Thousands of years worth of history, stunning sandstone formations and desert landscapes that form a living museum, thrilling adventures and state-of-the-art entertainment are all packed into Saudi Arabia’s newest tourism hotspot, AlUla. Here’s all you need to know about the destination, which only opened to visitors in late 2020.
From modern architectural marvels to extreme sports in ancient deserts, Saudi Arabia does everything larger than life. It makes perfect sense then that the kingdom’s newest tourist destination is an open-air museum the size of a small country. Covering nearly 22,500sq.km, AlUla invites visitors to experience the heritage of a land that has witnessed over 200,000 years of human history. The region is located on the original pilgrimage route to Mecca, approximately 325km north of the holy city of Medina. Its stunning desert landscape, canyons, towering sandstone rock formations and palm-fringed oases only encourage dwelling over the sheer enormity of its history.
The star attraction at AlUla—though it’s near impossible to pick one, if we’re being honest—is Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site, Hegra. The 52-acre-city, which dates back to 100 BCE, was the principal southern city of the Nabataean Kingdom and comprises nearly 100 well-preserved tombs with elaborate facades cut into sandstone outcrops. Current research suggests Hegra was the most southern outpost of the Romans after conquering the Nabataeans in 106 CE. The nearby site of Dadan (600BCE-3CE), dates back to the first millennium BCE, when it was the capital of the ancient Dadan and Lihyan Kingdoms, and holds several sites with rock art and inscriptions that tell tales of these civilizations.
The development of AlUla began in 2017, and is a key component of the Saudi Arabian government’s Saudi Vision 2030, a broader strategy to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and fortify its tourism sector by 2035. Under the Royal Commission, a long-term plan was outlined to preserve the area’s natural and historic heritage through a range of initiatives across archaeology, tourism, culture, education and the arts. The region opened to visitors in phases in October 2020, and will continue to develop over the coming years.
Fieldwork continues at certain live excavation sites across AlUla—a recent discovery by archaeologists found the earliest evidence of the domesticated dog in Saudi Arabia in the form of canine bones that were unearthed at a burial site and date between 4200 BCE and 4000BCE. “What we are finding will revolutionise how we view periods like the Neolithic in the Middle East. To have that kind of memory, that people may have known for hundreds of years where their kin were buried—that’s unheard of in this period in this region,” says Melissa Kennedy, assistant director of the Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (AAKSAU) – AlUla project. Other aspects of the fascinating archaeological work to uncover the mysteries of ancient Saudi Arabia have been detailed in The Architects of Ancient Arabia, a Discovery channel documentary that was aired at the end of March.
Among the most significant milestones in this plan has been the AlUla International Airport which was cleared to receive international flights on March 6. The airport, which is now the fifth largest in the country, has been upgraded to increase its annual capacity from 100,000 to 400,000 passengers per year across a total area of 2.4 million square metres.
With heritage, adventure, nature and wellness-focused activities and live entertainment, there really is something for everyone to do in AlUla. If you’re planning your itinerary, here are the activities we think should make it to your list.
(Disclaimer: Activities available in Saudi Arabia may be subject to travel restrictions. Please check the latest COVID-19 protocol before booking your stay.)
Go back in time at Hegra
If you’re keen on learning about the history of AlUla, this should be your first stop. A tour of the region will take you to Jabal AlBanat, the largest cluster of Nabataen tombs that have been carved into the sides of sandstone rock outcrops. Some bear inscriptions referring to whom they were built for, the date and the ruler at the time. At the Jabal Ithlib, you’ll get to peek into the Diwan, a rock-cut chamber that was once a venue for sumptuous banquets, and a meeting room for the leaders of the city. Hegra’s largest tomb, the monolithic Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza, towers at 72 feet tall and is sometimes referred to as Qasr al-Farid, or “The Lonely Castle” as it stands at a distance in relation to the other tombs. On weekends, actors recreate life in ancient Hegra through a multi-sensory show.
