Explore some of the most diverse landscapes in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a visit to Al Ula
Welcome to Al Ula, one of the world’s great natural masterpieces. This historically rich oasis at the crossroads of the Silk Road and the Incense Route has also been called the world’s largest living museum. Its dramatic rock formations, sand-swept dunes, lush valleys of swaying palm trees are places of extraordinary beauty.
A visit to Al Ula offers the prospect of combining historical sites and culture with natural wonders and adventure. This guide to what to do in Al Ula covers the region’s highlights, but planning a tour of Al Ula can be complex, so we suggest getting in touch to discuss the best way to combine your sightseeing when booking a tour of Saudi Arabia.
Formerly known as Madain Saleh, seeing the remarkable rock-hewn tombs of ancient Hegra is a highlight on any visit to Al Ula. ‘Lost’ to the world until Charles Montagu Doughty’s ‘rediscovery’ in 1876, Hegra’s tombs are now Saudi Arabia’s crowning cultural tourist attraction. This magical UNESCO World Heritage site has a total of 111 monumental tombs (94 of which are decorated) carved into its perpendicular cliffs. Although ancient Hegra is frequently compared with its older and larger sister city, Petra in Jordan, Hegra’s tombs are in a better state of preservation.
Built by the Nabataean Arabs as their southern capital, Hegra is set in a spectacular desert landscape studded with sandstone monoliths, a short drive from modern Al Ula. The city was constructed around the 1st century AD to protect the Nabataean’s lucrative long-distance camel caravans bringing precious trade goods from south Arabia to their principal settlement of Petra.
Two of Hegra’s finest tombs are located at Qasr Al-Bint, a group of tombs dedicated to women and translating as the Palace of the Daughters. This site features the largest tomb facade in old Hegra. Other highlights include Jabal Al Ahmar, home to 18 tombs, some recently excavated, and Jebel Ithlib, where the cave-like Diwan (a cult centre) is situated next to a narrow gorge (siq) leading to a magnificent amphitheatre of rock.
Equally unmissable is the monolithic Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza, which is Hegra’s largest tomb. Around 22 meters tall and left unfinished, with rough, chisel marks skirting its lower third, it is sometimes referred to as Qasr al-Farid (Lonely Castle) by the locals because of its distant position from the other tombs.
Old Al Ula
The atmospheric mud-brick ruins of Al Ula old town lay just north of the modern-day settlement of Al Ula. The township was founded before the 12th century AD and was occupied until as recently as the early 1980s.
Dating back more than a thousand years, the maze of over 900 houses, 500 shops, 5 town squares, and a fortified citadel is best explored on foot. The best way to learn about the Old Town’s settlers and pilgrims, their motives and methods in the settlement’s construction, is on a walking tour. See Tantora Square, where the central sundial played an essential role in the lives of the agricultural community that relied heavily on the land, and don’t miss the climb up to 10th century Al Ula Castle for panoramic views of the old town.
Lion tombs of Dadan
Chiselled into the cliff-face, among Al Ula’s numerous tombs, are the famous Lion Tombs of Dadan. The ancient Kingdom of Dadan was one of the most developed cities in the Arabian Peninsula during the 1st millennium BC. This site was the capital of first the Dadanite and then the Lihyanite kingdoms and one of the most important centres of the caravan trade. The area was previously just a basin covered in dust and sand. Now it is a live excavation site where archaeologists continue to discover more about this little-known era in Arabian history.
An indisputable highlight of any visit to Al Ula is discovering the region’s well-preserved rock art. Much of it can be explored on an Al Ula Rock Art Trail, a 1.6-kilometre walking trail that takes you past ancient inscriptions and engravings. The trail is set amongst a stunning natural landscape of desert and rock and is particularly atmospheric at night when torches guide exploration of the artworks.
Some of the most accomplished rock art can be seen at Jabal Ikmah where hundreds of inscriptions and writings on the cliffs and rock faces date mainly to the Dadanite and Lihyanite periods. Five different languages have been found at Jabal Ikmah, including one that is a precursor to modern Arabic. The inscriptions help decipher the way of life and the things that mattered to the people who once lived in Al Ula.
Maraya Concert Hall
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about Al Ula’s ethos is its commitment to contemporary art. In 2020, Al Ula hosted the Desert X exhibition, an incredible display of modern art installations.
A more permanent feature on the Al Ula landscape is Maraya Concert Hall, a spectacular 500-seat venue within a giant mirror cube that reflects the surrounding desertscape.
