Nowhere has ever captured old Arabia like Sana’a. The smell of spices and meat cooking over charcoal in the old city souq, the enchanting melody of the call to prayer encompasses you as it rings out in every direction, locals prefer to wear turbans and the abiyah compared to western fashion. Sana’a will with no doubt take you to that Lawrence of Arabia dream you fantasize about. A city with such deep historical significance retains all its character despite the current circumstances. Now it’s not uncommon to hear airstrikes alongside the call to prayer, locals swapping their traditional outfits for military gear, and the entire city cut off from electricity and water; but politics and war aside, Sana’a still retains its charming self, a true authentic traveler’s paradise.
Should I Travel to Yemen?
This is a question I get asked often. Is Yemen Safe? Can I travel to Sana’a right now? The answer is probably not one you want to hear, but to put a positive spin on Yemen’s current safety I will answer this with, Yemen is not ready for tourism, at the moment but in time Yemen will be ready. I encourage you to just wait for the right time. Kidnappings, airstrikes, and full-blown war is the reality of Yemen, but all of the historical sights and the hearts of the people are preserved. Yemen is just on hold, and when the time comes Yemen will take hold of its fabulous travel potential.
Sana’a Travel Guide
As I delve deeper into Sana’a Old City, time begins to escape me. This city is magic, all the modernization of Arabia temporarily vanishes as you lose yourselves in the labyrinth alleyways. These are the memories this city has left me with. Nowhere on earth can reminisce with Sana’a, I believed such places could not exist in this present day, but they do!
Sana’a, Yemen’s largest city sprawls over a mountain valley. The majority of the sights are located within the confines of the Old City Walls. However new Sana’a as it is referred to hosts many worthy sights as well. Unfortunately, because of the current situation many of these sights are either closed or extremely difficult to get into. But with some patience, you can still gain access to the quintessential Sana’a.
Since the 1960s Sana’a only resided within the confines of the Old City walls. Now, New Sana’a completely encircles the Old City with glitzy high rises, modern shopping malls, and enough international restaurants to keep any expat happy.
The New City is also home to some of Yemen’s best examples of traditional design intertwined with modern architecture. This mix of old and new makes for a fascinating place to explore. Nothing beats going to KFC or Second Cup and seeing a line up of men dressed in complete traditional Yemeni attire.
Al Saleh Mosque
Newly finished this stunning example of Yemeni classical design mixed with Arabia’s detail to perfection makes an impressive sight amidst the behemoth mosques in the Gulf.
Inside the mosque, you will see different types of stone, including black basalt stones and limestone in red, white and black all which are from Yemen. The massive interior hall comes equipped with wooden roofs in Yemeni Design, five intensely decorated domes, and plenty of hidden nooks to explore.
Unfortunately, the area around the Al- Saleh Mosque plays host to the majority of the ongoing conflict between The Coalition and Houthi forces. Try to visit during the early hours when the soft light shines through all the colored glass.
Shopping in Sana’a Souqs
Sana’a souqs are famous throughout the Middle East, you can find just about anything here apart from the way out after you get lost in them!
The Old City and New City both have souqs, but the Old Cities souq retains a much more authentic atmosphere. Some good buys are Yemeni Scarfs which often have plenty of hand embroidery in multiple colors, Antique silver jewelry in Jewish design, and plenty of other Yemeni handicrafts. The Yemeni Jambiya is seen worn by almost every man, it also makes a great souvenir, but depending on what it is made of and its age can sometimes run into the thousands of dollars.
Yemeni Coffee – Yes! Yemen coffee is quite famous and for good reason. Sipping coffee at a Yemen Cafe is a favorite pastime of expats and locals alike. If you make it to Sana’a don’t miss out on visiting a Yemen Cafe or pick up some coffee from the Old City.
Sana’a Old City
For me, this is quite possibly the best sight in the whole of Yemen. Nowhere captures such a picturesque envision of the Arabia that used to be like Sana’a Old City. Whether it’s getting lost in the smoky souqs, Chewing Khat in an ancient house, or watching the sunset on a rooftop as the call to prayer rings out from the hundreds of minarets in every direction, Sana’a Old City captivating.
Not much has changed in the old city for hundreds of years because the alleyways are designed for camels you won’t see much for cars here, and most shopkeepers have been selling their wares for generations!
Honestly, I spent days wandering around the Old City. When I believed I had seen it all I would find a new area by accident. Walking around you will constantly be invited in for tea which is great as you get to see the inside of these amazing towering structures.
Translated to “The Gate of Yemen’, Bab Al-Yaman is the main entryway to Sana’a Old City. A busy market sprawls of the gate on either side making it one of the busiest places in the city. It’s a chaotic experience, but if you find a rooftop with some tea its fun to spend the afternoon watching the madness unfold below.
Great Mosque of Sana’a
Located deep inside the old city this mosque Is one of Sana’a oldest and largest. Now restricting entrance to foreigners it is best seen from high above. Nearby are plenty of hotels and restaurants where you can climb high above the city to see the Mosque in all its glory.
Sana’a Day Trips
After spending a week in the city it was great to get out and see some of Sana’a outlying sights. Leaving Sana’a things instantly change. The land becomes barren and mountainous with small towns dotting the hillside. Its also very quite giving a good break from the congestion and noise of Sana’a.
Here are a few places we visited that are easily done by day tripping from Sana’a.
