Have you heard of AlUla in northwest Saudi Arabia? Probably not. But you should visit before it becomes known to everyone. It has desert landscapes to make your soul sing. It has spectacularly monumental rock tombs dating back 2000 years, and it was a vital crossroads along the incense-trading routes running from southern Arabia, north into Egypt, and beyond.
And you can still feel the tangle of its 7000 years of successive civilisations today in the region’s architecture and agriculture, textiles and jewellery, incense and spices.
AlUla is a time capsule of extraordinary worlds, and it’s only recently opened for international tourists. If you’re after a unique, meaningful and very unusual travel experience, put this on your hot list.
Unlike anywhere else on earth
AlUla is a vast open-air museum with prime historical and cultural significance that stretches back to the Palaeolithic and Bronze ages, as attested by the thousands of inscriptions across the AlUla valley. From the ninth century BCE, the little-understood but sophisticated Dadan or Lihyan civilisations left behind carved lions, huge statues of kings and hundreds of rock inscriptions at Jabal Ikmah.
The Nabataeans bequeathed over 100 rock tombs carved from the red cliffs at Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. A night-time guided walk by torchlight, taking in the rock carvings and recounting tales of ancient residents and desert traders, is spellbinding.
Another top sight is AlUla’s 12th-century Old Town, which encloses some 900 mud-brick buildings behind walls. A castle perched on a rock outcrop offers an extraordinary bird’s-eye view of the labyrinthine ruins below.
Meanwhile history buffs – and train spotters – will also appreciate the historic Hejaz Madrasat AdDeera Railway station and Hegra Fort, both associated with the early 20th-century Arab Revolt and story of Lawrence of Arabia.
From soft adventure to high-adrenaline activities, AlUla also offers plenty for the active. Experiences are designed to tread lightly on this unique environment so that, whatever adventure you choose, the hero is always AlUla’s landscape and heritage.
Get back to nature with one of several hikes through the dramatic desert landscapes, volcanic plains, canyons and valleys of the nature reserves. Witness ancient rock art on route or choose a more physical challenge scaling the cliff-side with ropes and swimming through rock pools.
To up excitement levels, cycle, camel and horse ride, whizz across the mountain landscape on a zip line, or take a scenic flight by light aircraft, helicopter or hot-air balloon. The ancient sandstone tombs are especially breathtaking from the air.
Incidentally, if you want sea as well as sand then Al Wahj on the Red Sea is around two hour’s drive from AlUla, making a great combination for those keen to explore the varied facets of the Arabian Peninsula.
Nature is calling
The ancient monuments of AlUla are fabulous, and even more exceptional thanks to their stunning desert setting. Sunrises and sunsets are particularly spectacular at rock formations such as Pyramid Mountain, Elephant Rock and Rainbow Rock, when colours splatter the landscape in orange and red.
After dark, the immensity of the star-encrusted sky is exhilarating too. Book a stargazing tour and you can lay back on a carpet, listen to ancient stories from local guides, and stare into the far reaches of the light-twinkled universe.
The region showcases volcanic and desert landscapes, but a third geological wonder is the Oasis, which splashes the red desert green and scents the air with mint and orange blossom. It was this Oasis that supported successive civilisations. The Oasis Trail brings you among palm trees and farms noted for citrus trees.
Sharaan Nature Reserve, meanwhile, conserves important habitat and wildlife such as sand gazelle, mountain gazelle, Nubian ibex and Arabian oryx. An ambitious Arabian leopard breeding program in the region aims to bring the endandered animal back from near extinction with plans for them to eventually be reintroduced into the wild mountains of AlUla. Among other desert wildlife are Arabian wolf, red fox, rock hyrax, desert hedgehog, sand partridge and North African wildcat.
A world of wondrous inspiration
While many ancient sites are static and leached of cultural life, AlUla’s heritage is brought alive by local artists, performers, elders and rawi or traditional Arabic storytellers. Craftspeople demonstrate pottery and weaving at Hegra and the Madrasat AdDeera, one of the Kingdom’s first all girl’s schools which has been transformed into an arts hub and hosts workshops in ancient handicrafts, artist residencies and cultural programs.
AlUla’s events calendar housed under the banner of AlUla Moments includes Winter at Tantora featuring top international arts, music, culture and more.
Multi-purpose concert and entertainment venue Maraya stages everything from opera and ballet to arts events. Maraya is also an architectural wonder: it has a Guinness record as the world’s biggest mirrored building, and reflects the surrounding landscape to stunning effect.
Shop at Old Town Market for homeware, precious stones and jewellery, ceramics and fashion. Hegra Boutique and the shops at Dagan are packed with quality ceramics, textiles, leather goods, wooden artefacts and souvenirs that will bring a slice of desert culture home.