AlUla (or Al-‘Ula) is becoming one of the major tourist destinations when Saudi Arabia opened it doors for tourism couple years ago.
Al-Ula has been part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 initiative, a plan to diversify the country’s economy and promote tourism. Significant efforts have been made to develop and preserve Al-Ula’s cultural heritage while making it more accessible to tourists. There are still a lot of things to improve. They are working hard on that and somethings can be already different since my last visit.
Here is a list of things to see and to do in AlUla which I made during my stay there.
I think most travelers already have been or at least have Petra on their lists. But not so many of them knows about Hegra (also known as Mada’in Saleh, but locals prefer to call it Hegra), which was second major city of Nabataeans Kingdom.
Hegra is build on a large plain surrounded by mountains. The sanstone formations on the plain are the weathered remains of stone layers which formed between 510 and 475 million years ago.
Over 100 monumental tombs are carved into the outcrops surrounding the ancient city of Hegra.
The Nabataeans chose to carve their tombs into these formations, and the leftover stone was used as building material within their settlements.
They were build to hold the remains of families or groups, whose status is reflected in the size and level of decoration of tombs. Higher up the mountains are simpler pit graves where people of lover social status were probably buried.
The number and range of preserved tomb inscriptions at Hegra is unique. Many tombs feature inscriptions that record who commissioned them and when, and sometimes the craftsperson responsible for carving them.
The largest tomb belongs to Lihyan son of Kuza, also known as Qasr al-Farid, which means ‘the Lonely Castle‘.
The tomb is carved into its own separate sandstone outcrop. It must have belonged to a very important Nabataean individual of family.
Hegra entrance location is here.
Hot air balloon flight over Hegra
Unfortunately in Hegra you can’t wonder around on foot as you can do in Petra.
But in Hegra you can book a hot air balloon ride over ancient city if weather permits. You can’t do this in Petra. At least yet.
Hot air balloon flights in Hegra are usually in the morning because in the evening wind can be too strong for balloon ride. So after your Hegra day tour you can book hot air balloon ride for the next morning. Of course if weather allows a flight.
Why I am suggesting a flight after you do a tour in Hegra? Because it makes your balloon ride more interesting. You already know every place in the area – where is Tomb of Lihyan, or Jabal AlBanat, or Al Diwan.
Only from above your can see remains of Nabataeans wells.
Nabataeans were skilled at harnessing natural water resources. At Hegra, they tapped into underground reserves of water, but also devised systems of channels and cisterns for directing and storing rainwater.
Their reputation for skilled water management could explain their name. ‘Nabataean’ has been linked to ther Arabic word Nabatu, meaning ‘water which springs form the well’.
And lastly if you are lucky you can take part in hot air balloons festival. Time of festival varies every year and I didn’t see any announcement about the next one.
AlUla Old Town
During my visit only small part of old town was accessible. Actually only one narrow passage was open. Not far from AlUla Old Town Visitors’ Center you can cross Old Town towards AuUla Castle.
Entrance to the Castle is complicated. It is hard to find entrance doors, as there is no direction anywhere.
And most importantly you can’t just walk-in. You need to book visiting time in advance at Old Town Visitor Center. The time was inconvenient for me, so I have AlUla Castle pictures only from outside.
Oasis Heritage Trail
You can reach AlUla Oasis Heritage Trail if you cross main road near AlUla Castle.
But I am sure it would take more time to walk that trail. Not because it is difficult trail. It is very easy and totally flat. But because you won’t want to rush to get out of this oasis.
It is really amazing to see so much green color in the desert.
Dadan / Jabal Ikmah
Although these places are located 5 kilometers apart I put them together because you must take a tour which takes your to both these places. Once again unfortunately but you can’t walk in or drive in. Taking a tour is the only option to visit these places. I am repeating it again and again, because it is important to know in case you are visiting AlUla only for couple days and you need to plan your time wisely. Tour starts at Winter Park.
Once upon a time here was a capital of the Dadan Kingdom in 9-8th centuries BC and at them moment it is still active excavation site and honestly you can’t see much there. You can’t see much, because you are not allowed to get very close to the tombs. It is good to have binocular or photo zoom lens.
Here is famous Lion tomb if you can see it on the left. It is tele zoomed x4 or x5 times.
And here some remains of the city.
Hopefully in near future visitors will be allowed to get closer and will be able to walk around.
Here is location of Dadan Visitor Center.
This place is sometimes called the Lithyanite Library. The longer you examine the cliffs around, the more markings you will find.
Inscriptions and carvings are scattered all around the AlUla area, but Jabal Ikmah has a particularly high number of them. There are over 500 recorded, and some of them may be 2500 years old.
Here is location of Jabal Ikmah Visitor Center.
It is time to go up if you already visited AlUla old town, Dadan and walked Oasis trail. Harrat Viewpoint is the perfect place for observing from above all places you visited earlier and to see how big this oasis is.
The road to the viewpoint is quite impressive with steep serpentine going up hill and on the top you’ll totally different terrain – endless black plain.
