10 ways to explore AlUla, the ‘new’ old city in Saudi Arabia

Once at the crossroads of the Silk Road and the Incense Route, AlUla has only recently been re-discovered by the world. Scope out the many activities that can help you enjoy a visit.

For several kingdoms and peoples over many thousands of years, AlUla offered much appeal as a place to foster a prosperous, culturally enriched life. As attractive as the region was for homemakers, AlUla was just as popular for tourists. In the heat of summer, AlUla’s oasis offered a cool respite from the arid desert, plentiful water, food, and also trade for those bringing incense, textiles, jewels, aromatics and spices. The tourists came from near and far, India, Ceylon, Southeast Asia, Mesopotamia, Greece, Egypt, Italy. They not only brought goods to trade but also ideas about art, architecture, agriculture, religion.

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The UNESCO World Heritage site of Hegra. Image: Courtesy Experience AlUla/Omar Al Nahdi.

While the people are long gone, the conversations remain. The cultural exchanges are still visible via the earliest form of graffiti or social media etched into the rock faces and sculpted into the sandstone mountains. Now open as a year-round leisure destination, AlUla in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continues to offer an opportunity to explore this old land and embark on a new journey through the vast desert and cool oasis, to discover mysteries and uncover ancient truths of ancient societies and cultures. 

Top 10 experiences in AlUla right now

1. Take a ride in a helicopter

Experience the breath-taking views of AlUla’s stunning desert vistas and landscapes from the sky. Be awed by the bird’s eye view of iconic landmarks such as Elephant Rock, Maraya and AlUla Old Town. Fly over the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hegra and take photos of the famous sandstone tombs. Sit back and relax while your pilot guides you over the land to identify the old and the new developments. These new tours will operate twice a day this month and increase in frequency from September.

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Image: Courtesy Experience AlUla.
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Elephant Rock. Image: Courtesy Experience AlUla/Omar Al Nahdi.

2. Get illuminated with culture

The night-time version of the Rock Art Trail takes place within the Hegra heritage site. You will be guided on a walk around one of Hegra’s most fascinating mountains stopping at carvings and inscriptions that were left thousands of years ago by travellers, pilgrims, and residents alike. Your guide will explain the meaning of the symbols with stories of travel, trade, offerings, and warnings. The night-time experience includes torches for visitors to highlight the hidden details in the rocks that are not visible in the day. Learn how these people lived and the legacies that they left behind. The tour operates at nine pm on Thursdays and Fridays.

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Sights on the Rock Art Trail. Image: Courtesy Experience AlUla/Omar Al Nahdi.

3. Browse at the local market

Visit the Old Town Market and shop for locally made arts and crafts, souvenirs, and homeware. Desert Designs offers an irresistible range of jewellery, homewares, gifts and Sadu products – made both locally and regionally. Newly opened Otta offers one-of-a-kind hand-crafted ceramics, an oil press store has products containing the magic moringa and other oils. Browse stores selling fashion abayas for summer, street-style, art, script, precious stones, natural soap, spices, dates, and even dedicated stalls selling citrus! Virgin has a Megastore for all your entertainment needs too.

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AlUla Old Town market. Image: Courtesy Experience AlUla.

4. Shop for valuable souvenirs

Shopaholics cannot leave AlUla without a visit to the new cultural assets stores within the heritage sites. The flagship Hegra Boutique near the visitor centre has the biggest range and the boutiques at Old Town and Dadan offer a more specific range for those sites. Browse the shelves packed with high-quality artisan ceramics, leather accessories including notebooks, textiles, candles, oils and soaps, plaster artworks, t-shirts, caps, traditional wooden homeware, bespoke Sadu, gold and silver jewellery and many other beautiful items, all celebrating the icons, patterns and designs inherent in AlUla’s heritage sites and natural geological landscapes.

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Souvenir shopping in AlUla. Image: Courtesy Experience AlUla.

5. See the stars in your eyes

After the heat has gone out of the day, cool evenings descend on AlUla. Experience the enchantment of a desert stargazing tour led by local experts. Far from city lights, vast open spaces in remote desert lands create some of the world’s most enviable dark skies, making AlUla an idyllic locale for reaching for the stars. Enjoy a Saudi traditional dinner under this starlit sky during the daily-operated tours of stargazing and moonlit nights. This is sure to be a highlight on your itinerary.

6. Enjoy some sea with your sand

For holidaymakers, who plan to head to the coast this summer, you might be surprised to know that the Red Sea coastal town of Al Wajh is just a couple of hours drive from AlUla. You could be snorkelling the kaleidoscope of undersea life one day and awed by the precision of the creations our ancestors left behind on land the very next.

7. Get real deep at Dadan and Ikmah

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Dadan Kingdom. Image: Courtesy Experience AlUla/Omar Al Nahdi.

The ancient capital city of Dadan is shrouded in mystery. We know it was a highly organised and sophisticated kingdom that prospered as the nexus of the caravan trade and archaeologists now suggest it was developed in the ninth century BCE. But when did the Dadanites become the Lihyanites? Did the Lihyan King Han’as stage a coup? Did the Dadanites move from the red city of Dadan to Hegra before the Nabataeans? What do the massive Lihyan statues of Kings left behind tell us? Experts speak of a complex and cultured society of people, the most sophisticated of its era. Some of the answers lie in the inscriptions at Jabal Ikmah, which is included in the same ticket. Get deep into the history of Dadan and Jabal Ikmah and impress your friends with your superior knowledge.

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Ikmah mountain. Image: Courtesy Experience AlUla/Omar Al Nahdi.

8. Night hike in the desert

Experience the Hidden Valley Hiking Tour through AlUla’s dramatic landscapes and feel the wonder and peacefulness of the Arabian desert – at night. The hike is approximately 1.5 hours and starts at six pm. It is suitable for medium-level walkers as most of the trail is through soft sand. You can also enjoy the setting of the sun over the mountains while on the Sunset Adventure Trail. The guided eight-km trail lasts about three to four hours.

9. Brunch, lunch, and dinner

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Local delicacies at Al Nakheel restaurant in the Old Town. Image: Courtesy Experience AlUla.

Whether it’s regional cuisine from the likes of Al Nakheel – famous for its murtabak – traditional dishes at Merkaz, the many choices of coffees and juices at Al Rahbas or a taste of all things Saudi including the golden-leafed Jareesh and oh-so-tender lamb at the popular up-market Suhail – AlUla’s Old Town offers plenty of new culinary experiences for every occasion. Or perhaps a long leisurely brunch of eggs, pastries, scrumptious toasties washed down with a lemon and mint juice to the backdrop of the oasis at Pink Camel that will fill you with joy.

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Pink Camel restaurant. Image: Courtesy Experience AlUla/Omar Al Nahdi.

10. Soak in nature at the oasis

The Oasis Trail from Dadan South, arriving in AlUla Old Town and passing by AlWadi area is three kms long and will offer you an extraordinary nature stroll through AlUla farms, while you walk between the shadows of the palms on land that witnessed the rise and vanishing of many great civilisations. Suitable for families and nature-lovers of all ages, the free trail is open daily between eight am and four pm.

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AlUla Oasis. Image: Courtesy Experience AlUla/Omar Al Nahdi.

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