For millennia, the city of AlUla in western Saudi Arabia was the crossroad of civilisation, a pivotal spot on the ancient incense trading route from the East to West. Great civilisations called it home, including the Nabateans, but while their desert city of Petra has become a world landmark, AlUla remained in the shadows, relatively unknown to any travellers due to the Kingdom’s absence of tourism visas. However, things changed in 2019 when tourism e-visas were launched, women were able to drive, and head coverings were no longer mandatory.
Since then, AlUla has been establishing itself as a world-leading tourism destination, welcoming two luxury desert hotels from big-name brands Habitas and Banyan Tree (plus a growing number of chic Airbnbs), hosting polo matches, art installations and residencies, and pop-ups from the likes of Annabel’s (of London’s Berkeley Square fame) and opening AlUla International Airport. Now, there are direct flights from the once-forgotten desert kingdom from Riyadh, Jeddah, Damman and Dubai to AlUla, with the city aiming to attract two million visitors by 2035. Here is a complete guide to what to see and do in AlUla, Saudi Arabia.
Visit the ancient tombs of Hegra
Hegra is the picture postcard for AlUla, Saudi Arabia – 110 majestic ruins of tombs carved into the desert rock. They are likely to remind viewers of Jordan’s Petra, and there’s a good reason for that, as Hegra was once the capital of the Nabataean civilisation. The same group inhabited the Jordanian Rose City. Hegra is Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site and dates to beyond the 1st millennium BCE, at its peak as the Nabatean city from the late 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE. Visitors can marvel at the tombs and spot other relics from the powerful civilisation like water channels, gates, towers and defensive walls. Take a tour bus to the sites with a guide ot embark on a more personalised Land Rover safari through the desert.
Wander the streets of AlUla Old Town
One of the most fascinating places to visit in AlUla, and a way to connect with the area’s human history, is by visiting AlUla Old Town – a maze of winding lanes, original mudbrick buildings and five town squares with nearly 900 houses and 500 shops. The ghost town sits on a flight elevation in the shadows of the Musa bin Nusayr Castle, a 10th-century citadel, and is an intriguing mix of old and new with its ruined mudbrick houses. What makes the old town such an emotive experience is that the ruins of mudbrick houses were inhabited until as late as the 1980s, showing how far the Kingdom has come in 40 years. Take a guided tour, visit the Old Town market, or visit the incongruous new Harvey Nichols – an iteration of the iconic British department store selling designer fashion, accessories, beauty and foods.
Enjoy a concert at Maraya
Maraya is unlike anything else in AlUla: a giant, mirrored, cube-like structure standing tall in the desert canyon of the Ashar Valley. The purpose-built concert hall and events space is the largest mirrored building in the world and was built to blend seamlessly with its tawny-hued environment. Come night, it’s almost impossible to make it out on the horizon, as the structure itself is covered in almost 10,000 mirrored panels which reflect the ancient rocks and sand. Maraya boasts a packed calendar and has hosted some of the biggest names in entertainment: Andrea Bocelli, John Legend, Mariah Carey, Enrique Iglesias and Alicia Keys, to name a few, so make sure to check out a concert, performance, artist-in-residence programme or an arthouse film when visiting AlUla. Jason Atherton’s Maraya Social is also worth a visit, serving British, Mediterranean and Arabian flavours with indoor and outdoor seating high on a terrace.
Take in sunset at Elephant Rock
Elephant Rock, or Jabal Alfil, is an impressive monolithic red sandstone formation which stands at a height of 52 meters against AlUla’s golden desert sands. While the tombs of Hegra were hand-carved by the Nabateans, Elephant Rock’s distinct shape was shaped by millions o fears of wind and water erosion, making it appear in the shape of an elephant with its large body and slender trunk. Sunken seating areas surround the rock itself – made extra romantic with the lighting of the firepit – and there are nearby coffee shops and cafes for drinks and snacks, including the region’s loved SALT burger. Most outlets open after 4pm for the popular evening and sunset viewing times, so make to pack refreshments if visiting during the day.
Explore the tombs of Dadan
Amongst the most significant sites to be discovered in AlUla was the city of Dadan, the ancient capital of the Dadanite and Lihyanite kingdoms. The Kingdom of Dadan’s ruins dates back to between the late 9th and early 8th century BCE, while the Kingdom of Lihyan dates back to the 5th to 2nd century BCE. It’s possible to visit the ruins of the storied city and gaze upon a dozen tombs cut into red-rock cliff faces – known as the Lion Tombs thanks to their carved seated lion sculptures. There are many ways to experience Dadan, including a vintage Land Rover tour.
Experience AlUla’s cultural calendar
From trading post to cultural hub, AlUla has established a leading cultural and leisure event programme that runs throughout the cooler months. Open-air exhibit Desert X takes place during February and March and sees the landscape filled with exhibition pop-ups and physical works from international arts and creators – some sitting alone amidst the desert rock. Winter at Tantora is another annual highlight, the Kingdom’s very first music and culture festival that takes place from around 21st December to 21 January. Each weekend brings different events to book or explore, such as AlUla’s first-ever food festival, an Ashar Valley fashion pop-up, a wellness festival, a hot air balloon festival and eco-gardening sessions.
Enjoy its growing fine dining and casual-cool dining scene
Thanks to its growing tourism scene and hope to attract two million visitors in the next 12 years, AlUla is now has one of the most diverse and elevated dining scenes in Saudi Arabia thanks to a flurry of restaurant and cafe openings. The Old Town is regarded as the culinary centre, where the likes of ACME serves healthy salads, burgers and has a killer vegan menu and Le Maschou French fine dining, while Italian Circolo, in the beautiful AlJadidah District, is nestled amongst date palms. A new addition is Entrecôte Café de Paris – originating from Geneva and bringing French fine dining to the desert – and Annabel’s AlUla, a garden oasis version of London’s exclusive private members’ club. The dichotomy between shiny, trendy and new and ancient and crumbling is what makes AlUla Old Town just so enchanting and appealing.
Go for a hike in the wadi
Sometimes, the best way to explore a new destination is just by strapping on your boots and heading out, and a great way to do this in AlUla is by going for a hike. The Ashar Valley has many great hiking paths that pass through the looming desert canyons and past rocks with carvings and paintings dating back thousands of years. A popular guided hike is The Adventure Trail, a three-to-four-hour, eight-kilometre experience that takes you on a story of how people lives in AlUla thousands of years ago.
Explore AlUla’s Arts and Culture District
A vibrant cultural hub, AlJadidah is home to restaurants, shops and more. Beautiful murals bring an artistic touch to the pedestrian-friendly area, where the world’s largest hand-painted carpet lines the road for visitors. Find five distinct squares, Art Square, Gathering Square, Muayada Square, Qanat Square, and Oasis Square, each with their own unique atmosphere. Centrally located, AlJadidah sits adjacent to AlUla Old Town, beautifully overlooking the AlUla Oasis.