At the Harrat Viewpoint all AlUla is bellow your feet.
Here is Harrat Viewpoint parking location.
Maraya is another must visit place while in AlUla.
Maraya is a distinctive mirrored structure, primarily known as the Maraya Concert Hall. Its impressive reflective facade and is the largest mirrored building in the world at the moment.
It hosts various events such as concerts and conferences. The building’s unique design, blending with the natural surroundings, has made it a key attraction and cultural hub in the region, especially during events like the Winter at Tantora Festival.
Some times you can visit art exhibition at Maraya besides concerts and conference. Check their website for upcoming events.
Maraya location is here, but you must have tickets to event or be on tour to pass security at the entry gates.
Desert around AlUla
AlUla’s surrounding areas are known for stunning natural landscapes and rock formations. Some of the famous nature formations around AlUla include:
This rock probably most famous, easy accessible and visible from the road.
It is located here and it is only 15-20 minutes drive from AlUla town. The territory around the Elephant rock is fenced and opened only in afternoon after 14-16:00 (2-4pm) depending on week day. So check opening hours before heading there.
King Kong Rock
In case Elephant rock will be closed you can visit some other rocks near by. On other side of the road, at this point there is King Kong or Monkey Rock.
Not far from King Kong Rock at his point there is so called Hand Rock.
Art in the Landscape
Near Hand rock you will find entry to Art in the Landscape exhibition. Couple years ago a big exhibition Desert X was happening here. At the moment not all exhibition remains, but you still can see some art works there.
Let’s go further away from AlUla.
About an hour drive from AlUla there is another stunning rock formation. It called Rainbow Arc (القوس).
It is located here and it is accessible by 2wd car. But be careful if you pass car parking place and will go closer to the rock with the 2wd car. There is a soft sand near the rock so you can get in trouble if have no experience how to drive on such sand.
In 2024 January Dakar rally will start near Rainbow Arch, so keep in mind it will be busy area at that time if you are not in auto sport.
Algharameel Nature Reserve (أرض الغراميل)
Another 30 minutes drive from Rainbow Rock and you will reach Gharameel Desert.
In this reserve you can find a lot fo amazing rock formations, like above duck rock.
I was visited Gharameel during mid day and it was very hot. My suggestion would be to go there just before sunset. You will have time to walk around rocks during the day light and later to do star grazing then sun goes down.
Old Train Stations
The road from Al-Ula to Gharameel follows old Hijaz railway which was built during 1900-1913. 1300 kilometers (~800 miles) were planed, but is was never fully completed because of World War I.
Hijaz Railway Station near Hegra was the first Unesco World Heritage Site. It was closed for restoration during my visit and it possible to see from hot air balloon flight if wind direction is toward the station.
But on the way to Gharameel you can see many other smaller railway stations near the road.
One of them is very close to Gharameel Desert. Dar Al Hamra Hejaz Train Station you can find here.
Definitely visit Shalal Cafe on the way back to Al-Ula from Gharameel Desert. It is only short detour, but the entrance to cafe is incredible. A very narrow canyon leads to cafe.
You can visit it during a day for refreshing drink, or at night for spectacular lighting.
Events in AlUla
A lot of cultural and sport events happening in AlUla area all year around, so check what is happening during your visit to the area.
Here are only some latest events. Let me know if I missed some of it.
Winter at Tantora
Festival of culture, art and music in December/January. Check here for more details.
You definitely should attend Dakar rally if you are lucky to be in AlUla in January, 2024.
Dakar 2024 starts and finishes in AlUla and will be amazing event to attend.
This festival usually happens in spring
Hot Air Balloon festival in AlUla
Hot Air Ballooning festival usually happens in later winter or spring.
AlUla trail race
10km, 20km, 50km and 100km distances are during this event. Next race should be in January, 2024. Here are more info.
Sending post cards from AlUla
And lastly kind of funny story 🙂
When I travel I like to send post cards from the places I am visiting. Saudi Arabia wasn’t an exception. But here I got into trouble. At first I couldn’t find a post cards anywhere, but at last I found it during my tour to Jabal Ikmah. I was so happy and I thought my quest is over. But it wasn’t.
I wrote a message on post card and it was ready to be sent. I needed only a post stamp and I thought it will be easy task.
I found central post office in AlUla and went straight were. I went inside the building and the workers at the office were very surprised to see me there. I got a feeling it something not right here.
It was three men there and then I asked for post stamps they looked to each other kind of confused. One of them said they don’t have post stamps, but it should be in Tabuk (showed with hand to the left) or in Madinah (waved to the right). I was started to smile together with them 🙂 That was all I could do at that moment. Tabuk is ~360km(~225 miles) North from AlUla, and Madinah – 330km (~210miles) South. I wasn’t planing to go there during this trip, so my post card left unsent 🙁
Please let me know if you know more interesting places around AlUla. Things are changing there and I am sure will be more places and things to do in this area in the future.