Al Ula, Hidden Gem of Saudi Arabia
The first UNESCO World Heritage Site of Saudi Arabia, Al Ula is an oasis tucked deep into the northwestern region of the desert. Amassing a history of over 7,000 years, Al Ula is a vibrant little town that shines a light on the desert’s lesser known history. It was once a trade city on the famed Incense Route that once joined the Mediterranean countries with the Arabian land. Over the last few decades, Al Ula has been a topic of discourse amongst archaeologists and historians, owing to the importance of its historical affluence of the Nabataean era.
But what’s really special about Al Ula is its unmarred nature. Unlike many bucket-list tourist destinations in the world, Al Ula remains sanctified from crowds, and serves as an easy venture for a well-deserved vacation.
Anticipated to become a living museum and a global destination, Al Ula remains a major focus in Saudi’s grand Vision 2030.
The oasis town of Al Ula is renowned for its spectacular display of sandstone rock formations, museums, and a myriad of riveting outdoor activities. Hence, if you’re looking for a crowd-free vacation, then check out some of the must-visit tourist attractions in Al Ula.
Al Ula exhibits quite (un)natural rock formations that would only conjure images of Martian landscape. The canyons, cliffs, and crevices are enough to spellbind you with their desertic awe. Let’s take a look at some of the unmissable landscapes in Al Ula:
Elephant Rock (Jabal AlFil): Just 11km off Al Ula, this geographical wonder is characteristic of its name — it is a 171ft tall rock formation in the rough contours of an Elephant.
Harrat Uwayrid: The foliage and vegetation at the outskirts of Al Ula ends at the abrupt start of the “mesas” in the west. These igneous basalt columns complement the Arabian landscape aesthetically, and were petrified years ago by a now-inert volcano. Visit these prodigious rock flats for a good dose of adrenaline.
Al Ula Oasis: At the heart of the region, sheltered from the brunt of the scorching desert heat lies the nectar of an oasis: the Al Ula Oasis. It is a sight for sore eyes as it offers lush views and a cool shade. The oasis teems with ambrosial citrus and fig trees, along with flourishing crops like wheat, barley, and oats. The oasis’s natural springs and drainage basin keep it well-nourished and thriving all-year round. When you venture into the oasis, it is advisable to take the 3km-long Heritage Oasis trail to get the full essence of the mudbrick houses and local farms. The path stretches from Dadan to the Orange Path, and has plenty of Instagram-able spots.
Old Town of Al Ula: A distant remnant of the 12th century town, the Old Town of Al Ula preserves just enough to learn the ways of the ancient Arabian tribes that inhabited this once-bustling settlement on the way to Makkah. With nearly 900 mud-brick houses and 400 shops, the Old Town of Al Ula offers you a labyrinth to traipse your way through. You will find many shops and restaurants where you can replenish yourself and shop for handmade pottery.
AlJadidah: If you experience the familiar hunger pangs after an entire day of exploring, drop into AlJadidah, a warm ambience that will revitalize you for the rest of your evening. After grabbing a bite, you can proceed to watch the world’s largest hand-painted carpet being laid out. But there’s more to the artistic splendour of AlJadidah, as there are 5 town squares that paint the colourful history of the town — Art Square, Gathering Square, Muayada Square, Oasis Square, and Qanat Square. At each of these squares, you will find art galleries like Athr Gallery and Design Gallery. If you’re with friends and family, then Oasis Square is the perfect hangout spot, and will fill you up with the entertainment and music.
Al Ula is an adventurer’s haven waiting to be explored. From rock climbing to stargazing, Al Ula offers you several exciting activities for a fun-filled summer.
The Adventure Trail: From deep crevices to table-top mountains, Al Ula has everything you’d need for a good adventure. Follow the adventure trail amidst crooks and crannies, and ride through rugged landscapes. As you weave your way through towering basaltic columns, you will envisage the gushing flow of water that carved the valleys present today. And if you’re an archaeologist, you’d be delighted to set your eyes on hundreds of rock-inscriptions from the Dadanite and Lihyanite periods. Regardless of your skill at hiking, Al Ula has plenty to offer to both amateur and adept hikers.
Cycling Trail: A 14km cycling trail ensures that cycling enthusiasts aren’t left out of the Al Ula experience. If an adventure trail sound exciting, then you can well imagine how thrilling cycling through ancient stones will be! Cycle your way through downhill slopes and treacherous sand tracks to get your heart pumping!
Al Ula Oasis View Trail: You will find the best viewpoint of the Al Ula Oasis from the peak of the nearby Alfath Mountain. A green speck in an expanse of pin-tan mountains is truly a sight to see.
Stargazing: Free from light pollution, Al Ula is one of the best places to gaze into the cosmos. AlGharameel has many cozy spots in traditional Bedouin setups, making it the perfect ambience to watch stars and meteor showers. It offers you an unhindered view of the milky way without the need for telescopes. Trade your dreary work schedule for some peace, at AlGharameel.
