmas, stuffed with biryani or chicken tikka masala and wrapped in piping-hot roti-style breads. End your trek on a sweet note at Halawani, a Makkah institution that’s still in the same family after more than 80 years; the owners migrated here from India and brought recipes for desserts like milk-and-cardamom labania and fried laddoo (balls of sweetened chickpea flour). Take a mixed platter home for 60 riyals per kilo. These restaurants are all within 30 minutes from the Conrad by car, and some are difficult to find, so ask the concierge to plot them on a map and give directions to your taxi or Uber driver. Alternatively, the hotel can arrange a private food tour with a local chef and dining expert. AL-BANI: Ash Shawqiyy
Travel back to the 1930s and see Makkah’s forgotten past come to life Explore inventive re-creations of old-time blacksmiths, cobblers, and grocers Sample delicacies from across the Muslim world Historic sites around the Great Mosque have been overrun by centuries of expansion and commercialization, so it can be difficult to find authentic glimpses of Makkah’s past. Many Saudis openly lament that fact; local businessman Adel Hafez did something about it. Hafez converted a tract of land in the al-Zahir district into Harrat Makkawiyyah, an inspired reimagining of how Makkah looked in the 1930’s, and Hafez opens the site to the public several times a year for colorful throwback carnivals. You’ll find a warren of traditional Makkah-style houses and shop fronts for blacksmiths, grocers, cobblers—even a retro photography studio. To add to the authentic look and feel, the entire affair is decked out with antiques from Hafez’s family collection, from a 1900s movie projector to a vintage icebox. In the courtyard, dozens of stalls sell food from Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, India, Thailand, and Egypt—a microcosm of the Muslim diaspora that’s congregated in Makkah for more than a millennium. Harrat Makkawiyyah is a 15-minute drive northwest of the Conrad. Ask the concierge if it’s running during your visit; the carnival usually operates for a month at a time during Ramadan, the hajj, and over school vacations, usually from 5 p.m. to midnight each evening. HARRAT MAKKAWIYYAH: Alnozha St., opposite al-Diyafah Mall, al-Zahir
Visit the gorgeous, stately Makkah Museum for a lesson on its pre-Islamic past View ancient rock art and rare Korans Immerse yourself in the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad The Makkah region’s historic significance began long before Islamic times, of course; for a deep dive into this astonishingly rich past, visit the imposing Makkah Museum, housed within the beautiful jewel-toned interiors of the Qasr al-Zahir palace, built by King Abdul Aziz. The archaeological exhibits on the ground floor chronicle various regions of the kingdom from the rock-art era to the early Islamic era, and the upper level has displays on Islamic currency from the Byzantine, Abbasid, and Umayyad periods; traditional crafts and fabrics; and rare Korans and other Islamic texts. Each room has impeccable signage in English. You won’t be so lucky at Gallery and Museum Assalaamu Aleyka Ayyuhan Nabiyyu, an interactive museum dedicated to the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. High-tech exhibits include 3-D renderings of the Prophet’s house, a depiction of his family tree, and tools that would have been used during his time. It’s a wonderful exhibit, but the 45-minute tours (leaving at set times between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., and between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.) are conducted in Arabic—and all displays and captions are in Arabic as well. If you’re not fluent, consider asking the Conrad concierge to book a translator to assist. The Makkah Museum is 15 minutes north of the Conrad, and Assalaamu Aleyka Ayyuhan Nabiyyu Museum is 15 minutes southeast. If you don’t speak Arabic, ask Conrad to send a translator with you for the latter. MAKKAH MUSEUM: Madinah Rd., next to King Abdul Aziz Hospital, al-Zahir GALLERY AND MUSEUM ASSALAAMU ALEYKA AYYUHAN NABIYYU: An-Nasim