Dar Al-Hajar (Stone Castle)
Just North of Sana’a on the city limits is the Sone Castle. Arguably one of Yemen’s most famous sights, the Stone Castle will not let you down. This tall caste in Yemeni design seems to defy gravity perched upon a rock that looks as if it will tumble any day.
The Imam Yahya who the Stone Castle was constructed for was assassinated in 1948 leaving the structure to be a museum that even today is open for all to see.
It was fun visiting here as many Yemeni wedding processions come here for photo ops. Seeing all the sparkly wedding outfits and men wielding five-foot rifles added to the happy atmosphere of this place. There is also an amazing view from the top!
Mountain Top Kaukaban and Shibam
Kaukaban and Shibam are about a one hour drive from Sana’a. Heading up into the mountains you pass by many small and quaint villages before you arrive into Shibam. Shibam does not have a lot to offer apart from great restaurants to stop at for lunch on your way to Kaukaban.
Kaukaban is located right above Shibam on the mountaintop. There is a skinny road that snakes its way up to the mountaintop. Kaukaban has unfortunately suffered much from the war. With over half of the community being destroyed by airstrikes. The structures standing are well worth coming here to visit, not to mention the view from here! You can see all the way to Sana’a.
There is a small gift shop in the town. The owner had a five-foot rifle from 1905 which he let me fire. Talk about a rifle with insane power!
Picture perfect Amran is well worth a stop. The whole city seems to have suffered no damage from the war, and almost all of the structures are built in traditional Yemeni design. The community also seems very peaceful and locals were ecstatic to see us there.
I enjoyed just exploring the many historic streets and watching a very remote community in Yemen. If you like photography you will find it extremely hard to leave this place!
Chewing Khat in Sana’a, Yemen
Almost every single Yemeni you meet, including the women, will chew Khat. Khat is a leaf that contains a small amount of amphetamine in it providing the chewer with a slightly euphoric feeling. Most people, including me, will tell you it’s similar to having a strong cup of coffee, but the feeling lasts as long as you are chewing!
I am going to be very bias when it comes to Khat. If you choose not to chew Khat with the locals, in a Yemeni Khat room you will be missing out on a huge part of the Yemeni travel experience. I was invited to about twenty different homes to chew Khat. This is where I learned almost everything I know about Yemeni culture, and it people.
Yemeni people are also incredibly fun people. When you chew Khat with them you will get to experience how happy and funny they really are. My opinion, chew Khat, it leads to great conversation, knowledge of the country, and you will gain lifelong friends from doing so! As the saying goes, when in Rome!
Visa for Yemen
This is probably the biggest and most important topic for all you readers. I get messaged hundreds of times a day about this. I will be very frank with you how I obtained my visa, and what you can do to get yours.
I got my visa from my fixer. When I entered Yemen he told me he did it officially on the border with my official government permission forms. Yes, it seemed odd, but I went with it. The truth is my fixer bribed the border to get my visa. Being unaware of this got me in a lot of trouble later on in the trip.
The ONLY way to get a visa is through your local embassy. Unfortunately, all tourist visas are currently suspended. SO if you want to come to Yemen as a tourist you will not be issued a visa.
Your other option is to apply for a journalist visa. Some people will get these, but they require a lot of documents. If you are dead set on coming to Yemen please contact Camaleer Tours. They are the only official tour company at the moment.
I have heard that Socotra Island is exempt from the Yemeni Visa which you need on the mainland. I did not go to Socotra so I cannot vouch for this, and I have no information on this region of Yemen.
Staying Safe in Sana’a
There is no way around it, currently, Yemen is not safe. The largest city in Yemen Sanaa does happen to be safer than other regions although. This is because of the heavy presence of Houthi security.
During my stay in Sana’a, I walked the streets without security, and in western clothing. People were very happy to see me, and no one at any time threatened me.
Sana’a main dangers come from the war itself. Almost every day I was in the city there were Coalition lead airstrikes, often within blocks of me. During my stay, Ali Abdul Saleh also joined the Coalition, and an all-out war between his forces, and the Houthi broke out. For almost three full days I was trapped inside my hotel as fighting was happening on the streets in front of us.
Staying safe in Sana’a at times felt like a gamble, but there are a few things I’ve learned while I was there. First, try to avoid hanging around any obvious military checkpoints or buildings. When there are airstrikes these are obvious checkpoints. Secondly, try to avoid being easy to track. There are bad people here, and kidnappings can happen. If your footsteps are easy to predict, then these kinds of things become much more likely. Lastly, avoid the newer areas of town near the Saleh Mosque. When fighting breaks out, this is the area where a lot of it happens.
Where to Stay in Sana’a
Even with the current situation, Sana’a hotels are still operating. These vary from 5-star hotels with security to 5-dollar-a-night cheap digs. Honestly, in my opinion, the safest places to stay are at a local’s house, you also get an amazing cultural aspect to your stay with this option. But if you have no one to stay with then do not hinder.
When it comes to hotels the ones in the old city are almost completely closed down. So staying in a traditional house is now no longer an option, unless you have a friend. Sana’a 5 star Sheraton Hotel is open, but it’s very expensive.
My two favorite places I stayed are the Royal Sana’a Apartments, and the Royal Sana’a International Hotel. The Apartment was located near Baghdad Street in the new city and the Royal Sana’a International Hotel was on Taiz Street just south of Bab Al-Yaman. Both Hotels were about 30 US dollar per night and were very comfortable.
Yemen Travel Information
Location: Sana’a, Yemen
Tour Company: Cameleers Tours
Guide Book: Bradt Guide Book Yemen