Although the contrast between the natural beauty of the rugged red rock backdrop and the ultra-modern man-made structure couldn’t be greater, the reflective surfaces render the building almost invisible at times. Maraya translates as mirror or reflection in Arabic, and the architectural wonder is the largest mirrored building in the world. Constructed in 2019, architect Florian Boje says the mirrored surface serves as “a way to create a dialogue between nature, history and the future.”
Natural Rock Formations
In addition to impressive desert scenery, Al Ula is home to some of Saudi Arabia’s most dramatic rock formations. Shaped by the elements over centuries, some of these mother-nature produced wonders are as impressive as Al Ula’s man-made attractions.
One of the most recognisable geological formations is Jabal AlFil, or Elephant Rock, named due to its striking resemblance to a huge elephant with its trunk planted firmly in the desert. A popular way to enjoy the grandeur of Elephant Rock is from the adjacent café, where comfortable sunken seats provide fine views while enjoying a drink and some delicious traditional sweet treats.
The north Madakhil region is where you will find Madakhil Rock Arch (Rainbow Arch), while nearby the skinny stone pillars of AlGharameel reach skywards as do the Dancing Rocks of Raggasat Valley.
Top Al Ula activities and experiences
The list of things to see and do at Al Ula does not stop there and there are numerous additional activities to enhance your Al Ula visit.
Al Ula stargazing
The dark skies of Al Ula’s remote desert location present the ideal environment for stargazing.
Dune Buggy Safari
Bounding across the sands while travelling at speed in an expertly chauffeured dune buggy is an unforgettable thrill for visitors to Al Ula looking for an adrenaline-fuelled desert adventure.
Walking and Hiking in Al Ula
Al Ula’s many hiking and walking trails provide endless options for stretching your legs. From gentle Al Ula Oasis walks through date palms and citrus groves to more challenging adventure trails, there are paths suitable for all abilities from families to experienced trekkers.
A leisurely-paced ride through the sand dunes on fat tyre bicycles is one of the more dynamic ways of enjoying Al Ula’s unique landscapes.
A must for adrenaline junkies, Saudi Arabia’s most thrilling Al Ula zipline reaches speeds of one hundred kilometres an hour as it glides over the Al Ula mountain and desert landscapes.
Set off on a 4WD adventure through the desert canyons and magnificently weathered terracotta hued mountains – the best way to explore Al Ula.
Helicopters ride over Al Ula
And for the ultimate Al Ula bucket list moment, nothing could be more exhilarating than a helicopter ride over Al Ula’s landmarks.
Day trips from Al Ula
There is no shortage of things to see and do in Al Ula, and the region’s hotels and resorts provide a comfortable base for several excursions across the region. The distances involved, however, make them long day trips, so if you have the time it may be preferable to extend your tour of Saudi Arabia and combine Al Ula with other provinces in the Kingdom.
Follow the Hijaz Railway Al Ula to Medina
The Hijaz Railway is part of the Ottoman-era railway that ran from Damascus to Medina. The railroad passed through the Hejaz region of modern-day Saudi Arabia, and following the historic narrow-gauge Hijaz Railway between Al Ula and Medina, spotting period trains rusting in the desert is the holy grail of railway enthusiasts.
Explore Harrat Khaybar
It’s a full day, but with an early start, it is possible to visit the volcanoes and lava fields of the Harrat Khaybar as a day trip from Al Ula. One of Saudi Arabia’s great natural wonders, the chain of lava fields and volcanoes that line Saudi Arabia’s west coast was formed by the uplifting of the Arabian tectonic plate on the eastern side of the Red Sea rift. This fabulous volcanic landscape extends over some 14,000 square kilometres and features a 100km long north-south orientated line of vents including scoria, cones, lava domes, maars, and basalt lava flows. The white-coloured volcanoes of Jabal Abiyadh and Jabal Baydah along with the nearby black cone of Jabal Qidr make an amazing spectacle.
Visit Wadi Al Disah
Partway between Al Ula and Tabuk is the Valley of the Palm Trees (Wadi Al Disah), a place of spectacular natural beauty. The Al Disah Valley extends for some 15km and is framed by giant columns of rock and perpendicular smooth cliffs that rise high above the lush vegetation, water pools and palm trees. It’s no surprise that Wadi Al Disah often features on lists of Saudi Arabia’s great natural wonders, and is one of the best places to visit in Saudi Arabia.
Al Ula is one of our favourite regions to visit in Saudi Arabia and we hope that you have enjoyed this round-up of things to see and do there. If we have inspired you to visit Al Ula, but you’re unsure of how to make it happen, get in touch with our Saudi Arabia travel experts who have unparalleled knowledge of the country. Alternatively, browse our extensive collection of luxury tailor-made holidays and private tours of Saudi Arabia.
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