Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is the historic heart and spiritual center of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad lived here, and it is believed the Angel Gabriel appeared to him in the nearby desert. For many, a visit to Mecca is the most important religious and spiritual journey of their life. Most pilgrims visit during the Hajj, an annual pilgrimage and spiritual duty for all Muslims. All visitors to Mecca must show paperwork proving that they are Muslim and traveling with a tour group.
Things to Do
The center of all activity in Mecca is the Old City. Most visitors and pilgrims devote their time almost exclusively to prayer at Al Haram, the Holy Mosque, which houses the Ka'aba. Shopping malls, markets, and many hotels are within walking distance of the Haram complex. For an overview of the recent history of the Haram, visit the collection of relics at the Museum of the Two Harams. Hajj and Ummrah tours typically include excursions to other holy sites outside of Mecca.
As Islam's cultural center, Mecca is also home to many Muslim immigrants from across the world. The city's international cuisines range from traditional Saudi dishes to spicy Southeast Asian street eats. Try authentic Pakistani cuisine, such as chicken or lamb curry, from the many small cafes on Hijrah Street near ZamZam towers. Fast food restaurants in the Old City and shopping malls serve halal meals for a quick bite. A typical Saudi meal may include chicken kabsah and rice biryani, and end with a slab of honey-dipped baklava pastry.
Mecca has world-class shopping in traditional bazaars and modern boutiques selling international brands. Though the ancient street markets and souks are dwindling in numbers, visitors can still grab bargains from Old City bazaars selling prayer rugs, beads, perfumes, and clothing. Mecca's international shopping malls have upscale department stores and luxury boutiques. The Al Abraj Al Bait mall, with its high-street fashions and a halal food court, is just outside the Haram mosque -- and close enough for a quick shopping trip in between prayers.
Mecca is surrounded by numerous sites of historic and spiritual importance for Islam. A popular excursion is to Ghar Al Thawr (Cave of the Bull) on mount Al Thawr, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad hid from his enemies. Pilgrims have made the steep and rocky climb past sculptured boulders to this cave for centuries. Millions of Muslims gather at Jabal ar Rahmah, in a nearby town, during the Hajj to ask for blessings for the coming year.