Pro-tip: There’s a 30-minute window in the morning when the sun’s rays light up The Siq, a narrow passageway through the mountains at Jabal Ithlib, making for the perfect photo-op.
Stargaze in the desert
Located miles away from city lights, the natural rock formations at Gharmeel are a sight to behold on a starry night. It’s a great spot to try your hand at astrophotography. Topping off the experience is a traditional dinner under the stars. Sunrise or sunset are the best times to observe AlUla’s other natural rock formations, such as Elephant Rock, Face Rock and Rainbow Rock, which glow red as the sun’s rays hit them.
Pro-tip: Pick a day on or close to the new moon so you’re able to view the stars clearly. Nights can get cold, so dress accordingly.
Get a bird’s eye view of the land
It’s awe-inducing to be able to wander the same desert as humans did over 7,000 years ago. What’s even more fun is flying over it! Go on a zipline ride at Harrat Uwayrid, one of the highest points in AlUla, and zoom over the gorgeous scenery. You’ll be blessed with views over Dadan, AlUla Old Town, Musa bin Nusayr Castle and AlUla Oasis.
Pro-tip: Once you’ve had your thrills, it’s worth exploring by foot too. The views are even more spectacular if it’s Golden Hour.
Groove to a concert in the world’s largest mirrored building
Close to Hegra, the pyramid-like Maraya emerges out of the desert like an otherworldly oasis. Its design complements the natural marvels around it, which are also reflected in its exterior that’s covered in 9,740 sq m of mirrored glass—In 2019, the award-winning building even set a Guinness World Record for being the largest mirrored building in the world. The multi-purpose entertainment venue is equipped with a conference floor with the latest sound design, a restaurant and a terrace overlooking the Ashar valley. It has already caught the attention of luxury brands like Cartier and Rolls Royce, which have shot commercial films here, and over the next year, you’ll be able to catch international performers like Andrea Boccelli and Enrique Iglesias live.
Pro-tip: If you’re in the market for a memorable destination wedding venue, Maraya should be at the top of your list.
Immerse yourself in ancient crafts
At the arts hub of Madrasat Aldrirah, you can learn one of AlUla’s traditional art forms firsthand. Skilled local craftspeople will introduce you to the technique of weaving baskets from naturally dyed palm fronds and desert grasses and teach you to craft wool into complex designs inspired by sacred geometry. The highlight though is an introduction to stone carvings, which will connect you across the ages to those who first engraved the tombs at Hegra. You’ll gain insight into the variety of stones in the region, learn how to choose the best piece of rock, and how to chisel it into a work of art.
Pro-tip: Look out for special exhibitions during your trip. The recently concluded Desert X AlUla juxtaposed the works of 14 international artists against the spectacular weather-hewn surroundings and hosted installations that paid homage to the region’s natural heritage.
Where to stay
Only two resorts in AlUla are currently open to the public. The Shaden Resort will make you feel like modern royalty. Each of its deluxe rooms and villas come with a private terrace or balcony-we’d choose one with a private pool. The four restaurants on the property serve Middle Eastern cuisine, Indian and barbecue. The Sahary AlUla resort comes with 80 rooms and suites, all decorated with Middle Eastern flourishes. The facilities may be more basic than the luxurious Shaden Resort, but its secluded location offers you beautiful views of AlUla’s sandstone mountains.
Luxury hotel brand Aman Resorts is expected to open three properties at AlUla by 2023. included an upscale tented camp. We’re also looking forward to French architect Jean Nouvel’s upcoming masterpiece, Sharaan, which is expected to open its doors in 2023 as well. Inspired by the Nabataeans, the resort will feature 40 rooms, three villas and 14 pavilions carved into a sandstone outcrop.
Saudia Airlines and flynas operate in and out of the newly renovated Prince Abdul Majeed Bin Abdulaziz International Airport (ULH), a 35km drive from the city centre. AlUla is also a three-hour drive from both Medina to the south and Tabuk to the north by car. Both cities have several rental-car companies to choose from. International drivers should carry a valid driving licence from their country of residence; an international driving licence is also recommended.