Hidden Valley Hike: If there’s anything that can get your heart to jump, then it is a 4km hike in the dark hours. And it is after twilight you’ll get an essence of the desert creatures that lurk in the dark. Much needn’t be said about that, as the rest remains to be experienced.
Dancing Rocks (Raqasat): From deep crevices to table-top mountains, Al Ula has everything you’d need for a good adventure. Follow the adventure trail amidst crooks and crannies, and ride through rugged landscapes. As you weave your way through towering basaltic columns, you will envisage the gushing flow of water that carved the valleys present today. And if you’re an archaeologist, you’d be delighted to set your eyes on hundreds of rock-inscriptions from the Dadanite and Lihyanite periods. Regardless of your skill at hiking, Al Ula has plenty to offer to both amateur and adept hikers.
Jar Rock: Jar Rock is one of the many examples that is a result of millions of years of erosion. Fierce winds impinged on the mountains for many years to form a lacuna, turning the one of the mountains into a jar-shaped masterpiece. Hike your way to Jar Rock and get a good viewpoint of the Elephant Rock.
The Arch: One of the most famous rock formations in Saudi Arabia, “the Arch” is quintessential of a bridge, with both of the edges marrying at the centre. If you find something scintillating in the corner of your eye, don’t be surprised, for this sandstone formation has in it embedded many semi-precious stones to this day! Not only will you find them on the rock wall, but also scattered around the stone itself. So, yes, you can truly say that you’ve seen a diamond in its raw form.
Image source: Google Maps
Owner: Thorsten Kuttig
Face Rock: Face Rock is another beautifully peculiar rock formation in the monumental tombs of Hegra. The rock has the shape of a side profile of a human head gazing into the vastness of the desert. Like all the rock formations, the Face Rock is at its best during twilight. During that part of the day, the light lilts along the contours of the head-shape, creating a beautiful effect.
We saved the best for the last. Just 22km from the reaches of Al Ula sits Hegra, a testimony of nature’s beauty. Also Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra is an important bookmark in the pages of Saudi’s history. The historical site traces its roots back to the Nabataean era. Many centuries ago, this site was an important pit stop on the trade routes between the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean world. Even after the trade market shifted from the Nabataean city, Hegra continued to serve as a respite for caravans headed towards Makkah until recently.
The stone city of Hegra has over a hundred of tombs that lend art to the surrounding rocky outcrops. These tombs are festooned with rock carvings and inscriptions that delineate tales of the past in an awe-inspiring manner. They also serve as a permanent abode to the most prominent figures of the society that was. In addition to the prodigious tombs, the site is littered with many artificial wells that were used for agriculture in the Nabataean era.
When you reach Hegra, there are a few tombs that you mustn’t miss visiting. Check out the following ancient tombs in Hegra:
Jabal Al Banat: At over 100 monumental tombs, Jabal Al Banat houses the most number of tombs in the Hegra region.
Jabal Al Ahmar: This monument houses 18 tombs that lend an important facet to Hegra’s history. The red hued sandstone at this tomb is one of the best Instagram-able spots in all of Hegra.
Jabal Ithlib & the Diwan:To the east of Hegra lies Jabal Ithlib, a large space that was used for meetings and the ilk. The tomb is characterized by a long and cavernous tunnel that was once used for meetings and hosting banquets.
Qasr Al Farid: From the rest of the tombs stand secluded a lonesome tomb called Qasr Al Farid. This carved tomb exhibits typical Nabatean architecture, and is believed to house the remains of Lihyan son of Kuza, a very important individual during the Dedan times.
Hegra Fort: Built primarily as a shelter, the Hegra fort provided recluse to travellers and traders. It was built in the 18 th century at the southern side of modern-day Hijaz Railway. The Hegra Fort was known to house a reservoir of water that facilitated easy rest for the travellers.
How to Reach Al Ula
Travel: In light of the Coronavirus pandemic, Saudi Arabia has imposed low level restrictions. Notable among them is the adherence to download the Tawakkalna App and fill out the Registration immunization information form.
However, it is strongly advised to check for any other restrictions/updated restrictions on the official website.
- You can enter Saudi Arabia without the need for a visa application prior to your travel, provided you hold a US, UK, or Schengen visa and in which case, it must be a) valid and used at least once, and exhibits the stamp from the issuing country, and b) must be either business or tourist visa.
- To enter the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, you are required to apply for an e-visa through the official website. An e-visa will allow multiple entries and will be valid for one year and will provision 90-days of stay in the country. However, to apply for an e-visa, you must be a citizen of the one of the following 49 countries:
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- If you cannot find your country in the above list, you will have to procure your visa from the nearest Saudi Embassy.